The whole issue of sustainable ethical fibres and fabrics is very confusing and is constantly changing. This article started as a paragraph in an article about ethical clothing but as I learned more it was clear that it warranted its own article. As always there are pros and cons to each fibre type depending on your needs, values, budgets and current technology. To find out what they currently are read on.
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Is Bamboo Fabric Sustainable?
This fibre was originally heralded as the wonder fibre when it came to market, particularly because it 1) grows quickly, 2) requires very little water, pesticides or fertiliser and 3) takes up very little land but now we’re hearing that farmers in China are clearing native forests to grow bamboo and that bamboo is processed using chemicals know to be harmful to health. You might hope that buying organic bamboo would get around all of this but there have been concerns over the authenticity of ‘organic bamboo‘ plus a label of organic may only refer to how the plant was grown, it says nothing of how it was processed. So ‘organic bamboo’ could be treated with the most toxic of chemicals, which most likely still continue to exist in the worn garment. If you do want to buy organic bamboo aim to get one that also certified by OEKO-TEX as being free of the most harmful chemicals. Personally I’m not a fan of bamboo for the reasons listed above plus the fact that it’s not a locally grown crop. We’re now starting to see companies being prosecuted for claiming that bamboo is an environmentally friendly fabric. If you’d like to read more about this fabric here’s a really detailed article by a sustainable fashion journalist that I follow, Eco Cult.
Is Cotton Sustainable?
100% Cotton has been my go-to fabric for years because I know it’s recyclable and compostable. As the price of certified fairtrade and organic cotton comes down we’ve been able to buy this instead of non-organic, which is far better both environmentally and for social justice reasons.
Non-organic cotton has often been claimed to be the ‘dirtiest’ crop in terms of pesticide usage. Even the GM cotton, which is supposed to be more resistant to pests, must be sprayed by chemicals that are banned in the west.
And if all that wasn’t bad enough child labour is often used at various stages of the cotton production process, and after the plants have been harvested, the conditions under which workers refine and process the raw cotton can amount to bonded labour.
Buying organic cotton avoids supporting an industry that lock farmers into a never-ending dependency on a GMO seed supplier, In 2014 genetically modified (GMO) cotton seeds accounted for 95% of the cotton market in India, which some claim has led to more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers committing suicide since 1995.
Cotton & Water
In India alone, a country where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production would be sufficient to provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year.
You may have heard the argument that organic cotton uses more water than non-organic. This hasn’t been found to be the case in a study by the Soil Association. According to their research organic cotton uses 91% less water than non-organic cotton. You can find out more about the environmental benefits of organic cotton in this referenced article by Eco Stylist.
Is cotton really as bad as they say?
I came across this interesting article that challenges the argument that cotton is a thirsty crop that requires a lot of pesticides, and another challenging criticism of denim. It’s interesting to read alternative points of view but it didn’t change my point of view.
Buying fairtrade or organic cotton is a better option but we still need to treat cotton as a precious resource, . Wasting a resource-intensive material like cotton is still unsustainable, even if cotton does requires less water and less pesticides than is oft quoted in the media.
Which organic cotton to buy
I always aim to buy certified goods when I can and GOTS is the label to look for on organic cotton, and if you can buy European grown cotton all the better.
Recently I’m seeing more cotton in the shops with the label Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) on it. Moral Fibres has written an excellent review on the greenness and ethics of BCI cotton., In summary, it’s not that green.
Is Hemp a Wonder Material?
Hemp is often cited as a sustainable fibre and is very popular with ‘sustainable / ethical’ clothing brands for it’s durability and ‘sustainability’. Firstly it’s said to require less water to grow than conventional cotton and some brands claim that it needs no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers to grow. If this is the case then I don’t understand why it seems impossible to get certified organic hemp fabric anywhere. On their blog the company O Ecotextiles has a very interesting article on why they use certified organic linen in lieu of conventional hemp.
What is Banatex
Banana Leather (Bananatex), which is made from Banana skin fibre, has been granted a gold Cradle to Cradle certification. and has been shown to be compostable when tested against EN14046, for non-plastic packaging.
What is Sustainable Viscose?
A new fabric that quite a few of ‘sustainable, ethical’ companies use is rayon or viscose. These fabrics are made using the fibres from plants but involve the use of toxic chemicals to convert it to fabric.
Regular rayon is generally not sustainable and is linked to rainforest deforestation and pollution so bad that in one village 60 people fell ill and lost the ability to walk. Which is why a lot of eco retailers instead use the brands Modal, Lyocell or Tencel, which is made by an Austrian company Lenzig. Lenzig is an Austrian company that provides a lot of information on how it makes it’s fabric and has had it tested for biodegradability / compostability.
Their Tencel fabric is made as follows; wood is harvested, processed into chips, pulped and dried into sheets ready for processing. Next, the sheets are then broken up and dissolved in a non-toxic amine oxide solution, turning into a clear, viscous liquid. The long Tencel fibres are created by forcing this liquid through spinnerets dotted with tiny holes. These are then set in a bath of dilute amine oxide solution before being washed in demineralised water. The entire manufacturing process to produce Tencel takes just 2 hours and it is practically a ‘closed loop’ system with approximately 98% of the amine oxide solvent recaptured and recycled back through the process.
The company provide me with the results of it’s tests on the biodegradability / compostability of Lenzig Modal, Viscose and Tencel. In summary these fabric pass the test for home composting but just be aware that this doesn’t mean that they degrade completely into the soil, it simply means that more than 90% disintegrated after 6 months, that no more than 10% of the remaining material is bigger than 2mm and that residual heavy metals and fluorine are below permitted levels.
I have read that research into microplastics in our oceans has shown that another biodegradable fibre, rayon, made up 56.9% of the total fibres found in the ocean by the research team. That’s not to say that these fibres won’t degrade eventually but it would appear that it doesn’t happen very quickly and may still be problematic for wildlife until it does.
You can read more on the sustainability of Tencel and the sustainability of Modal Rayon here, and here is another good article on the sustainability of regular viscose, and another article on viscose / rayon by my fav sustainable fashion journalist that I mentioned above.
Anecdotally I’ve heard that printed Tencel tends to fade after few years.
What is Soy Fabric?
I’ve also seen some companies offering garments in Soy fabric, which according to the 1 Million Womens’ A-Z Glossary of Sustainable Fibres is a by-product of soy foods (like tofu) that undergoes chemical manipulation be converted into fabric. Although soy fabric is essentially a natural fibre, toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are used in the production process.
Is Silk Sustainable or Ethical?
Some ‘sustainable / ethical’ brands that use silk make no reference to ethical harvesting of the fibre, which is far from ethical in my opinion. Traditionally silk worms are boiled alive as part of the silk harvesting process, and then sometimes eaten by the workers. Peace / Ashima or Vegan silk is harvested without killing the worm, instead the worms are allowed to mature and cut it’s way out of the cocoon before the silk is harvested. Unfortunately though, silk worms have been so over bred that the emerging moth can’t fly or eat and so lives only a day or so anyway. This form of silk has a rougher texture and is harder to harvest resulting in higher prices for the final silk fabric. Here’s an excellent article on the environmental and ethical pros and cons of silk.
Is Wool Sustainable or Ethical?
This material has been around for centuries and for good reason, it is renewable, naturally anti-bacterial and a good insulator. It’s also compostable if not blended with synthetic fibres.
Some argue that the herding of sheep, if done sustainably, can actually be environmentally beneficial, but there currently is no certification scheme for sustainable sheep rearing so you’d have to judge this on a brand by brand basis. The clothing brand North Face offers a climate positive beanie made from wool grown in the USA by the sustainable family farm Bare Ranch. They state that their farming practices will sequester 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is equivalent to the emissions of 850 passenger vehicles. (source: Ecocult.com).
If you are buying wool aim to buy certified muesling-free wool. I won’t go into the details of this horrific practice, so just trust me on this one.
If you want to learn more about the sustainability of wool production check out Fibreshed, a US based non-profit organisation that helps measure and implement planet-positive fibre growing and processing methods.
Is Recycled Plastic Fabric Sustainable?
I’m undecided about clothing made from recycled plastic. On the one hand it seems like a sensible way to address the mountain of waste we seem to be continually creating but some argue that breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all. In 2016 researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara reported that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash and that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibres as new jackets. “These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to findings published on the researchers’ website. Gregg Treinish, founder and executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, which oversees the research linked to above, said studies have led him to stop eating anything from the water!
If you do opt for fabric made from recycled plastic make sure it’s post-consumer, i.e. been used before being recycled, and if possible certified by Rpet, or GRS, two private certification system that verifies the percentage and source of recycled content.
Econyl, made by Aquafil, is a brand of recycled nylon that is made from discard fishing nets. The maker of Econyl states it is infinitely recyclable and launched a recovery programme to achieve this, but in general recycled plastic fibres and fabric are not recyclable, effectively meaning they’re only recycled once, which is hardly sustainable.
You can read more about the pros and cons of recycled plastic clothing here.
What is Microfibre Fabric?
It might see strange to microfibre included articles about sustainable ethical fibres and you’d be right! I’ve added it in because I’ve seen it listed as a material used to make vegan shoes. Microfibers are 100 times finer than a human hair and is typically made from polyester and nylon, i.e. plastic.
You can buy OEKO-TEX certified microfibre, which has been tested for some toxic chemicals at the end of manufacture. It’s worth noting though, that even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure, the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to toxic chemicals.
I’ve also come across ‘eco-friendly’ microfibre, which is said to require less water to manufacture. The makers of one brand of eco-friendly microfibre, Sensuede, claim that their product is eco-friendly because it uses recycled material and therefore takes less energy to make than conventional microfibre. Having looked at their website it’s unclear if the polyester and plastic bottles they recycle is post-consumer, i.e. used first. They do state that ‘unlike other man-made suedes, Sensuede is made in a contained, water-borne suspension system. No harmful solvents are used and no toxic substances are discharged into the environment.’ Ecotextiles give a good account of why they don’t feel the product justifies the title of eco-friendly, and I have to agree with them. If you have to use microfibre then Sensuede, or similar, might be the best way to go but lets be honest who actually needs to use microfibre?
How can Leather be Sustainable or Ethical?
Animal leather is a durable natural material that is repairable and compostable, depending on what it’s coated with. Vegetable tanned leather is available but standard leather is tanned (cured) using heavy metal like chrome or nickel, which if not disposed of carefully can pollute water sources.
Some argue that cow leather is sustainable because it’s a by-product of the food industry, but that address concerns over the welfare of animals in the meat production cycle that produces the leather in the first place.
Calf leather used in high-end luxury goods is often not a by-product of the food industry and depending on your values, may be less ethical, same is true of lambs leather.
Deer leather is generally obtained from the culling of wild deer, which environmental conservations say is required unless we introduce top-tier carnivores back into the wild like wolves and big cats, which is unlikely to happen.
On the face of it exotic animal leather like crocodile or snake would seem like an unethical buy but some environmental conservationists argue that allowing indigenous people earn a living from the skin of wild animals encourages them to engage in conservation methods rather than resort to logging or gold mining.
For more information on the ethics of leather read this very well researched and comprehensive article by fashion blogger Eco Cult.
Is Cork Leather Sustainable?
Cork leather is made by fixing the harvested cork with natural adhesive to large plates, which is then cut very thinly with sharp knives and bound to a carrier material like cotton or polyester with natural or synthetic resin. This means that although the base material is likely to be compostable the use of synthetic resins and carrier materials will makes the final cork leather unsuitable for composting.
On the plus side Cork Trees can be harvested up to 16 times without damaging a tree for it and by harvesting the bark, a cork oak produces up to 4 times more cork, binding even more climate-damaging carbon dioxide than it would have otherwise. In this way, the Mediterranean cork forests filter out nearly 15 million tons of the harmful substance per year from the air.
Are Vegan Leathers Sustainable?
Pineapple Leather (Piñatex) is made from the by-product of the pineapple growing industry. The maker of this product, Ananas Anam – which is a certified B Corp, states that the pineapple fibre itself is 100% biodegradable but that the resins use to coat it are petroleum based and as such Piñatex is not biodegradable. It’s worth noting that a study in 2021 found toxic chemicals in samples of vegan leather including Piñatex
Deserto Cactus Leather is made from the leaves of the Nopal cactus, which is native to this region of Mexico, so can be grown without irrigation, fertilizers or pesticides. The leaves are harvested from a living plant that can live up to 8 years and so it’s more sustainable than harvesting the entire plant. Protein and fibre is extracted from the leaves in a laboratory and mixed with a non-toxic liquid polymer compound made from plant-based oils, which according to the company, is a renewable by-product of the food industry. When tested by an independent research laboratory some versions of the product were found to be high in polyurethane (PU). The makers of the material say that it’s biodegradeable but this doesn’t appear to be independently verified. For a more details analysis of the sustainability and ethics of Deserto’s Cactus Leather read this article by Eco Cult.
Unless a ‘Vegan’ Leather is branded like Pinatex or Deserto, is probably just plastic made from fossil fuels, and often PVC, which is very environmentally damaging. If you are vegan and intend to buy a plastic based vegan leather aim to buy PU, it’s less harmful than PVC and if made in Europe, must comply with REACH guidelines, which cover the use and disposal of chemicals.
Is Blended Fabric Sustainable?
Nowadays most fabric is a blend of fibres, which to date is not widely recyclable. This is because fibres in blended fabrics are so tightly bonded that mechanical separation is impossible and can only be separated with difficult and environmentally damaging chemical treatments.
Recently a researcher in Deakin University in Australia has developed a simple process to separate polyester-cotton fabric blends into their individual components, which is a major breakthrough for textile recycling and so will hopefully speed up the availability of recycling of this ubiquitous fabric blend. .
For now though aim to buy fabric made from only one fibre type if you can, or 100% natural blended fabric if you intend to compost it.
Making your Own Clothes
If you’re inclined to make your own clothes check out Irish company Ms Daisy for patterns and tutorials or All Free Sowing for tutorials on how to make a pattern from existing clothes.
You can also download for free a whole host of vintage sewing patterns from Vintage Patterns Wikia.
And if you’re really going all out Green Fibres have organic cotton thread on wooden spools and Offset Warehouse in the UK sell a huge range of eco fabrics and haberdashery made to either benefit the people who make them, the people who handle them or the planet.