As parents, we give a lot of thought to the food we feed our children. We make regular trips to the pediatrician to monitor their growth and well-being. We fret over BPA-free bottles and buy lead-free toys. But do we ever think about whether our children's clothes are healthy for them?
As more information becomes available about the health and environmental effects of conventionally grown and processed cotton, many parents are taking a closer look at the adorable onesies and cozy pajamas they put on their kids. As a result, organic children's clothing is becoming a more popular choice for many families.
The numbers reflect this trend. According to the Organic Trade Association's 2009 Industry Survey, non-food organic sales of items such as organic fibers grew by 39.4 percent in 2008. Organic cotton grown by farmers worldwide increased 152 percent during the 2007-2008 crop year, according to the 2008 Organic Cotton Farm and Fiber Report conducted by Organic Exchange.
Why buy organic?
Many parents might be wondering what it means for clothing to be organic and, more importantly, why they should care. Most of us are under the impression that cotton is a safe, natural fiber. But over time, cotton has become one of the most environmentally damaging crops in the world.
Convent-ionally grown cotton takes up only 3 percent of the world's farmland, but uses 25 percent of the world's chemical insecticides and pesticides. These chemicals are known to have damaging effects, including illness among agricultural workers, water pollution and damage to wildlife.
After conventionally grown cotton leaves the farm, processing piles on more chemicals. Turning cotton into a textile requires chemicals to bleach, size, dye, straighten and shrink. And then there are the chemicals used to make clothing stain- and odor-resistant, fireproof, moth-proof, static and wrinkle-free. More specifically, perfluorinated chemicals make our garments wrinkle-free. Formaldehyde prevents shrinkage. Petrochemical dyes are used to add color. Some of these chemicals are applied with heat, bonding them to the cotton fibers. Although the process includes several washings, chemical residue remains on the final product (we sometimes think of this as new clothes smell).
It takes about one pound of chemicals to grow three pounds of conventional cotton while organic cotton is grown chemical-free. In order to be certified as organic, a field must be pesticide-free for at least three years. Organic clothing is also processed and finished without many of the chemicals used in the conventional method.
Are organics good for kids?
Some parents are choosing to buy organic clothing for their children despite the fact that there is currently little hard science to tell us exactly how the chemicals in our clothing impact our health.
We do know that chemically treated clothing traps heat and prevents the skin from absorbing adequate moisture, which can be problematic for people with eczema or sensitive skin. Regardless of special skin conditions, many worry about the residual toxins that linger on the fibers.
Deree Kobets, the owner of the Wicker Park children's boutique Grow (www.grow-kids.com), says she opened her store because she had a hard time finding well made and stylish organic clothing and other nontoxic items for her children. "I wanted to educate consumers about the health implications of the chemicals in everyday household items and offer a safer, modern alternative," says Kobets.
She believes that choosing organic clothes is important for our health. "We don't want to have clothing that has been covered in chemicals right up against our skin. It just doesn't make sense to take that kind of risk."
A growing number of new parents are seeking out healthier clothing options for their babies. When Nora Gainer of Chicago was pregnant with her now 9-month-old daughter, she realized that having a baby meant she needed to make lots of choices.
"I try to dress my daughter in hand-me-downs. But when I do have to buy something new, I look for organic brands, particularly for the items that are right next to her skin, like sleepwear."
More organic choices available
Organic clothing is more widely available now than it was even just a few years ago. When Kobets first opened her store in 2006, she had very few clothing vendors to choose from. "The increased demand for organic clothing has really changed the industry."
Even big box chains like Target have seen increased demand for organic clothing. Target spokesperson Jana O'Leary says organic onesies and diapers are especially popular.
But one of the biggest issues with most organic clothing is the price.
Melanie Myatt, a Chicago mom of three, says she likes to buy organic clothing but only "if it is at a price that I can afford-and I am rarely able to find that."
Kobets, who hasn't seen a drop in organic clothing sales due to the recession, says her organic onesies cost $20, compared to the Gap's conventional product selling for $16.50. "I tell parents that it is worth it to spend the small amount of additional money to invest in a healthy, quality product that can be passed down to other children in good condition."
Parents also have the option of second-hand organic clothes. Amy Helgrin, the owner of Second Child resale shop in Lincoln Park, says the market for gently used organic clothing continues to grow.
Kobets says, "People are learning more about how their food is being processed and starting to make different choices as a result. I think that people would make different choices if they knew how their clothing was made."