Cotton and synthetic fabrics are not environmentally friendly. There are alternatives with smaller carbon footprints. Here are 3 of them.
It’s important to consider the environmental impact of the fabrics you use. Energy, water and chemicals to grow and process raw materials into fabrics can damage our planet and pollute our air. Textiles with a lower carbon footprint are made from renewable plants and use less water and few or no pesticides.
Cotton uses about 25% of the world’s pesticides, and ironically, it is not a major agricultural crop. It takes hundreds of gallons of water to make one item of cotton clothing. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, are petroleum- based, and they are not biodegradable.
What are some alternatives to non-renewable, water-sucking, pesticide-laden textiles?
I am a big fan of hemp, if you haven’t figured that out yet. It is the most renewable crop we have, and it fits all the criteria for eco-friendly textiles.
In the field, it has no predators, so it needs no pesticides. It doesn’t need much water, and adapts to any soil, so it can be acclimated to any locale. It can be harvested in four months, meaning there are multiple harvests per year, producing more than cotton or flax.
As a fabric, hemp is anti-microbial (inherent in the plant), provides UV protection, is up to eight times stronger than cotton, resists mold, and is versatile. It is sometimes spun alone or blended with organic cotton or silk. It does not stretch and is durable, so clothes and other items retain their shape longer. It can be used for clothing, drapes, upholstery, accessories, car seats, shoes, rugs, and shower curtains, to name a few things.
Hemp softens with use. I have been using the same hemp/cotton pieces of fabric as table covers for about 20 years. They now drape like silk or rayon. They’re luscious.
Like hemp, bamboo is a quickly regenerating crop. It can grow to over 100’ in three months, and the more you cut it, the more it grows. Therefore, it has a high yield per acre, more than trees or cotton. Bamboo has no natural predators, and needs little water. It is a perennial crop, so it reduces soil erosion by not being clear cut.
As a fabric, its long fibers give it a high tensile strength, so it is durable. It has natural UV protection, and anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It absorbs moisture easily, making it good for sports clothing. The fibers also offer ventilation and insulation, so it is suitable for year round use. It can be blended with cotton or hemp, and it is biodegradable and compostable.
My daughter bought some bamboo sheets several years ago. They are amazingly soft and luxurious. I just wanted to wrap myself in them when she brought them home!
Tencel® is the trade name for a type of lyocell, a man-made rayon fiber of eucalyptus wood pulp. Trees are grown on tree farms situated on unusable land. Some have FSC certification. Eucalyptus regenerates quickly, and does not need pesticides or much water.
The fiber is processed in a closed-loop system, meaning the solvents used to break down the plant into a usable form are continually recovered and recycled. For this reason, bleach does not need to be used. Emissions and water effluent from this sort of mill are minimal.
Tencel® is a durable fabric used in clothing, sheets, towels, and upholstery. It can be blended with cotton, silk, wool and linen. It is biodegradable in a compost pile or a sewage system. You can even burn it!
I picked up a Tencel® shirt at a thrift store. Despite the durable feel of the fabric, it is soft and silky with a comfortable drape. It doesn’t wrinkle, either.
It’s all relative
Processing raw materials into usable fiber products takes solvents, chemicals, and sometimes dyes. These fabrics are considered eco-friendly, but they are not without their sins. Compared to cotton and synthetic fabrics, though, they have much lower environmental impacts.
Of course, textiles with the smallest carbon footprint are those that last many years because they are so durable, or those that are recycled. Fixing clothes, curtains, upholstery and other textiles is preferable to throwing them away. Make your items work for a long time to get the most life out of the initial manufacturing process.
If you purchase items of hemp, bamboo or Tencel®, be prepared to own them for a long time!