"is what I'm buying truly organic?"
In the past 15 years, demand for organic cotton has tripled. Yet, production of organic cotton declined dramatically in that same period. How does that happen? Simple, a large percentage of sheets and bedding labeled "organic cotton" is in fact, not organic. So how do you know what's real?
To know if something is truly organic, always look for GOTS organic certification and always check the GOTS Database to assure the brand selling the product is certified. If the brand is not in the database, the product is not certified. GOTS doesn't have the resources to police GOTS claims, so always double check, make sure the brand you're buying is in the database. Don't buy lengthy explanations why a brand isn't in the database, it's simple - "not in the database equals not-certified organic."
For sustainability in textiles, nothing is more important than certified organic cotton. For certified organic cotton, GOTS is considered the gold standard because of the stringent standards and protocols. The protocol and breadth of GOTS certification and certified brands is awe-inspiring. Simply said, all other certifications fall dramatically short.
Below we outline some of the major requirements and how they effect you and the bedding in which you spend a third of your life.
QUICK LINKS TO EACH PRODUCTION PHASE:ORGANIC COTTON FABRIC FINISHING
GOTS Organic fabric finishing requirements
Other certifications chemical finishing requirements
False Claims of other Certifications
GOTS ORGANIC COTTON CERTIFICATION
GOTS is an acronym for Global Organic Textile Standard. The GOTS certification process is the most difficult to achieve in the world of textiles. Those simply seeking to jump on the train of organic popularity should think twice about pursuing certification - posers need not apply. A strong ethos of sustainability and fair trade is required as both are integral parts to GOTS certification. Yes, GOTS includes social, environmental, and health considerations in their protocol. Other standards fall way short of GOTS requirements and we'll show you the specifics.
Unlike other certifications, GOTS certification begins at the seed and goes all the way to the finished product including packaging. The first step is documentation of non-GMO status of the seed. The cotton yielded from non-GMO seed is tracked and traced all the way to the final product. Only GOTS certified entities are involved in the product chain including all inputs from seeds to dye to packaging - nothing goes into the product that is not GOTS certified; and, from a GOTS certified supplier.
ORGANIC COTTON BEGINS WITH ORGANIC, NON-GMO COTTON SEEDS
The cotton seed is certified organic by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) protocol. The protocol is audited, tested, and verified by certifying entities who audit for compliance with the USDA requirements. In many cases, the same certifying agent is also the same certifying agent for the GOTS protocol. GOTS accepts the compliance audit to USDA standards as the beginning of the GOTS process.
photo: organic cotton seeds, varietal MCU5, bagged by our seed-keepers in Odisha India (photo ©Alterra Pure)
To be classified Organic, the Cotton Seed must be of natural or natural hybrid selection and not a genetically modified seed (GMO). Examples of genetically modified cotton seeds would include Bt seeds which incorporate genes form a common soil bacterium called Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt).
Bt genes synthesize 200 different Bt Toxins as the plant grows - each harmful to insects. The gene coding for Bt toxin crystals is referred to as the Cry group of endotoxins. When the insect eats the cotton plant, the toxins work to dissolve and separate the body of the insect from the insect's gut leading ultimately to death of that insect. Problem being, Insects develop resistance to Bt toxin. In India, one of the most pernicious pests damaging cotton is the Pink Bolllweevil, which has developed resistance to Bt Cotton.
VERIFYING ORGANIC SEEDS: Most testing labs test for GMO's in a similar manner. First, we start with a sample of raw cotton fiber - the more stem and seed content, the better. DNA degrades in about 60-90 days from harvest in cotton fiber, but has a more robust life span in trace parts of the plant and seed. From the sample, we first test for a transgenic element called a "promoter." The promoter provides the mechanism necessary to allow transcription of the Bt gene in GMO cotton. The most common promoter in cotton is called "35S." If you find a promoter, you most likely have genetically modified of cotton. From identification of the promoter, you can narrow down the genetic modifications associated with that specific promoter. So the second round test for the potential GMO varieties associated with that promoter and determines which of those genetically modified cotton strains is present.
In the near future, efforts are underway to expand GMO testing beyond cotton and fiber. International Standards Organization, (ISO) is creating a new protocol for GMO detection in cotton from the seed forward to un-dyed fabric. Once fabric is dyed and finished, you can no longer achieve accurate results for GMO testing. This new testing will arm auditors and GOTS with new tools to assure compliance to organic standards not only in the field or in the baled cotton - but upstream to the factory, all the way to unfinished factories. This will allow auditors to back-trace any GMO cotton back to the farm and enforce GOTS requirements even more stringently. This also assures factories cannot blend yarn and hide non-compliance in the fabric.
In addition to Bt Cotton, other GMO modifications include include “pesticide ready” genetic modification meaning the plant will resist damage by specific pesticides. But today, most GMO cotton strains are “stacked” meaning the GMO cotton has both the Bt genetic modification and a “pesticide-ready” genetic modification. An example would be Bayer Crop Science/Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Xtend Crop System which is a triple stacked GMO with genetic modifications providing Bt, RoundUp® Resistance, and Dicamba/Glufosinate resistance. This is the mac-daddy of Genetically modified cotton - definitely not allowed anywhere near certified organic cotton. In buying conventional cotton, consumers create demand for this cotton which in turn brings these chemicals into the world, into your home, and into your bed where your spend one-third of your life.
In the USA, 96% of cotton is grown from GMO seeds - this is why most organic cotton, including Alterra Pure, comes from countries like India where big-ag GMO cotton is facing strong resistance. You can learn more about GMO use in the US by clicking HERE.
GMOS AND OTHER CERTIFICATIONS USED FOR COTTON: Oeko-Tex allows GMO's in cotton as Oeko-Tex has no restriction on GMOs. The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) allows GMO.
TRUE ORGANIC COTTON USES NO SYNTHETIC FERTILIZERS
ORGANIC COTTON AND FERTILIZERS: Organic cotton cannot use synthetic fertilizers. Natural fertilizer such as manure are allowed. There are some natural fertilizers that are just as bad as the synthetic fertilizers and should be avoided. Specifically, Copper Sulfate, is a fertilizer approved under organic protocols, but sees very little usage today. The approval for copper sulfate is on a year-to-year basis with hope that each year, it will be banned. Because of the tenuous nature of copper sulphate approval, most organic farmers abandoned it years ago. While not typically used for Cotton, Copper Sulfate is a legacy fertilizer used in wine vineyards in Europe, even carrying the informal names "Bordeaux Mixture" and "Burgundy Mixture."
In general, GOTS organic cotton relies on natural livestock fertilizers. Crop rotation helps organic cotton fields keep their vitality and in many regions in India, organic cotton fields are flooded for rice in alternating seasons.
FERTILIZER AND OTHER TEXTILE CERTIFICATIONS: Oeko-Tex has no protocol or prohibitions on synthetic and persistent fertilizers regardless of their effect on soil or the water supply. BCI has no restrictions on fertilizers or their effect on soil and water supply aside from mandating that the fertilizers be legal in the country of crop growth.
TRUE ORGANIC COTTON IS FREE OF SYNTHETIC OR PERSISTENT PESTICIDES
ORGANIC COTTON AND PESTICIDES: For organic cotton, pesticides such as acetic acid (concentrated vinegar) are allowed. Acetic acid can be hazardous if used in overly high concentrations and can damage the plants if used in too high volume or concentration. The MCU5 natural hybrid cotton used by Alterra Pure has natural pest resistance as part of it's natural features. MCU5 has a very subdued vein structure in the leaves making it difficult for sucking insects: the bugs can't get a grip on veins where they normally find nutrients. Crop rotations between rice and cotton create fertile ground, diminish soil pathogens, and help eliminate short life-cycle insects.
PESTICIDES IN CONVENTIONAL COTTON: Pesticides used on conventional cotton, such as Roundup and Dicamba, are strictly prohibited in GOTS organic cotton. GOTS certification allows no detectable trace of pesticide residue in GOTS organic certified cotton.
Alterra Pure tests for pesticide residue as the cotton comes from the field and again after the fabric is woven. Our testing uses a protocol including both current and obsolete cotton pesticides to assure an all-encompassing test procedure. We publish our test results on our website so you have peace of mind knowing their is both certification and verification in the organic cotton used in your bedding. click here to see test results.
In the area of pesticide detection in food, we are very excited that new technology is emerging to help all of us check our fruits and vegetables for detectible pesticides. Learn More Here.
PESTICIDES AND OTHER TEXTILE CERTIFICATIONS: Compared to GOTS, other certifications fall short in the area of pesticide protections. Oeko-Tex has some prohibition of pesticides, but allows some pesticides prohibited by GOTS. Pesticides like Triazophos (WHO toxicity rating 1) and Alpha-Cypermethrin (WHO Toxicity Rating 1) are both allowed by Oeko-Tex. (Oeko-Tex bans Cypermethrin CAS 52315-07-8, but allows the more commonly used Alpha-Cypermethrin, CAS 67375-30-8, which is a Pyrethroid pesticide, which is banned by GOTS). Oeko-Tex is a fantastic standard for nylon, polyester, lyocell, and other man-made fibers, but the one-size-fits-all protocol for Oeko-Tex does not translate well to cotton. Born of synthetic performance materials at the Hohenstein Institute, Oeko Tex uses the same standard for petroleum based polyester as they do for cotton. The OEKO-TEX 100 standards and protocols can be seen by linking HERE, in appendix V is information on the few pesticides that are actually banned.
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is the weakest standard with no ban on pesticide use, as long as the pesticide is cleared for use in the country of application and their is not testing protocol for BCI where pesticides are concerned.
COTTON QUALITY - MICRONAIRE AND BEYOND
Cotton fiber quality is measured and classified based on physical attributes including fiber length, length uniformity, fiber strength, micronaire, color, and extraneous matter content.
The longer and finer the fiber, the better the quality, assuming strength is strong. Finer yarn spinning such as 60s-80s requires higher quality cotton. (the "S" refers to singles, as in how many single strands of fiber are in a yarn). To weave organic percale sheeting, the fiber must be higher quality in terms of fiber length, uniformity and strength given the tension of the 1x1 weave. Sateen can accept lower qualities of cotton fiber as “floats” in the fabric construction are more forgiving. (floats are those warp yarns fed over the single weft yarn - typically constructed in a three-over or four-over weave). Learn more about percale versus sateen by linking HERE.
We could go on and on about fiber and fiber quality, so if you want to go down that rabbit hole, here are some good resources, you can link out to more detail: TEXTILE LEARNER - all about micronaire
ORGANIC COTTON YARN SPINNING
In all production processes, GOTS Organic Standards require that all machinery be cleaned. Additionally, a sign indicating “organic cotton” must be affixed to the machinery so no conventional cotton comes in contract with the organic cotton. Even slight contact can transfer pesticide laden fibers to the organic cotton which would cause a failure in testing further down the production line.
Cotton fiber arrives at the factory in bales where they are loosened, opened, and cleaned. From cleaning, cotton goes into blowing. Blowing picks up matted clumps of cotton and breaks them up so cotton fiber can be further cleaned. From blowing, we go into Carding where tufts are opened into individual fibers are aligned ahead of spinning.
The carding process also removes impurities and eliminates fibers that are too short. The output of carding is called sliver. Again, all machinery used for GOTS certified organic cotton is cleaned ahead of processing. From carding, the sliver goes into a draw frame where the non-uniform sliver doubled and drafted. Doubling is where they feed two or more strands to produce one cotton strand. From Drawing we go into combing where finer and high quality yarns are cleaned again to remove shorter fibers and impurities. From here the fiber goes into spinning and then winding of yarn onto cones.
Yarn Spinning and other Certifications: other certifications including Oeko Tex and BCI have no requirements for handling of yarns in spinning. GOTS forbids co-mingling with non-certified fibers - Oeko-Tex and BCI have no such requirements.
ORGANIC COTTON FABRIC WEAVING
Like organic cotton yarn spinning, the machinery must first be cleaned and a sign indicating “organic cotton” affixed to the machinery to assure no commingling of conventional, non-organic yarns or fibers. Yarn comes in on cones, but is re-wound onto proper feeds for warp and weft. “Beaming a warp” might sound like a Star Trek term, but it really means preparing the warp yarn for feeding into the weaving machine. Beaming a warp is very time intensive and serves as one of the primary constraints in woven fabric production.
Once the yarn is wound and warp yarn has been fed to a beam, it’s time to apply the sizing. Sizing is a coating that is placed on the cotton thread to reduce friction in the machine and protect the yarn. In organic cotton, sizing is often created from vegetable starch. For Alterra Pure organic cotton sheets and duvet covers, our yarns use Ran Star 100, a sizing from vegetable starch from a company called RAN/RSA. Our sizing is certified organic by GOTS and carries certification number GOTS-C 805917-01.2016. We won’t bore you with every certification number, you can find those details in our transparency section, we have no secrets. Minute details available by linking HERE.
From sizing application, the yarn is then fed to a weavers beam. This is the beam that feeds the weaving machine itself. Before reaching the machine (again, cleaned and marked “organic cotton), the warp yarns are drafted through the eye of the heald frames. Lifting of yarn designates which section of the frame is lifted or lowered for each insertion of weft yarn. The yarn then goest through the dent, kind of like teeth, which keeps the yarn aligned. The yarn then goes through heddles which separates the warp threads for passage of the weft yarn. I know, it sounds complicated, but trust me, this is just a summary, there are way more details and variations than we can mention.
Alterra Pure weaves only 1x1 percale fabric. This means we weave one weft yarn, then one warp yarn. We weave at a 310tc which means 310 thread count. This is a misnomer as it's actually a yarn count, threads are used for sewing. The maximum thread count on a 1x1 construction is about 350. But what about those high thread count sheets . . .
Thread count has become a marketing term and in many cases, a misleading marketing term. There are machines that can feed two or more yarns on the weft. In this case, your thread count could be considered 700 or even 1200+. But in most cases, the weaver binds or twists yarns together and feeds one combined yarn into the weft. This practice of twisted or bonded yarn actually makes the sheets less comfortable - but you can brag to your neighbors you have 1800 thread count sheets. The US Federal Trade Commission has indicated that spun or bonded yarn used to inflate thread count is misleading. In fact, at this moment, are a half dozen class action suits against many brands marketing misleading thread counts.
Fabric is then woven based upon draft and lift plans, among other details. The fabric that comes out of the loom then goes to de-sizing. De-sizing is the process of removing that vegetable sizing we mentioned earlier. The organic process is very important for de-sizing as conventional de-sizing can use very caustic chemicals. Organic de-sizing uses a fungus that has been modified through introduction of a bacteria. Think of this as something digestive, like saliva or juices in your stomach - remember, we’re removing vegetable starch. Alterra Pure uses Emocozyme-73 from Mirachem, GOTS certification GOTS-ONECERT-06-1260. After going through de-sizing, the fabric is ready for finishing.
ORGANIC COTTON FABRIC FINISHING
Fabric finishing is the most scrutinized process in the GOTS Organic Certification. Conventional finishing uses chemistry that is dangerous to humans and environmentally disastrous if released in the water supply. For a finishing compound to become certified as Organic for GOTS, there are a number of requirements, but we will focus on four.
First, nothing dangerous to humans working in the finishing process. Second, the compound must be biodegradable according to OECD requirements (typically, requires 70% biodegrading in 28 days or less). Alterra Pure shares the OECD results for every compound we use, as well as the source, makeup, and GOTS certification. Finally items three and four, are the BOD (biological oxygen demand) and COD (chemical oxygen demand) - these are measures of Oxygen demand the compound require for degeneration by both chemical and biological means if released into a water system. Low impact solutions are zero to low BOD/COD to assure oxygen is not depleted. Depletion of oxygen effects aquatic plants or wildlife. All GOTS certified solutions are low to zero BOD and COD. The factory for Alterra Pure has no discharge of liquid as they capture, recycle, and reuse all water (removed solids are taken by the Indian government and used in manufacturing, as bricks). Again, every compound is listed with certification and composition details. Link here to see the solutions used in production and processing for Alterra Pure's Organic Cotton Sheets and other products: LINK.
FORMALDEHYDE. First off, Formaldehyde is banned in GOTS Organic Certified Cotton products - none, nada, can't have it, end of story. Formaldehyde is used in textiles as an anti-wrinkle treatment and to aid dye penetration. GOTS allows no detectable Formaldehyde. And, while there are non-formaldehyde treatments to reduce wrinkles, they wash out quite quickly - so why use them? Alterra Pure uses no anti-wrinkle treatments, formaldehyde or otherwise. Wrinkled sheets are the new luxury.
ORGANIC FABRIC FINISHING VERSUS OTHER CERTIFICATIONS:
Oeko-Tex Certification allows formaldehyde in your bedding and sheets. Oeko-Tex allows 75ppm of formaldehyde in bedding and clothing designated to be against skin. For blankets or items not designated to be "against the skin", Oeko-Tex allows 300ppm of formaldehyde residue. Oeko-Tex as a one-size-fits-all certification, all fibers including polyester, nylon, cotton, and rayon take the same certification protocol. In terms of other chemistry, Oeko-Tex has no requirement for fluids released into the water supply, as long as no prohibited chemicals remain in the finished fabric. BCI, or the "Better Cotton Initiative" has no protocol for fabric finishing.
ORGANIC COTTON SHEET AND DUVET MANUFACTURING
Once fabric is finished and dyed, we move on to production. Fabric is cut, bundled, and sewn by style and size. GOTS certifies the manufacture process to assure that content of the finished product is, at minimum, 95% GOTS certified organic cotton, Trims like labels and elastic in our fitted sheets are allowed where natural alternatives are not allowable or workable. However, when natural alternatives are available, such as buttons, GOTS requires these to be natural. Alterra Pure uses natural, coconut buttons. The cut and sew facility and factory is measured for social compliance as much as material integrity to assure workers are treated well and paid fairly.
Other certifications and their requirements for cut and sew. Oeko-Tex allows 300ppm of formaldehyde in the trims used and has no allowable maximum percentage of trims as part of the whole item. BCI has no protocols or requirements.
PACKAGING OF THE HOME TEXTILES
The final product is then packaged. GOTS organic certification requires paper used in packaging to be recycled and no use of plastic or non-organic cotton may be used in packaging. Alterra Pure uses recycled paper and also up-cycles scrap cotton to create the outer paper in our packaging. Cardboard inserts are also created from recycled cardboard.
Alterra Pure packaging of recycled paper and up-cycled cotton ©2019 Alterra Pure
PACKAGING FOR OEKO-TEX AND BCI COTTON BEDDING: Neither Oeko-Tex or BCI have protocols or requirements for packaging of their certified items. The brand can use whatever materials they like in packaging without any regard for the environmental impact.
GOTS Organic cotton products must be stored separately from any other non-GOTS products. The reason being that loose fibers can accumulate on or in the GOTS certified cotton sheets making spot checks for organic integrity difficult. It takes only a few fibers from products treated with pesticides to change a residue test from negative to positive, so it is vital to preserve the products as they were originally approved.
OTHER CERTIFICATIONS AND STORAGE - there are no protocols or requirement for storage by Oeko-Tex or BCI.
AUDITING AND VALIDATION OF SUPPLY CHAIN
To assure there is no cheating, a comprehensive series of transaction certificates follows the transfer of all materials and products that are organic certified. Beginning with the cotton in the field, a transaction certificate is generated when materials transfer from one party to another. So if X pounds of cotton goes into a factory and Y+/- quantity of product is expected to yield from those pounds of cotton, any meaningful variation will result in an audit. By creating complete transparency in the flow of materials, any meaningful deviation can be audited and any cheating identified.
Alterra Pure goes beyond this certification by verifying at the cotton fiber level to assure no GMO’s and soon we hope to move this process to the greige fabric level. Simply put, there’s no reliable way to check for GMO cotton after the fiber has been finished. Alterra Pure also tests for pesticide residue at the fiber stage and the finished product stage. To put it simply, the absence of pesticide residue should have no variance between fiber and finished product.
Cheating occurs mostly in two places and mostly occurs those without GOTS certification, but claiming "organic." Farmers will sell supposedly organic cotton that is GMO Bt cotton knowing that GMO cannot be proven once the fiber gets into the factory. If a brand is selling something as “made from organic cotton” but has no certification, there should be apprehension in the integrity of the "organic" claim. Only if the brand produces a certificate with that brand name and is present in the organic database, can you be sure the product is certified and controlled from seed to sanctuary. Alterra Pure is committed to certification and verification to provide you peace of mind and a great night’s sleep.
OTHER NON-ORGANIC CERTIFICATIONS:
Oeko-Tex is a fantastic certification for performance fibers, polyester, nylon, man-made fibers such as lyocell rayon, modal rayon, viscose rayon, etc. But, Oeko-Tex is a mediocre certification when it comes to cotton.
Oeko-Tex is owned by The Hohenstein Institute: one of the most respected organizations for synthetic fiber and fabric research. Members of the Alterra Pure team are old enough to remember the advancements made in mmt moisture movement testing Hohenstein did with Gore-Tex back in the 90's. Recently, Hohenstein has developed new mmg measures for compression garments. As Oeko-Tex is a division of the Hohenstein Institute,. it should be no surprise that Oeko-Tex was born of synthetic fibers and applies the same standards to cotton as it does polyester or other synthetic fibers. If we were offering synthetics or man-made fibers - we'd be writing about the virtues of Oeko-Tex.
BCI or the Better Cotton Initiative was born of the desire for big-ag to have a label to get in on the wellness and environmental movements. BCI is a marketing label, nothing more. We'll leave it to one of our heroes to describe BCI:
“This Better Cotton Initiative is absolute bullshit: Pure greenwashing.”
-Yves Choinard, founder of Patagonia
Alterra Pure's recipe for a great night’s sleep calls for only the finest ingredients. And, we have no secrets, we share all the ingredients and process with you. In our next installment, we'll tackle the new greenwashing buzzword of transparency and the other brands won't like it, we'll share all their secrets, even though they won't.
So the question has been asked - what about those companies claiming "Oeko-Tex is better than Organic." Yes, there are brands and companies, most new brands, who know little about textiles who make mistakes. When considered against those cotton offerings who merely use Organic cotton (USDA certified), there is a legitimate argument that Oeko-Tex is better as merely using USDA certified organic cotton assures little about how the cotton is treated, finished, blended, or even how much, if any, organic cotton ends up in the final product.
As we've said, Oeko-Tex is a great certification for man-made fibers, not great for the environment, but good to reduce toxicity in your home in synthetic fibers; or, even versus conventional cotton. However, compared to a GOTS or Textile Exchange certified organic Cotton, Oeko-Tex is far from the best if for no other reasons than it's allowance of formaldehyde, lax restrictions on pesticide, and no relevant environmental policy.
If opting for Oeko-Tex, be sure to also check their database. There are many companies claiming Oeko-Tex certification who have no such thing. (buying from a factory approved to go through the Oeko-Tex certification process means nothing, factories are not certified, products are). For cotton, Oeko Tex is nice, but nowhere near the organic purity and integrity of GOTS certified organic cotton.