Is organic clothing worth it? Organic versus non organic cotton (and other fibers).

I have a lot of people ask me if it is worth it to buy organic baby clothes.  What about used baby clothes that aren’t organic.  Then there is hemp, bamboo, soy, and wool.  There are so many options it can get confusing.  Then throw in there the types of dyes, and other toxic chemicals, that are used that potentially can make your organic clothing toxic and it gets really confusing.  I’ve been doing a lot of research on this, talking to fabric manufacturers, emailing with companies and reading up on things online.  I know about certifications of raw cotton, fabrics, and final pieces that clothing can have.  Unfortunately, I now know more than I wish I did!  I will never look at clothing the same.  First I’ll go over the environmental (and social) aspect for each of the types of fabrics, then some information on dyes, then the certifications, and finally my opinion if buying organic is worth it.  The reason this is so important is that your skin is your largest organ.  Everything you put on it gets absorbed into your blood stream.   If you don’t want to read all of this you can skip to the bottom for the link to the list of recommended clothing companies (but I do recommend reading this so you are an educated consumer!).

Conventional cotton (non-organic): 

  • For every 1 pound of cotton produced, about 1/3 of a pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are used.   Just to give you an idea of how much cotton that is, it takes just under 1 pound of raw cotton to make t-shirt.
  • 25% of the world insecticides are used on cotton crops where only 2.5% of the world’s land are cotton fields.  Cotton is  the most pesticide intensive crop grown on the planet. $2.6 billion worth of pesticides are used on cotton worldwide each year.  That is a huge percentage of toxic chemicals used to grow conventional cotton!  Think of the overspray, which can travel up to 2 miles, that is in the air (that you breath) and getting on other crops (your food) just from cotton.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency considers 7 of the 15 pesticides used on conventional cotton as possible or known carcinogenic (cancer causing) agents.
  • Cotton is considered the world’s dirtiest crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, the most hazardous pesticide to human and animal health. 
  • According to the World Health Organization, 20,000 people die every year from accidental pesticide poisoning in conventional cotton agriculture, and 1,000,000 people a year suffer from long-term pesticide poisoning (Pesticide Action Network).  
  • 100 million conventional cotton farmers, from Russia to South Africa, are living in conditions of abject poverty and near starvation.  Conventional cotton subsidies (funded by American taxpayers) are causing poverty in the developing world as they lower the world price for cotton.
  • Cotton is an extremely water intensive crop
  • Most conventional cotton being grown is now GMO cotton a whole other post could be written about GMOs!
  • Most cotton clothing is now being produced in China in sweatshops where women & children are being exploited and are working well below the minimum wage.  How do you feel about your new shirt or pants when you think a child might have made it?  Looking for clothes not made in China is a big challenge too.  I’ve found several companies that I will share with you.
  • Sadly, the suicide rate for conventional cotton farmers is high (especially in India).  Some say it is no higher than it always has been.  Some say it is higher now that cotton farming is GMO.  Either way, it is a sad situation.

Organic Cotton:

  • No pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals are used when growing organic cotton
  • To be certified organic the soil must be free from chemicals for at least 3 years
  • The land, and soil, benefits from crop rotation
  • Cotton is an extremely water intensive crop
  • A lot of organic cotton is grown in other countries so it requires shipping to the US.  However, there are several states in the US that are getting on the map for growing organic cotton.
  • Look for the GOTS certification to make sure the clothing is organic and non-toxic from field to finish.  You can buy organic cotton, that is not certified, that has been finished with toxic dyes or chemicals (I find this very sad but it is true).

Hemp:

  • No pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals are needed to grow hemp
  • The traditional way to get to the hemp fiber in Europe is to leave the stalks out in the fields and have the weather brake the stalks down.  Then the farmers can harvest the hemp.  In China, some of the farmers are now using chemicals to break down the hemp stalks to speed up the process of harvesting.  This is very sad that such a great, natural fiber, is having chemicals added to it for no reason other than speeding up the harvesting time.  Another reason to avoid things made in China!

Bamboo:

  • Is being touted as a “green” material.  It is true that it is hearty, grows very easily and can be cultivated quickly.  From that standpoint, it is green.
  • Getting bamboo into a usable form can be a very chemically invasive process which uses harsh chemicals.  Bamboo must go through several chemical processes to get into usable form and the human exposure and damage to the environment surrounding the factories make bamboo not as green as everyone is saying it is.
  • Most all fabric and clothing that is bamboo, is bamboo rayon or bamboo cellulose, which is made using the chemically intensive process described above.
  • Bamboo linen is generally made without the use of chemicals but since it is such a labor intensive process there is very little bamboo linen on the market.
  • Very little water is needed to grow Bamboo
  • Raw bamboo lets most UV rays through the clothing (unlike cotton) and there have been talks about adding chemicals to the clothing for UV protection.
  • Bamboo is very soft which makes it appealing for clothing.

Soy:

  • Soy is one of the largest GMO crops worldwide.
  • It requires a lot of water and pesticides to grow.
  • Soy is biodegradable and has minimal impact on the environment – non GMO soy that is!
  • Soy fiber is not as durable as cotton or hemp
  • Soy fiber is made from the byproduct of the soy industry (tofu, soy beans, etc) so it is not grown specifically for clothing.  That’s nice that it is dual purposed.
  • The process to turn soy into clothing is very chemically intensive process.  The same chemicals are used repeatedly so at least chemicals aren’t be dumped as often.  However, those chemicals are still being applied to the clothing you will be wearing.

Wool:

  • Wool is a great renewable fiber.
  • Wool keeps you warm in the cold months and cool in the warm months.
  • Wool is naturally flame resistant.
  • It tends to be both dust mite and mold resistant.
  • Wool is lightweight.
  • Lower quality wool can be itchy but most wool is not itchy at all.
  • Some people can be allergic to wool.  In most cases, it is very rare for someone to be allergic to organic wool.  Most people have a reaction to what the wool was treated with if it wasn’t organic.
  • There can be inhumane practices associated with wool, like mulesing in Merino wool which is cutting out strips of skin near the sheep’s rear to prevent pests, some places will kill a sheep for the wool and some sheep farmers pack in the sheep like you would see on a factory farm.  If you Google mulesing just be prepared to see some grotesque and upsetting pictures.  I would say that these practices aren’t the norm, and if you look for certified wool you won’t have to worry about contributing to inhumane practices.
  • Sheep can be sprayed with pesticides.
  • Organic wool and Zque certified wool do not allow inhumane practices (like the ones mentioned above) or pesticides to be used.  Another reason to buy organic!

Synthetic fibers:

  • I’m not going to go into the details but just stay away!

Common chemicals, and toxic dyes, added to conventional clothing:

  • Formaldehyde.  This keeps clothing from becoming wrinkled during shipment and prevents mildew.  It also increases stain resistance and is used for color fasting.  It is a known carcinogen.  The US does not regulate formaldehyde in clothing where other countries like Germany, China and Japan do.
  • Nonylphenol ehtoxylate (NPE).  This chemical is very toxic and is banned from being used with the exception of some factories in China and Southeast Asia.  This has hormone-disrupting properties and can be hazardous at low levels.  14 major brands in the USA have their clothing made in factories that use NPE.  From what I could find these companies had clothing that was tested to have NPEs – Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Puma and H&M.  Another reason to not buy clothing made in China!
  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).  This makes clothes wrinkle free or no iron.  This is the same chemical that is used in Teflon.  It is used a lot of times to make clothing water repellant, like outer wear.  This chemical has been linked to cancer and kidney disease.
  • There are many other chemicals in clothing including phthalates which is very toxic.  Instead of listing every chemical used and getting depressed about it, I’ve decided to move on to discuss ways to protect your family.
  • AZO dyes, use heavy metals.  They are extremely toxic and are still used in clothing made in China.  The use of AZO dyes have been banned in the USA.

Clothing certification:

  • GOTS – Global Organic Textile Standard – is the leading certification for organic, non-toxic fibers and clothing.  You can read more about the standard here.  This certification is the most stringent certification on clothing.  No flame retardants are allowed, no AZO dyes using heavy metals, no formaldehyde, no pesticides, no phthalates , no PVC, no PFCs, no NPEs, no chlorine bleach to list a few.  There is also a social aspect to it as well, employees must have fair working conditions and be paid a fair wage.  There can be no animal cruelty.  It really is the best certification out there. Pretty much all GOTS certified clothing will have a logo on the inside of the clothing stating it is GOTS certified. You can have GOTS certified organic cotton but if the final product wasn’t produced in a GOTS certified factory then that company is not allowed to use the GOTS logo. When you see the logo you can be rest assured that the entire product is GOTS certified.
  • Oeko-Tek – is a certification that doesn’t allow hundreds of toxic chemicals in clothing.  Clothing does not need to be organic to receive this certification (pesticides are allowed to be present on clothing to pass this certification)  Also, some chemicals, like flame retardants (that are deemed to be the least toxic) are allowed to be used.  If you are buying Oeko-Tek clothing or baby products check to see if they are using flame retardants.

So, what do I buy?

I think GOTS certified organic cotton or wool is the best, and safest, clothing to buy.  I found out early on that just buying organic cotton doesn’t mean that the safest dyes or no toxic chemicals are being used.  The organic clothing industry is growing by leaps and bounds and some companies are trying to cash in by using organic cotton but not truly making an “organic” piece of clothing.  I also buy organic cotton that is Oeko-Tek certified but it is my second choice.  Currently, I just buy Oeko-Tek organic pajamas for my son.

If I can buy used GOTS certified clothing I do.  However, I’m picky about it.  I’ve purchased a few things on Ebay only to have them reek of laundry detergent or dryer sheets that have toxic chemicals.  Side note – wash your clothing in non-toxic detergents.  Most commercial brands are toxic!  I love soap nuts which you can buy here.  I felt like buying used, washed in chemicals, defeated my purpose.  So I’m specific when I buy used.

I know not everyone wants to buy new organic clothing.  The order I would buy clothes in is:

  • Used GOTS certified organic (cotton or wool) clothing
  • New GOTS certified organic (cotton or wool) clothing
  • Used or new hemp, verifying if it’s organic would be ideal, clothing
  • Used conventional cotton clothing. Side note – I personally would try and buy Oeko-Tek certified used cotton first before buying non certified conventional cotton. At least then you will know that the dying and finishing process isn’t toxic. However, pesticide residue and flame retardants are allowed in the Oeko-Tek certification.

Doesn’t washing your clothes wash away the chemicals?

Yes, maybe, but I don’t think anyone knows.  You should for sure wash all clothing before wearing it.  Even GOTS certified.  I’m weird and wash clothes several times.  However, I have read reports that it can take 50 washes to get all the chemicals out.  That’s my other issue with used.  You don’t know if it’s been washed once or 50 times.  If it’s toxic to start with you aren’t guaranteed buying used will make it any less toxic.  Buying used is no doubt good for the environment.

Are there children’s brands that I avoid?

Some of the worst brands from a toxicity standpoint that I wouldn’t buy (even used) are:

  • The Gap / Baby Gap
  • Old Navy
  • J. Crew
  • Disney
  • American Apparel (they do make GOTS certified organic clothing so that would not apply)
  • Burberry
  • Nike
  • Adidas
  • Puma

One thing all of these companies have in common is that the clothing is made in China (except American Appeal).  Toxic clothing is coming out of China.

You can read my follow-up post on organic children’s brands that I love.

 

30 thoughts on “Is organic clothing worth it? Organic versus non organic cotton (and other fibers).

  1. Katie

    Thanks so much for sharing your research here. I found your blog while looking for the healthiest car seat (a daunting task, as you know, any update there??). Anyway, a few questions on the subject of clothing – both the Disney Store and Gap have limited organic cotton selections, are they just bad on principle? Or do they use toxic dyes? Also, how do you deal with gifts that don’t meet your standards? My daughter is 4 so there’s not a lot of rational discussion about the stuff that is gifted to us

    Reply
    1. naturalbabymama Post author

      I wish I had an update on the car seat issue. I would probably recommend Nuna Pipa for the infant seat and Clek for toddler or booster.

      The issue with the Gap and Disney is that they are both known for using toxic chemicals in their clothing. Just because they have organic clothing doesn’t mean it is really organic. They use organic cotton but I’m sure are dying, processing and finishing it with chemicals the exact same way as their non-organic clothing. For example, my pottery barn organic sheets had formaldehyde in them. The only way to know for sure what you are getting is to buy certified.

      My family knows I’m super specific so we rarely get clothes or toys outside of the companies I like. That being said, we occasionally do. I generally try to sell them on a mom’s group or craigslist if I’m not going to use them. Sometimes I just gift them to friends who know that I care about products but they might not care. This last year we set up an amazon gift wish list for my son and let family know about it.

      Reply
  2. Savannah

    Thank you!!! I’ve been researching this myself too to make sure organic GOTS clothing is definitely worth it, especially since it’s more expensive than just regular cotton and even organic cotton. This write-up is perfect timing for me!

    Reply
    1. naturalbabymama Post author

      Good, I’m glad! It is more expensive but there are always sales. Also, we don’t buy a ton of clothes and I generally buy a size up and roll up the sleeves or pant legs. My son has literally worn 1 pair of jeans for over a year and a half which is an eternity in kids clothing! I’m sure I have way less clothing for him than most people but at least it’s all non-toxic!

      Reply
      1. Savannah

        Oh that’s a good tip about sizing up! You’re right though. Kids don’t necessarily need a ton of clothes, and yes, there are always sales. I just bought some stuff from Under the Nile that was 50% off, along with a 20% off coupon for Memorial Day. Score!

      2. naturalbabymama Post author

        Sweet deal! Sometimes when there are really good deals I buy multiple sizes up. I literally just bought a pair of jeans for my son that were 3 sizes too big. Kinda crazy but they were like 60% off!

  3. Katie

    Thanks for your response. Gifts are tricky right? I’m especially mindful now when choosing things for others, so maybe that will get the message across? 😉 we donate a lot.
    One more question, do you know anything about the new Burt’s bees line of clothing, towels etc? It’s labeled “certified organic” but seems vague. It’s also very inexpensive, relatively speaking.

    Reply
    1. Savannah

      I wondered about this Burt’s Bees too actually. I have a couple of organic cotton onesies that I received and washed. They definitely wrinkled so that made me think they weren’t treated with formaldehyde, but I’m not sure about the dyes used.

      Reply
    2. naturalbabymama Post author

      I actually called them awhile ago because I was given a Burt’s Bees organic shirt. I asked if they were GOTS certified and it was a vague answer. Maybe I’ll call again because I think I remember the answer being that they are working on getting certified but they currently weren’t. She actually answered yes but then I asked why the GOTS logo wasn’t on the shirt and then she started backtracking. I can’t remember the full conversation though. I’ll update when I call them back. Also, Burt’s is now owned by Clorox – not sure if you knew that or not.

      Gifts are super tricky, it’s really hard when you know people are trying so hard too.

      Reply
  4. christy

    Just wondering if you ever got a response from Burt’s Bees about their organic baby clothing? It would be nice if they were safe considering how much $$$ organic clothes can be!

    Reply
  5. Kelsey

    Hey there– what about GOTs certified nursing clothes for mama? I’m trying to find some nursing tanks/pjs/robes and I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time researching without finding a solid brand. So many companies like Ecoland, Majamas, Pure Fabric etc all *seem* great they all say ‘certified organic’ but no one as of yet has been able to give me a GOTs certificate, and none of them can be found in the GOTs public database, ahhh! After spending a fortune on the stupid Orbit, I feel like I can’t buy anything without a certificate.

    Any idea of where I can buy truly certified mama clothes? I just feel like if baby is going to be eating from me, I should be a bit more careful on the clothes I wear too!

    THANK YOU

    Reply
    1. naturalbabymama Post author

      Funny, I’ve been looking high and low for this type of clothing too. I went to a local maternity store that use to sell organic maternity & nursing clothes and they told me that a lot of the companies that made those organic clothes no longer are. With that being said I had bought a nursing top at that store from Blue Canoe who is GOTS certified. Looking at the site it would have just been a regular top that crosses in the front. PACT is GOTS certified but they don’t have specific nursing clothes. Little Spruce Organics has organic, GOTS certified nursing bras and they might carry some limited PJs now. Finding GOTS certified clothes is so much harder for adults. Sometimes businesses do business as another name on the GOTS certified. For example, Kate Quinn sent me their GOTS certificate but it was a different name and that might be because they have several different clothing lines. Also, maybe try Etsy. You might just need to go with undyed, organic cotton? If I find anything more I’ll send it to you.

      Reply
      1. Kelsey

        Thank you! Just realizing I didn’t say thank you earlier! P.S. I find your blog to be the most helpful, normal and down to earth of all. Would love more posts of what you have found out.

  6. Laurie G.

    I’m making a blanket for my son using GOTS cottons and batting, thanks to reading this post. I tried getting an organic sateen binding for the edge, but it’s not only rough, it’s also missing the creases that make binding easier to work with. I’m searching for a binding and would prefer a satiny one, since I know that’s often something babies seek out, but I don’t think that’s possible with a natural fiber. I’m thinking I’d go with polyester for that part as long as I could find one without the toxic dyes and chemicals. Do you know of any certification for non-organic clothing/material that would ensure it’s free of dangerous dyes and other added chemicals?

    Reply
    1. naturalbabymama Post author

      Oeko-Tek certifies non organic material so maybe look for that. Personally I would try and stick to a natural fiber, organic cotton or wool, since that is the part that they are going to put in their mouth. What about organic cotton fleece? It’s super soft. I think just have two different textures would be nice.

      Reply
  7. Julie

    How did you find out your Pottery Barn sheets had formaldehyde in them? My son has some organic Oeko-Tek certified sheets. After reading your post, I contacted PB and they said there was no formaldehyde in the sheets. But I do remember when I got them they were pretty wrinkle free.

    Reply
    1. naturalbabymama Post author

      My sheets were organic and later I found out wrinkle free. They told me that they were but wouldn’t confirm the chemical used. I was working with someone who is very knowledgeable in the textile and green industry and she said she was finally able to get to the bottom of it with Pottery Barn about a year ago. My sheets weren’t Oeko-Tek certified. Some chemicals, and FRs, are allowed within Oeko-Tek. I can’t remember if formaldehyde is allowed in Oeko-Tek, I think that it’s not though. At the time I talked to Pottery Barn in 2012 they definitely had organic sheets that weren’t treated to make them wrinkle free. It was just the start of me not trusting something just because it was organic 🙂

      Reply
  8. Lynda

    Any more word on Burts Bees? I have a ton of kohls cash to use and they sell Burts Bees. Also, anyone have a comment on Targets organic sheets? I currently sleep on them and I’m 5 months pregnant.

    Reply
      1. Lynda

        No there’s nothing on the tag saying the sheets are 😦 Great news on the Burts bees when kohls has sales the clothing is very reasonably priced.

  9. Greg

    Just a comment regarding bamboo. We bought some Nandina Organics bamboo towels. They are incredibly soft, and also they truly are mildew resistant (we have a damp bathroom with poor ventilation and have had issues with regular towels). Your comments on bamboo were interesting though, and made us double check these. The Nandina towers are GOTS certified and carry that logo on their label, so I think we’re in the clear, right?

    By the way, they were quite pricey, but worth it.

    Reply
    1. naturalbabymama Post author

      The GOTS certification means that it was grown organically and that no harmful chemicals were used. I’m not familiar with this brand but I did a quick look. It looks like they have an organic cotton & bamboo blend towel? If you are concerned I would just call and confirm that the finished product of the towel is GOTS certified not just the unfinished fiber. With that being said it looks like they are a pretty aware / natural company.

      Reply
  10. Delila

    Thank you so much for this wonderful blog! It’s been incredibly helpful in so many different ways! I have been trying to weed out toxic clothes little by little and have purchased some clothes (not organic but Oeko-Tek certified) and pajamas (organic and Oeko-Tek certified) from Hanna Andersson. I was just wondering if you know anything about their products and whether they use any toxic substances such as flame retardants, pesticide residue or toxic dyes in the finishing process. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. naturalbabymama Post author

      I like Hanna Andersson PJs – they are organic and Oeko-Tek certified. Hanna does not use FRs in their PJs. As far as pesticide residue on their non organic clothes – that’s hard to tell because Oeko-Tek allows for conventional cotton which uses pesticides and is one of the largest GMO crops in the world. So my thoughts are that the residue is there. I still with organic when possible.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s