As readers of our journal, many of you have read about our attempts to grow organic cotton here in Alabama. While researching the process and details of what it means to grow organic cotton, we discovered, to our surprise, that only a small amount of the world’s organic cotton is grown in the United States. We are part of an effort to change that, as are other companies, like Zkano. We must ask the questions – What makes cotton organic? Who makes the rules? And who regulates the whole system?
A food or agricultural product can be labeled as organic, meaning that it was inspected and met the USDA’s established regulations for organic products. Organic products cannot be grown using chemical fertilizers or any type of genetic engineering, among other criteria. The National Organic Program (NOP) oversees all organic crops, including raw cotton fibers. While food crops and products must meet very rigid requirements to be labeled as organic, the same does not hold true for fibers or the products made with those fibers. While the NOP makes rules and manages the process of certifying cotton fiber as organic, it doesn’t make any rules about what happens to the fiber after it has been harvested.
As you know, the words “natural”, “organic”, “eco-friendly”, or “green” are seen on products so often that they’ve begun to have no real meaning in the marketplace. Producers and consumers began to ask for more oversight on what can be certified as organic – beyond what was established through the USDA and NOP. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was created for this reason. It sets criteria for how fibers and textiles must be ginned, knitted, woven, dyed, or manufactured and labeled. GOTS rules take effect when harvesting begins. All fiber used in GOTS-certified products must be first certified as organic by the NOP. They have created a worldwide processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. Their guidelines are voluntary; you can still sell a textile and label it as “organic” if you don’t adhere to their rules. But their criteria are considered to be the industry standard by the US government and manufacturing leaders.
The Global Organic Textile Standard has regulations that cover manufacturing and production, but they have also established social provisions barring child labor, requiring living wages be paid to employees, and ensuring safe water treatment practices. The GOTS database lists about 2000 companies and 900 facilities across the world that are certified by their organic textile and apparel standards. This database makes it easier for companies like ours to find processing and manufacturing facilities that work using the same standards that we embrace.
As far as regulations on textiles are concerned (and on health and beauty products for that matter), there are no laws that govern what can and can’t be labeled as organic once it reaches the shelves. The only mandatory standards are those for agricultural organic certification. However, companies that adhere to the GOTS are meeting the strictest criteria possible when it comes to making your garments and textiles. We believe that what we are putting in and on our bodies should be considered and chosen with care. It’s important to read labels, but some labels aren’t always what they seem to be. Organizations like GOTS allow us to be informed at every level
It may not always be easy to determine which products are organically-made and which are not, but the existence of these global standards is a testament to the power of careful producers and informed consumers. As our demand for organic goods increases, companies will improve their processes and standards. More companies adopt GOTS every day, meaning more truly organic products are being stocked on store shelves. Things are improving and they will keep improving, especially if we continue to demand change. They say that knowledge is power and, in this case, we can all be powerful agents for change.