A couple of years ago organic clothing began to appear in stores. It was available before in specialist stores, either up-market boutiques I can't afford to shop in, or hippy-type retailers I wouldn't want to shop in. These days it turns up on the high street, and it's becoming more common. Organic Monitor tips organic fabrics as a trend to watch: "Rising ethical consumerism is fueling demand for organic and fairtrade textiles" they wrote in their top tips for 2009. "New product launches are expected to continue in 2009 as investment comes in from new producers and retailers."
The benefits of organic food are obvious, but what's the deal with organic fabrics?
The ‘organic' label applies to any natural product that has been produced without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or hormones. Organic fabrics are the same - the raw materials have been grown without chemicals. This is better for the environment, and better for people.
Organic fabrics are particularly important, because the main raw material in the garment industry is cotton, and cotton requires immense amounts of chemicals. Less than 3% of agricultural land is planted with cotton, but that 3% consumes 20% of all pesticides used, and 22% of all insecticides. According to the WWF (pdf), of the 46 chemicals commonly used on cotton, five are considered ‘extremely hazardous, eight ‘highly hazardous', and 20 ‘moderately hazardous'. These are often spraying from crop-sprayers, and the drift contaminates nearby wetlands and soil.
Around three quarters of cotton fields are irrigated, and the most common way to irrigate plantations is controlled flooding. Water is re-directed from rivers and lakes and channelled into cotton plantations. (Since cotton grows in a warm climate, and warm climates are often dry, you can see another key problem here.) The fields are flooded and then drained to stimulate new growth. This effectively rinses pesticide residues into local water sources, leading to eutrophication, salinisation, and pollution which in turn harms the wildlife.
It's not great for the local people either. Working in a highly polluted environment, cotton pickers in developing countries suffer from respiratory illnesses, eye infections and skin irritations. Women suffer disproportionately, as cotton picking is often a seasonal job taken for 2-3 months of the year to supplement family income. A health study (pdf) of women cotton pickers in Pakistan found that three quarters of them suffered skin problems some or all of the time.
As if that wasn't enough, loads more chemicals are used in processing the cotton into cloth. A whole series of chemicals are used to soften the fibres, strip them of their waxy texture, and bleach them white. Further chemicals are then used to dye the cotton and fix the dyes - a total of 8,000 different chemicals can go into the making of a t-shirt. Organic cotton has to be chemical-free at this stage as well as in the field, which is why earlier organic cloth was often slightly rougher and a natural off-white colour. More advanced techniques use natural enzymes to process the cotton, although effective dyeing remains more of a challenge.
Despite the harmful effects of cotton farming, it remains a multi-billion dollar industry, and accounts for 48% of all fabrics. Fortunately, organic cotton seems to be meeting the growing demand. The Soil Association reports that organic cotton is grown in 22 different countries, and that there are 25,000 organic cotton farmers in Africa.
Best of all, these farmers are finding it to be a more successful business model, as they are saving money and growing other beneficial crops alongside the cotton. Organic farming alternative techniques include using garlic or chillies to deter pests, luring them off the cotton with an easier meal such as okra, or encouraging black ants that eat the beetles - all methods that are cheaper than getting a loan to buy pesticides.
Organic cotton has some competition as a sustainable and ethical fabric, notably from hemp and bamboo. Both plants grow very fast and can be grown on marginal land, and provide highly versatile fibres, although neither are grown on the scale of cotton.
Whether you go for organic cotton or one of the alternatives, look out for ethical fabrics where you are.