The whole issue of sustainability and ethics in relation to fibres and fabrics is very very confusing and constantly changing. This article started as a paragraph in an article about ethical clothing but as I learned more and more about the area it was clear that it warranted it’s own article. I’ll keep updating this article as I find more and more information so I encourage you to revisit so that you stay up to speed on what’s happening in this area.
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Lets start with bamboo. 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 only refers 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 are most likely still embedded in the fibre, and still be labelled as ‘organic’. A better option is to buy bamboo that’s certified as organic and OEKO-TEX, meaning that the final fabric doesn’t contain any toxic chemicals. That said it doesn’t mean that toxic chemicals weren’t used during manufacture nor that the waste water was treated before being discharged. I’m personally not a fan of bamboo for the reasons listed above plus the fact that it’s not a locally grown crop.
Cotton has been my go-to fabric for years because I know it’s recyclable and biodegradable. As the price of certified fairtrade and organic cotton comes down we’re able to buy this instead of non-organic, which is far better both environmentally and for social justice reason.
Doing this helps us to avoid supporting an industry where genetically modified (GMO) cotton seeds now account for 95% of the cotton market in India. GMO seeds lock farmers into a never-ending dependency on a GMO seed supplier, which some are claiming has led to more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers committing suicide since 1995.
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 fairtrade or organic cotton is a better option but we still need to treat it as a precious resource, particularly because of it’s heavy dependency on water to grown.
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.
I always aim to buy certified goods when I can and in terms of organic cotton the standard certification is GOTS so look out for it when shopping, and if you can buy European grown cotton all the better.
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.
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. Perhaps cotton does requires less water and less pesiticides than is oft quoted in the media, but my argument that we all need to buy less new clothing still stands.
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.
A new fabric that quite a few of ‘sustainable, ethical’ companies use rayon or viscose in their garments. These fabrics are made using the fibres from plants but involve the use of toxic chemicals to convert it to fabric. Most times you won’t see this fabric listed as rayon or viscose by eco retailers instead it’s called Modal, Lyocell or Tencel 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 rayon, which is said to be another biodegradable fibre, contributed to 56.9% of the total fibres recorded by the research team. 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. Anecdotally I’ve heard that printed Tencel tends to fade after few years.
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 it seems 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, a private certification system that verifies the percentage of recycled content used. Econyl, made by Aquafil, is a brand of recycled nylon that is made from discard fishing nets. Unfortunately recycled nylon cannot be recycled more than once.
I’ve also seen some companies offering garments in Soy, 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.
Some ‘sustainable / ethical’ brands use silk make no reference to ethical harvesting of the fibre. Traditionally when silk is harvested the silk worms are boiled alive as part of the process, and then eaten by the workers. Peace / Ashima or Vegan silk is harvested without killing the worm, instead it is allowed to mature and cut it’s way out of the cocoon before the silk is harvested. Unfortunately silk worms have been so over bred that the emerging moth can’t fly or eat and so lives only one day. 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.
Wool has been around for centuries and for good reason, it is renewable, compostable, naturally anti-bacterial and a good insulator. The practice of muesling merino ship in Australia has raised concern over wool as a fibre but if you avoid this type of wool or buy certified muesling-free Australian merino you can avoid supporting the practice. The herding of sheep, if done sustainably, can actually be environmentally beneficial. 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’re farming practices are expected to sequester 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is equivalent to the emissions of 850 passenger vehicles. (source: Ecocult.com). Also Fibreshed is a US based non-profit organisation that helps measure and implement planet-positive fibre growing and processing methods.
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 to see if any toxic chemicals left in the fabric at the end of manufacture. According to the website Ecotextiles 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 some or all of the chemicals. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without. I’ve also come across ‘eco-friendly’ microfibre, who’s claim to that nomenclature seems to rest on the fact that it requires less water to manufacture. The makers of Sensuede also 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.’ and that ‘sensuede production is certified under the ISO 14001 standard for safety and environmental management.’ 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 me honest who actually needs to use microfibre?
Animal Leather is a durable natural materials that is compostable. Cow leather is generally a byproduct of meat industry, looks better over time and is repairable. 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. In addition to the environmental risks of leather processing concerns exist over the welfare of animals in the meat production cycle that produces the leather in the first place.
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.
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.
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. (Source: Business of Fashion)
For more information on the ethics of leather read this very well researched and comprehensive article by fashion blogger EcoCult.
Cork leather is made by fixing the harvested cork with natural adhesive to large plates. It 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 resins and synthetic backing materials makes the composite material 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.
Pineapple Leather (Piñatex) made from the by-product of the pineapple growing industry this fibrous material is offered as an alternative to animal leather. 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 are currently not biodegradable. Also a study found toxic chemicals in samples of vegan leather including Pinatex
Banana Leather (Bananatex) I have been in communication with the makers of this banana based fibre and they have told me that a Swiss laboratory found the raw material and the finished fabric is 100% biodegradable. I asked for a copy of the lab results and didn’t hear from them again.
‘Vegan’ Leather is really just plastic with a new moniker. Some of it is the very environmentally damaging PVC and some is the less harmful PU, particularly if it’s made in Europe – because all factories in Europe must comply with REACH guidelines, which cover the use and disposal of chemicals.
Nowadays a lot of fabric is a blend of fibres, which to date hasn’t been 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. However recently researcher in Deakin University in Australia have developed a simple process to separate polyester-cotton fabric blends into their individual components, a major breakthrough for textile recycling. This process isn’t currently widely used so for now aim to buy fabric made from only one fibre type if you can.
And 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. You can also source organic and natural fabric, and organic thread from the Organic Textile Company