OEKO-TEX and the Environmental/Sustainability Rabbit Hole

As I shop online, I see more and more fabrics advertised and labeled with OEKO-TEX certification. Maybe you have seen this wording, too, and wondered what it really means. The OEKO-TEX website reports this:

Since 1992, our portfolio of independent certifications and product labels has enabled companies along the textile chain and all consumers to make responsible decisions in favour of products that are harmless to health, environmentally friendly and manufactured in a fair way.

The company offers several levels and types of certifications. For example, the STANDARD 100 label indicates that each part of a garment “has been tested for harmful substances and that the article therefore is harmless for human health” . The more strict MADE IN GREEN level indicates that the product has been tested for “harmful substances in environmentally friendly facilities in safe and socially responsible workplaces.” So, not all OEKO-TEX labels are equal. The OEKO-TEX website describes these and their other levels with the criteria.

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is another group that has also focused on several facets of fiber production. In addition to meeting the OEKO-TEX MADE IN GREEN standards, the fiber is organic. GOTS certified means that the fiber “including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent third-party certification of the entire textile supply chain” meets certain standards.

Eco fibers

There is no one standard or definition of ecologically friendly fiber, but the Sustain Your Style group has an extensive review of fibers weighed against the standards of being:

    •  ​ Low water need
    •  ​ Low energy need
    •  ​ Made of wastes
    •  ​ From renewable resources
    •  ​ Chemical control
    •  ​ No soil erosion
    •  ​ Biodegradable

The group calls fibers “eco-friendly” if they meet half or more of these criteria. The following is a graphic from their site listing eco-friendly fibers.

Notably, Sustain Your Style also offers a list of fibers to avoid because of their environmental impacts. Those include (non-organic) cotton, (non-responsible) wool, (non-responsible) down, (non-responsible) leather, (non-responsible) cashmere, polyester, rayon, viscose, modal, bamboo, and vegan leather.

Because of the multiple factors involved, the process of choosing a sustainable and/or environmentally friendly fiber is not as simple as you may initially think. If you have reviewed information about sustainability/eco-friendly cloth, you may have come to the same conclusion. The puzzle is complex. For more details about fibers and processing them, The Textile School and Sustain Your Style  are helpful places to start.

Transportation of goods adds another layer of complexity to the footprint of the cloth. The United States has all but dismantled its textile production industry. With a few notable exceptions, most fiber is either grown, processed, woven/knitted, and dyed at least partially outside of the US. However, we do have access to a few companies who are committed to local textile production and sell to home sewists. One US company is Alabama Chanin, which sells organic cotton knit. As Natalie Chanin grew her company, she specifically set out to ensure her fabrics were US produced. Organic Cotton Plus also grows material and produces fabric completely in the States. Another company, Huston Textile, is producing cotton and wool fabrics in California. Nick of Time sells a collection of fabrics made in the US, but it’s unclear where the fiber is grown.

What is sustainable in the sewing world

Each of us will have to make our own decisions about what is reasonable and responsible given our values and budget. With that in mind, here are a few ideas to consider.

Use your fabric collection Enjoy the fabric and notions that you have purchased: donating (to most organizations) or tossing them will just add to the problem.

Carefully Plan

  • Consider the best pairing of fabrics and patterns. Sewing Pattern Review is a helpful resource to see what patterns others have sewn in which fabrics. You may be able to quickly assess if you’ll like the type of fabric you’ve got in the pattern you chose. Using a web browser to simply search for a pattern also often brings up examples of what others have sewn.
  • Make garments that fit your lifestyle and personal preferences. It can be fun to make frivolous items. However, if you are concerned about sustainability, the core of your sewing should consist of items you will consistently wear. If you are considering making a garment that is a new style for you, go to a store and try one on to get a general idea if this direction is worth pursuing.

Tissue fit patterns

To avoid a serious fitting problem and potentially ruining fabric, tissue fit a pattern. If you’d like help, join the CRS Pattern Fitting Special Interest Group.

Make better, make less

Many of us have pieces of clothing that might be replaced regularly and pieces that we wear from year to year. Consider how you can make more of your wardrobe with items that will last longer by using a higher quality fabric or a timeless design. Read Make Better Make Less on The Craft Sessions for more inspiration.

Re-Use Textiles

Be inspired by designers and teachers who use existing textiles, such as Christine Mayer, Ann Williamson and Michelle Paganini. Look into a variety of traditional textiles that used scraps and re-used fabrics such as quilts and Japanese boro.

Caring for what we make

Choose fabrics that can be easily cleaned and avoiding dry cleaning. Pretreat fabrics and then be careful about laundering them after you’ve made them. Generally, the washing machine is less damaging to fibers than the clothes dryer. Hang clothes to dry or only dry them until they are damp. (Of course follow the recommendations for each specific fabric. Threads Magazine has a helpful list of articles about how to clean clothes.

Looking through the lens of sustainability may be old hat to you, or this perspective might encourage you to think differently about how you sew. Regardless of your personal decisions about what you choose to make and wear, our hobby has an impact on the planet. Share on GroupWorks how you are inspired to inch or leap toward sustainable practices.

Here are other related on-line and print resources to explore:

Wendy Ward’s recent book,  How to Sew Sustainably: Recycling, reusing, and remaking with fabric, explains how to make simple clothes based on body measurements and includes a section on clothing repair.

ASG published ideas about how to use fabric scraps on their blog.

Pacific Northwest Fibershed works to “support and develop regionally grown, regenerative textile systems” by documenting local fiber and dye products in the local region.

Stephanie Triplett wrote “Which Fabrics Properties to Look at When Fabric Shopping” on Mood’s blog. This is a good reference for beginners and a reminder for experienced seamstresses.