Knitting Green: The Meaning of Organic
I think about yarn all the time, even when I’m wandering the aisles at the grocery store. My local grocery store has an area called Nature’s Market, which is devoted to organic products. It got me wondering if yarn could be organic. The answer, I’ve discovered, is yes. However, it’s a certification that’s pretty difficult to achieve.
In Knitting Green: Conversations and Planet-Friendly Projects (published in 2010), knitwear designer Pam Allen shares an essay on the process farmers and shepherds go through to don the label of “organic.” I found it fascinating and think it’s valuable information every knitter should know: it will give you a better appreciation for what goes into producing truly organic yarns.
Editorial Director, Books
The Meaning of Organic
by Pam Allen, an excerpt from Knitting Green
The tag “organic”” is everywhere these days, but one woman’s organic is another’s “not quite.” In the food realm, the emphasis is on the dirt a plant grows in and what’s sprayed on the leaves—whether we’re eating the plant directly or through an organic animal destined for the grocery store. In either case, the focus is on the farming processes. However, in the world of textiles, formal certification is a two-part process that hinges at the farmyard gate. For a yarn to be organic, the entire production cycle after harvest is also an issue—carding, retting, scouring, bleaching, spinning, dyeing, and finishing—all processes that involve water and chemicals.
In the United States, the National Organic Program (NOP), the organic division of the USDA, oversees the federal organic standards, which were mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and finalized in 2001. These legally binding standards dictate what constitutes organic methods for crops and animals raised in the United States, and products sold as organic must abide by them. The law also requires that all imports labeled organic comply with the same standards. USDA-accredited third-party certifiers, often local agencies, monitor the specifics of how the plants or animals are raised to ensure compliance with the law.
The goal in organic farming practice for plants and animals is to use methods that have minimal impact on the environment. Crop rotation and organic matter take the place of synthetic fertilizers that feed a plant but do little to refurbish soil quality or fertility. Genetically modified seeds are banned, as are toxic chemicals that might contaminate local environments, create a risk for the people handling them, or leave harmful residues on leaves. This isn’t to say that no pesticides can be used—certain treatments are allowed. For example, approved pesticides are especially important for cotton plants vulnerable to boll weevil. Given that the pesticides traditionally used on cotton are among the most toxic on earth, switching to less harmful products has been a huge environmental improvement. Farmers are also experimenting with other kinds of pest control such as pheromone lures that entice bugs away from host plants.
Wool fiber is certified organic if it’s taken from an animal that has been in an organic system from the last third of its gestation period. Organic sheep must graze on organic pasture, have access to the outdoors and adequate shelter, and be free of antibiotics. Organic or not, pests and disease are part of raising sheep. The challenge for any organic farmer or shepherd is to find ways to keep plants and animals healthy without resorting to products that are potentially lethal in the long term. It’s important to note, however, that the health of an animal is paramount. If a sick animal risks dying, it’s taken out of the organic system and treated with antibiotics as needed. But once out of the organic Eden, it can’t return to the herd.
In theory, as far as animals go, humane treatment is part of organic practice. The controversial practice of mulesing—slicing off a sheep’s hind skin in order to promote pest-resistant scar tissue—isn’t an accepted organic practice. On large farms, however, it’s an effective way to combat fly-strike, a disease in which parasites set up housekeeping in the warm, damp hindquarters of Merino sheep. Eventually, the fly larvae bore through the host sheep’s skin, a situation that usually results in the sheep’s death through blood poisoning.
Organically minded farmers are finding other, less brutal, ways to combat fly-strike. They avoid introducing infected sheep into a noninfected herd; rotate grazing areas between sheep, cattle, and goats; breed sheep for less wool in the susceptible area; and finally, they shear the sheep more than once a year—a costly procedure.
After the raw material—plant or animal fiber—has been certified by a local agency, organic certification of the final product is the mandate of the voluntary Global Textile Standard (GOTS), an international certification program launched in 2006. The GOTS certifier looks at the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, and distribution of textile products. Because GOTS standards are the result of collaboration among many countries with different farming and textile methods and cultures, the standards are as stringent as they can be, given the practical realities of varying material resources and what can be realistically verified.
The stated aim of GOTS certification is to: Define worldwide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labeling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer. To earn GOTS status, a processing plant or spinning mill must ensure strict separation of organic and nonorganic materials and equipment to prevent contamination. For example, a mill can’t spin organic and nonorganic fiber on the same equipment. Residues from nonorganic substances used in conventional farming linger on machinery and in storage facilities.
Material used in the process—soaps, chemicals, dyes—must be on an approved list. They must be non-toxic and biodegradable. Organic doesn’t mean that chemicals are never used; certain ones, such as formaldehyde are prohibited, but others such as certain optical brighteners—used by Wal-Mart in dyeing its organic clothing line—pass muster.
Processes used in scouring and dyeing must be earth-friendly and sustainable. Given that clean water is a scarce resource in many parts of the world, processing plants are encouraged to find ways of reusing it. When wastewater can’t be recovered, it needs to be disposed of in a way that doesn’t pollute the local environment or water supply. Two solutions often used to solve the waste-product problem are artificial wetlands or lagoons for storage and filters that collect solids for composting.
As might be expected, people who work in processing, spinning, and dyeing plants need to be trained in certain environmentally sustaining practices—how to conserve water and energy, how to use chemicals conservatively and safely, and how to dispose of them correctly.
It’s interesting to note that the GOTS standards include social responsibility as a criterion for organic certification (a criterion not included in U.S. NOP standards). Fair wages and safe working conditions—determined by local standards—are GOTS requirements. Children can’t be used in the production of the product, nor any kind of forced or bonded labor. Finally, all of the above must be documented so that inspectors have a transparent and thorough trail to follow.
Given that organic practices are often more expensive and labor-intensive than conventional ones, it behooves businesses that make the effort to produce an organic product to apply for certification—even at their own expense. As consumers, we encourage organic practice by asking for products that are certified. In this way, we hold accountable manufacturers who use the word “organic” on their labels.
It’s such an incredibly concerted effort on the part of farmers and shepherds to produce organic yarns, but their work makes a positive impact on the environment. I look forward to the day when these skeins are more readily available to knitters, so we can do our part in knitting green, one stitch at a time. To read more about the standards manufacturers meet to be certified organic, visit the GOTS website at www.global-standard.org.
Interested in more information on environmentally
conscious knitting practices? Check out Knitting Green!