Comparing 5 Natural Fabrics: Which is most sustainable? – The Wise Consumer

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Comparing 5 Natural Fabrics: Which is most sustainable?

April 19, 2021

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Are natural fabrics more sustainable than synthetic fabrics? Is bamboo fabric actually better for the environment than cotton? What about silk, linen, or hemp? To help answer these questions, I’ve compiled a list of 5 of the most commonly used natural fabrics and explore how they’re manufactured. Which natural fabric is the most “sustainable”? Let’s explore.

Sustainable Fabrics

The Environmental Impact of Manufacturing Textile

According to Elizabeth Cline, author of The Conscious Closet, “The majority of the fashion’s environmental impact on the planet happens while manufacturing textiles, in the phase where fabric and materials are grown or made then spun, dyed, and finished into something we recognize as clothing. In fact, this seemingly simple process of “making the materials” we wear requires many more times of water and energy than shipping, packaging, or retailing our clothes.”

Based on current trends, in 10 years, the emissions from textile production are set to rise 60 percent, reaching an estimated 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2. That’s the same as emissions produced by nearly 230 million passenger vehicles driven for a year, assuming average driving patterns.

If the fashion industry continues on its current path by 2050 it could use more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2c global warming limit.  Moving away from the current linear and wasteful textiles system is therefore crucial to keep the 2c average global warming limit within reach.

Are Natural Fabrics More Sustainable?

Synthetic vs Natural Fibers:

What are synthetic fibers?

Synthetic materials are man-made, artificial fibers. They are cheaper to make, often easier to wash, and tend to be stain and water resistant. So yeah, super useful for everyday life.

The biggest offenders? Polyester, Spandex, nylon, and acrylic.

Artificial materials such as polyesters, nylon and acrylics are made from petrochemicals, chemicals that are derived from petroleum or natural gas. Petrochemicals are used to manufacture a large number of useful material such as plastics, synthetic fibres, dyes, perfumes, fertilizers, insecticides etc.

Because synthetic materials, such as polyester, are made from petrochemicals, i.e. plastic, they don’t break down. In fact synthetic fibers create tiny plastic filaments, known as microplastics, that are known to pollute waterways and marine life.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to go through and throw away all your synthetically created clothing items, just be aware of what materials you’re buying in the future and where you’re buying them from. 5 Ways To Make Your Eco-Laundry Routine More Eco-Friendly

5 Natural Fabrics: Are They Sustainable?

  1. Hemp
  2. Bamboo
  3. Cotton
  4. Linen
  5. Silk
  6. Third Party Certification Labels

Hemp.

Often referred to as the ‘World’s Most Useful Plant,’ hemp has been around for centuries, cultivated on almost every single continent. In fact, according to the Columbia History of the World, the weaving of hemp fiber started over 10,000 years ago!

But is hemp fabric really as sustainable as they say it is? What makes this plant so special?

Mainly it has to do with the fact that hemp is strong, durable, easy to grow, and that it grows fast — like super fast. On an annual basis, 1 acre of hemp can produce as much fiber as 2 to 3 acres of cotton, and it’s much stronger and softer than cotton.

Plus, growing hemp requires very little water (50% less water than cotton) and no herbicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMO seeds. Not to mention that “the cultivation of hemp improves soil health by replenishing vital nutrients and preventing erosion.”

Added bonus: Hemp fabric is naturally antibacterial with odor fighting properties, more insulative than cotton fiber, and contains high levels of ultraviolet protection.

Hemp is also a bast fiber, which is fiber obtained from the inner bark of the plant.

How is hemp processed?

There are a few ways of converting hemp from plant to fiber — not all are sustainable. Let’s explore.

  • Dew/Field Retting: Dew retting consists of laying the hemp stalks out in the field for a few weeks and simply letting them “rot,” (aka, “microbial decay” due to exposure to dew, sun, and fungi). This process helps remove the gummy substances that glue the bast fibers together.
  • Mechanical Retting: According to Organic Clothing Blogs, “this process uses a machine at the field to mechanically separate the fiber from the hurd. Machinery for this process is currently being designed and tested by various companies throughout the world.”
  • Chemical Retting: This process is similar to the chemical process used to break down bamboo pulp into fiber. While this is a cheaper way of breaking down the fiber the end product tends to be poorer in quality than dew or mechanical retting.

Overall, hemp is considered to be one of the more eco-friendly textiles on the market today!

Bamboo.

Is bamboo fabric sustainable? Short answer — it’s complicated. Most of us assume bamboo fiber is one of the most sustainable fabrics on the market today because bamboo grows rapidly, it’s naturally regenerating, improves soil quality, prevents erosion, needs few pesticides, absorbs 5 times more carbon, and produces 35% more oxygen than a similar stand of trees. Obviously this has to mean that bamboo is a super sustainable textile, right?

Not so fast, and here’s why.

There are two methods of converting bamboo’s woody pulp into fiber: mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical method: 

  • The mechanical process is the most sustainable way of spinning bamboo into fiber, aka bamboo linen. The woody parts of the bamboo are turned into mush through the use of natural enzymes. This “mush” is then naturally converted into fibers, which can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. Unfortunately, this is an extremely labor-intensive and costly process, so you’re less likely to find bamboo linens on the market today.

Chemical method: 

  • Conventional Viscose Rayon: This is the worst way of spinning bamboo into fiber. A cocktail of chemical solvents, primarily sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide (which are extremely harmful to the health of workers), are used to “cook” the pulp into a mush. The mush is then spun into yarn and weaved into fabric. This is NOT a closed-loop system, meaning the water and chemicals used in this process can’t be recycled. Rather, they’re often dumped back into the ground, left to pollute our waterways 1 
  • Lyocell Process Rayon Fibers: This method is somewhat sustainable. According to NRDC, “the Lyocell process creates new fiber from bamboo with less toxic chemicals in a closed-loop manufacturing process so none of the chemicals are released into the environment.” While this is definitely a more sustainable alternative to conventional rayon it’s still not perfect.

If you’re going to buy fabric made from bamboo, make sure to research how and where the brand manufactured its products.

Cotton.

Cotton is another one of those ancient natural fibers still in use today. Rumor has it that the ancient Egyptians living along the Nile river (around 3000 BC) made and wore cotton daily. ⁣⁣⁣

But is it a sustainable fabric? ⁣⁣⁣⁣Let’s explore.

⁣⁣Unfortunately, much of the cotton being used in fast fashion brands today is unsustainably grown and unethically manufactured, creating both a negative social and environmental impact.

A few issues with cotton production…

Pesticides: According to Elizabeth Cline, author of The Conscious Closet, commercial cotton uses an estimated 6% of all pesticides, more than any other major crop. In fact, each year, approximately 22,000 tons of pesticides are used. ⁣⁣⁣These highly toxic pesticides are harmful both to human health and to the environment (air, water, soil, etc.).⁣⁣⁣

Water: It takes approximately 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. Not to mention that every time you wash your cotton t-shirt you’re using about 40 gallons of water.

Forced Labor: According to UNICEF, “the cotton in our clothes, sheets, and towels, is considered the worst offender when it comes to child trafficking.” In Uzbekistan, for example, the leading exporter of cotton, the government forces approximately 1 million people to work in the country’s cotton fields.

Tip: Look for brands that partner with “Cotton Made in Africa,” an initiative whose goal is to sustainably improve the living conditions of cotton farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.  ⁣⁣⁣

Cotton, when sustainably farmed and manufactured, is also considered one of the more sustainable fabrics.

Linen.

Linen is made from the stalk of a flax plant and is one of the oldest textiles known to humankind. Recently archaeologists discovered flax fibers that were more than 34,000 years old in a cave in the Republic of Georgia which were believed to have been used to make clothing. So, needless to say, humans have been using this plant fiber for quite some time. And, with good reason too.

Flax, the plant that produces linen, requires very little pesticides to grow (The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation states that flax uses 13 times less pesticides than potatoes) and due to its resilient nature equally requires very little water to flourish. For instance, compared to a conventionally grown cotton garment, a “linen garment uses just under a quarter of the water.

Linen is also biodegradable, very sturdy (30% stronger than cotton), hypoallergenic, and, much like hemp, absorbs moisture without holding bacteria.

The cons?

Converting a flax plant into linen is very time consuming. Similar to hemp it must undergo an extensive dew-retting process. And, because of the laborious time it takes to produce linen yarn, and the manual processes that are undertaken, linen is a higher priced commodity, and considered among many to be a ‘luxury’ fabric.
You can read more about how linen is created here.

A lot of people don’t like linen as it easily wrinkles. That said, you can easily steam/iron out the wrinkles. If you don’t mind having to iron out wrinkles, linen is definitely a great eco-friendly and stylish alternative.

Tip: If you’re on the market for linen I recommend looking for organic linen that hasn’t been chemically dyed  — natural colors include ivory, ecru, tan and grey.

Linen is one of the more natural sustainable fabrics on the market.

Silk.

Silk is made out of the hardened saliva of the mulberry silkworm and the strongest natural textile in the world. While other insects also produce silk-like substances, most of the world’s silk is derived from Bombyx mori larvae, which are worms that only live on mulberry trees. To create its cocoon, the silkworm secretes one continuous strand of saliva, which hardens into a protective shell to keep the silkworm safe during its metamorphosis into a moth.

The process of making silk is called sericulture. This process involves heating the cocoon, unraveling the cocoon, stringing the strands together, twisting the strands to make yarn, dyeing the yarn, and finally weaving it in preparation to make a garment.

Silk manufacturing may involve the silkworms being destroyed, making silk an unacceptable choice for vegans. There is, however, a process where silkworms are not harmed when the silk is extracted. This is known as Ahimsa silk, or peace silk.

LIYA Collective founder, Deanna Cook, and I chat about silk production in episode #50 of The Wise Consumer podcast if you want to learn more.

Generally speaking, silk is considered a relatively sustainable natural fabric.  However, make sure the silk products you purchase are OTEX-certified organic and that the brand is transparent about how their silk is manufactured — how much water/energy is being used, are artisans paid a fair wage, working in safe environments, no child labor, etc.

Third Party Certification Labels

When it comes to finding sustainable and ethical fashion brands, it can often get a bit overwhelming. To make things easier look for brands certified by third party certification standards such as:

** Alden Hick’s, editor and founder of Eco-Cult, has put together a super thorough piece on the ethical fashion certificates to be on the lookout for here.

Bottom Line

It’s not about buying all new sustainable fabrics. The key is knowing what is more eco-friendly so you can have a better awareness of how to care for your clothes and what to buy next time you’re in the market for a new piece. If you are considering updating your wardrobe with new pieces, make sure you select pieces you’ll love and be able to wear for a long time. And, whenever possible, opt for pieces that are made using sustainable fabrics and ethically manufactured.

The Wise Consumer
  1. NRDC

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