What is True Organic and What is True Sustainability
I am taking a Fashion Textile Survey online course at Parsons. Several of the hot words in our discussions are of course “natural,” “organic,” “eco-friendly,” and “sustainable.” However, the professor is pretty serious about the way we are using these words. He always questions us like “is it true?”
For example, regarding organic, what he says are as below.
Connected with the questions about what is natural, note that even if a fiber is called natural that in no way means organic. The word organic, though in chemistry means made from carbon, in everyday discussions of textiles or food means produced without synthetic pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. I imagine that at this point most of you already know that “conventionally grown” (in other words non-organic) cotton is a huge user of pesticides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers and like me, you are interested in utilizing better systems to make our clothing.
A very good source of information about organic fiber is the Textile Exchange. This is an industry group that also provides some information free: http://textileexchange.org/. Here is a an example from there Resource Center FAQs.
Why should cotton be grown organically? Is it going to be better for me, like organic food?
It is better for you as a global citizen, though the benefits may not be so immediate as with organic food.
In respect to the health of the end user, there are studies that show that chemical residues do remain in garments. There are also studies showing that people with hyper-sensitivity to chemicals are less likely to suffer from related health problems if clothing, bedding and other textiles are made from organic fibers (and manufactured without the use of synthetic dyes, etc). It is usually a preference for organic cotton that motivates people to choose organic. Market studies reveal that parents opt for organic cotton products for their babies both for the safety and as an expression of larger global concerns.
Growing cotton organically is going to benefit the grower. Because organic agriculture does not permit the use of toxic and persistent chemicals there are fewer occupational health hazards for farmers and risk of accidental poisoning of family members. There is likely to be an increase of farmers’ income due to organic price premiums and reduced input costs.
These days, environmental and social impacts are as important as quality of product. This recognition is considered good business, and good for business. Further, consumer choice is moving beyond immediate gratification to an act of conscious, responsible choice, and so it is with fiber as well as food.
He also mentions that there are environmental advantages to using synthetic fiber because unlike natural fibers, synthetic fiber generally does not loose strength when recycled. An example is the National Geographic video of polyester being recycled from plastic bottles.
I used to think that cotton and wool were natural, sustainable and environmentally friendly fibers with superb attributes, therefore people should evaluate and consider them more as raw materials of the daily wear. However, my view were changed after I checked the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI).
The Higg Index was created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition formed in 2011 to support the eco-friendly movement. This index measures the environmental and social performance of apparel and footwear products, including everything from carbon emissions and chemical usage to conditions in factories. It aims to help companies improve long-term sustainability in the industry, and informs shoppers about their purchases.
The index is a comparatively new tool that provides a common language about material sustainability. It not only gathers the data from the industry, but also processes and assesses those data, and provides a comparable index. For example, in the category of raw materials, cotton sores an MSI 54.9 (which means the impact from 1kg of a material, thus the lower the better), out of which 40 accounts for Water Scarcity. Take wool for another example. It scores 48.0, and the biggest portion 22.1 comes from Eutrophication. Compared to those two materials, polyester only scores 12.1, and acrylic 18.6.
When considering sustainability, we tend to focus on chemistry and global warming, but this Higg Index inclusively take into account more aspects that have impact on our environment. How we should define and consider sustainability, just as how we should define organic, is very thought-provoking.
 Elaine Stone, The Dynamics of Fashion, (New York: Fairchild Books, 2013) , 42.