There are heaps of sustainability certifications out there - enough to make us dizzy. And the debate about most of them doesn’t help. It’s no different when it comes to a complex topic like cotton, which has been used to create clothing for 7,000 years and is the world’s most popular natural fabric. People have a lot to say about cotton - and rightfully so. We should be mindful of which type of cotton is used in our clothing.
Why’s that? Well, conventional cotton has been named the dirtiest crop on Earth. When cotton is not produced organically, it uses toxic chemicals like pesticides, harming biodiversity and leading to claims there are health concerns for humans, too. Not to mention that traditional farming typically involves the exploitation of workers. The production of cotton for the fast fashion industry is also connected to high greenhouse gas emissions and vast amounts of water pollution.
Organic cotton is far better in all of these areas but not all certifications are trustworthy. Let’s look at some of the certifications that tend to come up when we think about organic cotton.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
The best part about the GOTS certification? Not only are there strict restrictions on organic farming but also on environmental and human safety levels. Environmental regulations must be adhered to, such as wastewater treatment and even the mandatory use of post-consumer recycled paper for clothing tags. And when it comes to human safety, there are strict requirements - this is vital as organic cotton can otherwise be linked to forced labour.
- GOTS label ‘made with organic’ requires at least 70% organic fibres
- GOTS label ‘organic’ requires at least 95% organic fibres
- Genetically modified seeds are prohibited
- Wastewater treatment and chemicals are strictly monitored
- Child labour is prohibited and workers must be treated well
Not only that, the GOTS certification also has controls on quality - meaning a cotton garment that’s made from that cotton will last longer. Which is also an important aspect of sustainability. After all, it defeats the purpose if you’re just going to chuck an organic cotton garment away after a few months because the quality of the cotton is low.
Organic Content Standard (OCS)
OCS certifies organic cotton and has a similar certification system as GOTS. But it overlooks the social aspects that are necessary for healthy working conditions as well as the environmental aspects such as the use of chemicals. It certifies the organic fibre content in a product, with high traceability from beginning to end. There is a focus on the integrity of the organic material but less so the other aspects.
- ‘OCS 100’ requires at least 95% organic fibres
- ‘OCS Blended’ requires at least 5% organic fibres up to 95%
- Verifies the entire supply chain, ensuring claims are accurate
- Only material from certified organic farms (under IFOAM’s standards) is used
All considered, it’s a good certification but not quite as thorough as GOTS.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic
The USDA Organic certification is another well-known label from the US. It’s a certification used on a wide range of organic products. When it comes to textiles, the USDA states that the product can only be labelled USDA Organic when the finished product is produced in compliance with the third-party National Organic Program (NOP) regulations. The percentage of organic content must also be specified.
But the NOP regulations are not applicable for many textile products that use complex inputs, meaning this label is often unachievable. And because of that big shortcoming, the USDA has also approved the GOTS certification to be used to label organic textiles in the United States.
When used to certify textiles, this label only looks at the raw agricultural fibre used, such as the cotton seed. The cotton crop is required to be non-GMO and free of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. But it doesn’t certify the ensuing process that leads to the end-garment, or product. Manufacturers can still use dyes or harsh chemicals in the process.
- Genetically modified seeds are prohibited
- Does not include processing and manufacturing standards for textile products
- Not reliable to use in textiles, which is why GOTS is now also used in the US
OEKO-TEX ORGANIC COTTON
OEKO-TEX is globally known for certifying products that are free from harmful chemicals - not to be confused with an organic certification (although it often is). But as of April 2023, they’ve released a certification for organic cotton. Before this, testing for organic cotton was optional, not mandatory, with their Standard 100 certification. Now, OEKO-TEX offers a certification where they will verify all the way from farm to product, with a limit of less than 10% GMOs. Plus, the certification tests for harmful substances.
- Offers 7 certifications with different requirements and goals
- ‘ORGANIC COTTON’ certifies materials made of 100% organic cotton
- ‘ORGANIC COTTON Blended’ certifies articles made of at least 70% organic cotton
- ‘STANDARD 100’ is best used to complement an organic certification, rather than to replace one
What about Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)?
We do not recommend BCI as a standard for organic cotton. BCI permits GMO seeds, the use of synthetic pesticides which is a key driver of biodiversity loss and worker health risk, and the use of synthetic fertilisers which is a key driver of carbon emissions, soil degradation, poor water quality, and air pollution.
Further, the BCI certification is relatively easy and inexpensive to obtain - which explains why it’s so common to see the biggest fast fashion brands using it. In fact, in 2018 the Changing Markets Foundation published a report stating that BCI is driving down sustainability standards in the cotton industry and that out of all the textile certification schemes, BCI is the worst.
So beware of confusing BCI with organic, because BCI-certified cotton is not organic.
At POMP, we’re pleased to say we’re certified by two of the best certifications featured in our article: GOTS and OEKO-TEX Standard 100. We specialise in organic cotton basics and are a single-material brand. Check out our range of different T-shirt and sweater styles, hoodies, or joggers and you can be sure that the cotton used is certified by the top standard that exists today.
Men's organic cotton hoodie in chocolate
For more on organic cotton, take a look at these other blog posts that go into a bit more detail: