We often come across the fabric labels “Fairtrade” and “Organic” and it’s not surprising that they are often interchanged and confused. So, does Organic mean Fairtrade and vice versa?
Although the terms Organic and Fairtrade are fundamentally concerned with the well-being of humans and the environment, they are very different in meaning. Organic refers to the way the product is grown whereas Fairtrade implies that the manpower involved in the production of the commodity was treated and paid fairly.
Where the confusion may sometimes arise, is when certain certifications, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), include both environmental and social benefits.
In short, “No”, Organic does not mean Fairtrade and Fairtrade does not mean Organic. We shouldn’t assume that every organic product is automatically Fairtrade certified or vice-versa. Let’s take a closer look:
Organic fabric is that which is created from fibres which are produced and processed using purely natural methods. Organic agriculture was initiated in Europe nearly 75 years ago! The idea behind the movement was to create healthy crops whilst also taking care of the environment. The intent was to banish the use of chemicals in the form of pesticides, preservatives and fertilisers, without compromising on the quality of the produce.
You may not realise that in the case of pure organic fabrics, the scope of this concept doesn’t end with the production of the fibre. The processing of the fabric and labeling are also subjected to stringent checks that conform to the principles of organic farming.
How Is Organic Good For The Planet?
To create conventional, non-organic cotton, requires an enormous quantity of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. The primary purpose of these chemicals is to prevent insects from damaging crops. The chemicals used are incredibly toxic, can absorb into the ground and natural water supplies, and have huge environmental and social impacts.
Organic fabric is not only good for the planet, it also benefits farmers. Conventional farming methods require farmers to constantly be in contact with harmful chemicals during the farming process. When they are involved in organic farming, they are saved from handling such synthetic and harmful pollutants.
There are a plethora of other amazing benefits of organic, for a more in-depth look check out a recent article I wrote: Organic Fabric Saves Lives… Sure it does.
How Do I Know If Something Is Organic?
We can quickly ascertain whether a fabric is organic by checking for a “certified organic” label. There are hundreds of certifiers out there which is where it can get tricky – or rather, you can get tricked! Some fabric companies may “green wash” their products, to appear to be environmentally or socially beneficial, when really the standard means nothing. Some companies have even gone to the extent of creating their “own” standards… I know! Here is a comprehensive list of organic certifications, and I would recommend researching any accreditations you’re not sure about yourself, to make sure you completely understand it.
Here are three of the most common fabric standards you can trust, but be sure to see an actual copy of the certificate – don’t just rely on a stamp on a website. These certifications are awarded only to fabrics produced in farms and processing facilities that conform to the certifiers’ stringent standards:
This is one of the standards I tend to favour (all of our threads are Oeko-Tex 100 certified, for example), although it’s really important to note that this standard doesn’t actually mean that the fabric is organic – let me explain: Oeko-tex 100 standard is now mandatory in several European countries. It assesses the chemical usage and handling, water usage and disposal, exhaust air production, dust and noise generation, energy usage, general workplace conditions and requires an environmental management system to be in place. The Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 certification assures that textile products are tested to be free from harmful levels of more than 100 substances known to be detrimental to human health, however, it does not indicate that textiles are organic i.e., without the use of conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or synthetic products. The certification is voluntary, is conducted by independent third party laboratories, and requires annual testing to remain valid.
The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certification and organic certification may not be the same, but they offer equally critical reassurances to manufacturers, retailers, and consumers that the products are safe for human use. Organic certification ensures that textile products are produced according to strict guidelines
In the same vein as the Oeko-Tex standard, the European Eco-Label for textile products assesses a limited use of substances harmful to the environment, limited substances harmful to health, reduced water and air pollution, shrink resistance and colour. It does not actually certify that the product has been grown without the use of conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or synthetic products.
There is now a Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) which resulted when a number of certification and standard bodies formed a working group. This group is working towards bringing their respective labels under one umbrella, thus making it less confusing for consumers. The standard includes fair wage criteria too, which is why I like working with these certified fabrics in particular.
When a fabric possesses a “Fair Trade” label, it has been produced by workers employed under good working and living conditions. This certification is very significant when we consider the vices of international trade. The proliferation of unjust methods have resulted in exploitation of workforce in poorer nations. By now, we’re all familiar with stories of traders who push employees to work for meagre wages under inhumane working conditions. This exploitation is how they are able to produce fabric and products at cheap prices and reap huge profits.
The fair trade movement is aimed at spreading awareness about this injustice and countering it. Traders who apply for fair trade certifications are not driven by profit. When we purchase a fairtrade fabric, we can thus be certain that the labourers who produced it haven’t been exploited. These traders also contribute significantly to raising the quality of life of the working community buy paying premiums towards improving their healthcare options, education facilities etc.
Apart from specifying the minimum price, expected quality and adherence to sustainable production practices, fair trade standards also concentrate on bettering the environment. The steps taken include management of water, energy and waste and protection of natural vegetation.
How Do I Know It’s Fair Trade
Just like the term “Organic”, there are an increasing number of fashion businesses which call themselves fair trade or have garments which state fairly traded but are not accredited by a body. In some circumstances, they are developing pioneering work with underprivileged groups, however it is important to ask more questions about the fair trade standards they set out and how these are guaranteed.
Here are some well-known certifying bodies:
The World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) is a global network of fair trade organisations. WFTO’s mission is to enable producers to improve their livelihoods and communities through Fair Trade.
WFTO standards include criteria for working conditions, wages, child labour and the environment. These are verified by self-assessment, mutual reviews and external verifications.
We choose to work with WFTO members. This is one way of ensuring that the profits from the sales of our fabrics are going directly to the people who make them, and that workers are paid well and treated fairly.
The Fairtrade Labelling Organisation and the Fairtrade mark for cotton
The Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) is primarily connected to the agricultural industry. Its original aims were to guarantee good standards and wages for farmers. It began by certifying perishable goods like bananas and chocolate, and in 2005 extended this to cotton. The FLO has created a logo for all the goods they accredit. They further identify these certified products by using all capital letters i.e. FAIRTRADE, and a special “swirl” logo.
The Fairtrade Foundation is the independent non-profit organisation that licenses use of this FAIRTRADE Mark on products in the UK in accordance with internationally agreed Fairtrade standards.
Within the clothing and textile industry, the fairtrade mark only covers the cotton production phase, though companies are required to have a social compliance assessment for the garment production, (which is assessed and accredited by external auditors). The Fairtrade Foundation is working in partnership with other agencies to develop a comprehensive accreditation for the manufacturing phase. More information about the fairtrade certification can be obtained here.
Organisations That Shops & Retailers Can Belong To
Within Europe there are several organisations to which brands or retailers belong to, for example Commerce Equitable in France, the EFTA (European Fair Trade Association) (although it does have very dodgy looking website!) and in the UK BAFTS (British Association for Fair Trade Shops).
Some of these organisations are more developed with respect to monitoring their members than others, so it is always best to check their sites for further information.
They may not be the same, but organic and fair trade belong together.
As educated consumers who are interested in the well-being of both the planet and our fellow-beings, we stand to benefit from both organic and fair trade fabrics. I know we don’t stock every single ethical fabric imaginable, so we know that you may find it challenging to source fabrics which are organic or fair trade or both, but the most important thing is that you are looking. By choosing to source a fabric that is organic and/or fair trade certified, you are not only helping the environment, but also enabling the workforce behind the fabric to realize their rights. And that is a powerful thing.
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*All pictures by Simon Rawles