Organic Fabrics – Making the Progression From Organic Food To Fiber
By Ed Mass
Have you been eating organic fruits and vegetables? Or even “natural” food, without being certified organic, that is grown without the use of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizer? Or have you been thinking and “almost” moving in these directions?
Maybe you’ve been selecting fish for lower mercury content. And you might be selecting free range poultry that’s fed a healthy diet and beef that is grass fed and not shot up with hormones and antibiotics.
If you’re eating organic and natural food, you’re probably doing so for two reasons. The first is probably to eat healthier food. You don’t want to be exposing yourself and your family to harmful toxins in your food through farming and processing practices. You may also know that many studies have shown that organic food contains more nutrients than non-organic food.
The second reason is that you are aware of the environmental damage to our air, water, and land done by non-organic farming methods and manufacturing processes.
Those reasons can also be applied to your clothing, bedding, and towels. Just like food, if your clothing, bedding, and towels are made from non-organic cotton and wool, or synthetics, they may contain a whole range of harmful chemicals. These are retained in the fibers from both the farming and manufacturing processes.
Non-organic cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop. The typical spraying application results in volatile organic compounds released into the air, contributing to green house gases. Additionally, such spraying harms the health of the soil and pollutes ground water, lakes, and streams.
Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer causing chemicals. All nine are classified by the U.S. EPA as Category I and II— the most dangerous chemicals. Depending on the practices involved, it can take up to a pound of such chemicals to grow the cotton for one pair of pants and a shirt.
Not only do these chemicals pollute the air, water, and soil but they’re also retained in the crops as they’re grown. In addition, other chemicals are added to the mix during the manufacturing processes.
Non-organic wool also uses substantial chemicals which may be unhealthy. Organic sheep production includes the following practices: Sheep must be fed 100% organically grown feed (grains) and forage (pastures); use of synthetic hormones, vaccinations, and genetic engineering is prohibited: use of synthetic pesticides (internal, external, and on pastures) is prohibited.
There are two key distinctions in organic livestock management. First is the elimination of “dipping,” a method of controlling external parasites in which sheep are submerged in pools containing organophosphate-based parasiticides. Studies have indicated that prolonged exposure to sheep dip pesticides cause changes in the nervous system of humans. (Imagine how the sheep feel about this process!) Moreover, disposal and “runoff” of dips can contaminate ground water supplies.
Secondly, in order to maintain their certification organic livestock producers can not exceed the natural carrying capacity of the land, thus preventing the devastating effects of overgrazing.
Beyond Organic Cotton and Wool
Aside from organic cotton and wool, two particular eco-friendly textiles that are gaining in popularity are hemp and bamboo. These are called eco-friendly because they grow fast and are naturally pest resistant so they don’t require pesticides and other harmful chemicals. They also can easily be grown organically.
Hemp and bamboo each have various advantages over cotton. They both require much less water to grow. They are both claimed to be anti-bacterial and, unlike cotton, can both be grown on the same land for decades without depleting the soil if properly managed.
Bamboo also has the advantage that it doesn’t need to be replanted. When it is harvested it is cut near the ground but the stalks remain and grow new plants. Therefore, it has a lower carbon footprint by not creating engine exhaust for planting.
At the processing stage, hemp and bamboo can be environmentally problematic, with harmful chemicals used. Alternatively, they can be processed in an eco-friendly manner, although hemp and bamboo are often not certified organic because of the costs involved in doing so. However, this will change as more people demand organic certification.
Not Just the Growing
Aside from farming, harmful chemicals may be introduced at all stages between farm and garment, including fiber processing (breaking the plant down into a fiber), yarn spinning, yarn dying, fabric manufacturing, garment manufacturing, garment dying, and screen printing.
In addition to the harmful effects to the air, water, and soil, we should remember the workers who may also be affected by the toxic chemicals used in the growing and processing of these fibers.
Whew! That’s the quick summary of the environmental
aspects of textiles used for clothing, bedding including sheets, blankets, and pillowcases, and towels. What about the personal health
aspects? How do we know chemicals are being retained in the fiber and fabrics used to make these products and what happens to them?
Tests can be and have been performed to detect the chemical residues in textiles. The International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile Ecology, based in Switzerland, has a certification for organic textiles that meet their criteria. The certification is called “Confidence in Textiles. Tested for Harmful Substances according to Oeko-Tex Standard 100.” The list of criteria contains over 100 test parameters to assure that the textiles do not contain chemicals that are harmful to health.
Your skin is the largest organ in your body. It absorbs. Whatever it absorbs can get into your bloodstream and internal organs. So, are the chemicals retained in textiles really absorbed through the skin?
In the U.S., dyes containing benzidine, a substance that is easily absorbed through the skin, are no longer used because they are highly carcinogenic. However, clothing imported from other countries, which is a large percentage of clothing, may contain these dyes.
Synthetic clothing such as acrylic, nylon, polyester and vinyl, contain plastics and formaldehyde. Any fabric label that reads permanent press, no iron, crease-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, shrink-proof, or stretch-proof, most likely means that fabric contains formaldehyde.
If you use poly-cotton bed sheets or wrinkle-resistant sheets then you're probably exposing yourself to formaldehyde all night long. Formaldehyde resin in these fabrics can cause fumes which can cause cancer, respiratory problems, allergies, asthma, cough, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, restless sleep, skin rash, and several other illnesses. Stain-repellent clothing can contain carcinogenic PFCs.
Your mattress may contain PBDEs, chemicals widely used as flame retardants which are known to cause cancer and are suspected of disrupting hormones. Your mattress may also contain PFCs, known carcinogens, in order to make the mattress stain-resistant.
Think of all the hours of every day your skin is rubbing against these fabrics and possible fumes are released into the air you're inhaling.
Therefore, it is up to the concerned consumer to inquire about the entire process from farm to finished good, or be confident that the retailer has evaluated their suppliers, to be sure that the finished goods are healthy to both planet and people.
Protect the Kids
What are people doing to avoid these toxic exposures to their health and our environment? There’s a very common progression many people are taking as their consciousness increases on these issues and they shift to eating organic food. The progression is to also shift their purchases to organic and eco-friendly clothing, bedding, and towels.
If the household has children and babies, this often takes the form of first shifting to baby clothes, bedding and towels, then shift to the older children’s textiles, then to the adults. Babies have the weakest immune systems. They are the most sensitive to external toxins.
Another group of people highly sensitive to environmental toxins are those with chemical sensitivities, multiple chemical sensitivities, allergies, and asthma. Unfortunately, these groups are growing at faster rates than in previous times.
How can we be assured of “healthy textiles” through the entire process? Organic textiles are commonly made from organic cotton and organic wool. However, the USDA organic certification only applies to the farming part of the process.
As a result, a standard has been developed jointly by organic associations in the U.S., European Union, U.K., and Japan called the GOTS, Global Organic Textile Standard. This standard includes organic certification for the farming, processing, and dying of textiles as well as social responsibility standards for each of these steps.
Even though purchases of organic and eco-friendly textiles are rapidly growing, this sector still represents a very small percentage of the worldwide industries. That leaves plenty of room for change.
There is nothing more important for individual health, which is largely derived from the health of our environment, than the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. For without these in a pure, healthy form, life itself would not exist.
The corporate world in the past had enforced, and still tries to enforce, a principle of “it’s okay unless proven harmful.” An environmental principle that is slowly gaining ground reframes this position to essentially say, “Unless we know for sure a process isn’t harmful why would we tolerate something that logic and experience tells us could be detrimental to personal health and that of our planet?” This is called the Precautionary Principle which in its simplest incarnation says, “Why take a chance?”
Ed Mass is President and Founder of Yes Itís Organic
(www.YesItsOrganic.com), an online store for Organic, Fair Labor, and Eco Friendly goods including adult to baby clothing, bedding, towels, mattresses, sustainable furniture, organic logo wear and promotional products for organizations wanting to improve their environmental footprint, and more. After being an environmentalist for over 40 years, including designing solar energy systems in the 1970s, he decided to participate more directly in growing the organic, fair labor and eco friendly industries by educating consumers and influencing their buying habits.