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What is the difference between ecological, organic and natural?

Every week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability.  Read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it with the help of Anna, here.

What does it take for a product to be called ecological? What is the difference between ecological, organic and natural?

– The word ecological originates from the term ecology, which is the science dealing with the interactions and relationships between organisms (e.g. plants and animals) and their environment. “Ecological” is thus a term that is often used to describe items that have been produced with care for nature, i.e. its organisms, biodiversity, complexity and long-term health. For example, an ecologically produced item has been produced without any significant harm to natural ecosystems. (The Swedish word “ekologisk” can be used as synonymous to the English word “organic”.)

In contrast, the concept organic is a more formal term. It is used for products that have met certain formal or legally defined criteria, which have been set up by a responsible authority. In the world of textiles, organic fibers or materials have been produced with minimum (or no) use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers and no genetically modified crops. Instead, certain farming practices are used to maintain optimal soil conditions, water balance, nutrient concentrations and plant growth. For wool production, sheep are raised with special care given to animal health and the surrounding ecosystems. Even the phases of fiber processing, textile manufacturing, transportation and product distribution need to meet certain environmental and social criteria in order to be defined as organic.

Globally, there are numerous standards that regulate what products can be formally defined as organic (or Swedish “ekologisk”). In Sweden, we have the Swedish label “Bra Miljöval”, the Nordic label “Svanen”, the European Union’s “EU Ecolabel” and the international textile label “GOTS” (Global Organic Textile Standard). In comparison, the central criteria for farming practices are similar, although each label has its specific requirements and scope.

The term natural is an everyday term, often used to describe that something has been created by nature without any human interference or aid. For example, cotton is a natural fiber in the sense that it originates from nature and can exist in the wild. However, being natural does not automatically imply that it is “environmentally friendly”. Large-scale irrigated cotton farming relies on large inputs of water, pesticides and fertilizers, in order to maintain high yields. However, cotton can also be grown at small scale, as a rain-fed crop without any use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers or other chemicals. As such, rain-fed (non-modified) cotton plants very much resemble natural cotton plants found in the wild, except that it is grown on a field.


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