The whole issue of sustainability and ethics in relation to fibres and fabrics is very very confusing and constantly changing. This post started as a paragraph in a post about ethical clothing but as I learned more and more about the area it was clear that it warranted it’s own post. I’ll keep updating this post 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.
Lets start with bamboo. This fibre was originally heralded as the wonder fibre when it came to market but now we’re hearing that farmers in China are clearing native forests to grow bamboo and that most bamboo is processed using chemicals know to be harmful to health. Also there have been concerns over the authenticity of ‘organic bamboo‘ so i would suggest that the only way to ensure your bamboo clothing is sustainable is to check that the garment has been certified by reputable independent organisations as organic, sustainably grown and free from harmful chemicals.
Cotton has been my go-to fabric for years because i know it’s recyclable and biodegradable. Price has been the main reason that I haven’t move towards organic cotton but as budgets improve it’s something I’m buying more of. This will help me avoid feeding into 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.
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 post on why they use certified organic linen in lieu of conventional hemp.
A new fabric that quite a few of ‘sustainable, ethical’ companies use is Lyocell. It is a plant-based fibre that uses raw material sourced from trees grown in sustainable plantations and on land that is unsuitable for agricultural cultivation. One of the well-know brand names of Lyocell is Tencel. It 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. A lot of webpages are suggesting that plant based fibres, like Tencel are biodegradable but research into microplastics in our oceans has shown that Rayon – another supposedly 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.
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 fibers 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!
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 poor silk worms are boiled alive as part of the process and currently Irish owned Ethical Silk Company is the only company that i’m aware of that offers silk made without killing the silk worms – called peace silk or vegan silk.
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 Autraslia 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.
If you’d like to read more on the sustainability and ethics of fabrics the Australian based organisation Good on You has very useful and informative Material Guides on their website. Also 1 million women have a very comprehensive A-Z Glossary on Sustainable Fibres
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. And if you’re really going all out Green Fibres have organic cotton thread on wooden spools.