Organic textiles in Australia

100912_3FISH_KAFTAN_62Poor working conditions and child labour issues continue to plague the clothing industry and some consumers are unaware that cheap clothes come at a cost to people and the environment. Certified organic textiles provide a healthy and ethical alternative.

Organic textiles are made in a responsible way – chemically, socially and environmentally. Organic cotton production uses no synthetic chemicals or fertilisers and less water and energy than its conventional counterpart.

Stuart McDiarmid has been involved in the textile and manufacturing industries for more than three decades. He believes the organic textile industry in Australia is “hands-on, word-of-mouth” but says finding hard data to support the market is difficult.

Companies such as fair trade organic clothing label 3Fish and The Linen Press are shining examples of Australian businesses “doing” organics and doing it well.

Natalie Dillon and her husband Marty founded 3Fish in 2008. The Woodend, Victoria company is accredited with Australian Certified Organic and Fairtrade.

3Fish works with small and large companies and organisations – fledgling brands and well-known names such as The Body Shop – that want merchandise to reflect their values. It also has a small retail arm.

Natalie, who recently celebrated the company’s win in the fashion company category at the 2013 Green Lifestyle Awards, says the past five years have been interesting.

“In that time we had the Global Financial Crisis,” Natalie explains.

“There has been immense volatility and serious downturn. As an importer, 3Fish wasn’t immune to that.”

Despite the challenges, Natalie says 3Fish has enjoyed steady growth. Natalie and Marty estimate 3Fish has sold over 270,000 items (fair trade organic cotton garments, caps and bags).

“Through this, more than 30 tonnes of pesticides and insecticides have not been used in production since first orders in August 2008,” Natalie says.

“Consistency is our big goal and we are achieving that this year. I think from an organic perspective there’s been a retreat from brands people knew following the GFC. People demand responsibility and ethics.

“There is definitely consistent growth in the demand for organics. We see it travelling around. People are developing more awareness and understanding of organics and the benefit to the entire supply chain.”

Joan and Susy Kennedy of The Linen Press introduced an organic range of kitchen napery five years ago.

“The birth of my daughter made us reassess the decisions we were making in the business,” Susy explained.

“Not everything comes down to the bottom line for me. We tested the market with a range or organic products and we were pleasantly surprised with the positive response.”

About 50 per cent of The Linen Press stock is certified organic. A range of conventional items is also available.

The Linen Press, certified with the Forest Stewardship Council, FSC, and Australian Certified Organic is a wholesaler and supplies gift lines to gift stores. Joan and Susy attend three major gift fairs – two in Melbourne and one in Sydney.

Susy wanted to remove the perception that organic meant more expensive and feels the decision to go organic was the right one. “I am surprised that not more people are doing it because it’s not difficult,” she says.

“Yes, there is more work involved but I am personally really glad we made the decision to go organic. It’s been a worthwhile decision for us.”

Supply chains_MG_1766

India is one of the world’s largest producers of organic cotton. Other countries such as Syria, China and Turkey also grow organic cotton. Very little, if any, is grown in Australia.

After researching, walking the supply chain and meeting farmers, 3Fish chose to source their organic cotton – hand picked and 75 per cent rain fed – from Maharashtra in India.

“We selected India as our manufacturing base as we could achieve all our fair trade and organic cotton certifications in service providers who are also able to meet our quality specifications in closer proximity to the cotton fields,” Natalie says.

“This limits the movement of our product and makes achievement of carbon neutral status more commercially viable.”

Susy says establishing the supply chain was a relatively easy process. “Our textile manufacturer already had organic certification with a recognised certifying body,” she explained.

“It was also important to us that our manufacturer was a good communicator to understand our requirements.

“We set up all the relevant paperwork to ensure chain of custody and we are audited once a year by Australian Certified Organic.

“It took some time for us to get all our systems in place but once the process was established it was easy to maintain the necessary procedures and paperwork.”

Global Organic Textile Standard

In July 2012, Australian Certified Organic formed a partnership with Soil Association Certification to provide inspections and customer service in the Asia-Pacific region for the Global Organic Textile Standard, GOTS.

GOTS is the world’s leading organic textile processing standard. It ensures that textiles are truly organic at every stage of production – from ginning, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, up to labelling of the final product.

GOTS means inputs used in processing, such as dyes and inks, comply with strict biodegradability and toxicity requirements, factories have functioning wastewater treatment plants to protect local ecosystems and water supplies, products do not contain any allergenic, carcinogenic or toxic chemical residues and core International Labour Organization, ILO, conventions are adhered to.

Stuart McDiarmid is the GOTS representative in Australia. He receives enquiries from people interested in entering the market as a wholesaler or retailer of organic textiles on a weekly basis.

But the chain of custody to take the product from fibre to customer is a stumbling block.

“The chain of custody means that every step of the process has to be certified to ensure it complies with GOTS – environmentally, socially and chemically.”

The partnership means Australian Certified Organic can inspect and certify clients to GOTS.

Australian Certified Organic’s senior certifier, Jorge Larranaga, says GOTS represents an important advantage over other textile certifications.

“It is the only internationally recognised organic textile standard that ensures integrity at every step of the supply chain, from harvesting through production, processing, manufacturing and labelling,” Jorge explains.

Susy Kennedy is a strong advocate of certification. “People have to understand the value of certification,” Susy says. “Certification is valuable in creating trust for the claims that you make about your product.”

For 3Fish, producing sustainable, ethical produce also means ensuring people are paid a fair price for their labour and employed in decent conditions.

“We demonstrate this by treating the owners of factories as business partners with the universal principals of trust, respect and integrity, paying deposits in advance, including pre-ordering of fair trade organic cotton yarn; we want our factories to make profit on our orders,” Natalie explains.

“3Fish prides itself on selecting and working with supply partners who treat their employees with respect, pay them a fair price for their labour, provide safe and hygienic working conditions and are in no way involved with child labour.”

Educating consumersLinen Press 2

Consumers need to be empowered to ask questions about the origin of products to help grow the industry.

“People need to ask questions: who made it, how was it made, what process was used?” Stuart McDiarmid says.

“Organics is very much on the conscience of the people in Europe and, to a lesser degree, America. Australia is there, but still a way off.”

Natalie and Marty believe education is part of the solution to growing the organic textile industry.

3Fish, which topped the table of leading Australian clothing labels in a recent report into the ethics of the Australian Fashion Industry, actively spreads the organic word – a case study on the business now forms part of the textile design subject within the home economics curriculum for the Victorian Certificate of Education, VCE.

Natalie says, “By teaching students at school about organics and the process, they take that information into adulthood.

“It’s helping organics become normalised. It shows people that options are out there and they aren’t a compromise to the lifestyle they choose – in fact they enhance it.”

Natalie and Marty have guest lectured at RMIT School of Fashion and Textiles, the Melbourne School of Fashion and Swinburne Faculty of Business and Enterprise, while Natalie also addressed the World Congress for the International Federation for Home Economics.

While some major corporations are bridging the gap, Stuart says more need to become aware of their corporate responsibility. Government too has a role to play in regulation.

Stuart says the perception that producing organic textiles and clothing is more expensive is ill conceived.

“Essentially, the cost of processing and dyes in the manufacture of a garment such as a T-shirt are the same between organic textiles and conventional textiles,” he explains.

“You find that the organic textile wholesalers in the industry are small operators and may not have the economies of scale that the major companies do. So, prices may be a little higher but in return you get a quality garment.”

3Fish believes pricing reflects the brand’s position in the marketplace in both conventional and organic textiles.

“3Fish does however try to make organic cotton accessible to as many people and organisations as possible,” Natalie says.

“Our pricing varies as the programs we undertake for our clients are always different, and tailored to our clients’ needs.”

This article was first published in Australian Organic magazine summer 2013/14.

For more information about organic clothing Cottoned On has some great stuff and can also help you find out where to buy.