Global Organic Textile Standard

2 09 2011

In the 1980’s, producers of eco-friendly textiles generally worked under the umbrella of  organic food associations.  However, they found that the food association was impractical for textile producers because  although the growing and harvesting of food and fiber crops were similar, the processing of fibers in preparation to make fabric varied widely.  The organic food associations were concerned primarily with food related issues.   In addition, organic fabrics and fashion was being shown in specialized stores rather than in organic food markets.

In 2002, at the Intercot Conference in Dusseldorf, Germany, a workshop with representatives of organic cotton producers, the textile industry, consumers, standard organizations and certifiers discussed the need for a harmonized and world-wide recognized organic textile standard.  The many different standards, they felt, was causing confusion and acting as a obstacle to international exchange and recognition of organic fabrics.  As a result of this workshop, the  “International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard“ (IWG) was founded, with an aim to work on the codification of various regional approaches and to develop a set of global standards.  Members of this group included Internationale Verband der Naturtextilwirtschaft e. V.“ (IVN),  the  Organic Trade Association (United States), the Soil Association (England)  and Japan Organic Cotton Association  (Japan).

In 2006, their work was published as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) , which has since evolved into the leading set of criteria in the field of organic textile processing.  A main achievement of this group was the ability to compromise and to find even consensus for points that were considered to be ‘non-negotiable’.   Not all standard organizations that participated the process ended up with signing the agreement of the Working Group.

From the GOTS website:  “Since its introduction in 2006 by the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard, the GOTS has gained universal recognition, led to abolishment of numerous previous similar standards of limited application and has become – with more than 2750 certified textile processing, manufacturing and trading operators in more than 50 countries and an abundance of certified products – the leading standard for the processing of textile goods using organic fibers, including environmentally oriented technical as well as social criteria.”  This is a major accomplishment, especially given the global nature of the textile supply chain.

Beside the technical requirements a certifier has to meet to become approved by the IWG for GOTS certification, it is also a prerequisite that he discontinues use of any other certification. This measure was chosen to support the goal of a harmonized Global Standard and related certification system that allows certified suppliers to export their organic textiles with one certificate recognized in all relevant sales markets in order to strengthen the awareness and market for organic textiles.

The following standards have become completely harmonized with GOTS:

  • North American Fiber Standard – Organic Trade Association (USA)
  • Guidelines ‘Naturtextil IVN Zertifiziert’ – International Association Natural Textile Industry (Germany)
  • Standards for Processing and Manufacture of Organic Textiles – Soil Association (England)
  • EKO Sustainable Textile Standard – Control Union Certifications (formerly SKAL)
  • Standards for Organic Textiles – Ecocert (France)
  • Organic Textile Standard – ICEA (Italy)
  • Standards for Organic Textiles – ETKO (Turkey)
  • Organic Fiber Standards – Oregon Tilth (USA)
  • Standards for Processing of Organic Textile Products – OIA (Argentina)

One member of the IWG offers beside GOTS as their basic standard one further standard for certification that complies with GOTS but contains some additional requirements:

  • Guidelines ‘Naturtextil IVN Zertifiziert BEST’ – International Association Natural Textile Industry (Germany)

GOTS aims to define a universal standard for organic fabrics—from harvesting the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, to labeling—in order to provide credible assurance to consumers. Standards apply to fiber products, yarns, fabrics and clothes and cover the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fiber products.   GOTS provides a continuous quality control and certification system from field to shelf.  A GOTS certified fabric is therefore much more than just a textile which is made from organic fibers.

Why is this a big deal?  As we’ve said before, it’s like taking organic apples, and cooking them with Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, and stabilizers –  you can’t call the finished product organic applesauce.  Same is true with fabrics, which contain as much as 27% (by weight) synthetic chemicals.

And in today’s world, with the complex supply chain that multinational companies like Wal-Mart, Nordstrom and Levi’s use, this is a very big deal.   As companies attempt to get a handle on their suppliers and maintain quality control, the list of universally understood environmental criteria in GOTS  is coming in handy. While consumers probably won’t see a GOTS tag on conventional cotton jeans, some companies are asking suppliers to use only GOTS-certified dyes and chemicals on conventional cotton clothing.  In fact, the companies mentioned above, along with Banana Republic, H&M and Target are just some of the companies that plan to use GOTS certification for their organic products.

The GOTS standard includes:

  • Harvesting criteria which requires the use of from 70% to 95% organic fiber.
    • As the GOTS website explains, “As it is to date technically nearly impossible to produce any textiles in an industrial way without the use of chemical inputs, the approach is to define criteria for low impact and low residual natural and synthetic chemical inputs.   So in addition to requiring that   all inputs have to meet basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability GOTS also  prohibits entire classes of chemicals, rather than calling out specific prohibited chemicals.  What that means is that instead of prohibiting, for example lead and cadmium (and therefore allowing other heavy metals by default), GOTS prohibits ALL heavy metals.  Here’s the Version 3.0 list:
SUBSTANCE GROUP CRITERIA
Aromatic solvents Prohibited
Chlorophenols (such as TeCP, PCP) Prohibited
Complexing agents and surfactants Prohibited are: All APEOS, EDTA, DTPA, NTA, LAS, a-MES
Fluorocarbons Prohibited (i.e., PFOS, PFOA)
Formaldehyde and short-chain aldehydes Prohibited
GMO’s Prohibited
Halogenated solvents Prohibited
Heavy Metals Prohibited
Inputs containing functional nanoparticles Prohibited
Inputs with halogen containing compounds Prohibited
Organotin compounds Prohibited
Plasticizers (i.e., Phthalates, Bisphenol A and all others with endocrine disrupting potential) Prohibited
Quaternary ammonium compounds Prohibited: DTDMAC, DSDMAC and DHTDM
  • Environmental manufacturing practices, with a written environmental policy, must be in place.
  • Environmentally safe processing requirements, which includes wastewater treatment internally before discharge to surface waters, must be in place.  This pertains to pH and  temperature as well as to biological and chemical residues in the water.
  • Environmentally sound packaging requirements are in place; PVC in packaging is prohibited, paper must be post-consumer recycled or certified according to FSC or PEFC.
  • Labor practices are interpreted in accordance with the International Labor Organization (ILO – no forced, bonded, or slave labor; workers have the right to join or form trade unions and to bargain collectively; working conditions are safe and hygienic; there must be no new recruitment of child labor (and for those companies where children are found to be working, provisions must be made to enable him to attend and remain in quality education until no longer a child);  wages paid must meet, at a minimum, national legal standards or industry benchmarks, whichever is higher; working hours are not excessive and inhumane treatment is prohibited.
  • GOTS has a dual system of quality assurance consisting of on-side annual inspection (including possible unannounced inspections based on risk assessment of the operations) and residue testing.
  • There are requirements surrounding exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fibers.

In June, 2011, The Global Organic Textile Standard launched an open comment period on it’s first revision draft of the new GOTS version 3.0.  Following this announcement, IFOAM collected comments from its members and related stakeholders in order to shape the position of the movement towards the Global Organic Textile Standard.

A total of 36 persons and/or organizations sent their comments to IFOAM.  Two important issues were raised:  90% of the respondents were against the use of nanotechnologies in organic textiles (5% abstention, 5% in favor),  and 86 % were in principle against the use of synthetic chemicals in textiles labeled as organic (3% abstention, 11% in favor). Based on the feedback provided, IFOAM submitted detailed comments to GOTS and proposed:

  • to further restrict the use of synthetic substances, possibly switching to a positive list of allowed substances, instead of a list of forbidden ones.
  • to add requirements to ban the deliberate use of nano-technologies in the textile processing.

GOTS is a positive ethical choice among both consumers and producers and is the most comprehensive in terms of addressing environmental issues.  Although it is difficult to obtain, it can lead to important strategic business benefits.

However, the GOTS certification applies to only natural fibers, so it cannot be applied to polyester or other synthetic fibers, which are by far the most popular fiber choice in the U.S. today.  In addition, it does not directly address the carbon footprint of an organization or its production practices.  (Please note: the choice of a fabric made of organically raised natural fibers has been shown to have a much lower carbon impact than any fabric made of synthetic fibers.  We touched on that in our some of our blog posts; click here and here to read them.)

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Certifications – part 1

22 07 2011

If you agree with me that a third party certification is a way to give us the most unbiased, substantive  information about the environmental performance of a fabric, let’s look at third party certifications which are on the market and which test finished textiles.  It’s important to know what each certification is telling us, both to keep our frustration levels manageable and to be able to extract useful, trustworthy information.  But before we get to individual certifications, there are several issues that are unique to fabrics, which we should mention first.

The first issue has to do with the fact that people often think about what the fabric is made of and totally forget the long and complex process that has to happen to turn the raw material into a soft, smooth finished fabric  –  I mean, really, do you actually think that the cotton boll which you see in the picture is transformed into your blouse without some kind of serious work?  What about oil?  Think of crude oil and your new sheets – what do you think has to have happened to that crude to make it acceptable for your bedroom?

The market is absolutely rife with claims about organic cotton – and believe me, I have absolutely nothing against organic cotton.  But the focus (by marketers and consumers alike) is that if it’s made of organic cotton, then the product is sustainable.  That’s far from the truth.  We like to use the analogy of  “organic applesauce” – that is, if you take organic apples, then cook them with preservatives, emulsifiers, Red Dye #2, stabilizers and any number of other additives – do you end up with organic applesauce?  Just like bread – which is made from wheat which is grown (maybe organically), harvested, ground into flour, mixed with milk, yeast, salt and maybe other things, then baked – fabric undergoes the same type of transformation.

So the certifications which are often found on fabrics may only pertain to the FIBER, and not to the processing.  What they mean is the fabric started out with organic fibers – but the processing, like the organic applesauce mentioned above, results in fabric that contains a high proportion, by weight, of synthetic chemicals (such as lead or mercury, formaldehyde, chlorine, or phthalates).

So if only the fiber is certified,  you can assume that the chemicals used in processing may contain some of the highly toxic chemicals usually found in solvents, dyestuffs, and finishes.  And you can assume that the excess chemicals were released in the effluent and are now circulating in our groundwater.  Nor is any mention made of fair wages and safe working conditions.   In other words, a fabric made with “organic cotton”, if processed conventionally, is full of chemicals which may be prohibited in a truly organic fabric and which are known to cause all kinds of bad things to human bodies (especially really little bodies), and those harmful chemicals, released in untreated effluent, are now contributing to our own chemical body burden.

Besides the proliferation of certifications, further muddying of the waters happens because the textile supply chain is one of the most complex in all of industry – and some of the certification agencies can certify each step in the process.  In other words, each end product can be certified.  So if we deconstruct a piece of fabric, it’s possible (indeed necessary to certify the final product) to  have certification at each stage:   (1) growing and harvesting of organic fibers  (2) ginning or other preparation of the fibers to make them suitable for use in spinning;  (3)  spinning of the fibers into yarns; (4) weaving of the yarns into fabric   (5) dyeing and/or finishing and (6) final product (i.e., blouse, tablecloth, etc.).  So it’s not unusual to find a GOTS certification logo on a product – because it’s hard to get, and those who have it certainly want to display the logo.  But the certification may apply only to the organic fibers – the logo itself is not specific as to what is being certified.

It’s quite common to find  “organic cotton” fabrics  in the market – in other words, fabrics made of organic fibers.  But unless you do some probing, it’s common to find that the “organic” part pertains only to the fiber, while the fabric was made conventionally.

Certification agencies (the companies that verify the fibers/fabric meets the standards set for in the certification)  for fibers and textiles  include:

  • USDA organic

    United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program (NOP):  this logo certifies that the fiber is organic –  only the fiber.  According to a new Department of Agriculture memorandum dated May 20, 2011, textiles and textile products labeled as “organic” must be third-party certified, and all fibers identified as “organic” contained in the textile product must be certified organic to the NOP regulations. The policy memo confirms that textile products that are produced in accordance with the the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) may be sold as ‘organic’ in the U.S. though they may not refer to NOP certification or carry the USDA organic seal.

  • Soil Association Certification Limited (SA Certification) is the UK’s largest organic certification body. It’s also the only certification body linked to a committed charity, promoting organic food and farming.  As a member of the Global Standard GmbH, the managing body of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Soil Association now uses the GOTS certification for all new textile products.
  • OneCert:  OneCert provides organic certification worldwide. Certification and inspection programs include the US National Organic Program (NOP), European Organic Regulations (EU 2092/91), Quebec Organic Standards (CAQ), Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS), IFOAM, and Bio Suisse. Services include organic certification, organic inspection, export certificates, transaction certificates, on-line record keeping, answers to certification questions, and presentations of organic topics.
  • Peterson Control Union:  Control Union is a global one-stop-shop for a range of services in all aspects of the logistics chain of many commodities, including certification programs.   It certifies to the standards of The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and the Organic Exchange.
  • The Institute for Marketcology (IMO): IMO is one of the first and most renowned international agencies for inspection, certification and quality assurance of eco-friendly products. IMO offers certification for organic production and handling according to the European Regulation (EU) Nr. 2092/91, GOTS, Organic Exchange and for The International Association of Natural Textile Industry, known as IVN.  IVN is an alliance of more than 70 businesses involved at some level in the textile production chain, with the goal of countering abuses by having a clearly defined “ecologically oriented and socially accountable business practice.”    If a company meets their standards they are awarded a quality seal, which is called Naturtextil IVN certified or certified Best.  According to the IVN, GOTS is the minimum standard that distinguishes ecotextiles.  Read more here.

The third party certifications which we think every conscious consumer of fabric should be aware includes:  Oeko-Tex, GOTS, C2C, GreenGuard, Global  Recycle Standard and SMART.  Each one has its own set of standards and we’ll take a look at them next week.