Within the textile industry, pollution is known to be an issue, because textile production involves a number of processes that may use pesticides and chemicals. However, one of this year’s hottest fashion trends is going “green”. Organic shirts and pants can be found in mainstream retail stores. Design companies are using organic cotton for their latest runway shows. In May 2007, Vogue magazine devoted an issue to the so-called “eco-chic”. But how does one make sure that what is labeled “organic” in fact is organic and what are the standards to be met by manufacturers of clothing and fashion?

In the United States, all fibers sold as organic must meet the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rule for crop production to be identified as organic in a finished product (www.ams.usda.gov). However, while cotton production is covered by NOP standards, fiber processing is not. Therefore, products that use organic fibers in their manufacture may only be labeled as a “made with..” product, such as “made with organic cotton”. Experts criticize that the regulations stop short since a cotton shirt can be made from 100% certified organic cotton even though the cotton fabric might be full of chemical finishes. By contrast, food is certified all the way through.

Internationally, there exist numerous different standards for the production of organic textiles that cause confusion with producers and consumers and are considered by some as an obstacle to free international trade. In a recent attempt to eliminate the patchwork of organic standards, the International Association Natural Textile Industry has published “Global Organic Textile Standards” in order to “define world-wide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to end consumers” (www.global-standard.org). The key criteria are label systems regarding organic fibers required in plain fabric, basic requirements on toxicity and biodegradability of chemicals used, and compulsory social criteria regarding manufacturing sites.

The Organic Trade Association of the United States (OTA), a membership-based business association that focuses on the organic business community in North America, has already signed the agreement to adopt the Global Organic Textile Standards. According to the OTA, the production of organic cotton increased 76% between 2005 and 2006, which trend is likely to continue as more people want to buy products that support a healthy lifestyle that is good for the earth.