Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sustainable Fashion -- An Array of Standards

In any emerging market, there is bound to be some misinformation and confusion. Consider, for example, the decades-long negotiation required before we finally had reliable standards for the term "organic". Before that, producers could make all kinds of claims and consumers needed to arm themselves with information -- and questions -- every time they went to the grocery store. The sustainable fashion market has exploded internationally in the last two years, and with the amount of information and misinformation available to consumers.

In this confusing scene, standards and certifications -- voluntary as well as mandatory -- can be an important consumer tool for sorting out the claims and making informed decisions. What follows is a summary of a few of the most common standards which you may find in advertising and labeling.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations - These are the granddaddies of textile rules, and they should carry the force of law. These statutes define what must appear on a permanently-attached label, in terms of fiber content, country of origin and garment care. I say "should" because, as I have pointed out repeatedly, the FTC has not been enforcing these statutes in the labeling of rayon made from bamboo.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards and accreditation - The National Organic Program (NOP) is responsible for the development and administration of the standards for organic agricultural products, including textiles. It is a national program, so does not apply to imported products.

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
is an important worldwide standard. The international working group developing these standards has a very ambitious agenda which may make it the gold standard of certification for ethical fashion producers and consumers:

The aim of the standard is to define requirements to ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.

GOTS looks beyond the fiber harvested in the field and looks at the entire process through a lens of environmental and social responsibility. Serious stuff!

Bluesign is an independent industry standard that particularly focuses on ways to minimize or exclude potential hazardous materials -- hazardous to the environment, worker or consumer. Bluesign certification can be applied to man-made and synthetic fibers and dyes, which the agricultural product standards can not.

Oeko-tex is a textile standard that also focuses on harmful chemicals in the production and finishing of textiles. It is an important standard for consumers to understand, because there are actually different levels of certification. Oeko-tex 100 certifies that the finished material contains nothing that will harm the consumer; Oeko-tex 1000 is more like GOTS and bluesign® in that it concerns the entire production chain. (In other words, bamboo rayon with an Oeko-tex 100 certification is not necessary "environmental friendly" to the worker and the land around the factory.)

I will probably continue with this anon; it's a big topic. Reader questions and feedback are always welcome, but especially now!

6 comments:

Harmony said...

When I first launched my company 3.5 years ago and was looking into organic processing standards I found there were over 40 to choose from! I am VERY hopeful that GOTS will emerge as THE organic standard for textiles. Although not perfect, it is a huge step in the right direction. The fact that it addresses labor standards is a big plus.

Mo said...

"(In other words, bamboo rayon with an Oeko-tex 100 certification is not necessary "environmental friendly" to the worker and the land around the factory.)"

Jo,

What fiber with an OekoTex 100 Certification is necessarily environmentally friendly to the worker and the land around the factory? The answer is 'none'. You just pointed out that the 100 standard does NOT speak to many issues yet you turn that into another slur against bamboo. The exact same statement could be made regarding any other fiber. Why bamboo?

Mo

Jo Paoletti said...

Mo,

You are right, I could have used another fiber as the example, but it wasn't meant as a slur. I used bamboo because its manufacturers often display this certification, so it's one consumers are likely to encounter associated with that fiber. The other common use in marketing is dye certification (a product made of 100% certified organic cotton might be colored using Oeko-tex 100 dyes).

As for the qualification, it is possible for a finished garment to have multiple certifications, so Oeko-tex 100 could be found in combination with another standard, and I didn't want to rule that out.

Mo said...

Jo,

Since it looks like this anti-bamboo theme is going to continue, I would like to post our e-mails from last weekend.

Thanks,

Mo

Your first contact with Bamboosa:

"email:
jo.paoletti@gmail.com

request:
While I appreciate that bamboo is as renewable as wood pulp and cotton waste, the viscose process is not in any sense of the word \"green\". Please use the correct FTC terminology for textile labelling: your fabrics are RAYON made from bamboo. I will be posting your reply on my sustainable style blog, Nice White Lady. http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/"

My reply:

"Jo,

Thank you for your e-mail. I have read your latest post on your blog regarding bamboo and the FTC conference and I am preparing my comments. I think you will be surprised at how much misinformation was disseminated at the conference.

While the bamboo fiber that we use and 99.9% of all the fiber out there is produced via the viscose methodology, the process is neither hazardous, contaminating, or nearly what some people are trying to make it out to be. Further, the assertion that bamboo converted through the viscose process does not possess the attributes of its more natural cousin, mechanically processed bamboo, is patently and demonstrably false. We have making, selling, wearing and testing this product for over four years and we can document the properties regarding it being antimicrobial, thermal regulating, absorbent, fast drying, and odor resistant.

Compared with other fiber options, bamboo fiber for textiles is an excellent choice, even considering the not so green processing.

My comments will be posted in detail shortly.

Thanks,

Morris Saintsing"
A follow up comment from me:

"Jo,

I also wanted to mention that while there are some companies that are doing a little greenwashing regarding bamboo, either because they are not informed or choose not to be, Bamboosa is not one of them. We say clearly on our web site in numerous places that the product is made like rayon or viscose using the same chemicals. Please take a look at this page from our site.

If we are not labeling the product correctly, we will obviously make that change immediately. Buy, it doesn’t change anything.

Thanks,

Morris"

Your reply:

"Morris,

Thanks for your prompt reply! I look forward to finding out more about your rayon studies. I have read the material about rayon and the viscose process on your site and am eager to set the record straight, if it turns out the NCSU, Customs, Good Housekeeping and CU labs are wrong.

You may want to take a close look at the FTC transcripts, especially from the Hauser and Gerde presentations. (They are transcripts of oral material so some of the words and phrases got garbled, but otherwise clear.) The labeling section of the Textile and Wool Acts are pretty clear that regenerated cellulose fibers using the viscose process -- whatever the original material -- is rayon (viscose in the UK). The FTC reps at the workshop admitted that they have not been enforcing it, but that may change with the new Green Guides. Why not be ahead of the curve? I have already seen other manufacturers using the "rayon from bamboo" wording.

Jo P."

My next comments:

"Jo,

This issue is not really about how the product is labeled. I will admit that it should be labeled viscose from bamboo or rayon from bamboo and we are going to change that immediately. We were not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. We were just ignorant of the law, which is no excuse. To further confuse things, 99% of the product in the market does NOT say viscose or rayon. It doesn’t really matter to Bamboosa whether the label reads ‘bamboo fiber’ or ‘viscose from bamboo’. It doesn’t change the product in any way, shape, or form. It will still be functional, comfortable, made in the US, and, absed on all the data we have available, a good choice for a textile fiber.

The issue is about whether or not products made from bamboo source materials into viscose meet certain criteria and whether the claims being made can be supported and documented. Is the consumer getting ‘truth in advertising’, would be the question.

You seem like a fairly reasonable person. Does it not strike you as somewhat odd that no one at that conference offered up any ‘good science’ as they put it? Think about this for just a minute. Numerous tests have been conducted in China, Japan, India and the US to evaluate the antimicrobial properties, or lack thereof, of viscose from bamboo. The tests that we conducted and the tests that we have seen show the fiber has antimicrobial properties. So, that’s what you have on the one hand.

On the other hand you have a bunch of people sitting around and saying, ‘Well, I haven’t seen any evidence that viscose from bamboo is antimicrobial, so I’m not sure. What’s really needed is good science.’ Do you wonder at all where the documents are that show viscose from bamboo is NOT antimicrobial? If it is as obvious as these experts seem to think, where is the evidence? You would think that some of the bamboo naysayers coming out of the cotton, organic cotton, or hemp business would just go ahead and spend a couple of hundred dollars and prove their point instead of relaying on conjecture and supposition. You would think that someone, somewhere could produce some test results that dispute what we assert.

And, I would make the same argument with anyone who says that once it is viscose the source material is irrelevant and indeterminable. We have tests on bamboo viscose that quantitatively and qualitatively prove, using ‘good science’, that the source material is distinguishable as bamboo and is unique among source materials. Again, the counter argument put forth is D.C. was hearsay. I’m sorry but where is their evidence supporting their position?

So, what you wind up with is a bunch of people jumping on the anti-bamboo bandwagon armed with speculation. We have done our due diligence in determining if the bamboo fiber that we use has the properties that we claim it does and until someone produces some evidence to the contrary, it is nothing but a witch hunt.

I will admit that a lot of people, beginning with the fiber producers in China, have over-hyped this product. Using terminology such as ‘totally green’, ‘100% environmentally friendly’, ‘all natural’, etc., does nothing to support the product in the long run. What Bambrotex, Tenbro, Tanboocel, and Hebei Jigao should have said was that the fiber process was not all that great but they would work to improve it. They should have just been honest. And, because they weren’t you then had some downstream suppliers of fabric and apparel pick up on the marketing of the fiber producers and further spread inaccurate information. That was then counteracted by those on the other side who said that the chemicals were harsh, then hazardous, then toxic, then deadly. Pretty soon, everybody in the fiber plant is dead or dying. So it goes. It’s like the game of Chinese Whispers where you whisper something to the person next to you and they to the next. When it gets back to you it will bear little resemblance to its beginning nature. So it goes.

Jo, Mindy and I started this company with three goals. The first was to manufacture our products in the US. The little town we are in was decimated by NAFTA. 10,000 jobs were lost in the textile and apparel industry.

The second was to make a product as sustainably as possible using materials that we felt had the lowest environmental impact, from the raw material to the shipping carton.

The third was to act as a good corporate citizen and make a contribution to the greater good where we could and to provide our customers, our employees, and our vendors a chance to make a difference.

We know that bamboo is not a perfect material and we will work to facilitate improvements. In the meantime we will continue to produce a high quality, American made product, give exemplary customer service, provide our employees with an opportunity for a better life, and be as honest as we can about what we do and who we are.

I am not going to comment on your blog tonight. I am out of time. Maybe I can get on it tomorrow. Of course, if there is anything here that you think might be helpful to your audience, please feel free to post it and maybe that will be enough.

Thanks,

Morris"

And, your final replay:

"Morris,

I truly believe, from your web site and our correspondence, that you and Mindy are trying to be ethical producers. I am in the business (if you can call it that!) of trying to educate ethical consumers. The problem we face (together) is being able to communicate effectively. Briefly put, the organic food market has taken about thirty years to get to the point where the mainstream consumer has confidence in what it is buying. I'd like to see the ethical fashion market get there a bit faster!. I am going to take a closer look at the viscose process your are using -- I know there are alternatives out there that are more environmentally friendly, and if that;s what you are using, ikt may be to your advantage to put that in the foreground. As far as the labeling issue goes, most bamboo clothing producers seem to be behind the curve on this one. Only a few have used the correct label, and the FTC hasn't been pushing it. But I believe that the savvy green consumer will look at the "rayon made from bamboo" as a plus, a sign that the manufacturer is being honest.

But then again, I am just a nice white lady professor, not a marketing expert.

Regards,

Jo P."

Jo, all we want is for people to look at the big picture. If people think that organic cotton, no matter where it is grown, processed, spun, knitted, dyed, sewn, and shipped from is a better choice than something else, then that is what they should buy. We would just like people to be armed with enough correct information to make a good choice. I think you are after exactly the same thing.To say that bamboo is a bad choice solely because of the fiber processing is as bad a decision as saying that organic cotton is a good choice, regardless of the supply chain. There is much more to making a good decision than those simple facts.

Even though our fiber is chemically processed, the finished fiber is certified by OekoTex to be free of harmful chemicals for adults and babies. From the point it is fiber we can tell you every single chemical compound that touches that product until it is shipped out the door as a finished product. And there is not a single chemical that we use that is not approved for production in the volume that we use it under the GOTS.

We can also document adherence to every Federal, State, City, and County regulation regarding air quality, water quality, labor laws, worker health and safety issues, and any other rules or regulations that manufacturing industries are required to adhere to in the United States.

Weigh that against an organic cotton shirt from Turkish cotton and made in China.

Jo Paoletti said...

All points well taken, Mo, except one. I am not "anti-bamboo". I also think that Bamboosa's website is a model of what an informative site should be. Your emphasis on American-made, sweatshop free products that are as environmentally sustainable as is currently possible is laudable, and you are up front with your customers about the limitations of current technology.

For the record, I am not anti-bamboo, just pro-consumer information. I like to know what I am buying.

projektleiterin said...

I don't understand how bamboo can have antimicrobial characteristis unless it's a feature that has been added after the production process. If you take a look at the production process - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viscose - I wonder how the antimicrobial characteristic of bamboo cellulose could be preserved during the chemical treatment, if there had been any to start with.