Organic textiles

Ensuring a more sustainable model for the environment, workers, and consumers.

The current conventional textile production, processing, and business model are highly unsustainable.  Organic textiles are part of the solution as they help protect soils depleted by conventional production, limit harmful emissions during textiles creation and processing, protect fundamental rights of plant workers, and inform consumers about the impact of the garments they buy. In short, the principles of organic – ecology, health, fairness, and care – are at the heart of organically-produced textiles.

Helene Schmutzler
Policy Assistant for GMOs and Organic Textiles

Organic production and demand continue to boom year after year, as consumers become more aware of the current environmental and social crises. In 2018, the global market size of organic cotton crossed USD 37bn, yet organic cotton makes up only 1.1% of the world’s cotton production.

Organic textiles are low-hanging fruit for EU consumers, who are increasingly demanding transparency. Over 80% of EU citizens agree that not enough information is available on the clothes they buy, and stricter rules are necessary.

For the past 20 years, humanity has been producing more and more clothes, with a shorter and shorter life cycle. A considerable proportion of them become waste and are not recycled. Our planet cannot sustain this in the long-term. The current conventional supply chain negatively impacts the environment, especially concerning soil health and GHG emissions; the well-being and health of workers, exposed to chemicals and enduring poor working conditions; and consumers, that are threatened by the prevalence of misleading green claims.

The numbers are concerning. Conventional cotton production uses around 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of the world’s insecticides. It also releases a considerable amount of manufactured nitrogen fertilisers into the environment – approximately 83% of the total. It is also estimated that pesticides poison 77 million textile workers every year.

Organic textiles ban hazardous pesticides, transgenic techniques, and fertilisers. They are produced with respect for the environment and through organic farming.

Worldwide, 21 countries are growing organic cotton, the three main ones are India, China, and Kyrgyzstan. According to the 2021 Organic Cotton Market Report, 249,153 tonnes of organic cotton were produced in 2020, a figure that is in constant growth – the production is expected to expand by 48% in 2021. As the market develops, organic cotton becomes a more attractive option for farmers.

Currently, organic textiles are not regulated at the EU level as agri-food products are. This discourages producers to create organic textiles, creates an opportunity for brands and retailers to make false claims about their products’ sustainable and organic nature.

IFOAM Organics Europe advocates for the protection of organic textiles under a legal framework, such as the textiles regulation. Organic textiles should of course be certified by an accredited and independent certification body.

IFOAM Organics Europe:

  • Advocates for an EU-legislation on organic textiles addressing the disparity of legal regimes between textiles and agri-food products and protecting the credibility of the EU organic label;
  • Recommends including the term ‘organic’ in the EU Textile Regulation (1007/2011), specifying the conditions for using the term in relation to textile products. On this, IFOAM – Organics International recommends that this label relates to the entire production and processing chain, as is the case for certified organic food and drink products;
  • Unites the most relevant actors in organic textiles to create a common position and defend these interests in an organic textile taskforce;
  • Contributes to advocacy activities in the field of textiles, and related topics like consumer protection, a shift to more sustainable products, and the fight against false claims.
organic textiles
Legal framework at the EU level relevant for organic textiles

Legislative background

In the European Union, Regulation (EU) 1007/2011 on fibre names and related labelling and marking of the fibre composition of textile product regulates the way textiles placed on the European market are designed and labelled. Its main provisions are the obligation to state, among others, the full fibre composition of a product, and minimum technical requirements for applications for a new fibre name. This regulation covers all products containing at least 80% textile fibres, including raw, semi-worked, worked, semi-manufactured, semi-made, and made-up products. The EU Strategy for sustainable textiles foresees to reopen this regulation.

The Regulation (EU) 2018/848 on organic production and labelling of organic products establishing a new regulatory framework for organic production explicitly covers cotton and wool (art. 2).

Ongoing processes

The Circular Economy Action Plan, that sprung from the 2019 European Green Deal, identified the textile sector as one to be made more circular. Several initiatives are resulting from this:

  • Sectorial policies,
  • The Sustainable Products Initiative,
  • The Substantiating Green Claims Initiative, and
  • The Empowering Consumers in the Green Transition Initiative.

IFOAM Organics Europe will contribute to the policymaking debate and respond to public consultations.

EU strategy for sustainable textiles

In March 2022, the European Commission published the EU Strategy for sustainable textiles. It aims at acting holistically on production, product design, consumption, traceability, transparency, and end of use. IFOAM Organics Europe would have liked to see mention of organic textiles, given their high degree of coherence with the strategy’s rationale and objectives. We are looking forward to the reopening of the Textile Labelling Regulation as foreseen by the strategy.

Sustainable products initiative

The Commission published the Sustainable products initiative in the first quarter of 2022. This initiative does not solely target textiles, but they are part of its scope. Moreover, it should tackle important issues, such as the presence of chemicals, thresholds on durability, reusability, repairability, recyclability, environmental and social requirements, responsibility of producers for providing more circular products. In March 2022, the European Commission already published a proposal for Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation as the larger part of the Sustainable Products Initiative.

Strengthening the role of consumers in the green transition

The Empowering Consumers in the Green Transition initiative was also  presented during the first quarter of 2022. It ensures that consumers get reliable and useful information on products, especially to prevent overstated environmental information (‘greenwashing’). It also aims to regulate the use of misleading words such as “eco, green, conscious.”

Initiative on substantiating green claims

Finally, the Substantiating Green Claims initiative is expected for the first quarter of 2023 and would tie into the legislative proposal on empowering consumers in the green transition. It will require companies to substantiate any sustainability and impact claim.

This initiative considers the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodology, which is based on a life cycle analysis (LCA) to assess a products’ impact on the environment. Meaningful and balanced environmental and social information of textile products is essential. However, the PEF has various shortcomings, and cannot be the sole methodology to underpin this information. This holds true for agri-food products, as this joint letter by a coalition of environmental NGOs explains, and also for textile products.

While the product-focused PEF serves well to compare manufactured industrial goods, the approach significantly lags when evaluating the environmental performance of complex agricultural systems, including natural fibre production, in a holistic way. When applied to agriculturally derived natural products, such as cotton, wool, hemp, jute, kenaf, and flax, the PEF gives misleading results in which synthetic and industrial fibre production score better. In other words, the PEF favours intensive, industrial textile production instead of extensive, natural agricultural practices and has no eye for both the positive and negative external costs of the production process. Among other things, the PEF does not account for the impacts of production systems on biodiversity and the use of pesticides, and does not have an indicator on microplastic emissions and end-of-life practices.

IFOAM Organics Europe is active on the topic of PEF in relation to textiles and has co-signed an open letter to the European Commission to criticize the standalone application of the methodology in the textile and apparel industry.

They are making it possible

The work of IFOAM Organics Europe on this topic is co-financed by the LIFE programme of the European Union, under the Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA). This page only reflects the views of the authors, and its sole responsibility lies with IFOAM Organics Europe. The CINEA is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information provided.

The work of IFOAM Organics Europe on this topic is co-financed by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This page only reflects the views of the authors, and its sole responsibility lies with IFOAM Organics Europe. GOTS is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information provided.

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