The growing world of organic textiles can sometimes feel like the wild west of certification. What do all those logos mean, and how do you know which ones are trustworthy? There are seemingly endless companies offering certification, thousands of retailers selling organic product and a labyrinth of information for consumers to sort through. It can be difficult to know what is greenwashing and what is responsible sustainable production.
The need to consolidate organic textile certification into a globally recognized criteria was identified in 2002 at Intercot, a textile industry conference. Following that meeting, four founding groups (International Association of Natural Textile Industry, Organic Trade Association, Soil Association and Japan Organic Cotton Association) worked together to establish the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Their aim is to “define world-wide recognized requirements that ensure the organic status of textiles, from the harvesting of raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing to the labeling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.”
Combining their shared knowledge, the groups established a global standard for processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, trading and distributing textiles using organic fibers. This universal criteria is considered to be the toughest in the industry—it’s definitely one of the most thorough we’ve seen—and now certifies approximately 3,000 manufacturers around the world.
GOTS certification focuses on the processing of textiles after they arrive at the manufacturer. Although fiber cultivation is not covered by GOTS, raw materials must be certified organic by an industry recognized group (ie USDA) in order to be considered.
To qualify for GOTS certification, a company complies with a 40-page document that lists all the criteria required to gain approval. These requirements cover material processing, packaging, transportation, waste treatment, as well as social and environmental impact. Certification extends to ensure that the raw GOTS certified materials are stored separately from non-certified materials, and must remain so at all stages of the supply chain. An annual on-site inspection is mandatory for maintaining status, and may include surprise visits. (We told you it was thorough!)
In general, hazardous chemicals are banned, along with any methods or products that threaten the health of either animals, plants, forests or people. Products must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic materials for any product labeled “organic,” and 70% certified organic materials for any product labeled “made with organic…” The remaining material must be sourced from natural fibers (except conventional angora) or cellulose base (viscose, modal, lyocell, acetate) and be non-GMO. Any forest-sourced goods must also come from a certified sustainable forest management program (such as FSC). In addition, all manufacturers have to comply with local environmental requirements for emissions, wastewater, fair labor and environmental standards along with the GOTS requirements.
Once a supplier decides to apply for GOTS, they must do so with one of 17 independent and approved certification bodies. These bodies (including well known groups such as EcoCert) uphold and administer the GOTS standards, including certification and inspection. The body to which they apply depends on country of origin and the type of certification sought out.
Reputable groups such as GOTS, with its broad network and universal standards, provide a higher level of assurance for companies seeking sustainably sound alternatives, like us. We learned a lot more about the GOTS certification process after speaking with two new companies we started to carry. Sarah Popelier Head of Communications at Libeco, and Eileen Mockus, CEO of Coyuchi, share their insights here.
Libeco: As a company, we wanted to set an example as a sustainable leader. At about the same time that we started the process of diminishing our carbon footprint (our Belgian mill is carbon neutral since January 2014), we were introduced to a group of French farmers who grew organic linen. We were very interested that this way of cultivating linen still existed, and we wanted to work with them on a collection that would be a viable option in sustainability. To make the venture truly credible, we wanted to certify the products and we learned about GOTS during the process. Every year there is an extensive audit for the entire production cycle, during which all efforts are checked and approved. Only once every aspect is taken care of can our company renew its certification. The GOTS program evolves so we have to keep evolving, too—it keeps us up to speed and on our toes.
Coyuchi: Coyuchi has been working with GOTS certified manufacturers since the GOTS standard itself was introduced several years ago. We became certified in 2012 so we could improve the integrity of our supply chain. GOTS provides a processing standard for all the steps in the production of a product using organic cotton. All the dyestuffs and finishes are also evaluated by GOTS and only those that are deemed low-impact and non-toxic are allowed. Textile processing can involve a large amount of harmful inputs, which is inconsistent with using organic cotton; the GOTS requirements provide a safer way to manufacture organic cotton home textiles.
How did your decision impact your suppliers?
Libeco: None of our suppliers except for the people who cultivated the flax had a GOTS certification before we decided to start the Libeco organic collection, so we offered as much support and information as possible. For the most part, EcoCert guides these companies through the process, but it’s still an intense and elaborate process. In our case, the farmers, the scutchers [those who separate the fibers], the spinners and finishers had to become GOTS certified as well. Literally all parts of the production process are certified separately and GOTS audits every company every year.
In our case, we’ve always had very close contacts with the entire supply chain, which is located entirely in Western Europe. This is indispensable when working with a natural product. So when we decided to partner up with EcoCert, it didn’t take us long to convince the other parties in our supply chain to get certified. This is something that can be rather difficult for other companies.
Coyuchi: We have a few vendors who achieved certification at our request, and other vendors who were already certified. Coyuchi visits our suppliers 1-2 times per year, and we work with an agency to monitor our Indian manufacturers for all aspects of production and quality. For a supplier with good processes and record keeping, the certification is straightforward and understandable. Of course it requires monitoring and follow-up, but with appropriate inspections, record keeping and an open dialog, we trust the process.
How have your customers and peers responded?
Libeco: We have noticed an increase in awareness with a certain group of consumers but we don’t believe a customer will demand certification before buying a sustainable product—at least not yet. We do see that having a credible certification increases trust with the consumer—and with reason. There are a lot of ‘green’ or ‘ecological’ products on the market, but how can a consumer know if, in fact, the product is sustainable? A uniform certification is a great help for consumers.
On the other side, as a company, we see that the certification options are multiplying as well. A lot of these certifications aren’t very strict and don’t demand as rigorous an approach as GOTS. So it’s important for companies to choose the right certification, not the easiest. It’s also important to talk about the different certifications so consumers can know how to tell them apart and what each means.
Coyuchi: Our customer wants organic cotton, processed safely without toxic chemicals or finishes, and the GOTS certification is a way to provide them with that assurance. We participate in events and meetings with GOTS, Textile Exchange, Fair Trade USA and other gatherings to work collaboratively with other brands on shared initiatives. There is a great community of companies that are actively working together to improve the textile industry.
All images courtesy and copyright Libeco.
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