There’s plenty of hype about organic textiles and their sustainability these days, but are they as eco-friendly as we think they are? I decided to look behind the scenes to find out which fabrics and textiles are truly sustainable and eco-friendly?
Global awareness of the real price of clothing is growing and there are increasing numbers of cases of people experiencing health problems such as rashes, allergies, respiratory and concentration problems due to chemical sensitivities. Many have found organic clothing to be helpful in reducing exposure to the vast amount of toxic chemicals we are unknowingly exposed to on a daily basis.
Cotton vs Organic Cotton
Cotton is a wonderful fibre for making clothes, but it is now recognized that conventionally grown cotton causes great harm both to the environment and to cotton industry workers. Its extensive use of pesticides and insecticides can cause ill-health to people that come into contact with the chemicals and widespread pollution by soaking into water tables. Organic cotton is grown without chemicals and therefore does no harm to either environment or workers, but it is more labour intensive and furthermore fields must be free of chemicals for three years before the crop can be certified organic. There have been huge global increases in the demand for organic cotton and the problem now facing farmers is producing enough to meet the demand. LaRhea Pepper of Organic Exchange says, “In order to encourage long term economically sustainable sources of organic fibre we need to be willing to discuss and implement models that acknowledge the value of the product from the farm gate and continuing right down the supply chain.”
Hemp really does seem to be one of the good guys. It has many excellent properties, being environmentally positive with no need of pesticides and insecticides, it actually improves the soil where it is grown. Hemp is drought resistant and can be grown in most climates. Textiles can also be processed from the fibrous stalks without the use of toxic chemicals and because it does not require high technology to process it is ideal to be processed locally increasing local employment and saving transport costs and pollution. Hemp has been used to make clothing for thousands of years and it is in recent times that it has become controversial. Cannabis (marijuana) is a high THC rich form of the hemp plant, and industrial hemp cultivation in the United States is suppressed by laws supported by drug enforcement agencies. They are concerned that high THC plants will be grown amidst the low THC plants used for hemp production. But hemp is produced in Europe and Asia and is now legal in Canada. It would seem a great pity not to utilize this highly sustainable textile.
Bamboo is a material whose luxurious softness has been compared to cashmere. As a plant it is fast growing and highly sustainable and is mainly naturally organic. It does not require replanting after harvest but will regenerate from its vast root structure. Bamboo helps to improve soil quality and helps rebuild eroded soil. There are two ways of manufacturing bamboo, either mechanically or chemically. The mechanical way involves crushing the woody parts of the plant and then using natural enzymes to break it down into a mush so that the natural fibres can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. Bamboo produced by this method is sometimes called ‘bamboo linen’. However very little bamboo linen is manufactured for clothing because this method is labour intensive and costly. Bamboo fabric for clothing is mainly produced by chemical manufacturing which involves ‘cooking’ the leaves and shoots in the strong chemical solvents sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide in a process called hydrolysis alkalization combined with bleaching. Both these chemicals have been linked to health problems. Low levels can cause tiredness, headaches and nerve damage. Carbon disulphide has been blamed for neural disorders in workers at rayon manufacturers. Because of health problems associated with this manufacturing method and damage to the environment it is considered neither sustainable nor environmentally supportable. The good news is that newer manufacturing methods have been developed that are more benign and environmentally friendly. Bamboo fabrics can be produced without any chemical additives but ensure that it is eco certified look for Oeko-Tex, Soil Association, SKAL, KRAV or similar organic or sustainable certification body.
Soya fabric is renowned for its softness, comfort, lustre and drape combined with wash ability and durability. It is more expensive than organic cotton or hemp at this time and is seen as a new luxury product. One of the positives being talked about is the fact that the cloth is produced from a by-product of food manufacturing of the soya bean. Some soya has organic certification but it is a small percentage, much of the soya grown seems to be GM. My research did not lead me to anything very positive about the growing of soy, but there may be additional facts that I did not discover. Soya has been very aggressively grown with GM seeds in Argentina which has embraced GM culture. Crops are treated with glyphosphate during the growing season and a mono-culture has developed as other crops were driven off both by low prices and contamination from soya farmers spraying. New weeds resistant to glyphosphate are now prolific and further chemicals namely gramoxone (paraquat) and gesaprim (atrazine) have been introduced prior to planting. These practices are causing damage to stock and plants in neighbouring farms. In less than a decade soya farming has driven people off the land, created serious ecological and agronomic imbalances, destroyed food security and led to dependence on technology controlled by a handful of multi-national companies. I would suggest that before buying soya fabrics it would be wise to check its credentials and whether it is certified organic.
Guest post by grandmother and former nurse Linda Sones who sells organic cotton baby and children’s clothing and accessories, and natural, organic baby toiletries online at SonesUK. Her suppliers are all committed to various environmental and Fairtrade initiatives.