Why Does My Shirt Have to Be Organic If I’m Not Going to Eat It?

TBH, I prefer organic cotton because it just feels morally better. And it assuages much of my fashion consumption guilt. I just don’t like the organic price tag. I’ve been trained to wait for tees and jeans to get marked down to $10 to $20 or less.

Organic food is more money, but it’s food I’m ingesting and feeding to my children. I’m not eating my clothes – organic or otherwise. And my inorganic chicken-nuggeting-eating kids don’t break out in rashes or have sensitive skin. 

So I wondered what’s the benefit of organic cotton or organic clothing? Organic clothing is more money “because it’s organic” – but what does that mean?

Trying to be a more informed consumer, I decided to dig in. 

What is organic clothing? What does it mean if clothes are organic?

Organic clothing is made with natural fibers grown or raised without chemicals, persistent pesticides, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and pollutants during farming.

Organic clothing gives consumers confidence that their garments have not been in prolonged contact with harmful elements and generally provides safer working conditions for farmers and other workers in the supply chain.

What is organic clothing made of? 

Organic fiber includes cotton, wool, hemp, flax (linen), and other natural fibers grown according to national organic standards. They must be made without toxic and persistent pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetic engineering.

Is organic fabric better? 

Organic fabrics are made without harmful chemicals and persistent pesticides during farming, which can improve the environment, working conditions of farmers and manufacturers, and ultimately the consumer end product.

There is conflicting data in reports, with some estimating that global cotton crops account for nearly 20% of all pesticides and insecticides used. Forbes notes it’s hard to substantiate any hard set of figures because we need more data, but we do know that conventional cotton is a dirty crop that’s hard on the earth.

Limiting the number of chemicals and potentially harmful chemicals on fabrics reduces the amount that inadvertently comes into contact with our skin.

Is organic cotton really organic? 

Brands can use organic cotton, but the critical distinction is that it is certified. The certified organic cotton ensures the brand has maintained clean standards during all parts of the supply chain process, from seed to finished garment.

The world leading organic textile certification is the Global Organic Textile Standard or GOTS certification (more on them later). For a ‘made with organic’ GOTS label, materials must have a minimum of 70% certified organic fibers. For GOTS label grade ‘organic,’ a minimum of 95% of materials must be certified organic fiber.

How can you tell if cotton is organic? 

The best way to tell is by checking for certification on labels. Brands should distinguish between garments that are organic and conventional cotton. Many organic cotton companies comply with two well-known certifications: GOTS and Oeko-Tex.

GOTS certification is a world-leading, comprehensive standard that makes a ‘full product claim’ that sets detailed environmental and social criteria throughout the textile supply chain.  

Oeko-Tex ensures that the completed product, including dyes, linings, threads, buttons, and other accessories, is free of harmful chemicals and safe for human use.

Many brands that utilize organic materials will have both GOTS and Oeko-Tex certification for added consumer confidence in the brand and garments.

How is organic cotton different from normal cotton?  

Organic cotton is a clean, sustainable crop whereas conventional cotton has been dubbed the world’s dirtiest crop due to its heavy use of pesticides.

Conventional cotton can cause soil erosion, degradation, water contamination, and pollution. Organic cotton is widely touted as a better environmental option due to the non-GMO seeds, and reduced water needs. There is also a strict list of forbidden chemicals for organic crops, which gives consumers peace of mind in knowing what they are wearing. Organic cotton farmers also build soil health and support on-farm biodiversity.

Many consumers say they can also feel the difference between organic and non-organic cotton. Since organic cotton is handpicked versus machine-picked, fibers are not compromised in the process, which leads to longer fibers that create a softer and more durable garment.

Personally, I don’t feel a difference between organic vs non-organic. I have noticed that organic fabric is often thicker, higher-quality material from an upscale brand whereas more commercial brands use less expensive materials including conventional cotton. Side by side, it is possible I could distinguish a difference. 

Does organic cotton shrink? 

Yes, it can! Since organic cotton is not chemically treated, it may shrink. Some brands will cut their garments a little longer to account for shrinkage. Always follow the product care instructions on the garment to ensure minimal shrinkage and garment longevity. 

Is organic cotton better for your skin? 

It can be! Many people with skin sensitivities, like eczema, find that organic cotton is better for their skin. The longer fibers create a softer fabric that can be soothing to irritated skin. Since babies have especially delicate skin, organic cotton is often a preferred option.

Non-organic clothing can also saturated clothing in formaldehyde, which is enough reason for many consumers to consider a switch. 

Is organic cotton more comfortable? 

Many people state that it is hard to go back once you start wearing organic cotton. They note that organic cotton has a certain feel and suppleness, unlike conventional (non-organic) cotton garments. 

Why is organic cotton not the standard? 

It all comes down to money. Organic cotton is more expensive to produce, and the number of conventional cotton farms outweighs the number of organic ones. Less than 1% of cotton grown globally is organic. Since organic cotton is grown without persistent pesticides, GMOs, and other harmful chemicals, this can lead to lower crop yields. 

Why is organic clothing more expensive? 

Organic farming costs more to produce than conventionally farmed fields and crops. Non-GMO seeds are typically higher in price, and organic cotton is more labor intensive due to hand-picking and the restrictions on pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers. With less yield per crop and more manpower needed, it is more expensive to grow and manufacture. Organic textiles also consider the factories that produce their garments; usually, more attention is given to how the factories treat and pay their workers.

How ethical is organic cotton? Is organic cotton production ethical? 

Organic cotton is typically more ethical than traditional cotton, but not always. As with any farm, manufacturer, or factory, non-ethical situations can arise.  

Some progressive brands offer full transparency on their factories: how they pay their farmers, workers, and more. Researching a company can determine if you feel the company is ethical. It is always an option to email their customer service and ask questions regarding their practices to ensure they align with your personal beliefs.

Is organic cotton environmentally friendly? 

Organic cotton is working hard to ensure they are as environmentally friendly as possible, but as with any farming practice, there are environmental impacts.

According to the WWF, organic cotton needs 243 liters of water to make just one t-shirt, and conventional cotton needs a staggering 2,700 liters to do the same job.

Other studies indicate that it’s organic cotton requires more water to produce. There’s a lot of conflicting data. More water or less, organic cotton is still a very water hungry crop and it’s produced in hotter climates like India, Uzbekistan, and China where there are major water shortages. Diverting water away from local water-needy populations in order to produce another T-shirt is not a sustainable look.

Conventional cotton is the 3rd most prominent user of pesticides in the United States, using over 68 million pounds of pesticides. Commonly used fertilizers, like Roundup, are known to have harmful impacts on the environment (and farmers) and are classified as probable carcinogens by the World Health Organization. Organic cotton eliminates many of these chemicals and can be better and healthier for the environment and the entire manufacturing process, from farmer to consumer. 

What are the best organic kids’ brands? 

Luckily, there are some fantastic organic kids’ brands on the market. Some great options that I have personally reviewed or bought for my kids are:

What are some affordable organic kids’ brands? 

Shopping for kids’ organic clothing does not have to break the bank. Of course, there are some high-end baby and children’s organic brands, but not all of them are. Many kids’ clothing companies are parent-owned and committed to affordability.

Burt’s Bees is an affordable and attainable organic baby brand. They are available at various large retailers, with a name that has been around since the 1980s. Many people know and trust the brand.

Carter’s, one of the most well-known baby brands, has come out with an organic line called Little Planet. With a great price point and brand name many people know, it’s a great entry point to start when buying organic kids’ clothing.

Q by Quincy Mae is sold exclusively at Target with the same brand standards as Quincy Mae (a higher-end brand). Being sold at Target gives the brand tremendous exposure with the quality and details expected from Quincy Mae pieces. 

Kate Quinn is another excellent option because their items are usually permanently on sale at 50% off or better.

It is also important to remember that there are always ways to save on higher-end brands by signing up for their newsletters, keeping an eye on their social media, and buying secondhand. You can utilize online buy/sell/trade marketplaces and apps like Mercari or Poshmark to find higher-quality clothing and reduce the number of clothes in the landfill. There is a massive trend in reusing and reducing an individual’s fashion ecological footprint. Plus, a higher quality piece will often last longer, so the extra money may be worth it.

Final Thoughts

So even thought I’m not going to eat my clothing, the clothing I consume still has a major impact on the environment and the people who produce it.

Buying organic can be a great choice when thinking of the bigger picture. There is excellent, emerging data to show how organic practices are more sustainable for the environment and better for factory workers and farmers.

But it’s important to consider that we really do have too much clothing in circulation, organic cotton or otherwise, and its having a major toll on the environment. Even when we donate our unwanted clothing, there’s far too much donated apparel in circulation and it has major environmental consequences.

There’s no easy solution. But if I were comparing two used cotton T-shirts side by side, and one was conventional cotton and one was organic, I think I would lean into the greener option.

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