Organic Apparel - What makes it Organic?

27 Jul 2016
Author: Lindsay Johnson
Read time: 6 min
Category: Archive

Deciphering what makes a garment organic can be as tedious as writing a dissertation if you are not familiar with the manufacturing processes it takes to turn organic fibers into clothes. The steps the fibers go through from seed to sewn garment and everywhere in between are all part of the organic certification process.

Just because a garment is “made with” organic cotton or another organic fiber does not mean that the garment was manufactured in a way that follows organic standards and is free of harmful chemicals. For instance, you can have a men’s dress shirt that is made with organic cotton. In the manufacturing process, they take the organic cotton, turn it into fabric and then may add chemical detergents and bleach to whiten the fabric. They then add harmful chemical dyes to the shirt to turn it a bright blue color and then finish the dress shirt with some toxic chemical finishers to make the shirt wrinkle free and stain proof. Now this dress shirt that is made with organic fibers is soaked full of chemicals that will remain within the fibers for the life of the garment. It may then end up in a landfill where these chemicals leach into our soil, waterways and our air.

To truly make an organic garment, you start with organic fibers such as cotton or hemp that are naturally grown without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. These fibers are then manufactured in a way that follows organic standards and is free of harmful chemicals. As an example, the same men’s dress shirt referred to above would be made from organic cotton by first being turned into fabric and left to remain its natural cotton color or lightened with natural hydrogen peroxide. To get the bright blue color in the shirt, organic plant-based dyes such as indigo could be used or low-impact dyes that are synthetic based but proven to be free of harmful chemicals could be added to achieve this color. No finishing agents would be applied to the garment for wrinkle free, stain proof, odor resistance, fire resistance, etc. Now this dress shirt is free of noxious chemicals which is better for the health of the wearer and at the end of this garments life cycle, if it finds its way into a landfill, it will biodegrade into the soil with much less of an impact than the first example.

When shopping for organic apparel:

  1. Look for garments that have the GOTS Certified Organic Label. This label certifies that the garment has been manufactured following the organic standards, from the way the organic cotton was grown all the way through to the fabric and garment’s manufacturing process. *It is important to note there are many clothing companies that follow the organic standard of practices that do not have a GOTS label on their apparel. The GOTS Certification takes a large monetary investment that not all companies can make. This is why it is important to know what the organic protocols are to help you determine if the garment is made following proper standards.
  2. Choose clothing that is made with pure fibers such as organic cotton and hemp that was grown without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  3. The most pure of organic apparel are those that are undyed, naturally lightened with hydrogen peroxide or those that have been colored with organic plant-based dyes and free of any other chemical agents and finishes.
  4. Refrain from purchasing clothing made from fibers such as recycled polyester mixed with organic cotton, as the harmful chemicals that are used in the making of the polyester as well as the breaking down of the plastic fibers to turn them into clothes is very harmful and contaminates the organic fibers it is combined with.
  5. Fibers such as organic bamboo (at this point in time) are also not truly organic in the way they are processed. Chemical agents are used in the breaking down of the bamboo fibers to turn them into fabric. Thus, even if the garment follows organic standards in the rest of its manufacturing processes, the chemicals added in the manufacturing of the fibers are not the most ideal.
  6. Look for organic apparel that has 10% or less of spandex added into the fibers as having over 10% can compromise the organic nature of the fibers. Made from 100% organic fibers is the most ideal. *Spandex can be necessary in some garments such as athletic and intimate apparel styles to hold its shape on the wearer and to lengthen the life cycle of the garment.
  7. Refrain from buying garments that are labeled fire resistant, stain proof, water proof, static proof, wrinkle free, odor proof, etc. as they are finished with toxic chemicals that can be very damaging to our health.

Following these tips will guide you the next time you are looking to add some new organic clothing into your wardrobe. Just like with the food we eat, it is important to do your research, choose organic and vote with your dollars. Support the companies that are following the most health giving practices; this in turn will support your optimal health as well as the health of our environment.

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