Do you know what you're getting when you pick a product off the shelf labelled 'organic' or 'fairly traded'? Unlike food, for fibres the term ‘organic’ is not regulated (outside of the United States). This can be misleading for consumers as textile products may be falsely labelled as ‘organic’ by unscrupulous companies attempting to greenwash their operations. This is where the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is so important. Uniquely, organic certification to the GOTS standard ensures strict environmental and social criteria are met in the processing, manufacture and labelling of textiles (e.g. organic bedding and clothes) from certified organic fibres. Recognised worldwide, always look for the GOTS label to give you complete peace of mind that what you’re buying is truly organic, and sustainably and ethically made from field to finished product.
In the United States the term ‘organic’ on textiles is protected by the government through their Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (USDA’s NOP). However, since USDA’s NOP standards are more relevant for crops and livestock for raw materials, rather than the various steps involved in textile processing, GOTS labelling is recognised for organic textiles in the US. This underlines GOTS truly global status as the gold standard for sustainable and ethical textile processing of organic fibres.
Organic Guarantee and Traceability through GOTS Labelling
Figure 1. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). GOTS is recognized as the gold standard worldwide for certification of textile processing of organic fibres right across the supply chain from harvesting of raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, right up to labelling of the final product. Rigorous on-site inspections are carried out by an independent certifier (Soil Association in the UK).
For a textile product to be certified organic to the GOTS standard it is first obligatory that the initial organic fibre producers (i.e. farmers) be certified to a nationally or internationally recognised organic farming standard that is accepted in the country where the final product will be sold. Organic farming practices mean that no toxic chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilisers are used, no genetically modified (GM) seed is allowed, and far less water is needed - a staggeringly 91% less - for organic cotton farming compared to non-organic (source: Textile Exchange). GOTS certification ensures that the organic fibres and subsequent textiles be kept completely separate from non-organic ones and must be clearly identified throughout the manufacturing process. Furthermore, adherence to the GOTS standard involves strict ecological and social criteria, backed by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain - in the UK the GOTS standard is certified by the Soil Association (figure 1). This involves on-site inspection (and residue testing) for processors, manufacturers and retailers. All operators must acquire a valid GOTS certificate with regard to the production or trade of the textiles to be certified. The Organic Content Standard can also be used to verify the organic content of textiles, however, unlike GOTS, it does not address textile processing (including chemical inputs) or the social or environmental criteria that are at the heart of the GOTS standard.
GOTS on-product labelling consists of GOTS and certifier logos and importantly the GOTS license number. This can be used to check and trace the company on the GOTS public database (figure 2). This gives complete peace of mind to the consumer that the products are organically sourced and have been processed and manufactured to the highest social and environmental standards.
Figure 2. Organic Traceability through GOTS labelling. Each GOTS certified textile product contains the GOTS logo together with the certifier (Soil Association in the UK) and GOTS license number that can be used to verify the organic status on the GOTS public database.
GOTS Environmental Criteria
Amazingly, it is standard practice in conventional textile processing to use chemicals that are proven to be harmful to human health, some of which are known carcinogens! Such chemical inputs are strictly prohibited by the GOTS standard. The following lists some of the key compulsory GOTS environmental criteria (figure 3) with regard to processing of organic fibres. Further details can be found on the GOTS website.
Figure 3. GOTS Environmental Criteria. All criteria are compulsory and include a list of prohibited chemical inputs, strict control of waste-water treatment and limits on water and energy consumption.
- It is prohibited to use carcinogenic Azo dyes, fixatives such as formaldehyde, toxic heavy metals, nano-particles, aromatic solvents, genetically modified (GM) organisms and their enzymes. It should be noted that no such restrictions apply to conventional (i.e. non-organic) processing of textiles and indeed their use is standard practice.
- All chemical inputs (e.g. dyes and process chemicals) must be evaluated (typically through laboratory testing) and must satisfy specific requirements on both toxicity and biodegradability.
- Stringent limits are required for unwanted residues in raw materials, intermediates, accessories and final products.
- All manufacturers must have in place a detailed environmental policy that addresses target goals and procedures to minimise waste and discharge.
- Full records must be kept of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment (which must be treated in a functional waste water treatment plant).
- Use of PVC is forbidden in product packaging. Cardboard used in packaging or product tags must be recycled or FSC- or PEFC-certified.
- Technical quality criteria of finished textiles must be satisfied such as perspiration, light and washing fastness and shrinkage parameters.
- No chlorine based bleaching is allowed – bleaches must be based on oxygen.
GOTS Social Criteria
Sadly, child labour, forced labour and unsafe and often inhumane working conditions are all too common in the supply chain operations that lead to the finished textile products we use in our homes every day – our clothes and bedding, for example. This is why GOTS insists on specific social criteria (figure 4) that must be met by all processors and manufacturers and are defined in accordance with the norms of the International Labour Organisation. A social compliance management system is required to be in place to ensure that all criteria are met. Some of the key criteria include:
- Child labour is prohibited
- Employment is to be freely chosen – no forced labour
- No discrimination is permitted and harsh or inhumane treatment is prohibited
- Working conditions must be safe and hygienic
- Regular employment is to be provided and working hours are not to be excessive
- There is to be freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
Figure 4. GOTS Social Criteria. Compulsory criteria include no child or forced labour, safe working conditions, and no discrimination in the workplace.
GOTS and Fairtrade
At the beginning of the global textile supply chain are typically farmers in developing countries working under conditions of great hardship and often exploitation. Fairtrade certification of textiles ensures payment of the ‘Fairtrade minimum price’ to such farmers. This guarantees that farmers receive, at the very least, a price which covers what it costs them to grow their crop. If a product is also GOTS certified then a higher Fairtrade minimum price is secured for the farmer. In addition to the Fairtrade minimum price, the Fairtrade Premium is a separate payment which is collected into a communal fund for farmers and workers to decide how to best use to improve their local social, economic and environmental conditions. The Fairtrade textile standard also requires the implementation of living wages for farmers and factory workers. A living wage is defined by the Global Living Wage Coalition as ‘remuneration received for a standard work week by a worker in a particular place sufficient to afford a decent standard of living for the worker and her or his family. Elements of a decent standard of living include food, water, housing, education, health care, transport, clothing, and other essential needs, including provision for unexpected events’. Hence the ideal for sustainable and ethically sourced, manufactured and traded textiles is both GOTS and Fairtrade certification.
As consumers our actions directly shape the world we live in. We can further contribute to the already rampant inequality and social and environmental degradation by opting for ‘conventionally’ sourced products, or we can choose genuinely sustainable and ethically sourced products (through GOTS and Fairtrade certification) and in so doing help make the world a better place for ourselves and for the generations to come.
Dr Chris Murphy, Sleep Organic