Fabrics, our health, the environment what are our options?
For the best part of our life, our skin is covered with fabrics from the garment we wear. Some parts of our body absorb what is on it more than others (our underarms and genitals absorb 100%). This alone should make us want to know more about what we are wearing.
The impact on the environment of fabric production, clothing manufacturing and the life cycle of our clothes are aspects that should concern all of us. Some fabrics are harder on the planet than others (non organic cotton alone uses 22,5% of the world's insecticides and 10% of all pesticides). Can you imagine that the textile industry is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution?
Working conditions, low wages, lack of transparency on fabric sources as well as disposability of non quality garments are additional elements that should makes us purchase m more durable and environmentally responsible clothing.
A debate exist about which fabrics are really sustainable, are natural fabrics the only solution?
The following is an introduction to what is available on the market. There are many more options but it will enhance a few points to consider next time you go shopping.
Plant-based fibers with low eco-impact:
Linen is a plant-based fabric derived from the flax plant. It requires minimal water and pesticides and can grow in poor quality soil. Every part of the plant is used. It is strong, naturally moth resistant and when undyed biodegradable.
It is a very productive crop, yielding a far greater amount of fiber than cotton crops
The fabric has the benefit of being warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
The longer fibers are spun into fabric while the shorter fibers are being spun into bobbins It can also be blended with other fibers.
Conventional linen is processed into fibers from the raw flax crop through a process of water-retting not so eco-friendly but other methods of processing exist such as dew-reeting and enzyme-retting that avoid the water pollution linked to the water-retting process.
Organic linen helps to differentiate between the linen production leaving an impact on the environment, and the one avoiding it.
The fabric is scratchy at first but becomes softer and comfortable has is used. It also wrinkles easily.
Linen is biodegradable as long as harsh chemicals are left out of the process
There is a very important difference between cotton and organic cotton.
Cotton is one of the oldest fabrics used by mankind. It is comfortable, durable.
The fiber is obtained from the seed pods of the cotton plant.
Standard cotton is full of pesticides and is very water consuming. The good news is that cotton can be produced differently (rain fed and in crop rotation ) It is then usually grown in smaller farms.
Organic cotton also means that the seeds are not genetically modified.
The whole supply chain of organic cotton has a lower impact on the environment as it is all regulated (from processing to dying and finishing).
The cost of producing organic cotton is 20 to 30% more expensive than regular cotton.
Organic cotton does not contain harmful substances for the people cultivating and harvesting it but also for everyone wearing it.
Organic cotton will have softer fibers since it has not been treated with harsh chemicals and can be washed times after times.
Recycled, upcycled or reclaimed cotton
Another option is to use recycled or upcycled cotton. They are produced using post industrial or post consumer waste.
It is a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton, it avoids landfill. However the chemicals and pesticides used remain in the fabric.
The largest amount of recycled cotton is generated through pre-consumer waste.
It is an excellent solution to reduce manufacturing waste.
The Japanese boro fabrics show a very ancient tradition of mending clothes where everything is used and nothing is wasted.
Hemp is also a very old and durable material. It is extremely sustainable crops. It is made from a specific type of cannabis plant. It is fast growing, does not exhaust the soil and does not need pesticides. It makes a strong fabric and durable material.
The fabric is very similar to linen and can wrinkle easy. It also gets softer the more you wash it
The undyed hemp has a natural color and only muted tones can be obtained when dyed with non-harsh chemicals.
Hemp is also grown all around the world making it one of the most sustainable fabric.
Some fibers have complex issues such as bamboo, wool, cashmere, silk….
Bamboo is made from the bamboo plant, the plant grows very quickly and easily, it doesn’t need pesticide or fertilizers and it grows new sprouts from the roots after harvest, however, the process to turn bamboo into fibers requires very strong chemical solvents that are harmful for the manufacturers and for the environment.
New processes are being developed to address these chemical concerns to make bamboo fabrics a truly sustainable option.
Bamboo is has a soft feel, natural antibacterial properties which allow the skin to breathe
Wool is another natural fiber that is renewable but unfortunately extensive sheep farming practices have had disastrous impact on the environmental as well as the treatments used on the animals and the shearing process.
Silk is natural fiber that can be cultivated sustainably. From its origin the fiber has been cultivated from silkworms which subsist completely on the leaves of mulberry trees. Mulberry trees are resistant to pollution and easy to grow. However, many criticize the production of silk for its harsh treatment of the silkworms. Most traditional manufacturing process boil the silkworms alive to gather the cocoons, which create the fiber. A less agressive alternative exist called Peace Silk (Non-Violent silk, Ahimsa silk) manufactured under the most stringent social and environmental standard in India as well a vegetarian silk or sabra silk derived from the cactus plant (sahara cactus plant of the agave family)
Innovative fabrics semi-synthetic
Tencel® or Lyocell
Tencel® is a brand name for a fiber also called lyocell. It is regenerated from wood cellulose. The feel is similar to bamboo or rayon
The fabric is sustainable as the supply chain is transparent. It is obtained from eucalyptus trees with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.
Tencel clothing is comfortable, absorbant and cooling
Tencel fibers are spun into yarns and then woven into textiles that are soft, absorbent, very strong when wet or dry, resistant to wrinkles and drape well. Tencel lends these qualities to the fabrics with which it is blended. It is often blended with natural fabrics such as hemp, cotton and wool.
Lyocell garments can be recycled and the fiber usually degrades in only 8 days in waste treatment plants
However the methods used to transform these fibers into yarn, fabric, and finished products can vary a lot making the fiber less sustainable.
Other new fabrics exist like pinatex derived from the pineapple leaves (it is used mainly to replace leather),
It is a more sustainable and eco-friendly material compared to animal leather and synthetic leather, however, the resins used for the coating are currently not biodegradable but progress is being made to work with a bio-based coating.
Other semi synthetic fabrics exist such as rayon, modal and Cupro, they are all biodegrade but their environmental impact depends on the manufacturer and they use harsh chemicals.
Rayon fabric is also easily dyed and known in the garment world to be a comfortable wear. It is sometimes referred to as viscose. Rayon is most commonly made from cellulose extracted from beech trees, pine trees, and bamboo. Though these are renewable resources that can benefit the environment during growth, the process used to extract the cellulose to make rayon uses harsh chemicals.
Modal fabric was essentially developed to improve the weaknesses of rayon. It is most commonly made from the cellulose of beech trees. Modal fabric feels very similar in touch to cotton but is lighter in weight . Modal is a highly breathable fabric and does not trap perspiration or odors. When cotton and modal material are blended, the resulting fabric is lighter than an all cotton textile.
Modal is made from cellulose extracted from wood fiber however polluting chemicals to grow, harvest, and manufacture are often used
Cupro is produced from cotton linter a part of the cotton plant that was discarded in the past.... As with all cotton products and textiles treated with chemical processes, we need to be careful where we source Cupro.
We should also be careful with some of the treatments applied to fabrics: