What to look for when buying organic cotton?

You've decided to switch to organic cotton...fantastic! 

You're probably checking garment labels more closely now and if you're like me, you might be wondering what all the different "organic" labels mean.

The thing is, organic cotton labelling like the broader fashion industry is unregulated. This means organic claims can be false or misleading!

In my experience shopping for organic products (including materials for my own brand), some sellers don't disclose the full information nor are they able to verify their organic claims. Organic materials usually come with a valid certification and sellers should be able to present it when requested.

Here, I explain what some of the different organic labels mean.

Organic cotton labelling

Generic organic labels

Textile products and garments with the label "organic" or "made from organic cotton" with no association with a credible third-party certification can mean two things.

Firstly, the organic content in the cotton fabric is unknown – it might contain 5%, 30% or 70%. Even if the label says "100% organic", we can't be certain of its true organic content. During processing, organic cotton fibres may have been contaminated with non-organic fibres. Sometimes, organic fibres are intentionally spun together with non-organic fibres into yarns, or organic yarns are weaved with non-organic yarns into fabric. The complex and global nature of the fashion supply chain makes it tricky to trace the origins and true contents of the fabric.

As an example, a roll of cotton fabric could have started as a seed in the farms of north Uzbekistan, ginned in central Uzbekistan, spun and weaved in Turkey, and dyed and finished in China. It is then sold to a Chinese fabric agent who exports it to Japan who onsells it to an Australian fabric wholesaler who sells it to fashion brands. Without proper certification, brands and wholesalers have no way of verifying the authenticity of the fabric's organic content.

Secondly, the organic cotton may have been processed using harmful chemicals. Research has found high levels of toxic substances on garments, including children's clothing from major brands. Many of the hazardous chemicals are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors — they are extremely harmful to aquatic life and detrimental to human health. 

Organic labels certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

The GOTS certification is the strictest and most comprehensive international standard for organic materials in the textile industry. GOTS guarantees the authenticity and traceability of the organic content in every step of the supply chain, from farm through to final product. 

When we buy GOTS cotton, we can be sure that the cotton was produced without the use of pesticides, genetically-modified seeds or artificial fertilisers. GOTS cotton is produced sustainably and farmers are paid a fair price for their crop. GOTS prohibits the use of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in all stages of textile processing and dyeing. GOTS factories are audited for their energy and water consumption practices, wastewater treatment, and adherence to the key conventions of the International Labour Organisation. This means that GOTS fabrics are not made by slave or child labour, or unfairly treated workers in unsafe working conditions.

That's why for me, if it's cotton, it has to be GOTS.

When shopping for garments made from GOTS cotton, note that GOTS does not allow the use of their logo on their fabrics if they were not cut and sewn into a garment in a GOTS factory. In other words, if the fabric is GOTS certified but the garment was sewn in a non-GOTS factory, then the GOTS logo cannot be displayed by the fashion brand. However, the brand can make reference to GOTS for their fabric and consumers can approach the brand for verification.

Organic labels associated with Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)

Many global fashion brands support BCI (or Better Cotton as it is commonly known) which aims to make sustainable cotton production a mainstream commodity. BCI adopts a holistic approach to cotton production based on its three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic.  

It is important to note that Better Cotton does not necessarily equate to organic cotton. For example, Better Cotton encourages the reduction of pesticide and insecticide use while organic cotton completely prohibits them. Unless Better Cotton meets all the criteria of organic cotton, it cannot be considered organic.

As with generic organic cotton, Better Cotton could also be subjected to toxic chemicals during processing.

Organic labels certified by the Organic Content Standard (OCS)

The OCS 100 certification is an independent third-party valuation covering the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading and distribution of a non-food product that contains at least 95% certified organic materials. The OCS Blended certification is for non-food products that contain at least 5% certified organic materials. 

While the OCS certification guarantees the authenticity of a fabric's organic content beyond the farm, it does not cover the use of toxic chemicals in the processing stages nor does it consider the labour component of the equation.

Organic cotton label

A premium on organic cotton

There is undoubtedly a premium on organic cotton, especially GOTS cotton. With GOTS cotton, farmers are paid a fair price and factory workers paid a living wage. The multiple levels of GOTS certification, licence fees, annual audits and compliance also contribute to the higher cost.

While organic cotton seems more expensive than conventional cotton, the latter costs more to the environment and human health. 

What to look for when shopping for organic cotton?
  • Look for brands with GOTS certification if you want assurance on organic authenticity, sustainable practices, non-toxicity, and ethical labour practices from farm to the final stage of fabric processing
  • Look for brands with OCS certification if you want assurance on organic authenticity from farm to the final stage of fabric processing.
  • Ask the brand to verify its organic cotton claims. Lily & Lord invites customers to check their GOTS certificate.

    NB: This article does not discuss the other sustainability certification systems such as Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX®, Cradle to Cradle Certified™ and Bluesign®  as they do not specifically certify organic content.



        What I adore about this brand is that we're creating pieces that children will want to wear over and over because they love it that much.

        Evelyn Leow, Creative Director of Lily & Lord