the virtues of organic cotton

       

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canary 100% organic cotton camisole with organic cotton lace trim

Organic designation carries a lot of significance. It promises virtues that are tangible and desirable but generally invisible. Labelling claims range from legitimate to unregulated, creating a consumer landscape filled with a mix of reality, good intentions and greenwashing.

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Certifications like GOTS and Oeko-Tex apply to textiles. They are helpful for many reasons. Their guidelines are vast and continue to evolve. Consumers are responsible for knowing what they mean, including, for instance, that products can be certified which are not 100% organic, or even 100% natural fibres.

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To further complicate matters, some textiles also use food-oriented certification logos like USDA or OSA.

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It’s also important to know that nothing prevents garment manufacturers from using generic logos like these, which can mean anything from “legitimately organic” to “buyer beware”.

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“The organic cotton difference”  post also shows some of the ways organic cotton differs from ‘conventional”. Because of various information campaigns, consumer interest, and adverse health effects, awareness of things like formaldehyde being routinely coated onto non-organic fabric is increasing.

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It is rather incredible but hardly unbelievable to see labels like this:

wrinkle free organic

It’s not just the wrinkle-free fabrics that are saturated with toxins designed to never wash out. A 2015 Swedish study found that even organic cottons can contain problematic dyes and finishes, practices that pretty much negate the whole purpose of organic. This is not surprising, as many organic clothes are dyed, printed, and made in unregulated facilities that also produce non-organic goods.

In theory, “organic” is supposed to indicate less toxic processes from seed to fabric, and then, from fabric to finished garment.

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The two main advantages of organics are the same for both food and textiles: environmental impacts of production (including the health and well-being of workers), and health benefits for consumers who use the products. The Textile Exchange’s 2014 “Life Cycle Assessment of Organic Cotton Fibre” shows substantial differences in carbon footprint and water use in organic production.

LCA study

The health benefits of organic diet and farming were the focus of a 2017 Harvard School of Public Health report. Similar principles apply to textiles and clothing. While most textile research and initiatives focus on environmental concerns, like Greenpeace’s Toxic Threads campaign, others, like the Stockholm study, are about human health problems directly caused by toxins in clothes.

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Given the large number of substances and variables involved, it’s practically impossible to quantify the total health effects of clothing. The most measurable are different kinds of contact allergy reactions to textiles, found mostly in occupational statistics and journal articles like this one from 2015.

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Anecdotally, textile dermatitis is on the rise, and often misdiagnosed or dismissed. My own dye allergy was incorrectly assessed at first, and eventually diagnosed as one of the worst ever seen by a dermatologist who also works at a prominent occupational health clinic. One upside of this debilitating condition was having the ability to make my own clothes, which I combined with a longtime interest in organic fibres and environmental impacts of textile production to make the Canary brand.

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With organic clothing not always being accessible or practical for everyone, focusing on inner layers next to the skin is the best way to get its health benefits. Canary’s undergarments have the added virtue of being dye-free, and being sewn (by me) in a chemical-free workshop with all-cotton thread. It is a non-pharmaceutical prescription for my allergies to create clothing with these beautiful and pure materials.

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synthetic clothes are filling the oceans with plastic

Today, a CBC News story says the UN International Maritime Organization is reporting microplastics being present in supermarket seafood. Not exactly a surprise. Plastic pollution in oceans and lakes is fast becoming a lot more than sad pictures of animals with plastic rings around their necks.

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The polluting effects of textile and clothing production is an elephant in the room that has been largely ignored, and microplastics are one of the problems, coming not just from factories, but from the wastewater from your own washer. Studies and articles about the microfibre residue from washing synthetic fleece and other synthetic clothing have had almost no effect in addressing this problem. Plastic microbeads found in body care products have gotten much more attention and bans are pending in several countries, including Canada, but not until mid 2018.

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation published an article in National Geographic last year, with a map showing the highest concentrations of microplastics on shorelines.

In The Guardian, ecologist Mark Browne discusses how 85% of the human-made material found on shorelines were microplastics linked to synthetic clothing. Here’s some microfibres collected in the Gulf of Maine:

Browne also describes the almost complete lack of interest from clothing manufacturers in addressing the problem, including many greenwashers who tout themselves as “industry detoxers”. Clothing made from recycled plastic is being marketed as “eco-friendly” and “earth saving” by companies too numerous to list.

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While recycling is good, recycled plastic clothes, and plastics in general, are not. In the CBC article, University of Toronto ecologist Chelsea Rochman says, “It has infiltrated every level of the food chain in marine environments and likely fresh water, and so now we’re seeing it come back to us on our dinner plates.” (not mine, as I do not eat fish) Nothing is immune. “Microplastics have been found in oysters and other mollusks both in field research and retail outlets.”

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A Canadian Geographic article cites several studies, including one from Norway, where it was recently reported that scientists from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research had determined that outdoor clothing such as fleece jackets and Gore-Tex clothing was the biggest source of the more than 100 million particles of microplastic being deposited via wastewater into the fiord at Longyearbyen, a community of 2,000 on the island of Svalbard. One sample from Adventfjorden shows a clam containing plastic microfibres:

Another study was done by a team from the Vancouver Aquarium. In 2015, they showed microplastics were widely distributed in British Columbia’s coastal waters, and that the tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres in size had entered the marine food chain through zooplankton, a vital source of food for fish and other marine mammal species. Here’s a tiny plankton that has consumed microplastic.

“This basically told us that humans living in coastal environments are releasing thousands of microplastics through their laundry and waste water,” said Peter Ross, director of the aquarium’s ocean pollution research program. “The problem is world-wide from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and it’s far more extensive than we imagined.”

One solution to this problem is to wear clothing made of organic, natural fibres. Not only is it far less environmentally harmful, from cultivation to processing, anything shed during washing will biodegrade. Another good move is to filter particles from your wastewater.

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