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Organic Clothing


Organic clothing, fashioned from natural fibers, by local farmers and indigenous groups around the world


A sample of Suzanne MacFadyen's most recent organic, sustainable clothing line hangs at Arrowhead Clothing in Portland.

     The pertinent style of clothing varies for each geographical area due to personal and cultural preferences, religious obligation, and the obvious, climate. However, while clothing may vary, it is nevertheless a necessity for human survival. The importance of organic clothing lies in that it would help eliminate potential pesticides and the toxic chemicals that are used in processing clothing. It would create more job opportunities on land where material is grown and/or animals are herded and in the businesses making threads, dyeing the clothing, making cloth, and finishing garments. By choosing to wear organic clothing one can support local farmers, indigenous and cultural groups involved in creating these fabrics and pieces. 

     According to the US National Organic Standards Board's National Organic Program, "organic" is defined as agricultural products produced in accordance with Organic Foods Production Act and the NOP Regulations. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.Organic agricultural practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues (pesticides can drift over from nearby fields), but methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water (Organic Trade Association). The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people (Organic Trade Association). 

Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

     Wearing clothing is not only enforced by law, but also by societal and cultural norms. It is essential for a number of reasons, including that it provides security by protecting individuals from physical harm like weather and in most cases from emotional and mental harm like ridicule from peers; clothing can even hide body dimorphism giving peace of mind and security. In general, clothing allows self-expression that can contribute to a contemplative/spiritual connection with the self. A meaningful livelihood can take the form of the production of organic fibers, or a job in the fashion industry. Also, by becoming involved in the field of organic fashion, one not only becomes an active participant in economic decision-making about the sustainable use of resources, but also finds new opportunities to learn from those who are experienced. For example, an individual may work with a designer and receive first hand experience, then later apply newly gained knowledge to their own work thereby creating a new product or design for others. 

Relationships to Organizational Forms

     The producers of fibers, yarn, cloth, and finished garments may all sell their products either through individual sales or through committed services or sales (if there is a long-term contract between producers and their commercial buyers). However, final sale to the customers is usually through individual sales. Immediately following the production of goods, sellers need to travel either locally or to other parts of the world to showcase and sell the product. Most everyone involved in the process of creating organic clothing, i.e. local farmers, indigenous groups, small enterprises, can negotiate  over prices while being in charge of producing and maintaining their product.

Groups of producers can also self-provisioning at the level of a household or in the context of community solidarity (where different members of a local community or neighborhood are involved in different parts of the production process).  Rebecca Burgess is just one example of a woman who has grown and designed her own wardrobe with the help of individuals within a 150 mile radius of her home in Northern California. Her story is one instance where this sort of self-provisioning and community responsibility takes place. If there is a high degree of local self-sufficiency, individuals could opt to cease to manufacture goods for sale.

Organic farm production involves the management of natural resources such as sheep, and the land and water needed to rear them. 

Once knowledge about the products spread and distribution methods are developed, networks may be established between friends or between individuals involved in organic clothing production and use. It is important however to prevent the emergence of power imbalances and hierarchies, for example by avoiding the creation of bottlenecks that can be used to control the system.  

Relationships to Resources 

     The resources necessary for creating organic clothing come from the land, minerals, living things, and intangibles. The land provides grazing area for animals as well as land for crops like cotton. Water is essential for both agriculture and in the manufacturing processes (for example, for dyeing). Minerals may be used to create pigments and decorative designs on clothing as well as be imitated to produce color. Living things like crop plants and animals are central to organic clothing. For example, sheep's wool is essential in a lot of clothing. Cow hide may also be used as a trim, and organic cotton can be the replacement for regular cotton. There are countless resources that can be obtained from living things. Lastly, intangibles like knowledge of craftsmanship, patterns and designs, are the basis for the creation of clothing. Without intangibles there would be no clothing. Needless to say, no resource can be compromised. Land provides nutrition, minerals decorate the clothing, living things are what make the clothing, and intangibles place all the material together to create the final product.

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Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity

Why Choose Organic Clothing?

     Opting to buy clothing from retailers who embrace sustainable options such as organic or fair trade products can eliminate many of the issues with nonorganic clothing. A few of the issues with nonorganic clothing, as explained in more detail by the Forum for the Future, are: the use of pesticides and toxic chemicals, inefficient water use in cotton production, and serious human rights abuses. In order, the world's cotton farmers use around 2 billion dollars of chemical pesticides, of which at least 819 million dollars worth are classified as 'hazardous' by the World Health Organization. Although there are huge variations between and within countries in pesticide use per acre, on average, almost 1 kilogram of pesticides is applied for every hectare under cotton. A recent study revealed that the average Indian cotton farmer suffers three instances of pesticide poisoning over a single season, sometimes leading to death. Secondly, because cotton is a thirsty crop the Aral Sea in central Asia, once the world's 4th largest inland body of water, has been depleted to 15 percent of its former volume. Lastly, in states like Uzbekistan where cotton production is controlled, forced labor, unfairly low wages and violence, imprisonment, and intimidation for everyone attempting to leave the factory tends to be common. 

     One of the strengths is the relationship to resources. Because organic clothing comes from the land, minerals, and living things it is fairly accessible. In addition, these materials can be available, as shown by Rebecca Burgess, within a 150 mile radius of the home. However, if transportation and trade relationships are planned effectively, buying or selling goods overseas can promote beneficial interactions between different individuals and communities. Another strength is the independence from the larger manufacturers, allowing for self-provisioning. Therefore, an individual can control when to begin or cease the manufacturing of their goods; an individual who is independent from the larger manufacturers is also able to control costs and the process of how organic clothing is made – eliminating the chance for clothing to be wrongly processed or contaminated by pesticides.That being said, eco-friendly processing does not compromise workers' health and helps reduce water and electric use and toxic runoff, e.g. non-chlorine bleach, silicon-free softeners and low impact, azo-free dyes (Hae Now). Strict testing also ensures the absence of contaminants like nickel, lead, formaldehyde, amines, pesticides, and heavy metals (Hae Now). In general, manual farming and organic practices have a lower carbon footprint as the entire process consumes less fuel and energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases (Hae Now). 

     The promotion of organic clothing also has a few weaknesses. An issue that may arise is inadequate knowledge of individual societies, specifically about the craftsmanship, patterns, and design – the basis for the creation of clothing. Because each society is unique in its geographic area, climate, religious obligation, and societal and cultural norms it can create limitations on material, available methods to fabricate clothing, and of course on resources. Also, organic farming can involve higher costs because it may be more labor intensive. However, the amount of product being produced is also important in that lower volume of production in a commodity chain can lead to increased transaction costs per item throughout the commodity chain, and thus increase costs while restricting the diversity of products. 

Barriers to the Success of Organic Clothing

Organic clothing is limited by the short supply of organic product that is certified by national or international organic certification boards (e.g., in the US, the US Department of Agriculture's accreditation program, which requires that all organic fabrics follow the National Organic Program Regulations). Therefore,organic clothing is only sold in a few places where the demand is strong. Because supply is limited, organic clothing is often times sold online, or in small scale boutiques which are not easily accessible. 

Costs of organic farming

Organic fiber production suffers from similar constraints as the organic production of food crops, which is that industrial farmers do not pay for the damage they cause to the commons we all share: the water, the atmosphere (modern farming adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than it absorbs), the soils (which are damaged for future generations), the ecosystem (damaged by excessive use of agrochemicals), and human health. Organic farmers however have to take more care of their land and have to pay for their certification as "organic," which leads to costs industrial farmers do not have to pay. This puts organic farmers at a disadvantage in the marketplace.

    According to the Organic Trade Association's 2012 Press Release, the "cost per acre to grow organic cotton ranged from $350/acre to $650/acre, with an average cost/acre of $440. Most survey respondents reported receiving $1.50 per pound for organic cotton, with prices ranging from as high as $2.40…or to a low of $1.35" (Organic Trade Association). Compared to organic cotton, the National Cotton Council of America reports industrial cotton, between the years of 2009-2011, to range from $364.37/acre to $639.88/acre; with dollars per pound to go as low as $0.59 per pound and as high as $0.92 per pound. 

    Thus, the high cost of organic cotton is a major reason for failure in the market. However, that is not to say that standard cotton is inexpensive. Both organic and standard cotton must be fertilized and transported-and most recently there has been an increase in transport costs due to an increase in oil prices (Organic Cotton Prices). Yet, organic cotton eliminates the need for pesticides, therefore eliminating one cost.

Problems of Distribution

The commodity chains for organic clothing in many cases have yet to be organized. This means that there is a lot of work involved in simply establishing market relationships for all aspects of the business, competing with the conventional clothing business, where such relationships already exist, and are negotiated for huge amounts of garments at a time. Therefore, organic clothing does not enjoy the economies of scale found in most clothing distribution, even for high-end fashion items.

    As a result, there is limited variation or diversity among products. Consumers want the next best thing, and they want it to be unique, just like the desire to have the latest gadgets and electronics, and having access to the coolest and newest IT clubs. This all becomes necessary to achieve social status. That said, variation allows multiple people to have the same product yet maintain that they are different and "hard to get".  The "boutique" nature of organic cotton, and organic products in general, could be used as a selling point (though in a niche market). It means that no other person is likely to wear the same product, and while this creates the diversity that some people are searching for it also explains why organic cotton is more expensive than industrially grown cotton – the small production. 

    Due to the limitations in the production line, small producers like DeLorme and MacFadyen, owners of Brook There and the clothing line, Arrowhead Clothing, are limited to what mills are offering off the shelf. While it forces them to be creative it creates a number of limitations. Large brands often times support companies who attempt to promote a cause by using organic clothing, but even they are subject to an increase in costs, especially market costs, when continuing accounts whose prices have risen on merchandise (Lapowsky). This causes companies to drop brands. 

    However, authors of Fashioning Sustainability: A Review of the Sustainability Impacts of the Clothing Industry, argue that besides the above reasons, there are several other issues that prohibit the success of sustainable fashion: 

  1. Fashion consumption – the increasing number of fashion items that we buy and then dispose of. 
  2. The intensity of cotton production requiring lots of energy, water and pesticides.
  3. Working conditions across the supply chain from cotton production to sweatshops (Murray).


Approaches to Creating Greater Abundance

Becoming culturally aware, therefore knowing where certain types of materials exist and likewise what patterns of craftsmanship take place in those areas. 

Recognizing sustainable resources, and purchasing products made of these resources so that there is less environmental destruction

Refashion or reuse clothing by purchasing from second hand stores. Also possible is to take old clothing and style them into new pieces by cutting and designing a new style. 

Recycle clothing

Establishment of small farms, specifically where textile fibers can be grown and animals like sheep herded

Teaching of craftsmanship, designs and patterns

     Potential ways to lessen or solve some of these weaknesses include: offering workshops like those provided by Rebecca Burgess in her community that would be able to teach young and old about restoration of resources, mass production by networking and slowly expanding can help increase production, and beginning small then, funding allowed, increase number of individuals farming can – while momentarily increasing labor costs – will also increase production if networking is successful. 

Replacement of cotton with either organic cotton or a natural material like hemp. "Hemp has many redeeming qualities…it is four times stronger than cotton, twice as resistant to abrasion,  and more resistant to mildew, soiling, shrinkage and fading in the sun. In addition, hemp plants need little irrigation and significantly less pesticide or other chemicals" (Forum for the Future). According to the HIA, Hemp Industries Association, Hemp legislation is planning to be introduced in Colorado to help create regulations for hemp farming. "Canada on the other hand has reestablished their hemp industry in 1998 and and it has grown over the past 15 years from just over 5,000 acres to over 50,000 acres licensed for hemp cultivation in 2012" (HIA). 

Standards for Fairtrade cotton that would help ensure a fair price for cotton producers, therefore somewhat lessen the overall cost of cotton (Forum for the Future).  

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Links and Stories

Eileen Fisher, designer of one of the most well known fashion lines in America, speaks out about simplistic wardrobe collaborations and what her company is doing for the environment and human rights. 

     Eileen Fisher's official website for clothing, her clothing is also available at Nordstroms.  

     Eileen Fisher's website for information regarding her stand for the environment, with links to organic cotton, organic linen, hemp, recycled fibers, and much more.  

A Successful, Organic Clothing Line : An article proving that organic clothing is not only beautiful, but obtainable. Whether through purchase or self creation

The Fibershed Project : A clip about one woman, Rebecca Burgess, who has grown and designed her wardrobe within 150 miles of her home. She calls her project the "Fibershed Project" because like a foodshed or watershed, the 150 mile radius of her home is big enough to provide for all the fibers and dyes necessary to create a diverse wardrobe. 

The Fibershed Marketplace : A website for individuals wanting to support The Fibershed Project. On the website individuals have the ability to purchase handmade goods or fabric and accessories to make their own clothing. 

Fashion Futures 2025 : Is a call for a sustainable fashion industry that would provide clothing in say a climate shift or in a future where there is a possibility of water shortages. The project is also part of a larger website similar to the commons. 

Hemp Industry Experts Address Opportunities for Farming and Processing of Industrial Hemp in Colorado and Washington 


150 mile wardrobe: local fiber, real color, Gandhi economy. (December 10 2013).

More information regarding Rebecca Burgess, creator of the Fibershed Project- a 150 mile wardrobe. 

Day, K. (August 5 2012). Maine women finding success with organic, sustainable clothing lines.

Forum for the Future (Stephanie Draper, Vicki Murray,and Ilka Weissbrod). (March 2007). Fashion Sustainability.

Hae Now: Organic Tree. (October 3 2013).

HIA: About the HIA: Mission & Goals(October 8 2013). The Hemp Industries Association (HIA) is a membership-based nonprofit trade group, which represents the interests of the hemp industry and encourages the research and development of new products made from industrial hemp, the low-THC oilseed and fiber varieties of Cannabis. The organization formed in 1994 and is the only U.S. nonprofit trade group representing actual hemp businesses.

Lapowsky, I. (2012). United By Blue's eco-friendly values sent costs soaring.Inc34(3), 99-101.

National Cotton Council of America. (19 December 2013). 

Organic Cotton Prices. (5 December 2013). 

Organic Trade Association(October 8 2013). 

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