Can We Rely on Organic Food and Clothing?
Have organic labels and the food and clothing products that exhibit them lost their reliability?Posted Jul 27, 2009
Organic food and clothing display their organic labels in boutiques, supermarkets and upscale department stores throughout the world. To each of us who purchase organic products, these labels and the products that wear them, represent peace of mind, good health and a clean environment. But does the organic label guarantee anything more than an organic product? Does it even standby the word “organic” anymore? Have organic labels and the food and clothing products that exhibit them lost their reliability? Let’s take a closer look at the organic label and see what we might find in the products beneath it.
The demand for organic products has spread rapidly across the globe. Consumers seek the word “organic” stamped on all kinds of merchandise including toys, bedding, beauty products, food and clothing. Organic food and clothing are the leading products sought by eco-oriented consumers. Eating or wearing organic is especially trendy around Earth Day but it makes good sense as well.
The health and safety benefits of these products can be traced back to their origins in organic agriculture. It is here that we find the brick and mortar foundation for the organic apparel and food industries. But does the mortar have a few cracks?
Organic farming includes the production of organic fruits and vegetables. It also produces organic fish and other organically grown food animals. It provides organic beef, lamb and poultry for our dinner table. It grows organic fiber for the clothing industry destined to become the latest eco-fashion styles sold throughout the world.
Organic agriculture is an ecological system that promotes natural chemical and biological cycles. It improves fertility and maintains a balanced and productive farming system. There are no harmful synthetic pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, radiation or genetically altered seeds in organic farming. Feeding plant crops must employ natural fertilizers while feeding livestock must employ 100% organic food. Besides natural fertilizers, enhancing crop production must rely on traditional methodologies such as crop rotation and composting. Pest protection must utilize creative natural approaches such as insect pheromone traps or the use of natural predators such as lady bugs and wasps.
It’s reassuring to know that all the beneficial components of organic farming described above are enforced by strict federal regulations. However, do benefits equate to reliability?
Based on the well known benefits of organic agriculture, organic food sales have grown about 20% per year. Organic fiber sales have increased at about 15% per year. The advantages of the pesticide-free organic label are apparent if you consider that in the US alone, one billion pounds of synthetic pesticides are released into the environment each year. It requires about 1/3 lb. of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to make a single conventional tee shirt (www.ota.com).
How reliable is the organic label? First, consider the organic salmon you may have eaten for dinner last week. According to Consumer’s Reports (December, 2008), “…the National Organic Standards Board recommended in November, organically grown fish may be fed non-organic fishmeal”( “which may be contaminated with mercury and PCBs”). Their recommendation would permit organic fish farming with“…open net cages which can flush pollution, disease, and parasites directly into the ocean”.
This type of recommendation could result in a two edged sword slicing consumer confidence in the organic label and slashing the stability of marine ecosystems. The pollution from fish excrement and uneaten fish meal can destroy many fish and plant populations thus affecting essential aquatic food chains.
The death of fish and other marine species along with dying plants and algae (first stimulated by nitrogen waste) results in depletion of dissolved oxygen by bacterial decomposers leading to further environmental degradation. Nutrient pollution, especially nitrogen wastes, has been identified as the principle cause of marine water deprivation. In British Columbia, the “49,600 tons of farmed salmon produced in the year 2000 contributed as much nitrogen as the untreated sewage of 682,000 people” (www.davidsuzuki.org).
Second, consider the organic cotton tee shirt you purchased online to wear on Earth Day. Does the organic label on it guarantee an organic product? If you carefully read the organic label it might read “Live Life Organics 100% certified organic cotton”. Here we do have a guaranteed organic product. However, according to the Live Life Organics’ Vice President, the production of organic clothing can include the use of toxic dyes and inks containing other pollutants, such as PVC, endangering the health of our air, water and food supply (“Planet Friendly Products”, Baltimore Sun, April 2008).
Essentially, even if the cotton fibers in the t-shirt are organic, the harmful potential of toxic chemicals for printing and coloring still exists. Besides environment impact, residues of these chemicals can irritate sensitive or allergic skin. Finally, the shirt could have been shipped without recyclable packaging and the clothing tags could be synthetic or attached with synthetic fibers.
Even federal regulations, such as those provided in the Organic Foods Production Act, are not “carved in stone”. The organic food and clothing industries are economically dependent on organic agriculture. Increased farming costs or reduced crop yields can have a negative economic impact on organic farming. The financial fallout can land on organic food and clothing companies and eventually the consumer.
Economic strategies employed by these industries to compromise expensive safety standards or even change them by lobbying Congress can potentially deface the integrity of the organic label. But what can we state about its current level of integrity? We can take the organic label for its face value and nothing more. Although there are rare exceptions like organic fish farms, if it’s an organic label, it’s an organic product. Its reliability is still intact!
In addition to many federal standards, both the organic food and apparel industries can follow guidelines provided by nonprofit consumer organizations like Green America (www.coopamerica.org). Green America seeks voluntary compliance with their screening procedures and can provide organic companies with their “Seal of Approval”. This seal serves to identify a “socially and environmentally responsible green business”. The National Green Pages can help the vigilant consumer relieve any concerns in regard to a specific organic company or product. Furthermore, the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) has also created their own certification requirements and has certified organic restaurants for almost twenty years (www.dinegreen.com).
Generally, the organic label can be just as comforting and safe as you would like it to be. Let’s dig even deeper beneath it. What we find might restore that “piece of mind” feeling to most of us.
In the case of the organic salmon, Consumer Reports also indicated that only organic fish may be fed non-organic nutrients. The requirement of a complete organic diet for all other organic food animals continues in effect from beef to poultry. Finally, development of Closed System Aquaculture using barrier technologies, instead of open net cage farms, are making improvements in terms of pollution and destruction of fish and marine plant species. (www.davidsuzuki.org).
Likewise, let’s reconsider the organic cotton tee shirt. New developments are on the rise in the organic clothing industry in terms of make a safer and perhaps a less expensive product.
Color-grown, organic cotton “on the stem” is currently in development. Cotton is now being grown in a variety of different earth tones without the use of dyes. Color grown cotton is 20-40% less expensive than its chemically-dyed counterpart. It provides “soft to the touch” organic clothing and actually results in a color enhanced product, after washing, rather than a faded tee shirt or blouse (www.eartheasy.com).
If more expensive dyeing (“off the stem”) is used, many Green America retailers such as Live Life Organics, EcoGanik and Emperor’s Clothes, use non-toxic or low-impact inks and dyes to protect consumers and the environment. Many corporations, organic or not, now use recyclable packaging. One particular company has achieved success using their “trademark combination” of positives messages, low impact dyes, and hemp-tied hangtags that can be planted to recycle into wildflowers.
Organic labels and the products that display them are still reliable. Exceptions seem far and few between. Selecting the nonorganic alternative means potential toxic residues of carcinogens, hormones, antibiotics etc. on the food we eat or the clothes we wear.
The decision to choose the organic label is really based on how much we value the benefits behind it rather than worry about the product beneath it!
Article by Bob Folkart, an experienced author on environmental and social issues. He is Vice President of Live Life Organics (www.livelifeorganics.com), a company featuring organic clothing with positive messages of hope, courage and compassion supporting the environment and our fellow man.