Why do we choose organic cotton? And what does that actually mean?
The word ‘organic’ can be used to mean so many things!
Which is why we strictly use only 100% organic cotton that is certified by the leading organic standard, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This means that our products are organic and non-toxic at every stage of production right from the farms to the finished product. GOTS works alongside the local Australian Certified Organic and UK Soil Association.
We also work only with small-scale, family run Fairtrade farms who importantly also teach farmers organic and sustainable farming practices and help secure affordable, high quality, non-genetically modified cotton seeds. Monsanto represents over 95% of the seed market in India, so that is a much harder task than one would think! 
Using only GOTS organic cotton and Fairtrade cotton together is known as the “gold standard”.
What does this mean in practice?
It means that 100% of our cotton is sustainably farmed and made, does not touch any harmful or toxic chemicals or bleaches throughout the whole process, as well as a lot other considerations like minimizing waste, water use, energy use and environmental harm. This means no toxic chemicals in the environment, but also means significantly reduced water, waste and positive benefits like improved food security too.
With no harsh chemicals or bleaches it leads to products that customers tell us are more durable and softer – without us needing to use anti-pilling, anti-creasing or softening agents commonly used across many types of fabrics.
In a nutshell it means:
- No toxic pesticides or insecticides
- Every input must meet strict requirements on toxicity and biodegradeability, assessing impact on end user, communities, animals, ecosystems and environment.
- No toxic heavy metals or formaldehyde (a common finishing agent)
- No aromatic solvents (“VOCs”)
- No nanoparticles (used to boost bacterial resistance or binding charcoal or silver to fabrics)
- No genetically modified organisms
- No chlorine bleaches
- Non-toxic and low impact dyes only. No AZO dyes which are known carcinogens.
- No phthalates, plastisol or PVC (often used in printing)
- Factories must minimize waste, and treat all water or sludge
- All cardboard, swing tags etc must be recycled or certified sustainable.
- At all stages – from raw material to finish – it is tested for any harmful residues
- Finally, international human rights like forced labour, safety and discrimination must be upheld. Combined with Fairtrade, for us that means paying living wages, fair prices, supporting scholarships for workers’ children to go to school and many other things.
All products must be traceable and transparent throughout the process – right back to the farm. Something all too rare!
So when we speak about organic, we really mean it is holistic, across toxicity, waste, water, sustainability, human impact, human rights and so much more at every single step, right from the farm to finish.
How can consumers find truly organic products?
It can be hard for consumers when words like ‘eco’, ‘100% organic’, ‘ethical’, ‘pure’, ‘natural’, ‘chemical free’ – similarly to ‘free range’ – are often so casually used and often misleading. These terms can mean pretty much anything so do be careful of fabrics labeled as organic but without robust certification right from the farm to the finished product.
However, this is why we only use certified only 100% GOTS and Fairtrade grown cotton which is known as the ‘gold standard’ right from the farm to finish. GOTS works with other robust standards like Australian Certified Organic and the UK Soil Association.
To help consumers understand the differences, let’s we can look at other common certifications like OEKO-TEK 100. OEKO-TEK 100 solely looks at the residue tested on the end product (which is a good first step for you directly) but it doesn’t assess toxins, waste or environmental impacts prior to this nor does it intend to show that the process is in anyway organic.
The Organic Improvement Crop Association (OICA) is another certification sometimes be seen on rayon, Tencel or lyocell fabrics. This means that the crop was grown sustainably. It doesn’t cover any other parts of processing. Lyocell, Tencel or traditional viscose or rayon products use processes which certifying organic bodies don’t certify due to the chemical processes as well as often the accompanying dyes, finishing agents or anti-pilling treatments used.
EU REACH compliant is another one to look out for, which means that it has at least complied with the often stricter chemical requirements of the EU and you may well find less toxic dyes or finishes have been used, however, many of these are still being phased out over a period of time.
What are the health benefits of choosing organic bed linen?
There are a myriad of health benefits for you and your family in choosing GOTS certified organic cotton. But just as importantly - for the farmers and makers as well as animals and ecosystems and even our own food chains.
Our skin is our biggest organ and we are breathing in chemicals throughout the night. We spend up to a third of our days in bed, so our bed sheets are something we are in contact with a lot!
Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, a senior adviser to the Australian National Toxics Network comments on this:
“the most dangerous way for a toxin to enter the body is not through the digestive system, but through the skin”.
Unfortunately, as reported by the WHO, a range of chemicals used in conventional textile products have been linked to endocrine disruption (adversely effecting development, reproduction, increasing cancer risk or harming the immune and nervous system) or are known carcinogens. In particular so often these chemicals are designed so that they don’t wash out so they persist in our beds and homes.
These chemicals can impact not just wildlife and the environment but have been linked to everything from learning disabilities, to infertility, obesity and to breast cancer too.
Exposure for the end user can occur through breathing in particles or through the skin and this exposure is particularly critical during early periods of life, in utero or for kids and newborns.
For workers who deal with textiles and farm raw materials, in concentrated form or through the environment, these chemicals can even lead to severe skin or respiratory issues, terminal illnesses and developmental issues in newborns and children who are simply exposed to through rivers, food chain or even in utero or through breastmilk.
It is something we aren’t often aware of because we aren’t given the inputs on an ingredients list. Thankfully, it is easy to avoid by choosing products that are certified as organic.
The health benefits include:
A natural, breathable, softer cotton for a better night’s sleep
One of the first benefits of using a high-quality organic cotton is that it is a softer, durable and incredibly breathable fabric. It naturally wick’s moisture away and is a natural fibre and true fabric that hasn’t been treated with anti-creasing, finishing, anti-pilling or any other treatments in order to make it.
Keeps harmful chemicals away from our skin and the air we breathe in.
Research has shown that the air in our homes can be worse than the air outside due to volatile organic compounds and other chemicals in our homes.
Chemicals often used in polyester, dyes, or finishing agents, anti-pilling, anti-crease or even antibacterial treatments are known to be harmful and include known carcinogens, reproductive or developmental toxins among chemicals commonly used in bedding and textiles.
The European Union has banned quite a number of chemicals – some for over 10 years – from being used in textiles or more recently even imported.
Unfortunately Australia is yet to follow suit. This is despite in 2014 over 200,000 products being recalled voluntarily or required from big name bedding and clothing brands following an unexpected screening test by the ACCC. GOTS robustly tests for harmful chemicals at all stages of production and doesn’t allow any of these chemicals to be used.
Choice magazine quotes the former industry advisor to the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia saying,
“Products that are made in China for the Australian market could not even be sent back to China, as many of them would not meet the Chinese product safety standards but are acceptable here.”
We can easily avoid harmful chemicals including AZO dyes (known carcinogens, and are banned in the EU, but not Australia), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that we breathe in (harmful based on reproductive toxicity) or even phthalates (various phthalates have been classified as harmful to development or reproduction) through certified organic fabrics.
Reducing allergies, skin sensitivities or respiratory issues.
It is not uncommon for people to have reactions to bed linen, clothes or other homewares visibly or physically through rashes or reactions on their skin or eyes or even respiratory systems. I’ve (stupidly) been through this in my family when buying some big brand clothing in desperation to appeal to our kids! Lesson learnt when with many washes the issues just didn’t wash out!
Chlorinated phenols are often used in bedding and can cause skin or eye irritations. Formaldehyde is used as a finishing agent to stop pilling of fabrics to which even low levels of exposure can cause inflammation or burning to eyes or skin, or allergies impacting skin or lungs, wheezing or coughing. It is also another identified human carcinogen. Chemicals used in anti-pilling have also been shown to degrade into endocrine disruptors.
Nanoparticles? GOTS ban the use of functional nanoparticles in any certified fabrics. Why? Well, nanoparticles are simply particles with the same dimensions as things like proteins. As such, they can enter tissues and fluids in the body. It is something that is being looked into in terms of delivering beneficial medical treatments (a good thing!) but its use in things like cosmetics has ben questioned and I’m not sure about having it in our bed sheets that we lie in every night!
You might see nanoparticles used in flame retardants, anti-odor treatments, waterproofing, to boost bacterial resistance, to bind things like silver to fabrics or to bind charcoal to lyocell fabrics. The concern is that they can impact us by being breathed in or in coming in contact with our skin and pass into the bloodstream. The precise interactions and impacts aren’t known – and would vary depending on the actual particles – but they are banned from use by GOTS and their use in some cosmetics has been investigated with groups such as the Australian Cancer Council calling for better labeling on some products so that consumers are aware of when they are being used.
Keeping toxins out of our own food chains and waterways
We often think of toxins that we directly contact – but the truth is we are linked to it around the world through what we drink, eat or the air we breathe in.
Our end, where we are in direct contact with fabrics, is just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the big issues go right back to the farm. Pollution, toxic waste and contamination have had devastating impacts on farmers, communities, factory workers but also get back to us through our food chains, water supplies and oceans.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are often used in textiles and have been banned in the EU due to its persistence in waterways after washing and impacts on reproduction of fish. A leading Australian specialist in the area of toxins, Tabitha McIntosh, writes on the widespread impact and persistence of pesticides globally in fish and food chains, many years after they were initially released and stretching around the world.
It can get into other food chains too, for example via cotton seeds. These are a byproduct of cotton and are often used as a feedstock for cattle. Conventional cotton farming uses up to 20% of the world’s pesticides, which means these harmful substances are directly entering our food chains as well.
By using 100% natural fibres like cotton, you are even stopping plastic or polyester fibres getting into waterways and food chains. This is becoming an increasing area of interest much like microbeads in cosmetics.
Better health for farmers, animals, communities and entire ecosystems.
This is where the issue really kicks in with devastating impacts. Pesticide use and the costs of non-organic farming have been linked to almost 300,000 suicides in India, linked to reproductive and neonatal issues, carcinogenicity and genotoxicity and the poisoning of up to 77 million farmers. Also developmental issues in newborns or children through exposure to chemicals through breastmilk or food chains, or even linked to cancer for cotton farmers in the US. This isn’t just an issue in the developing world.
Organic farming supports many other things too – like crop rotation to improve food and water security, stops pollution and waste being released and requires minimization of energy, water and waste throughout the textile process. Overall this can have a huge impact on our environmental pollution, biodiversity, ecosystems which all in turn impact our health.
- Safety and health for the makers, farmers and their families too
Finally, certified GOTS organic and Fairtrade cotton looks into the treatment and working conditions of workers throughout the supply chain too. This isn’t usually think of when we buy something like bed sheets. But health and safety is a massive issue.
The 2013 Rana collapse in Bangladesh was one of the biggest of these, killing over 1,000 factory workers, but the safety issues go on everyday. From employment of children in farms and factories to stress and physical danger through lack of safety or long work hours.
Even little things like paying worker health insurance for families, ensuring safe transport home for workers or healthy food. These are the kind of additional health benefits that our products by being GOTS certified and Fairtrade achieve. They aren’t ones you would normally think of!
What are the environmental benefits?
There are a huge number of environmental benefits of GOTS certified and Fairtrade organic cotton that we often don’t see.
Protecting ecosystems by reducing toxic pollution and waste.Conventional cotton farming uses up to 20% of the world’s pesticides and insecticides. Organic farming stops this toxic runoff that can harm entire ecosystems, waterways and people.
Using up to 90% less water. Organic cotton farming has been shown to use up to 90% less irrigated water than conventional farming.
Uses 50% less primary energy. Organic cotton farming has been shown to use less than 50% of the primary energy required for conventional cotton farming.
Stops toxic waste and devastating harm to ecosystems. Uniquely, GOTS organic certification requires all waste and chemicals from factories to be treated properly. It also stops harmful pesticides leaching off the land and into waterways. Helping to stop eveything from reproductive to mutagenic issues in wildlife and persistent heavy metals or toxins in waterways. In Clare Press’ recent book Wardrobe Crisis, she even comments on how visible this toxic pollution is, as rivers in textile areas running the colours of next year’s fashion trends.
More sustainable overall. Assessed across land use, water use, energy use, emissions and toxicity to ecosystems and humans, organic cotton was assessed to be one of the most sustainable fabrics. Exceeded only by organic hemp, organic linen and recycled fabrics.
Reducing overall waste. Waste in textiles is a massive issue. Right from the farm – where inadequately stored cotton can be subject to fire or rot - thorugh packaging, factory waste and our own commitment to trends.
This is partly monitored by GOTS, but also reliant on individual businesses to commit ot making change. Fiartrade prices also fund projects like cotton warehousing to stop fire and rot destroying and wasting harvested crops at the farm level too.
In Australia alone we throw out on average 35kg of textile waste each per year, which is over 800,000 tonnes combined. As well as choosing businesses who actively reduce waste at every stage of production – we do this in cutting, we have made huge decisions to figure out ways not to waste factory errors, and- it is important that products are made to last and that at the end of their life they biodegrade. Organic cotton suffers less abrasive or chemical processing so fibres can be more durable and is one of the most readily biodegradeable fabrics leaving no toxic waste. GOTS even requires that factories address waste of all kinds – in water, sludge and even packaging.
Provides an alternative to GMOs. Through our organic and fairrade cooperatives we support seed banks where seeds are grown to be more resilient to pests without resorting to GMOs. The costs of GMOs are incredibly high and require conventional farmers to purchase the seeds year after year, as well as the mounting pesticides required. These programs also helps farmers to fund the costs of seeds or to secure them during lower-cost seasons so that they aren’t subject to incredibly high prices during times of demand.
Why is it important to think beyond the finished product when purchasing homewares?
It is easy to see how connected we are to the environment, waterways and land around the world where our products are made.
The concept of organic and ‘farm to table’ is something we increasingly look for in our food. We are more aware of the inputs and ethics behind our cosmetics, bodycare, plastic or cleaning products and seek more sustainable options (like sustainable palm oil or seeking none at all) or avoid toxic or harmful ingredients like phthalates. People look for cruelty free products, and want to look beyond the direct impact and asses the indirect ways in which we are impacting animals, ecosystems and people too.
The textiles industry combined with its agricultural impact is the second most polluting and one of the most exploitive in the world. It is hard to understand in full because of such lacking transparency, but this is even more reason why we need to really question what is going on and what impact we can have. This doesn’t stop at bed linen – it includes furniture or even paints and other textiles too. It isn’t just about being toxic, but about sustainability, waste energy, water, animal and human impacts too. They are all intrinsically connected.
We are connected on a human level – no one wants the things we buy to harm another human. We know it we shouldn’t have one set of rules for workers in our own country and yet allow another set of rules for the people overseas who make or farm our goods.
We are also connected on a physical level – these pollutants and toxins eventually find their way to our own homes and potentially bodies. We might not be directly connected but our water and food connects across oceans too.
All in all, from an ethical, sustainability, waste and toxicity perspective we all need to have much better access to understanding the journey of our goods right from the farm. Without the greenwashing and fairwashing and to see the full picture. Sometimes as a business this doesn’t match the marketing story we want to give – but we still need to tell people what really goes on.
Homewares products go through the hands of hundreds of people and impact thousands of lives along the way. Yet we don’t get a list of ingredients or even where our products come from or where they have been beyond the very final stage where they are ‘made’.
Instead, we rely on what little information we do get told. This is made harder when words like ‘eco’, ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘chemical free’ don’t have much basis and can be used quite freely and regulations only require us to tell people where a product was ‘made’. Which misses out on so many people and lives that work on a product before this final stage.
This is really why I started Elkie & Ark in the first place. I saw too little transparency, too many toxins and harm and not enough emphasis on creating more natural, sustainable, luxury high quality goods to last that are made ethically too. We can do so much better and the customer doesn’t even need to know because the end product and quality are just the same. Or – that much better!
Why isn’t sustainability, transparency and ethics more commonplace?
The simple answer is because it is hard. The second reason is that it is uncomfortable. Asking people if they use child labour, how they treat their waste, what wages do they pay every worker, if you can visit their farms and factories, speak one-on-one with workers in private, delve and find out what ‘organic really means’ takes a huge amount of research and time and questioning and finding partners who you feel really reflect your ethos and ideas. These are questions not many people ask and the details behind it are often closely guarded. You have to understand the real processes behind the headlines. What does mulesing for sheep really mean? What are the alternatives? What is ‘low impact’? And you need to have someone from your team that you trust see it all with their eyes too.
Today, most people when dealing with factories just ask two questions “What is the quality like? How much will it cost?” Sometimes they ask if the business follows basic child labour and human rights policies, but this is too often just tick-a-box. The rest is regarded as someone else’s issue, in particular when it comes to waste.
This then becomes a game of pushing that price down with scale, knowing that producers are often not in a position to say no. As this occurs, of course the cheapest dyes or waste, employment and management methods regardless of their environmental impact will be used.
Our supply chains are so complicated that it is often hard to find out. Sustainability sourcing managers for major Australian retailers and even management consultants hired to look into supply chains have commented that many businesses simply can’t trace their products back any further then the final factories.
In the words of the Australian Fashion Report 2016, by Baptist World Aid, while retailers are becoming more aware of the final stages of production and increasing wages at this point, “Next to nothing is being done further down the supply chain.” And less than 5% of businesses know where their raw materials come from.
Conventional cotton is such a massive industry and often so convoluted it can be impossible to trace products back to the source. And sometimes processes for modern fabrics like polyesters, viscose or lyocells production are heavily patented, and controlled by one company (as is the case for viscose or lyocell from bamboo) so we rely on these factories for all the information we receive.
Without knowing where our raw materials, yarns or fabrics are from there is no way businesses can know what has happened to them along the way or what pollutants or toxins they have created. So businesses resort to policies, which don’t solve the real problems going on.
So what about Australian made? Isn’t that easier to trace?
Yes, at the final stages where it is ‘made’ (so generally cut and sewn). A few amazing companies still print or weave goods in Australia and we have a handful of wool spinning mills. We have more furniture businesses due to our supplies of wood who might still craft some parts of their processes here. But in general, beyond this or even just one step back from where it is cut and sewn – generally it is just as opaque as it has similiarly come from offshore.
Did you know that 99% of Australian cotton is shipped offshore for spinning? Based on information from ethical clothing bodies in australia, we don’t have the spinning technology onshore to create scaled fine-woven goods. So even when products are locally ‘made’ or perhaps grown there is a long journey before or after this that almost always happens overseas. Like labeling of food, we need to have access to transparency on what really goes on.
Similarly, 95% of Australian wool is shipped overseas for scouring (an intense chemical process) and may stop at many different countries before the final product is completed. This theme occurs for leather, bamboo, flax and so many other fabrics that we use. Of course the idea of sustainability and low-tox isn’t just about fabrics – it is important when we think of our furniture or mattresses or even paints!
How consumers make this the future of fashion and textiles?
The first step is to understand the steps involved and to really ask people. Ask businesses to find out. Demand that they show more information. To look behind where a fabric is just made and go right back to the farm, the mills. We can
Ask brands to start laying out on their website every step of their production. Asking not just where something is made and what conditions they are made in, but also where they are designed, dyed, spun, knitted, woven, chemically produced, tanned and of course farmed or grown too.
It also asks consumers to become more savvy and not get caught up in greenwashing. Which can be really hard!! Certifications like GOTS, Australian Certified Organic and Fairtrade are one great way we can have more clarity, but there are sustainable, ethical, low tox producers who may not have these certifications too and the work they do is incredibly important. In particular when they craft their goods with small-scale, marginalized or at risk local or international groups.
So really, we need brands to start telling the full story. And overtime as consumers we will get to understand the processes going on.
Most of all, by connecting more with how things are made, we get to know the people, the skills and traditions behind our fabrics or furniture. We get to hear the stories and by supporting businesses who are taking the time to find out and step away from fast production. It is a wonderful thing to be brought back closer to the things we indulge in and use every day. Which I believe, makes them all that much more wonderful and beautiful to use.
 Included like Cotton On, Myer, Pillow Talk and Target. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-05-28/govt-considers-banning-carcinogenic-dyes-more-found-in-clothing/5482040