By Dr. Mercola
When was the last time you considered what your clothes were made of? If you're like most people, you may not realize how important organic clothing is, or why. In this interview, Marci Zaroff,1 founder of the first organically certified textile mill in the U.S., will help enlighten us about the merits of organic fashion.
Her facility is certified to the most prestigious organic certification, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), and Marci, known in the fashion industry as an "ecopreneur" and "green fashionista," has played a major role in promoting ecologically friendly clothing that is anything but drab. In fact, Marci was the one who coined the term "eco-fashion."
She's been working as a consultant for us for several years now, helping us create our own line of GOTS-certified organic cotton mattresses, organic bed sheets and towels. The issue of organic clothing was something I neglected for years, but after gaining an understanding of the global implications of how fabrics and dyes are made, I felt compelled to take action.
I am very proud to support the organic cotton farmers by adding a full line of high-quality organic clothing to my online shop. These products are very durable and built to last, while remaining extremely soft to the touch. Organic clothing can vary in quality as some products are quite thin and can wear out quickly. These products are made to last to stop the destructive cycle of fast fashion.
You can now find everything from socks and underwear to men's, women's and kids' organic, GOTS-certified T-shirts. The Dirt Shirts are made from cotton grown in Texas and manufactured in North Carolina and Virginia. I will be donating profits from these Dirt Shirts to the Organic Consumers Association to develop projects supporting regenerative agriculture, such as regeneratively produced wool and cotton.
I am personally wearing GOTS-certified organic clothing whenever possible, and without any unnatural dyes, as described in my interview with Rebecca Burgess. I know this may be a challenge for many, but the simple first step you can take is making sure your underwear is organic GOTS-certified and free of chemical dyes, which is why I am so excited to have the opportunity to use this as my primary underwear.
Fast Fashion Versus Eco-Fashion
In a world of "fast fashion," where garments are increasingly being treated as single-use items and styles change faster than the seasons, Marci's ideology is to fashion what the slow-food movement is to food.
"[F]ast fashion has … proliferated to the point where 20 percent of the world's fresh water pollution is coming from the fashion industry. The fashion industry is actually the second largest polluter in the world …
While people think 'cheaper, faster, more' is a good thing, where there's 52 seasons a year and lots of choice, at what expense does that come? Well, serious human and environmental impacts come from that. Ten percent of the world's carbon impact and 3 trillion gallons of fresh water are being used each year for fashion. Then there are the social ramifications," Marci says.
Marci has been in this business since the 1990s. With a background in food and beauty, she was able to connect the dots and translate everything she'd learned about food and beauty to fashion, textiles and fiber.
"I saw fashion as a very significant vehicle for transformation, because people love fashion. It's a powerful vehicle … I started a brand in 1995 called Under the Canopy, which was the first organic fashion and home lifestyle brand.
We went direct to consumer for eight years while I was raising my kids, and then launched as the category captain for Whole Foods markets, a 2,000-square foot Under the Canopy store-in-store, and grew that significantly through the years, [to] where we launched the first organic textiles for Target, Macy's and a number of other retailers."
But Marci's vision kept growing. Ultimately, she realized she wanted to be a solution provider and create a way to make sustainable and organic fashion easy for other brands and retailers. She envisioned creating a platform others could confidently use. And that's what she has created — a fully transparent and traceable supply chain for organic cotton apparel, accessories and home textiles.
From Degeneration to Regeneration
In the video, you'll see both Marci and I are wearing our "Dirt Shirts," made from 100 percent organically grown cotton. Notice this is not just 100 percent cotton, a virtually meaningless label. It's 100 percent ORGANIC cotton. These T-shirts are made from organic cotton grown in Texas by an incredible organic cotton farmer co-op, and all of the manufacturing takes place in the U.S. If you've never had the opportunity to wear one, I can tell you it's the softest material imaginable, almost like cashmere.
Best of all, it's sustainable, and contributes to the regeneration rather than the degeneration of our environment. These shirts are now available for purchase, and all Dirt Shirt proceeds will be donated to an educational project to expand awareness of the benefits of organic cotton.
"It's amazing to be a part of the solution. Conventional agriculture has gotten out of control. Cotton farmers, domestically and abroad, are really struggling in the cotton industry from the overuse of chemicals in their farming methods and how expensive those methods have become," Marci says.
"Ultimately, it's very hard for those farmers to sustain their livelihoods, not to mention the fact that cotton represents less than 3 percent of the world's agriculture but uses somewhere around 20 percent of the most harmful insecticides, and up to 10 percent of the most toxic pesticides. Over 90 percent of cotton is currently genetically modified.
When you look at organic T-shirts and organic clothing, to me it has always been about no compromise, breaking the stigma that you have to give up style, quality, fit, color, comfort — which you don't. On the contrary, when you feel how pure this is and how soft it is, it's because chemicals haven't broken down the fibers. Secondly, you can be really smart in how you source …
A typical garment in a supply chain can change hands seven to 10 times. When I started my first company in organic clothing, I went straight to the farmers. There was no supply chain. I had to build [that] up, which meant I could be more efficient, I could cut out a lot of those markups and middlemen, and add value to the product and ultimately offer a product that is not less, it's more."
Dirt Shirts — Grown and Sewn in the USA
The Dirt Shirts are part of my initiative to help bring manufacturing back to the U.S. and reignite domestic organic cotton farming. The yarns are spun and/or knit in North Carolina before being sent to Marci Zaroff's 40,000-square-foot facility in Virginia, where the sewing, screen printing and dyeing take place.
They use only low-impact dyes (which have less than a 5 percent runoff versus about a 55 to 60 percent runoff) that are free of formaldehyde, heavy metals, acetone and chlorine. The factory uses solar and geothermal energy, and even her printing method is GOTS-certified. This is where our Dirt Shirts come from. "This T-shirt is literally grown and sewn in the U.S., farm to finished fashion," Marci says.
The cotton is certified to the National Organic Program (NOP), and subject to the same regulations and methodologies of any other organic agricultural product. GOTS goes a step further by actually looking at the entire supply chain of the fiber product. To be a finished GOTS-certified product, the dyeing, processing and finishing must adhere to strict organic standards.
"There's no bleaching, which is typical in a cotton garment, and the finished textile is fully traceable from farm to finished product. It is the platinum standard," she says, adding, "It was developed because we can't use the organic seal on a textile product, because the 5 percent allowances that you get in a food product are not relevant in a textile product.
We have different kinds of 5 percent allowances in a GOTS-certified textile. And it is now a certification that has been adopted worldwide. It is growing rapidly.
I was on the original team of people that actually developed the GOTS standards. I've been involved from day 1 of this standard in the '90s. It's been an incredible journey to see more and more companies and factories embracing this, but MetaWear was the first in the United States to create a full turnkey GOTS-certified supply chain."
Organic Cotton Matters if You Care About Organic Food
Few people realize that the cotton industry has a major impact on the food chain, which is yet another reason for cleaning it up and transitioning over to organic cotton. At present, nearly all cotton grown is nonorganic. Most is genetically engineered (GE), and is heavily sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, in which its primary ingredient is glyphosate. While it's bad enough that nonorganic cotton clothing has these toxins in it, right next to your skin, a large portion of this GE cotton actually ends up in the food chain.
Sixty percent of a cotton plant enters the food stream as dairy feed. "So, if you want organic dairy, you actually need organic cotton, because that is the most nutritious part of the feed for dairy," Marci explains. The cotton seed is also broken down and turned into cotton seed oil, used in food manufacturing. Hence, if you eat processed food containing cotton seed oil, you're eating nonorganic, chemically ridden GE cotton.
"As we now are reigniting organic cotton farming in the U.S. with the Texas farmers and beyond, we will help also create a feed source for the organic dairy. Because there isn't enough. We're importing feed from other countries, which has issues in and of itself," Marci explains.
Of course, another major benefit of the organic cotton growing is that it contributes to regenerative agriculture, because when you're growing cotton organically and regeneratively, you're not engaging in degenerative processes like tilling, which destroys the topsoil and depletes it of vital minerals required for both plant and human life.
Organic Cotton Improves Soil Quality
Organic cotton, just like any organic agriculture product, helps protect and rebuild soil quality, while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. As such, it's part and parcel of the answer to many of our environmental problems. Organic cotton farming also contributes to the welfare and economy of smaller farmers, most of which had been pushed out of business by large industrial farming operations.
"The average organic farmer in America is making 35 percent more money. They are able to sustain their livelihoods. In fact, there's a study called the hotspot study … that shows household incomes are going up $2,000, poverty rates are decreasing and communities are thriving around organic agricultural pockets all over America. There is a good business case for farmers, not to mention, of course, the health, wellness and welfare of the farmers."
Slowing Down Fast Fashion
The average American throws away 68 pounds of clothing each year. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the world's landfills are filled with textile waste. That's a lot of clothing. Most people believe they're doing someone somewhere a favor when donating clothes, but the sad fact is, a large portion of it simply ends up in a landfill somewhere. Very little of our discarded clothes are recycled.
"We're living in a linear economy today, where people are depleting resources from the earth … We're also creating tons of synthetic fibers, which is another whole bucket of destruction. We're generating tremendous energy and water use from making these textiles.
Then ultimately, the textiles are just thrown away. The more fast fashion that's proliferated, the more people are looking at clothes as disposable. They're throwing away clothing the way they're throwing away paper towels. We have to address better materials."
Cradle to Cradle Certification
There is now a new fashion industry certification called Cradle to Cradle Certification, which addresses five core principles:
- Material health
- Material reuse
- Renewable energy
- Water stewardship
- Social justice
Cradle to Cradle certification got its start in the building industry. Its primary focus was to give back to the earth what was taken, with the aim of creating a zero-waste model.
"The fashion positive vertical was only started three years ago. I'm on the board of that," Marci says. "A finished product will get assessed for all of those principles [material health, material reuse, water stewardship, renewable energy and social justice] …
We created a certification platform for Cradle to Cradle at MetaWear, which enabled us to have the first Cradle to Cradle certified apparel ever done in the world. That's something we're going to be building on more and more."
The Care What You Wear Campaign
We simply have to start caring about what went into the clothes we wear, which is why I'm participating and donating proceeds from my Dirt Shirts to the Care What You Wear campaign. Marci explains the incentive behind the campaign thus:
"We want to empower consumers and businesses to care about what's behind the way it looks. It's not just about looking good in clothing. It's about feeling good and doing good in the world. When you think about caring about what you're wearing, it's about going deeper and saying, 'Where did this apparel come from? How is it being grown? Where is it being made? Who's making it?'
It's not that different from the Farm to Table Movement, where people are saying, 'Where is my food coming from? How is it being grown and produced?' It's the same thing.
We're waking up to our source inside. We're awakening to that desire to know what we're putting in and on our bodies as an extension of ourselves. It's not just what you eat. It's also what you wear that is a part of you. We need to be thinking about fiber no differently than we are about food."
Can Organic Cotton Compete With Performance Fabrics?
Many synthetic fibers and chemicals are used in the garment industry to produce fabrics that are less prone to wrinkling, absorb sweat, repel stains and so on. Some of these features are considered important by many. For example, while it won't matter much if a T-shirt is a bit wrinkly, when you're wearing a formal button-up shirt with your suit and tie, being a wrinkled mess within minutes is far from ideal.
Unfortunately, there are no perfect solutions as of yet, although companies are working on a variety of solutions to integrate function and performance with organics. Basically, you may have to make some trade-offs here and there. As noted by Marci, benefits like wrinkle-free and stain-resistant fabrics do come at a cost.
Many of these finishes use toxic formaldehyde and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and your skin is the largest organ for absorption. So, while these types of clothes may be convenient, they are harmful to your health and the environment. At present, there are fabric blends being done using recycled polyester made from plastic bottles and recycled cotton.
"The problem, of course, is what was in the original plastic bottles? What was in the original cotton in the way of chemicals?" Marci notes. "If you're looking at there being a solution from a waste standpoint, some creative innovative technologies are happening. They're there.
But you have to ask yourself, what do you want against your skin? Frankly, if you're looking at your clothing as a part of you and you care what you wear, for me, it's a no-brainer. First and foremost, [organic] cotton will always come first."
The Microfiber Problem
Another concern associated with synthetic fabrics is the creation of microfibers, which are now becoming a major source of water pollution, showing up in fish and sea life around the world, ultimately making their way onto our dinner plates. It's important to realize that when you wash synthetic fabrics, it sheds microfibers that are then flushed right out into our waterways, as water treatment plants are not equipped to catch these microscopic fragments.
"Microfibers are so prevalent that we're actually starting to really destroy the ecosystems in our oceans. Studies have shown that by 2048, we're going to have fishless oceans because of the amount of pollution and destruction we're doing to the ecosystems of the ocean right now. Microfibers are a huge issue; 85 percent of shorelines now have microfibers. It's out of control."
The answer is not to devise better catch systems, because the fibers ultimately have to be thrown away somewhere. The best solution is to switch to organic cotton clothing. We've done sophisticated testing on the Dirt Shirt and can confidently state that no microfibers are released from these shirts when you wash them. None — because microfibers are not an artifact of materials or textiles in general. It's an artifact of synthetic materials specifically.
Laundry Tips for Organic Garments
Since we're on the topic of laundering, here are a few tips for taking care of your organic garments:
- To conserve energy, wash your organic cotton garments in cold water. The idea that you have to wash cotton in hot water is not true
- Use an eco-friendly laundry detergent
- Avoid fabric softeners
- Never use chlorine bleach, as it is one of the most harmful alternatives. If your whites start to look dingy, you can use a natural whitener like hydrogen peroxide
How a Novel Dye Process Launched an Organic Fashion Brand
The original impetus behind the Virginia factory, was a dye process to build on. Marci wanted a factory model that would be turnkey with all of her values and views embedded.
"[For] the dyeing, because it's the most toxic part of the textile supply chain, I wanted to find something that could be potentially organic certified. I met somebody who is based in Virginia, who had followed the Grateful Dead around [during] his early years and was making tie-dyed T-shirts at Dead concerts and at home …
He loved to play with dyes. He figured out how to take the dyes he was using and turn them into a screen-printing process without the use of any plastisol, formaldehyde, resins or polymerizing vinyl chloride (PVC), by using seaweed as a binder. When I heard about this, I got very intrigued. I went down to meet with him.
I said to him, 'If what you're telling me is real and I can back this up by taking this entire process through GOTS certification and Cradle to Cradle certification … and I can build the operation around that, and … with all the cutting, sewing, the turnkey production, the fabrics and everything else that I do, we could really build a market here.' That became the catalyst for MetaWear."
In addition to her Virginia factory, Marci is now working on a second factory in North Carolina. "North Carolina's a really important place in the United States to build a textile factory because it used to be the hub of U.S. manufacturing for textiles," she says.
While we still have a long way to go, momentum is growing daily. It is, no doubt, a consumer-driven movement, but Marci is not a lone voice any longer. Regeneration International is out there creating awareness, and the Care What You Wear Campaign stands poised to be a tremendous catalyst to educate and activate consumers.
"It really starts with education. Did I have challenges? Of course, because I had to go out of the box on almost everything that I've done in this space that didn't exist. As Jonathan Swift says, 'Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.' For me, it was never about if; it was about when.
As Maslow's hierarchy of needs shows, we go from food — our first basic need — to clothing and shelter. That evolution is now starting to move consumer and popular culture to this idea that we're not just what we eat, but we are what we wear. It's not just about what we put in our bodies, but also what we put on our bodies. But it's been a long journey."
Finding Eco-Friendly Fashion
The organic clothing industry is still rather small, and it's not always easy to find organic clothing. Dirt Shirt will eventually expand to provide underwear and other types of clothing, in addition to T-shirts. The brand PACT makes GOTS-certified organic underwear. Other clothing companies offering organic garments include prAna and Patagonia, Outerknown and Eileen Fisher and smaller brands like Zady, Bead & Reel, Shop Ethica and Modavanti.
"There's a handful of these retail sites now that are curating all of the sustainable clothing, fair trade and certified-organic. They're bringing them to life. It's a starting point. We're all in this together. The more we connect the dots, the louder and stronger this message becomes — that we have to be thinking about our clothing, that fast fashion and the impacts we're having in the fashion industry are just not OK."
We've certainly had a dramatic impact in the food industry. Sales of organic food have continued to climb, so much so that almost all the big producers have bought out a large portion of the organic food companies. Unfortunately, once they were bought out by the corporate giants, the organic standards and original integrity diminished.
But we don't have to repeat those mistakes, and I'm excited to see organics starting to get a foothold in the fashion industry. After all, we're talking about a $3 trillion industry. It could very well have the same type of impact, or greater, than organic food. Once people vote with their dollars and companies realize the scope of the demand for organic products, they'll create them. The key is to drive certifications with strong organic standards, to keep companies from cutting corners for profit.
"That's another reason MetaWear is very supportive and partners with organizations like Regeneration International and the Organic Consumer Association. We want to make sure that consumers understand what they're buying. Unfortunately, the GOTS certification is not yet federally regulated. It's been embraced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it isn't under the same level of scrutiny as the NOP standard."
What this means is there are loopholes that an unethical company could use to fraudulently say they're GOTS-certified even if they're not, and not be penalized for it. At present, the system requires a lot of self-policing, and according to Marci, the industry is indeed quite vigilant. Anyone fraudulently putting the GOTS label on something will get caught and stopped pretty quickly. Still, the risk for fraud is there, so buyers are encouraged to ask questions.
SITO — Soil Integrity for Textiles Organically
While the Dirt Shirt is 100 percent grown and sewn in the USA, I am supporting GOTS-certified organic clothing globally under the SITO brand. All SITO products meet the same GOTS standards as the Dirt Shirts, but are imported from other parts of the world.
SITO is another name for Demeter, the goddess of agriculture known in Greek mythology. SITO supports our global mission for improving fabric production and putting an end to fast fashion. Soil Integrity for Textiles Organically — global GOTS certification — needs to be your goal for any new fabric purchases.
Without transparency and traceability, which GOTS certification ensures, it's easy to be fooled. A clothing manufacturer may call a supplier overseas saying they want organic fabric, but there's no telling what they'll actually get. Organic cotton can be blended with conventional in the yarn process. Or, it may be finished and heavily dyed with toxic chemicals in the dyeing and finishing process, or made under unfair labor practices.
Please watch this video to learn more about our Dirt Shirts and SITO clothing line.