Everything You Need to Know About Organic Cotton
Written by Nikki Sequeira
Interview Conducted by Jennifer Landrey
Lori Wyman from GOTS will make you think twice about your next pair of jeans
Head to your average grocery store these days and you’ll be spoiled for choice. Organic or conventional; local or imported; natural or who-knows-what’s-in-there. If you’re lucky you might find an entire organic produce section and aisles filled with products labelled organic.
Not the case when you head to the typical mall, but one can dream.
If there’s any hope for a future where consumers have a clear and easy choice between organic and conventional clothing, a logical first step is to have a standard in place that defines what actually qualifies as organic in the textiles industry. At Sitka, we think of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) as the gold standard. To learn more about it, we went straight to the source.
Lori Wyman has spent more than a decade traveling the world inspecting every part of the textile supply chain and educating people about social and environmental responsibility in the industry. In her current role as the North American Representative for GOTS, she’s responsible for promoting the use of organic textiles and answering questions people have about GOTS.
Fortunately, she was willing to answer our questions too.
Ed. note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For the uninitiated, what is GOTS?
The easiest way to think about it is by comparison to food. People in Canada might be familiar with the COR which is the Canadian Organic Regime, and in the US there is NOP, the National Organic Program, which is the standard set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are equivalency programs around the world so these standards can be recognized in different countries.
Say you have a can of soup in front of you that’s certified COR or NOP organic. That tells you that the vegetables and meat inside of it are grown or raised and processed by organic standards. You also know that the people who harvested and processed it were not exposed to pesticides and fumigants or other toxins from conventional agriculture. So by purchasing that organic soup, you know what you’re putting in your body and you’re supporting organic agriculture and all the people involved.
In the textiles world, for a long time there was no standard for organic fibre processing, so that’s where GOTS comes in.
So you’re responsible for certifying organic clothing?
We don’t actually do certifications or even inspections; we’re a standard bearer. We work with certification bodies that are trained and authorized by GOTS to conduct inspections based on our standard.
Many inspectors do certification work with several standards, like COR or recycling standards or carbon footprint standards—GOTS is just one standard that products can be certified for. In the past I worked as an inspector using a number of different standards and GOTS has always been my favorite so I’m thrilled to now be responsible for promoting a standard that I’m so confident in and proud of.
Why should you pay more for organic clothing versus conventional?
Cheap clothing, in general, has created a really sad situation. Clothing that was made in unsafe working conditions where people are paid less than the minimum wage is obviously going to be cheaper.
If you buy a cheap product it had to be grown the cheapest way possible, woven the cheapest way possible, printed the cheapest way possible etc. That means people were paid the least amount possible, and the product was shipped around the world to find the cheapest source for each particular step.
When you really look at the supply chain you realize the importance of buying less and buying better.
A lot of people outside of the clothing industry have no idea how many times a product will have traveled across the ocean before it gets to them.
How do you know how far a piece of clothing has travelled?
There’s something called a transaction certificate that shows all the steps in the supply chain. When I first started looking at transaction certificates I was just shocked by the number of times a product could travel over the ocean before it was made into a final product.
To give an example, say I have a dress in my closet. The cotton may have been grown in India then spun into yarn in Turkey then sent to North Carolina to be made into fabric, then they needed a certain wash on it so they sent it to China for that, and maybe it was sewn there too since its so cheap to manufacture there, and then it got sent back to the U.S. to a distribution center and then finally I bought it from a store on the other side of the country.
All that transportation takes a toll on the environment.
Photo by Johan Bos
We know a bit about what’s required for a can of soup to be certified organic, but what about a t-shirt?
Say you buy a wool shirt. In order for it to bare the GOTS label, the fibre has to come from a sheep that was raised on an organic farm that meets the livestock standard for food. If it were a cotton shirt it would need to be from an organic farm that meets the crop standard for food.
After the raw material is harvested and sent for processing into fibre, the GOTS standard steps in and takes over where the food standard leaves off, meaning we dictate what’s allowed and what’s not allowed from then on.
There are several processing steps that a fibre goes through, from spinning into yarn or thread to knitting or weaving into fabric to wet processing to cutting and sewing. There are also certain inputs like conditioners, dyes other treatments that can be added at various stages.
GOTS has a long list of processes and inputs that are allowable and non-allowable. Among these are processes for things like wastewater treatment, so you don’t end up with untreated water running into the waterways and turning rivers red.
There are also strong social compliance requirements to protect the people who are doing the processing.
Photo by Dung Nguyen
We’re talking about an ‘organic’ standard here. Why is social compliance such a big part of it?
GOTS is always in a state of continuous improvement and in the newest version of the standard we beefed up our social compliance aspect. That’s partly because of feedback from people in the industry who told us that they didn’t want to have to carry more than one standard. There are several organizations like Fairtrade and Fair Wear that deal with social compliance but still allow things like polyester.
The new GOTS is designed to allow companies to feel comfortable with just one standard for their products, that ensures things like safety and fair conditions for workers. We had included social components in previous versions but the new version is much stronger.
Can you tells us more about these allowables and non-allowables you mentioned before?
There are thousands of things that can and cannot be used. We don’t allow things like formaldehyde or fumigants or other dangerous chemicals, but there are what we call “sunset clauses” to make allowances in a few instances where it wouldn’t be possible or legal to make a product without using a certain input that we may not want in there.
Sometimes you’ll be able to swap one organic material for another. For instance, in the U.S. and Canada there are flammability requirements for mattresses, so chemical flame retardants are usually applied. We looked for the least toxic way of meeting the legal requirements and wool turned out to be a good alternative to cotton because it’s naturally less flammable.
In other cases you can’t make a product without using plastic or other materials that we normally wouldn’t allow. Instead of throwing out the standard all together, we can now offer special labeling for products with components that do not meet our standard but that use the least toxic materials possible, as long as the fabric is GOTS certified. So if a family wants to buy an organic car seat that meets legal requirements for safety, they can find the best option, with GOTS certified fabric and filling and less toxic plastic and buckles.
Photo by Connor Broadfoot
We’re big on organic cotton at Sitka. Can you explain the difference between organic and conventional cotton and why it matters?
Just like with food there are lots of concerns around conventional cotton. First of all 90% of the world’s conventional cotton is genetically modified and GOTS doesn’t allow any GMOs so that’s one big difference. Then there’s water; organic cotton uses much, much less water.
There are also issues with dyes and various chemicals that people might not even know have been added to the clothes they wear. If you’re buying a pair of jeans with a certain wash, it probably took a lot of chemicals to make them look that way.
If you really thought about what happened to the environment and all the residual chemicals on those jeans you probably wouldn’t want to buy them.
Social compliance is another issue—a lot of conventional cotton is grown and harvested by people in really poor working conditions. Most people have never been to a cotton farm but it’s actually a really pretty plant with a beautiful blossom in early summer. You end up with what looks like a big white cotton ball at the top of each plant, surrounded by a prickly, thorny husk.
On conventional cotton farms they use chemical defoliants (think agent orange) to get rid of the leaves. A big tractor will go by and spray the entire plant, and within a few days just about everything but the cotton ball will dry up and fall off the plant. That makes it easier for the cotton to be processed once it’s stripped off the plant because you don’t have to spend so much time cleaning out all the leaves.
Photo from Live Mint
How do organic farms deal with the leaves?
Of course all those chemical defoliants are not allowed. I’ve been to a few cotton farms in the high plains in Texas that have just the right climate for a frost to kill off all the leaves, leaving a couple of weeks to harvest the cotton buds before everything freezes.
In a hot climate the cotton needs to be picked by hand. This is where fair treatment of workers gets really important. Unfortunately, around the world a lot of cotton pickers are still underpaid and have to work in really difficult conditions.
We’re sold. What does a company like Sitka have to do to become GOTS Certified?
The standard applies to every step of the step of the process up to the manufacturing stage so retailers are actually exempt. What you can do is make clothing with GOTS certified fabrics.
You know, organic food is very popular and there are lots of places in North America where people really demand organic, but not so much when it comes to clothing.
By comparison, in Europe GOTS is huge. Even in discount stores you’ll see GOTS logos. It takes awareness for people to start asking for organic, so I think it’s a matter of time and education.
On that note, is there anything else the Sitka community should know about?
If you care about the environment, think about the environmental footprint of your clothing. It’s not just about the processes and inputs we’ve just gone over, it’s what happens later on in the life cycle too.
If you buy a shirt made from organic cotton or wool and you wear it until the end of its life, you could throw it in the ground and it will compost. If you throw away a shirt made from petroleum, it’s going to continue to pollute the environment and will probably live in a landfill forever.