Organic cotton – here‘s what you need to know about testing

Javier Trócoli Llorens, Global Technical Leader Softlines, Toys & Childcare, Eurofins Softlines and Leather.

Javier Trócoli Llorens, Global Technical Leader Softlines, Toys & Childcare, Eurofins Softlines and Leather.

As the fashion industry shifts towards a more sustainable footing, organic cotton is becoming an increasingly popular fibre choice, but testing is a complex issue, writes Javier Trócoli Llorens from Eurofins Softlines and Leather.

Organic cotton refers to cotton grown from non-GMO seeds without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilisers. It uses natural farming practices that support healthy soil, increase biodiversity, and reduce the fibre’s water footprint. As such, it has many advantages over conventional cotton. It is healthier for the land, the farmers, and their communities. It promotes food security, provides higher financial returns for farmers, and empowers women, who make up around 10% of organic farmers worldwide.

Conversely, with its heavy use of chemicals, water and energy-intensive production, and attendant social impacts, conventional cotton is difficult to fit within any picture of a sustainable fashion industry.

However, for a garment to be sold as organic, it must be organic. As most brands and retailers buy finished garments, they must rely on organic certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or the Organic Content Standard (OCS). OCS allows label claims of ‘made with X% organically grown cotton’ while to carry the GOTS ‘organic’ label garments must contain at least 95% certified organic fibres. Garments with a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres can carry the label ‘made with organic’.

GOTS is the most recognised and most stringent standard. Neither GOTS nor OCS cover organic fibre production, which is governed by national organic standards. Both require complete chain of custody certification, while GOTS includes environmental and social requirements for fibre processing. Its aim is to define ‘worldwide recognised requirements that ensure the organic status of textiles’ and it covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading, and distribution of all textiles made from at least 70% certified organic fibres. Chemical use in the manufacturing process is strictly regulated and all processors and manufacturers must comply with the ILO’s (International Labour Organisation) minimum standards. Compliance is checked through on-site audits and residue testing.

Because there are many possible risks for contamination during manufacture, every company and individual in the chain of custody must be certified by a GOTS certification body.

Laboratory testing is an important aspect of certification, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Organic standards define a process for producing organic textiles. Lab testing controls the efficiency of that process and determines whether the product conforms to the limit values of the standard. However, it is advisable that brands and retailers carry out testing on both raw materials and finished garment to confirm the integrity of the certification process and the absence of GMOs and banned chemicals.

It is not uncommon for organic cotton garments to fail these tests. If this happens, they cannot legally be marketed as organic. But why does this happen and what should the industry do about it?

LaRhea Pepper is the managing director of Textile Exchange, a not-for-profit organisation working to further the sustainable transformation of the textile industry. She is also an organic cotton farmer in the US, and she has experienced contamination of her organic crop from both pesticides and GMOs. In one case, pesticide drift from a neighbour’s farm affected a corner of her field. In the other, a bag of non-GMO seeds turned out to contain some GMOs. This is not uncommon. Worldwide, around 80% of cotton production is genetically modified*, which makes accidental contamination a serious issue for organic farmers. In many cases, access to non-GMO seeds is limited, and contamination can occur at any point, from farm equipment, or during transport, storage, and ginning.

For LaRhea, this is pollution, and farmers are the victims. ‘Organic is not a purity claim, it is a production claim about how I grow my crop. There is a transition period for organic – 36 months past the last use of prohibited substances – so there could still be residues. An organic farmer can follow all the rules and still have chemical residues because this is a polluted world. That said, there are thresholds. If residues go over certain levels, the product can no longer be sold as organic.’

LaRhea knows just how important certification is for the future of this industry, because there is also fraud in the system. With demand outstripping supply and organic cotton commanding higher prices, there is an incentive to substitute non-organic for organic fibres or mix the two together. Testing is the only way to know whether such substitution has taken place. Verifying the organic status of garments also protects brands from potential reputation damage.

In 2019, the ISO/IWA 32:2019 ‘Screening of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in cotton and textiles’ was developed as a test method for GMO detection in cottonseed, leaf, cotton fibre and cotton fibre-derived materials.

Eurofins is one of the few labs that can test all the chemical parameters of GOTS as well as GMOs according to ISO/IWA 32:2019, which was developed by GOTS, the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA) and Textile Exchange to create a standard among laboratories worldwide on GM cotton screening along the organic cotton value chain. For better clarity on laboratories’ competency, the organisations have set up the proficiency test initiative on the ISO/IWA 32:2019 standard, and Eurofins is one of the fourteen laboratories worldwide passing the proficiency.

In addition, our chemical testing service covers around 200 pesticides and 250 toxic substances used in processing. If a client does not want to test for the full list, we can make a recommendation on which tests to carry out.

The GMO analysis is performed in two steps. First, DNA is extracted from the sample material and then tested for the presence of GM sequences. In parallel, the presence of cotton DNA is verified to allow a correct interpretation of the GMO results. As DNA can be destroyed during the manufacturing process, it is important to verify that cotton DNA is still detectable.

That fact that garments fail these tests underscores the need for verification and the importance of robust processes throughout the supply chain. It doesn’t mean the fashion industry should turn its back on organic cotton. Organic farming is as much a process as an end product, and one that is infinitely kinder to people and planet. Instead, companies must acknowledge the issues and decide on their goals. Improving traceability and trust in the supply chain, not just for organic cotton, is vital if the fashion industry is to move to a more sustainable footing. Transparency protects brands, consumers and, ultimately, the farmers. But, like so many things, real progress will take collective effort to identify barriers and work on long-term solutions.

*Textile Exchange Organic Cotton Market Report 2019

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