When we think about pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides, we often imagine their use in the food industry, primarily with crops. Another key area where these chemicals are heavily used is the textile industry. Clothing, bath towels, bed sheets, and even mattresses can contain harmful chemicals and pesticide residues that can accumulate in our bodies through our skin. It is tough to discern between harmful fabrics and safe fabrics as there is usually no immediate symptom of chemical/pesticide exposure from standard fabrics. Like with produce, however, we can assume that any conventional fabric contains some level of harmful substance, be it GMO cotton, synthetic materials, chemicals, harsh dyes, or pesticide/insecticide residues.
Cotton, one of the most popular fabrics on earth, is also one of the most heavily sprayed crops. Billions of dollars are spent annually on chemicals for cotton, accounting for more than 20% of insecticides used. These chemicals are harmful to soil organisms, wildlife, aquatic life, and humans, as many are known carcinogens.
Chemical dyes, bleach and formaldehyde used in clothing production are harmful if inhaled and have been shown to disrupt hormones and cause skin irritation, cancer, and allergic reactions in some people. Formaldehyde alone, a common chemical found in bra fabrics, has been linked to certain types of cancer. Additionally, the use of these chemicals is highly underregulated, leading to both employee and customer exposure.
Couch cushions, car seats, carpet, and mattresses (among several other things) all contain flame retardants. These chemicals have been shown to have longterm health effects, including cancer and hormone imbalance. They often accumulate in our systems, which is detrimental to our health and the health of our children. Mothers with high levels of flame retardants in their systems had higher levels of infertility, and the children they did bare were prone to developing birth defects.
Chemical byproducts are usually dumped in aquatic systems, leading to pollution and environmental degradation. Many chemicals, pesticides/insecticides, flame retardants, etc. don’t break down in the ecosystem. Instead, they end up accumulating in the soil, organisms, and ultimately in us.
The majority of cotton grown in the U.S. and worldwide is genetically modified. GMO crops in general typically see herbicideresistant pests along with new pests that arise as others disappear. This leads to a increase in the use of herbicides on plants, almost defeating the purpose entirely. Not only that, but GMO cotton itself is harmful enough, as it likely contains the herbicide within its genetic makeup.
When choosing the best type of fabric to clothe your family and yourself with, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Most clothing is composed a mixture of fibers, some synthetic. Synthetic fibers like polyester, acrylic, and nylon are widely used for texture and durability among other things. These fibers are derived from harmful substances, and spun together using a series of chemical processes. These chemicals are harmful to come into contact with and over time, more of them are released as the garment ages.
Even natural fibers like wool aren’t free from the cycle. Sheep often have mites in their wool. Pesticides are used to kill the mites, however, they also create a dangerous environment for the workers and anyone who comes into contact with the wool thereafter, including consumers. On a similar note, sheep are often treated with substances that increase wool output. This leads byproducts and pollution of nearby water sources and soil.
Don’t be fooled by fabrics like “modal” and “tencel” that claim to be made from wood pulp. These fibers are highly processed with harsh chemicals to produce their soft texture.
Bamboo can be a wonderful fabric because it grows quickly with very little space and water required, and often doesn’t necessitate the use of pesticides. It is also naturally antibacterial, hypoallergenic, and durable, getting softer with age. Like modal and tencel, however, it does require chemicals to produce a desirable texture, making it very difficult to be GOTS Certified. (see below for GOTS description).
Hemp is another great fabric because, like bamboo, it resists pests (and thus the use of pesticides), and grows quickly. It is also hypoallergenic and durable with natural UV protection. Unlike bamboo, it doesn’t require the multitude of chemicals to get it to a desirable texture, and it becomes softer with use.
Organic fabrics are definitely the way to go, but like anything, not all organic fabric is created equal:
Organically grown cotton is not GMO, nor is it treated with herbicides/insecticides. This alone greatly reduces its environmental impact and health effects on organisms throughout the food chain. Unfortunately, organicallygrown cotton and other textile crops aren’t without their downsides. Chemicals are often used when processing the fabric, including dyes and bleach found in conventional methods. The fabric may start out organic, but by the end, it resembles any other piece of cotton.
Look for GOTS Certified fabric. GOTS is the Global Organic Textile Standard. It means that fabrics under this standard have been inspected through the entire process, from the initial growing stage of the crop, to the packaging stage of the finished product. It raises the bar of organic fabrics, ensuring that the majority of the fabric used is certified organic, and that any chemical used in the production process passes very strict environmental and toxicological guidelines. Byproducts are regulated instead of disregarded, and environmental impact is taken into account.
Animals are treated humanely without the use of artificial treatments that enhance wool production.
No GMO textiles are used, and dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde, flame retardants, and carcinogenic dyes are prohibited. Even materials used in packaging and tagging are strictly regulated.
The work environment of employees is also highly regulated, including their wages and basic rights (this might seem like a given, but many clothing companies mistreat their employees through inequality/discrimination, chemical exposure, poor wages, long hours and nonexistent age limits).
This website outlines the GOTS Certification process and how to get certified while providing resources for locating GOTS Certified companies. This website is a little tricky to navigate, but there are other helpful websites that can guide you through reliable companies to choose from. Like with anything, it is always a good idea to read about the company or contact them directly if you are unsure whether or not they’re certified. Many times, if a company is GOTS Certified, they’ll mention it in the “About” page, or at the bottom of the home page.
Other important textile certifications you may find on company websites:
Organic/Textile Exchange (Examines the integrity of the fabric, and tracks many aspects of organic fabrics)
Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and restriction of Chemicals (Examines chemical use and safety with regards to human and environmental exposure)
Organic Eco Textiles (Examines textiles through the entire handling process, texting for harmful substances)
Soil Association (Examines and regulates toxic chemicals and pesticides, complying with GOTS certifications)
Ethical and Environmental Certification Institute (A corporation that embodies the GOTS standards, working to certify companies under these standards)
Global Organic Latex Standard (This standard pertains to latex specifically, ensuring the safety of humans and environment throughout the processing aspect of the product)
My favorite GOT Certified companies are:
PACT Apparel (Socks, Intimates, Apparel)
Silverstick (Hoodies, Sweats, TShirts)
Gaim (Yoga, Bed, Bath, Home, Apparel)
Rapanui (TShits, Hoodies, Socks)
Bleed (Tops, Bottoms, Socks, Bags, Jackets, Etc.)
Blue Bird Prints (TShirts, Hoodies, Kid & Baby Apparel)
Maggie’s Organics (Socks, Leggings, Shirts, Dresses, Baby)
Soul Flower (Dresses, Shirts, Pants, Baby, Accessories)
Synergy (Women’s Clothing, Yoga)
Pants to Poverty (Intimates, Tank Tops)
My Heart Beats Green (TShirts, Tops, Kid & Baby Apparel)
BGreen Apparel (Tops, Bottoms, Intimates, Etc.)
Two Birds Apparel (Men’s Apparel)
The Futon Shop (Mattresses, Toppers, Pillows)
West Elm (Bedding, Bath, Home)
Plover Organic (Baby & Adult Bedding)
Pure Rest (Baby Bedding)
Loop (Bedding, Sheets, Blankets)
Coyuchi (Bedding, Bath, Baby, Home)
Nana’s Fine Baby (Baby Apparel, Toys, Maternity, Etc.)
Levana Naturals (Baby & Kid Apparel)
Friendly Tip: One company that stands out from the crowd is Stanley & Stella. This company has raised the bar on organic clothing, obtaining most of the above certifications. Their company procedures are explained, making them completely transparent to the consumer. Additionally, they provide a wide range of appealing styles and colors, though they only sell to businesses. I did happen to find a UK based store that sells their products and EarthPositive, another admirable company, for much cheaper than I’ve seen anywhere on the web.