Climate change and the textile industry

15 10 2014

Time sure flies doesn’t it?  I’ve been promising to reiterate the effects the textile industry has on climate change, so I’m re-posting a blog post we published in 2013:

In considering fabric for your sofa, let’s be altruistic and look at the impact textile production has on global climate change. (I only use the term altruistic because many of us don’t equate climate change with our own lives, though there have been several interesting studies of just how the changes will impact us directly,like the one in USA Today that explains that wet regions will be wetter, causing flash flooding; dry regions will get drier, resulting in drought. And … a heat wave that used to occur once every 100 years now happens every five years (1)).

Although most of the current focus on lightening our carbon footprint revolves around transportation and heating issues, the modest little fabric all around you turns out to be from an industry with a gigantic carbon footprint. The textile industry, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States, after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals.[2] And the U.S. textile industry is small potatoes when compared with some other countries I could mention.

The textile industry is huge, and it is a huge producer of greenhouse gasses (GHG’s). Today’s textile industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses  on Earth, due to this huge size.[3] In 2008, annual global textile production was estimated at 60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric. The estimated energy and water needed to produce that amount of fabric boggles the mind:

  • 1,074 billion kWh of electricity or 132 million metric tons of coal and
  • between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water[4]

Fabrics are the elephant in the room. They’re all around us but no one is thinking about them. We simply overlook fabrics, maybe because they are almost always used as a component in a final product that seems rather innocuous: sheets, blankets, sofas, curtains, and of course clothing. Textiles, including clothing, accounted for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total CO2 emissions produced by each person in the U.S. in 2006. [5] By contrast, a person in Haiti produced a total of only 0.21 tons of total carbon emissions in 2006.[6]
Your textile choices do make a difference, so it’s vitally important to look beyond thread counts, color and abrasion results.
How do you evaluate the carbon footprint in any fabric? Look at the “embodied energy’ in the fabric – that is, all of the energy used at each step of the process needed to create that fabric. Not an easy thing to do! To estimate the embodied energy in any fabric it’s necessary to add the energy required in two separate fabric production steps:

  1. Find out what the fabric is made from, because the type of fiber tells you a lot about the energy needed to make the fibers used in the yarn. The carbon footprint of various fibers varies a lot, so start with the energy required to produce the fiber.
  2. Next, add the energy used to weave those yarns into fabric. Once any material becomes a “yarn” or “filament”, the amount of energy and conversion process to weave that yarn into a textile is pretty consistent, whether the yarn is wool, cotton, or synthetic.[7)

Let’s look at #1 first: the energy needed to make the fibers and create the yarn. For ease of comparison we’ll divide the fiber types into “natural” (from plants, animals and less commonly, minerals) and “synthetic” (man made):

For natural fibers you must look at field preparation, planting and field operations (mechanized irrigation, weed control, pest control and fertilizers (manure vs. synthetic chemicals)), harvesting and yields. Synthetic fertilizer use is a major component of the high cost of conventional agriculture: making just one ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits nearly 7 tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.
For synthetics, a crucial fact is that the fibers are made from fossil fuels. Very high amounts of energy are used in extracting the oil from the ground as well as in the production of the polymers.
A study done by the Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group concludes that the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fiber is much higher for synthetics than for hemp or cotton:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber:
crop cultivation fiber production TOTAL
polyester USA 0 9.52 9.52
cotton, conventional, USA 4.2 1.7 5.9
hemp, conventional 1.9 2.15 4.05
cotton, organic, India 2 1.8 3.8
cotton, organic, USA 0.9 1.45 2.35


The table above only gives results for polyester; other synthetics have more of an impact: acrylic is 30% more energy intensive in its production than polyester [8] and nylon is even higher than that.
Not only is the quantity of GHG emissions of concern regarding synthetics, so too are the kinds of gasses produced during production of synthetic fibers. Nylon, for example, creates emissions of N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2 [9] and which, because of its long life (120 years) can reach the upper atmosphere and deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone, which is an important filter of UV radiation. In fact, during the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.[10] A study done for the New Zealand Merino Wool Association shows how much less total energy is required for the production of natural fibers than synthetics:


Embodied Energy used in production of various fibers:
Energy use in MJ per KG of fiber:
flax fibre (MAT) 10
cotton 55
wool 63
Viscose 100
Polypropylene 115
Polyester 125
acrylic 175
Nylon 250
SOURCE: “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,

Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have many additional benefits:

  • being able to be degraded by micro-organisms and composted (improving soil structure); in this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed. Synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants – in the case of high density polyethylene, 3 tons of CO2 emissions are produced for ever 1 ton of material burnt.[11] Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets in the world’s oceans.
  • sequestering carbon. Sequestering carbon is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.) and soils. Jute, for example, absorbs 2.4 tons of carbon per ton of dry fiber.[12]

Substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers is not just a little better – but lots better in all respects:

  • uses less energy for production, emits fewer greenhouse gases and supports organic farming (which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits).  A study published by Innovations Agronomiques (2009) found that 43% fewer GHGs are emitted per unit area under organic agriculture than under conventional agriculture.[13] A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers. Further it was found in controlled long term trials that organic farming adds between 100-400kg of carbon per hectare to the soil each year, compared to non-organic farming. When this stored carbon is included in the carbon footprint, it reduces the total GHG even further.[14] The key lies in the handling of organic matter (OM): because soil organic matter is primarily carbon, increases in soil OM levels will be directly correlated with carbon sequestration. While conventional farming typically depletes soil OM, organic farming builds it through the use of composted animal manures and cover crops

Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisims (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
  • conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
  • ensures sustained biodiversity
  • and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) provides convincing evidence that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.

At the fiber level it is clear that synthetics have a much bigger footprint than does any natural fiber, including wool or conventionally produced cotton. So in terms of the carbon footprint at the fiber level, any natural fiber beats any synthetic – at this point in time. Best of all is an organic natural fiber.
And next let’s look at #2, the energy needed to weave those yarns into fabric.
There is no dramatic difference in the amount of energy needed to weave fibers into fabric depending on fiber type.[15] The processing is generally the same whether the fiber is nylon, cotton, hemp, wool or polyester: thermal energy required per meter of cloth is 4,500-5,500 Kcal and electrical energy required per meter of cloth is 0.45-0.55 kwh. [16] This translates into huge quantities of fossil fuels – both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production. In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.

(2) Source: Energy Information Administration, Form EIA:848, “2002 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey,” Form EIA-810, “Monthly Refinery Report” (for 2002) and Documentatioin for Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2003 (May 2005).
(3) Dev, Vivek, “Carbon Footprint of Textiles”, April 3, 2009,
(4) Rupp, Jurg, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”, Textile World, Nov/Dec 2008
(5) Rose, Coral, “CO2 Comes Out of the Closet”,, September 24, 2007
(6) U.S. Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Annual 2006”, posted Dec 8, 2008.
(7) Many discussions of energy used to produce fabrics or final products made from fabrics (such as clothing) take the “use” phase of the article into consideration when evaluating the carbon footprint. The argument goes that laundering the blouse (or whatever) adds considerably to the final energy tally for natural fibers, while synthetics don’t need as much water to wash nor as many launderings. We do not take this component into consideration because
. it applies only to clothing; even sheets aren’t washed as often as clothing while upholstery is seldom cleaned.
. is biodegradeable detergent used?
. Is the washing machine used a new low water machine? Is the water treated by a municipal facility?
. Synthetics begin to smell if not treated with antimicrobials, raising the energy score.
Indeed, it’s important to evaluate the sponsors of any published studies, because the studies done which evaluate the energy used to manufacture fabrics are often sponsored by organizations which might have an interest in the outcome. Additionally, the data varies quite a bit so we have adopted the values which seem to be agreed upon by most studies.
(8) Ibid.
(9) “Tesco carbon footprint study confirms organic farming is energy efficient, but excludes key climate benefit of organic farming, soil carbon”, Prism Webcast News, April 30, 2008,
(10) Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, Earthscan, 2008, Page 13
(11) “Why Natural Fibers”, FAO, 2009:
(12) Ibid.
(13) Aubert, C. et al., (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at
(14) International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO and Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL); Organic Farming and Climate Change; Geneva: ITC, 2007.
(15) 24th session of the FAO Committee on Commodity Problems IGG on Hard Fibers of the United Nations
(16) “Improving profits with energy-efficiency enhancements”, December 2008, Journal for Asia on Textile and Apparel,

Are organic sofas expensive?

25 10 2012

A current theme in the blogosphere is that organic sofas are expensive, so let’s see what that could mean.

We often hear that organic stuff costs more than conventional stuff, and that only the rich can take advantage of the benefits of organic products.  That is true of food prices – organic food typically costs from 20% to 100% more than conventionally produced equivalents. [1]  And I won’t go into what we seem to be getting in return for buying the cheaper, conventionally produced foods, but let’s just say it’s akin to a  Faustian bargain.

But look at the food companies which in the 1950s routinely produced laughably inaccurate adverts trumpeting the health benefits associated with their products. 

Those old school adverts, ridiculous as they look now, displayed an awareness that healthy food resonated with modern consumers, and heralded the start of a 60 year long transformation that has seen nutrition become the issue that arguably defines the way the food industry operates. It is entirely conceivable that the raft of new green marketing campaigns that have emerged in recent years mark the beginning of a similar journey with other product categories.

So enough about food – this is a blog about textile subjects.  And like food, organic fibers are also more expensive than non-organic.  There is no way to get around the fact that organic cotton items are anywhere from 10 to 45 percent more expensive than conventional cotton products.  But conventional cotton prices don’t take into account the impact that  production has on the planet and the many people involved in its manufacture, including sweatshops and global poverty. With organic cotton, you are paying more initially, but that cost is passed not only to the retailer, but to the weavers, seamstresses, pickers and growers who made that item’s production possible. In turn, you are also investing in your own health with a garment that will not off-gas (yup, just like toxic paints) chemicals or dyes that can impact all of your body’s basic systems.

Those prices – or costs, depending on what we choose to call them – are compounded and go up exponentially in an organic vs. conventional sofa because each input in an organic sofa is more expensive than its conventional counterpart:

  • Organic sofas often use FSC certified hardwoods – which means you’re supporting a resource which is managed so that the forest stays healthy.  Forests are critical to maintaining life on earth:  they  filter pollutants from the air, absorb CO2, purify the water we drink,  and provide habitat for both animals and some indigenous cultures.   Forest certification is like organic labeling for forest products.  Conventional sofas, on the other hand, often use composite plywoods, medium density fiberboard  (MDF) or Glue Laminated Beams (Glulam).    These products are glued together using formaldehyde resins.  And formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.  The hardwoods are more expensive than the other options, but  they don’t have the formaldehyde emissions.
  • Conventional sofas almost exclusively use polyurethane  foam – or that new marketing darling,  soy foam.  Polyurethane and soy foams are much cheaper than natural latex, but they  are made of methyloxirane and TDI, both of which have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California and are highly flammable, requiring flame retardant chemicals.  They also emit toluene, a known neurotoxin.  The foam oxidizes, sending these toxic particles into the air which we breathe in.  But they’re cheap.  Natural latex, on the other hand, does not impact human health in any way, and it lasts far longer than polyurethane or soy foams.
  • Organic sofas use fabrics that do not contain chemicals which can harm human health.   Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals, and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known.  Many studies have linked specific diseases with work in the textile industry – such as autoimmune diseases, leukemia and breast cancer.[2]  Organic fabrics do not contain these dangerous chemicals, so you won’t be exposing yourself and your family to these chemicals.
  • Auxiliaries, such as glues and varnishes, have been evaluated to be safe in an organic sofa.

It just so happens that the web site Remodelista published a post on September 26 entitled “10 Easy Pieces:  The Perfect White Sofa” by Julie.[3]  (Click HERE to see that post.)  And it gives us the pricing!  Prices range from $399 for an IKEA sofa to $9500, and 10 sofas are priced (one in British Pound Sterling, which I converted into US dollars at 1.61 to the dollar).   The average price of the sofas listed is $4626 and of the 10 sofas with pricing, the median is $3612.  None of them mentions anything about being organic.  That means you’ll be paying good money for a sofa that most probably uses:

  • Polyurethane or soy-based foam  – which off gasses its toxic witch’s brew of synthetic chemicals and flame retardants.
  • Non FSC certified hardwood (if you’re lucky), or composite plywood, MDF or Glulam, which offgasses formaldehyde.
  • Conventionally produced fabrics that expose you and your children to chemicals that may be causing any number of health concerns, from headaches and allergies to changes in our DNA.
  • Glues, paints and/or varnishes which off gas volatile organic compounds.

As to price:  let’s  take a look at one sofa manufacturer with whom we work  closely, Ekla Home (full disclosure:  who uses our fabric exclusively) – the average price of Ekla Home’s sofa collection (assuming the most expensive fabric category) is $3290.  That’s $1,336 LESS than the average of the sofas in the Remodelista post, none of which are organic.

Admittedly, one of the sofas that you can buy costs $399 from IKEA.  Putting aside all the myriad health implications involved in this piece of furniture, there is still the issue of quality.  Carl Richards, a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and the director of investor education at BAM Advisor Services, had a piece in the New York Times recently, about frugality and what it really means.  Here is how he put it:

It’s tempting to tell ourselves this little story about being frugal as we buy garbage from WalMart instead of the quality stuff that we want. Stuff that lasts. Stuff that we can own for a long time.

Here is the issue: when we settle for stuff that we don’t really want, and instead buy stuff that will be fine for a while, it often costs more in the long run.”

New York Times, Carl Richard

So I’m a bit flummoxed as to why people complain that  organic sofas are expensive.  Expensive compared to what?     If I was paranoid, I’d think there was some kind of subtle campaign being waged by Big Industry to plant that idea into our heads.

[1] The Fox News website ( ) had some interesting reasons as to why that’s true, some of which are listed below:

  1. Chemicals and synthetic pesticides reduce the cost of production by getting the job done faster and more efficiently. Without them, organic farmers have to hire more workers for tasks like hand-weeding, cleanup of polluted water, and the remediation of pesticide contamination.
  2. Demand overwhelms supply:  Americans claim they prefer to eat organic foods, yet organic farmland only accounts for 0.9% of total worldwide farmland.
  3. Animal manure and compost are more expensive to ship (this is their list, not mine!) and synthetic chemical equivalents are very cheap.
  4.  Instead of chemical weed killers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations to keep their soil healthy and prevent weed growth. After harvesting a crop, an organic farmer may use that area to grow “cover crops,” which add nitrogen to the soil to benefit succeeding crops.
  5. In order to avoid cross-contamination, organic produce must be separated from conventional produce after being harvested. Conventional crops are shipped in larger quantities since conventional farms are able to produce more.
  6.  Acquiring USDA organic certification is no easy — or cheap — task. In addition to the usual farming operations, farm facilities and production methods must comply with certain standards, which may require the modification of facilities. Employees must be hired to maintain strict daily record-keeping that must be available for inspection at any time. And organic farms must pay an annual inspection/certification fee, which starts at $400 to $2,000 a year, depending on the agency and the size of the operation.
  7. Last but not least – subsidies.  In 2008, farm subsidies were $7.5 billion, compared to organic and local food programs which received only $15 million.

Many  say that if Americans who profess to want to buy organic food would stop going to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, and buying processed, packaged and pre-made foods, they could easily afford organic foods.


  • In 2007, The National Institutes of health and the University of Washington released the findings of a 14 year study that demonstrates those who work with textiles were significantly more likely to die from an autoimmune disease than people who didn’t. (Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine Are a Growing Hazard”, Washington
    , March 16, 2008.)
  • A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths. (Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment
    workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental
    Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.)
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population. (Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
    10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: AND
  • Studies have shown that if children are exposed to lead, either in the womb or in early childhood, their brains are likely to be smaller. Note: lead is a common component in textile dyestuffs. (Dietrich, KN et al, “Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead
    Exposure”, PLoS Med 2008 5(5): e112.)

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.

How to get rid of chemicals in fabrics. (Hint: trick question.)

10 11 2010

Can you wash or otherwise clean conventional fabrics to remove all the toxic residues so that you’d end up with  a fabric that’s as safe as  an organic fabric?  It seems a reasonable question, and sure would be an easy fix if the answer was yes, wouldn’t it?  But let’s explore this question, because it’s really interesting.

Let’s start by looking at one common type of fabric: a lightweight, 4 ounce cotton printed quilting fabric.  In this case the answer is no (and as you’ll find out, our answers will always be no, but read on to see why).

The toxic chemicals in conventionally produced (versus “organically” produced)  cotton fabric that cannot be washed out come from both:

1.      the pesticides and herbicides applied to the crops when growing the cotton and

2.      from the dyes and printing inks and other chemicals used to turn the fibers into fabric.

Let’s first look at the pesticides used during growing of the fiber.

Conventional cotton cultivation uses copious amounts of chemical inputs.  These pesticides are absorbed by the leaves and the roots of the plants. Most pesticides applied to plants have a half life of less than 4 days before degredation.(1)   So pesticides can be found in the plants, but over time the chemicals are degraded so the amount to be found in any bale of cotton fiber is highly depending on time of harvest and how recently the crop had been sprayed.  

Gas chromatography easily shows that  common pesticides used on cotton crops are found in the fibers, such as:  Hexachlorobenzene,  Aldrin, Dieldrin, DDT and DDT. (2)   Look up the toxicity profiles  of those chemicals if you want encouragement to keep even tiny amounts of them out of your house.   With time, as the cotton fibers degrade, these residual chemicals are released.

We could find no studies which looked at the fibers themselves to see if pesticides could be removed by washing, but we did find a study of laundering pesticide-soiled clothing to see if the pesticide could be removed.  Remember, this study (and others like it) was done only on protective clothing worn by workers who are applying the pesticides – so the pesticides are on the outside of the fibers  –   NOT on the fibers themselves during growth.  The study found that, after six washings in a home washing machine, the percent of pesticide remaining in a textile substrate (cotton)  ranged from 1% to 42%.  (3)

If you’re trying to avoid pesticides which are applied to cotton crops, you’d do better to avoid cottonseed oil than the fiber (if processed conventionally) because we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear.  Most of the damage done by the use of pesticides is to our environment – our groundwater and soils.

Before we go further,  let’s do away with the notion that organic cotton, woven conventionally, is safe to use.  Not so.  There are so many chemicals used during the processing phase of fabric production, including detergents, brighteners, bleaches, softeners, and many others that the final fabric is a chemical smorgasbord, and is by weight at least 10% synthetic chemicals (4), many of which have been proven to cause harm to humans.

The chemicals used in conventionally processed organic cotton fabrics make the concerns about  pesticides used in growing the crop pale in comparison:  If we use the new lower chemical inputs that GMO cotton has introduced, it’s now possible to produce 1 lb. of conventionally grown cotton, using just  2.85 oz of chemical pesticides – that’s down from over 4.5 oz used during the 1990’s – a 58% decrease.   So to produce enough cotton fiber to make 25 lbs of cloth,  it would require  just 4.45 lbs of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and insecticides.  Processing that fiber into cloth, however, requires between 2.5 – 25 lbs. of chemicals.  If we take the midpoint, that’s 12.5 lbs of processing chemicals – almost three times what it took to produce the fiber!

There are over 2,000 different kinds of chemicals regularly used in textile production, many of them so toxic that they’re outlawed in other products.  And this toxic bath is used on both organic fibers as well as non-organic fibers – the fibers are just the first step in the weaving and finishing of a fabric. (Make sure you buy organic fibers that are also organically processed  or you do not have an organic fabric.   An organic fabric is one that is  third party certified  to the Global Organic Textile Standard. )      Fabrics – even those made with  organic fibers like organic cotton IF they are conventionally produced and not produced according to GOTS –  contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, azo dyes, dioxin, and heavy metals.  Some of the chemicals  are there as residues from the production, others are added to give certain characteristics to the fabrics such as color, softness, crispness, wrinkle resistance, etc.    And these chemicals are designed to do a job, and do it well. They are designed to NOT wash out.  The dyes, for instance, are called “fiber reactive” dyes because they chemically bind with the fiber molecules in order to remain color fast.   The chemical components of your fabric dye is there as long as the color is there. Many dyes contain a whole host of toxic chemicals.  The heavy metals are common components of fabric dyes.  They are part of the dye and part of the fabric fiber as long as the color remains.

And these chemicals are found in the fabrics we live with.  Studies have shown that the chemicals are available to our bodies:  dioxins (such as the 75 polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and 135 polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs)) were found in new clothing in concentrations ranging from low pg/g to high 300 ng/g in several studies. (5)


How do these chemicals get into our bodies from the textiles?  Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and it’s highly permeable.  So skin absorption is one route; another is through inhalation of the chemicals (if they are the type that evaporate – and if they do evaporate, each chemical has a different rate of evaporation, from minutes or hours to weeks or years) and a third route:  Think of microscopic particles of fabric that abrade each time we use a towel, sit on a sofa, put on our clothes.  These microscopic particles fly into the air and then we breathe them in or ingest them.  Or they  fall into the dust of our homes, where people and pets, especially crawling children and pets, continue to breathe or ingest them.

In the United States, often the standards for exposure to these toxins is limited to  workplace standards (based on limits in water or air) or they’re product specific: the FDA sets a maximum limit of cadmium in bottled water to be 0.005 mg/L for example.  So that leaves lots of avenues for continued contamination!

The bad news is that existing legislation on chemicals fails to prohibit the use of hazardous chemicals in consumer products -–and the textile industry, in particular, has no organized voice to advocate for change.  It’s a complex, highly fragmented industry, and it’s up to consumers to demand companies change their policies.  In the United States we’re waking up to the dangers of industrial chemicals, but rather than banning a certain chemical in ALL products, the United States is taking a piece meal approach:  for example,  certain azo dyes (like Red 2G) are prohibited in foods – but only in foods, not fabrics.  But just because the product is not meant to be eaten doesn’t mean we’re not absorbing that Red 2G.  Phthalates are outlawed in California and Washington state in children’s toys – but not in their clothing or bedding.  A Greenpeace study of a Walt Disney PVC Winne the Pooh raincoat found that it contained an astounding 320,000 mg/kg of total phthalates in the coat – or 32% of the weight of the raincoat! (6)

Concerns continue to mount about the safety of textiles and apparel products used by U.S. consumers.  As reports of potential health threats continue to come to light, “we are quite concerned about potentially toxic materials that U.S. consumers are exposed to everyday in textiles and apparel available in this country,” said David Brookstein, Sc.D., dean of the School of Engineering and Textile and director of Philadelphia University’s Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety (ITAPS).

The good news is that there are fabrics that have been produced without resorting to these hazardous chemicals.  Look for GOTS!  Demand safe fabrics!

(1)  “Degradation of Pesiticides on Plant Surfaces amd It’s prediction – a case study of tea leaves”, Zongmao, C and Haibin, W., Tea Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Zhejiang, China.

(2) “Extraction of Residual Chlorinated Pesticides from Cotton Matrix, El-Nagar, Schantz, Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and management,  Vol 4, Issue 2, Fall 2004

(3)  Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 1992  (23, 85-90)

(4) Laucasse and Baumann,  Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

(5) “Dioxins and Dioxin-Like Persistent Organic Pollutants in Textiles” Krizanec, B and Le marechal, Al, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Smetanova 17, SI-2000, Maribor, Slovenia, 2006;


Organic cotton fraud?

7 04 2010

A recent report in The Financial Times of Germany alleged  that a ‘gigantic fraud’ was taking place in the sale of cotton garments marked as organic by leading European retailers like H&M, C&A and Tchibo, because they actually contained genetically modified (GM)  cotton.   GM cotton (often called Bt cotton in India) is prohibited in organic cotton.  The source of fabrics, it said, was India.
Interestingly, the paper quoted Sanjay Dave, director of Apeda (Indian Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), as saying that the fraud was on a large-scale and that two European certifying agencies had been fined for lax processes.  Lothar Kruse, director of the laboratory which ran the tests, was quoted as saying that around 30% of  organic cotton samples from India  were found to be contaminated with GM cotton.   There were charges and countercharges by all involved – and Indian organic cotton has become suspect.  How did this happen?

In August, 2009, the Indian Ministry of Textiles took several initiatives to strengthen their textiles industry  —  among them was a commitment to “safeguard and promote” organic cotton.  Organic cotton had become an important crop in India:  according to the Organic Exchange, India accounted for about 65% of all the organic cotton produced worldwide in 2008-09, making India the No.1 producer of organic cotton in the world. And since the global market for organic cotton is growing by as much as 150 per cent per year (based on 2008-09 figures) its make sense for India to support organic cotton where it is already a market leader in a product for which an assured market exists and is growing.

And yet at the same time, the Indian government (through the Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of Science and Technology) is supporting and promoting genetically modified cotton.  India allowed the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) cotton in 2002, and by 2006, GM cotton accounted for 42% of the total Indian cotton crop. This makes India the country with the largest area of GM cotton in the world, surpassing China.  According to Reuters,  Indian farmers will grow genetically modified cotton on 90 % of the area under cotton cultivation by 2012.  See our blog posts on GMO crops:  Reasons for concern regarding GMOs and GMO Cotton.

Organic cotton  and genetically engineered cotton are mutually self-excluding commodities –  organic cotton prohibits the inclusion of any genetically engineered cotton.  So the Indian government is bumbling in two contradictory directions at the same time.  There have been warnings from opponents of genetically engineered crops that if GM cotton were to contaminate traces of organic cotton, the consignments of organic cotton would lose the certification that gets them a premium price advantage and be rejected by markets interested in buying organic cotton.  Organizations such as Gene Watch (UK) and Greenpeace have warned that it is impossible to keep agricultural produce like cotton or rice or strawberries apart once they are ready for the market.  These organizations also maintain a register of instances where genetically engineered crops have contaminated conventional or organic crops. The contamination cases run into hundreds across the world, often with grave economic consequences. Not so long ago, consignments of US rice exported to several countries had to be recalled because traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared as conventional, non GM rice. The cost of recall was prohibitive but the greater damage was done to America’s future rice exports. Once countries returned the contaminated US rice, other rice exporting nations like Thailand entered the newly available markets in Europe, Japan and South Korea and established themselves there.

And the warnings by Gene Watch and Greenpeace have just come true in the form of the scandal which broke in January, 2010 based on  the report in the German edition of Financial Times

This casts a cloud over all exports of organic products from India, of which cotton is the leading item.

But in all this uproar, who is losing the most?  Once again it’s the small farmer in India.   The African proverb that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers, is certainly true in this case.

A bit of history:  The Indian government, in a desperate bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds, banned traditional seed varieties from many government seed banks in 2002  and allowed Monsanto to sell their new seed creations.  In return for this access, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans.

Because the family livelihood of Indian farmers depends entirely on good decisions being made, they often seek advice or take a lead from someone she/he thinks knows best. The average farmer is illiterate and ignorant of the implications of planting a GM crop, but lives in the hope that money borrowed to produce a cash crop will be more than repaid after a good harvest.   Monsanto began advertising the new GM seed heavily;  it was pervasive, with utterly misleading claims,  emanating from  celebrities, government officials, journalists, agricultural and corporate scientists, larger landowners and seed dealers who had either jumped on the media bandwagon or had vested interests in GM cotton sales. Bollywood personalities such as Nana Patekar attributed almost miraculous powers to the product on TV. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh  personally endorsed the Bollgard brand (one of Monsanto’s GM seed varieties sold in India). Local opinion leaders such as larger landowners received seed and pesticide discounted or free, and ‘poor farmers’ who extolled the virtues of GM cotton locally  turned out not to be farmers at all.

In the past, if a crop failed, the farmer could use his seed from prior years to replant his crop.  But with GM seeds they could not do this, because the seeds contain “terminator technology” meaning that the crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.  So farmers must buy seeds each year – at punitive prices:  GM seed costs about $15 for 4 ounces of seed, compared to $15 for 4,000 ounces of traditional seeds.

Farmers are also desperate to avoid the spiraling cost of pesticides, and were taken in by GM cotton advertising and Monsanto’s extravagant claims. For example, at the point of sale, when farmers are vulnerable, seed dealers  hyped up the yield of a hypothetical farmer’s GM cotton (based on Monsanto claims that yields are 30 – 40% higher than conventional hybrid seed) because the seed dealers profit is four times greater per drum than for non GM seed.  In addition,  Monsanto claims pesticide use will be 70% less because their Bollgard variety is supposed to  kill 90% of bollworms.

This perfect storm led to widespread adoption of GM seeds by Indian farmers.  But the promises made by Monsanto have proven to be false over time: GM cotton required double the amount of water that non GM varieties required (proving to be a matter of life and death for many),  many crops have been devastated by bollworms and there have been widespread crop failures.  (read  more here ).   Farmers, beguiled by  promises, incurred debts that they could not repay.  Thousands of farmers, according to the Mail Online in November, 2008, “are committing suicide”.  The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and condemned ‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.
Read more here and here.

Many organizations have been trying to convert Indian farmers to organic practices –  “desperate times call for organic measures”.  The fact that farmers don’t have to spend money on pesticides and fertilizers coupled with the premium of 15 – 20% over conventional cotton that organic cotton commands in the marketplace has helped convince many farmers that organic agriculture is worth a try.   Yet now  organic cotton from India has been reported to be contaminated with GM cotton, leading many to cry fraud.

This was not unforeseen:  drift or contamination of GM with non-GM crops has long been a concern, especially now that 65-75% of total cotton production is made up of  GM cotton.  According to P.  Gouri, adviser on organic products to Apeda,   “measures to prevent contamination through strict implementation of a 50-meter refuge (buffer zones around farms growing GM cotton to prevent the pollens from contaminating neighboring farms) are absolutely essential.  If GM farming practices are regulated strictly, we can keep contamination at manageable-levels, specially if farmers use non-cotton as a buffer.”  Yet,   there have been  many violations of biosafety regulations; in addition there are no standards for the permissible amount of contamination in organic cotton.    Nobody is addressing the problem of gene transfer to conventional plants; and a general disregard of separation distances between the GM and non-GM crop makes contamination a fait acompli . Similarly, there is a general lack of enforcement of 20 percent non-GM refugia, designed to slow the evolution of pest resistance. The several generations of bollworm that live annually on a crop can lead to 60 percent resistance in a single year.

According to the Human Genome Project, the act of genetically modifying something like organic cotton has its own ripple effect from the potential environmental impacts of unintended transfer of trans genes through cross-pollination and unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), to the loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.  With no regulation of GM cotton, GM produce is entering our food and feed chain as cottonseed oil and cake.  (Did you know that we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear?)  Genetically engineered cotton has all kinds of stuff we’ve never eaten before: viral promoters, antibiotic-resistant genes, special bacteria.  Organic food producers are very concerned. This problem will continue to grow as fourteen new GM varieties of India’s staple crops were approved for field trials that began in 2005.



Currently, India and her customers rely on third party certifying agencies, such as Control Union, to substantiate organic claims.  Certification is being done as per GOTS, or Global Organic Textile Standards, but India is formulating its own standards. The biggest innovation is TraceNet, a web-based traceability system that has been introduced in the country, to trace and track all organic certifications for exports to ensure purity.   Inspectors employed by certification agencies will use GPS devices for capturing data so that wrong certifications are eliminated.

Fingers crossed.


carbon footprints…

2 06 2009

Please be aware that our suggestions are just starting points for you to consider when looking at a fabric, because actually calculating a carbon footprint is very complex and time consuming.  Peter Tydemers, who is an ecological economist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, has warned that many of the energy calculators we see should be taken with a pinch of salt – because every detail of where and how something is produced can change and therefore affect the outcome. For example, simply changing an animals feed can have an influence on its CO2 footprint. “It’s all very fluid”, he says, “There’s a tremendous hunger for these sorts of numbers and this has created the assumption that any existing figures are robust. They’re not.” We suggest that you examine carefully any studies to see the variables and the assumptions  made.  Something else to determine is who funded the study!  I was really perplexed to see a web site which had “data” on the energy used to create various fibers; the conclusions being drawn were just a bit outside the limits of any studies I had seen earlier.  But when I saw the industry group that funded the study it all became clear.

That being said, to begin to evaluate the carbon footprint of any fabric the first thing you have to do is  figure out what the fabric is made of  – the fiber.    The fiber tells you a lot about the energy needed to make the yarns, and then the fabric.  The energy needed to produce different fibers varies a lot.

To make it easy to compare the fibers, I”ll divide them into two types: “natural” (from plants, animals and – less commonly – minerals), and “synthetic” (man made)

For synthetics, it’s important to remember that most synthetic fibers  started as fossil fuel, an inherently non renewable resource.  Very high amounts of energy are needed to both extract the oil from the ground as well as to produce the polymers (as it is done under high temperatures).

For natural fibers you must look at field preparation, planting and field operations (mechanized irrigation, weed control, pest control and fertilizers (manure vs. synthetic chemicals)), harvesting and yields.  Synthetic fertilizer use is a major component of the high cost of conventional agriculture:  making just one ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits nearly 7 tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

A study done by the Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group  concludes that the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fiber is much higher for synthetics than for hemp or cotton:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber:

crop cultivation

fiber production


polyester USA




cotton, conventional, USA




hemp, conventional




cotton, organic, India




cotton, organic, USA




The table above only gives results for polyester; other synthetics have more of an impact:  acrylic is 30% more energy intensive in its production than polyester and nylon is even higher than that.

Not only is the quantity of GHG emissions of concern regarding synthetics, so too are the kinds of gasses produced during production of synthetic fibers.  Nylon, for example, creates emissions of Nitrous Oxide,  N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2.[1] In fact, during the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.[2] A study done for the New Zealand Merino Wool Association shows how much more total energy is required for the production of  synthetics than any natural fibers:

Energy used in production of various fibers:

energy use in MJ perKG of fiber:
flax fibre (MAT)
















SOURCE:  “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,

Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have the benefit of

  1. being able to be degraded by micro-organisms and composted; in this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed.  Synthetics do not decompose.
  2. sequestering carbon.  Sequestering carbon is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.) and soils.

As I said, looking at the production of the fiber is just the first part of the equation.  It is clear that, in terms of energy use and CO2 emissions, synthetics are  significantly higher in both cases than any natural fiber.  How the fibers are grown or managed also makes a huge contribution to energy use, and as you might have suspected, organic methods improve these results even more and widen the gap between synthetic and natural fibers.  That’s next week’s topic.

[1] “Tesco carbon footprint study confirms organic farming is energy efficient, but excludes key climate benefit of organic farming, soil carbon”, Prism Webcast News, April 30, 2008,

(2) Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles,  Earthscan, 2008,  Page 13