Organic Clothes, what’s the deal?

Being a mom and trying to buy sustainable ethical clothing for both myself and my son, I started wondering about Walmart’s organic clothes. Are you Curious about how the garments are dyed, wondering if the ink/dyes are safe?

When you buy an organic product you want to be sure that it’s not just an organic fabric dipped in harmful chemicals. Some synthetic dyes are made with chemicals that have been linked to everything from skin sensitization to occupational cancer. I went on a Walmart adventure to find some of these organic items and found that although they are all labeled “Organic Cotton Blend,” there is no other information regarding the dyeing process. 


Back in May 2011, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), released a memo stating that processed textile products, including apparel labeled as “organic” must be certified by a third party such as the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Since most of these production & processing standards apply to foods and not the textile process, NOP labelling is almost impossible for most garments and textile to comply. NOP memo does state that “textile products that are produced in accordance with 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.” The GOTS is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers. Their standards apply to clothing, fabrics, yarns and more. They cover the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fiber products.


Textile products that are labeled as “organic” may:

  • Use label claims that identify specific types of organic fibers
  • Use statements identifying the percentage of organic fibers                                                                                                                                                                                                             

 Textile products that are labeled as “organic” must not:

  • Use the USDA organic seal unless they are certified in accordance with the NOP regulations.
  •  Imply or lead the consumer to believe that the final product is certified under the NOP regulations unless they are certified in accordance with the NOP regulations.
  •  Use a combination of both organic and non-organic sources for a single fiber that is identified as “organic” in the final product.

So what does this all mean for shoppers like us? This memo enables organic textile manufacturers to make production and processing claims just as manufacturers of organic foods can. Consumers will be able to recognize the USDA Organic Seal and know that the garment meets the USDA National Organic Program standards. While those garments may be rare due to the lack of apparel processing standards, the GOTS certification labels will help consumers significantly.

Some of the key GOTS criteria for processing and manufacturing include:

  • Organic fibers must be kept separate from conventional fibers through all stages and must be clearly identified
  •  Toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde, aromatic solvents, functional nano particles, genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their enzymes are prohibited
  •  Bleaches must be based on oxygen (no chlorine bleaching)
  •  Also dyes that release carcinogenic amine compounds are prohibited
  • Discharge printing methods using aromatic solvents and plastisol printing methods using phthalates and PVC are prohibited
  • Accessory restrictions (e.g. no PVC, nickel or chrome permitted, any polyester must be post-consumer recycled from 2014 onwards)
  • Packaging material must not contain PVC. From 1st January 2014 onwards any paper or cardboard used in packaging material, hang tags, swing tags etc. must be post-consumer recycled or certified according to FSC or PEFC
  • Raw materials, intermediates, final textile products as well as accessories must meet stringent limits regarding unwanted residues.
Research commissioned by Greenpeace International revealed that clothing and some shoes sold by major clothing companies are manufactured with nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). When broken down, NPE’s form toxic nonylphenol (NP) which is a hormone disrupting chemical that can be hazardous, even at the lowest levels. Greenpeace purchased 78 items of from 15 leading clothing companies and found that two-thirds of these items tested positive for NPEs.
So what can you do to avoid harmful chemicals in your clothing?
  • Look for GOTS. The GOTS standard for textiles is just as strict as the USDA’s organic standard for food.
  • Look for gently used. Recycling clothes is not only cheaper, it’s better for the environment. No new materials, energy or fuel are used when you buy clothing that is already made and it keeps garments out of landfills. Another bonus of recycled clothes is that they’ve probably been washed several times, washing away any chemicals or pesticides that may have been lingering.
  • Trade with friends. Shop in your best friend’s closet and let her shop in yours. It’s a great way to spend time together and you know she’ll look gorgeous in that dress you only wore once. It works just as well swapping kid’s clothes, too!
  • Shop local. You go to the Farmers Markets to support your local farmers, don’t forget to support your local designers and shop owners. They will be more open to questions about how the garments were made and can provide information about where they sourced their fabric.

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