From the Ground Up
SOME MAY HAVE bad memories of buying that first car. For others, recollections of purchasing a bum computer, house or even a bottle of weight-loss pills could be what’s causing all those late-night anxiety attacks. A broken guarantee here, a promise fallen through there, and suddenly all that’s left is a car repair bill in the thousands and lingering doubts that the dusty ten-speed bike can make it to the office.
In much the same way, when it comes to organic apparel, distributors may be feeling the familiar, nervous discomfort of worrying about a guarantee. The demand for eco-friendly organics is growing greater and greater, but it’s coming at a time when product liability is also the highest it’s ever been. With the recent problems and concerns over product safety, it’s only logical to assume distributors should extend the caution given to drinkware or children’s toys to organic apparel as well. Unfortunately, verifying a product as organic may be more complicated than avoiding buying a lemon, or even checking drinkware for lead. That’s not to say that verification is impossible, however. A little research and diligence can go a long way to making sure an order intended as organic apparel isn’t actually a heap of old tires liberally coated in BPA.
Like knowing a car’s mileage-to-engine-death ratio, or what percentage of a home was built on Indian burial grounds, being aware of what is and isn’t organic can help prevent a lot of future agony. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) gives the legal definition of organic crops as follows:
• Land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop.
• Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
• Crop pests, weeds and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices, including physical, mechanical and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
• Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock, but a farmer may use non-organic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions.
• The use of genetic engineering (included in excluded methods), ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.
While other organizations may have their own definitions of what is and isn’t organic, the USDA’s requirements are the minimum necessary for any product to be legally labeled as such. Therefore, other crop certifiers must at least equal the USDA’s rules to be salable in the U.S. However, because cotton is a textile, and not a food crop, making sure the final product stays organic throughout the production process is a little more complex. Though the USDA monitors cotton growth and harvesting, it does not observe the processing, weaving, knitting or any production related to organic cotton until the product is ready for sale, where it picks up surveillance again to enforce accurate labeling laws. Luckily, dozens of independent organic certifiers pick up where the USDA leaves off, ensuring what’s described as organic stays that way from the growth stage to the final apparel piece.
As an example of how monitoring under said independent groups works, Gary Oldham, president of SOS From Texas, Samnorwood, Texas, explained the post-growth monitoring process for his company. After the harvest, SOS From Texas’ cotton is sent to independent gins that must also be certified chemical-contaminant free to be allowed for organic production. As opposed to how a field or crop is approved, which can be a very detailed and extensive process, Oldham said the gin must merely be properly cleaned, then fed a dummy bale of cotton to make sure any lingering contaminants are absorbed. He added that spinning, knitting, finishing and sewing machinery is certified and prepared in much the same way. Said Oldham, “When you get into those production facilities, basically all that’s important there is clean up and segregation.”
After the apparel is fully assembled, there are a few other production steps distributors should be attentive to. Alisa Buckner, director of merchandise and marketing for Independence, Missouri-based Dunbrooke, explained further. “We use eco-friendly/azo-free chemicals,” she said, adding that the absence of such chemicals causes organic shirts to typically have a more muted color, because they are made without bleach or other brightening chemicals. Azo chemical compounds are a popular coloring agent due to their ability to create bright hues, however, some components of the compound are believed to be carcinogenic.
Aside from the dyeing process, Buckner raised a cautionary point. Once the product is fully completed and shipped, the umbrella of organic production ends. Distributors concerned with eco-friendly shipping or storage practices may have extra research on their hands.
SEAL OF APPROVAL
In understanding how organics are made, the knowledge of who is actually doing the certifying is equally important. Organic cotton certifiers range from government bodies and trade unions to watchdog organizations and risk-management firms. The groups monitor either a facet or the entirety of production, verifying the manufacturing company does not stray from its organic promise, as well as passing all pertinent information on to the supplier. Buckner gave a little detail on how data is shared. “Literally each shipment we bring in could have between one and four different certificates that come with it,” she said. “In those certificates, it provides all the information, … we can actually paper-trail it back.”
The possible number of seals Buckner mentioned stems from cotton’s complex manufacturing cycle, as well as the potential variances in supply chains. Because organic cotton standards require that its growth, harvesting, processing, weaving and finishing all have certifications for the item to be considered 100 percent organic, both the organic monitoring process and production can be split several ways. Some companies may only have one organic certification if they use a single risk-management firm or handle all growth and manufacturing in-house. Others may have many more, depending on where their cotton is grown, who is spinning and finishing it, who they use for certification, and if they get their cotton from multiple sources.
Since it is possible for a product to come with multiple organic approvals, comprehending why there are so many, as well as how their number affects the integrity of the organics process, would certainly be of some benefit. A good way to understand how everything became so fractured is to start with the USDA.
To begin with, the USDA employs numerous proxy groups to enforce its standards on organics, instead of overseeing it directly. This is partly because, as Oldham explained, there were organic certifiers in place before the USDA had official standards. These groups, like the Texas Department of Agriculture, which monitors SOS From Texas’ cotton growth, were assimilated into the USDA’s program once it came into existence. Other organizations, like trade unions or risk-management firms, popped up after the national program’s birth and became approved to certify under USDA standards.
Then, of course, the USDA is restricted by U.S. borders, which is why there are even more groups for certification overseas. The USDA has accredited some groups in certain countries to act on its behalf, however, certifiers do not exist in every country. Certain major growers, like China and India, are not covered by the USDA, so buyers have to depend on the certifications and standards of independent organizations. Overseas organic cotton production is currently much greater as well, thanks to more chemically clear land being available. As opposed to waiting three years for farms to turn over in the U.S., Buckner said, “It wasn’t difficult to start [in India] because they had so much land that you could go and just grow the crops. You come into the U.S., people have fields that are sitting there ... waiting to get to that point.”
Oldham added, “Here in Texas, we probably raise the most cotton [in the U.S.], and we probably have maybe 20,000 acres, which is a very small amount, compared to all the land that’s farmed in Texas. You know, millions of acres. The standards are strict, and it takes having to go through a three-year period to get the certification, without getting the benefit.”
Buckner and Oldham both encouraged careful scrutiny with any certifying agent, USDA-related or otherwise. Oldham explained the cash flow from the booming organics industry has placed many risk-management firms and trade unions into competition with one another, each vying to be known as the best or most thorough certifier, which he added, is a good thing. However, he also pointed out the same boom has caused plenty of new certifiers to keep popping up, which may be of questionable quality.
Additional information for this article was found on the USDA’s NOP Web site, http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop. Of special note would be the “Organic Production and Handling Standards” and “Labeling of Textiles Under National Organic Program (NOP) Regulations” fact sheets. Further detail on the USDA’s rules are also available on the NOP Web site, including a list of permitted synthetic chemicals, specifics on organic textiles and approved certifiers.