Textile choice is at the heart of ethical fashion. Organic, recycled, handwoven, biodegradable, manmade. These are all options that have different environmental and social costs to consider when shopping. I've asked my knowledgeable friend Summer of tortoise & lady grey to help us sort out the options. In the following primer, she has laid out the benefits and drawbacks of the most common natural fibres and made recommendations for buying new textiles.
Cotton is a soft, fluffy fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants and is possibly the most ubiquitous and versatile of all the textiles used in our clothing. It's used for everything from soft flowing skirts to thick denim to canvas. It is a natural fibre, and therefore biodegradable. But it also has significant environmental and social costs in conventional agriculture.
Being a natural fibre, cotton is biodegradable. To avoid the harms of chemical use, consumers have the option of buying organic cotton. To avoid the social harms of conventional cotton, consumers have the option of choosing fair trade products. Being a natural fibre, it takes well to natural and low impact dying processes, which can reduce the impacts of chemical dyes.
Conventional cotton farming is responsible for twenty-five percent of the world’s pesticide use. Cotton is also the most water intensive crop of all natural fibres. Cotton requires fertile soil, so it is competing with our food crops for arable land. Conventional cotton is the most energy intensive of all the natural fibres to produce. It is estimated that 6.5kg of carbon emissions are released to produce one t-shirt. Conventional cotton is a very chemical dependant crop, and poor farmers in the developing world suffer heavily under the financial burden of these chemical inputs. In India, a farmer commits suicide every thirty minutes due to the crippling debt associated with growing cotton. Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest producers of cotton is known to use forced labour, including child labour, to pick their cotton crop. Most of the cotton used in clothing made in Bangladesh comes from Uzbekistan, but you can find Uzbek cotton in many other manufacturing nations as well. For more comprehensive coverage of these issues, please see my textile review on the environmental impacts of cotton.
If buying cotton, choose organic cotton that is fair trade or has been ethically produced. This is reasonably easy to find now. Due to the water and carbon intensity of the crop, try to buy organic cotton as only a portion of your wardrobe, and go for other sustainable fibres whenever you can.
Originally from China, this fine luxurious fibre inspired the Silk Road trade routes from China into Central Asia and the Middle East for a millennia. Silk, along with tea, was partially responsible for starting the Opium War between China and Britain. As they had nothing that could equal the finery of silk, Britain turned to peddling opium to China in an attempt to reduce the enormous trade deficit it had accumulated. Silk is arguably still the world’s most luxurious fibre, soft and lovely to wear with a beautiful lustre.
Silk is made by spinning and weaving the fibre from the chrysalis of silk worms, which feed on mulberry leaves. It is a beautiful natural fibre with a low environmental impact. Wild (tussah or peace) silk and organic silk varieties avoid the low level environmental harms of conventional silk as they do not involve any fertilisers or pesticides. Peace silk, which allows the moth to emerge before harvesting the cocoon, avoids the cruelty associated with conventional silk production.
Conventional silk worms are fed with mulberry crops that require some pesticides and fertilizers (although this is far less than the amount used on cotton). Conventional silk production involves washing the fibres in chemical detergents which are a low level pollutant if released untreated. Conventional silk production kills the moths before they have emerged from the chrysalis. Silk garments are often recommended as “dry clean only”, which is an environmentally harmful way to care for clothing.
Look for wild (peace or tussah) silk or organic silk for the lowest environmental impact. If buying conventional silk, look for fabric made in a factory that has waste water treatment protocols in place. Do not buy “dry clean only” garments unless you are confident that you can care for the garment by hand washing and pressing with a gentle iron (protect the silk from the iron by covering it with a tea towel or cloth).
Linen (flax crop) is a lightweight natural fibre that is both cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather. Historically popular in Europe and Japan, linen was used to make men’s summer suits and beautiful indigo dyed smocks and kimonos. The fabric is long lasting and softens beautifully with age.
In the right conditions, linen can be cultivated with minimal attention, no fertilisers, and grown on marginal land that is unsuitable for food crop production. It is a highly productive crop (more productive than conventional cotton). Organic linen avoids the input of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. De-wretting and enzyme-retting processes to turn the raw material into fibre avoid the water polluting aspect of conventional water-retting processing.
Conventional linen is cultivated using chemical fertilisers and herbicides. It is processed using water-retting, which results in a high amount of pollutants (natural waste and residual agrochemicals on the crop) being discharged into the water supply.
Look for organic linen as the best choice. Otherwise, choose de-wretted linen. Linen that is produced in Europe and other places that have stronger environmental regulations will be lower impact, whereas linen produced in countries such as China will have a higher impact and may also be of lower quality.
Wool is a versatile high quality fibre that is suitable for both winter and summer wardrobes, with its ability to be warm in cool weather and cool in warm weather. Wool can be worn many times without absorbing odors, and for this reason is favoured by high quality travel and outdoor clothing manufacturers. Wool varieties are derived from the fleece of sheep (including high quality merino), goats (including cashmere), alpacas, and even camels.
Wool is a high quality natural fibre with very low carbon and water footprints. Wool can be farmed without the need for chemicals or pesticides. If the wool is chemically processed, it is possible to capture and recycle the chemicals used. If the wool is processed in hot water, the wool grease can be captured and used for lanolin products, rather wasted or released. Organic certification ensures that harmful chemical processes are avoided. Certified Predator-Friendly wool ensures that farmers use methods other than hunting to deter wild predators and avoid stock loss. Alpacas produce a high quality wool that rivals cashmere, without the harmful impacts associated with cashmere.
Conventional wool uses chemical pesticides to control parasites and either hot water or chemicals to process the fleece. This kind of processing creates harmful pollutants if the chemicals are not reclaimed and recycled. Hot water processing requires energy and results in wool grease sludge that is polluting if not captured and used. In Australia and China, merino sheep are commonly subject to the harmful practice of mulesing where excess skin is removed without pain relief in order to control pests. There have also been concerns about cruelty to sheep during the shearing process. In North America, many wool farmers kill wild predators, such as bears and wolves, that threaten their stock. Cashmere wool can only be farmed in fragile high plateau grasslands, and the over farming of cashmere in China and Mongolia is threatening these fragile ecosystems and increasing desertification.
Organic wool, certified Predator-Friendly (if produced in North America), artisanal hand-spun wool varieties, and alpaca minimise the environmental impacts of wool and are the most eco-friendly options. Choose these varieties if you can. This is easy if you knit or crochet and are purchasing the yarn, but can be harder to find in ready-to-wear clothing. Conventional wool, with all of the drawbacks attached, is still one of the lowest impact fibres in terms of water, energy, and chemical intensity, and it is biodegradable. For these reasons, wool is recommended as a sustainable choice, as long as you are choosing high quality. Ideally, the wool should be produced and processed in North America, Europe, Australia, or New Zealand where environmental regulations ensure that chemical waste is properly treated. Do not purchase cashmere, the farming of which is causing serious environmental harm.
High-growing varieties of the Cannabis plant can be refined into products such as hemp seed foods, oil, paper, rope, and cloth. Once considered a mainstay of the hippy wardrobe, hemp fabric is increasingly adopted by style-conscious designers who have a desire to improve the sustainability of their line. Hemp is also being blended with other natural fibres to increase the versatility of this textile.
Hemp is a one of the most sustainable natural fibre crops available. It has low water requirements and can be grown as a rainfed crop without need for irrigation. It doesn't require the use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers. The strong root structure protects against erosion, and it can be grown on marginal and degraded land. A natural fibre, hemp works well with natural and low impact dying processes, reducing the impact of the dying process on the environment.
Some governments are reluctant allow hemp to be grown due to its relationship to marijuana. There are hemp crop varieties that only have trace amounts of THC, but many governments are still reluctant to allow it to be cultivated commercially. Hemp fabric loses its softness after many washes, so may not last as long as some other fabrics, however blend fabrics are addressing this issue.
Hemp is one of the most sustainable options available, and I would have no hesitations in buying hemp based clothing. For more comprehensive coverage of these issues, please see my textile review on hemp.
Get Summer's new e-book, 6 Steps to a Sustainable Wardrobe.
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