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As concerns over plastic have taken the hot seat in environmentalist debate, awareness of the disastrous effects of synthetic textiles has grown.
Natural textiles are often celebrated as a planet-friendly alternative to polyester, nylon and other fossil fuel-based materials. However, there is a minefield of compromises and trade-offs to be considered.
So, are natural textiles really more sustainable? In this post, I’ll be discussing some of the most common options available and exploring the reality of the choices we make.
What Are Natural Textiles?
For those who aren’t too sure what I mean by ‘natural textiles’, this category refers to the broad range of materials that are made using animal or plant-based fibres.
Natural resources are collected, processed into yarn and turned into fabric. Humans have been using natural textiles for as long as they have been covering their bodies.
Natural textiles come in comparison to synthetic alternatives such as polyester, acrylic etc. These are made through chemical processes and are generally cheaper and more popularly used than their natural predecessors.
However, synthetic fibres mostly consist of finite resources such as chemicals and fossil fuels which are damaging to the environment and do not degrade over time.
The plastic component of synthetic fibres has caused widespread dismay in recent years due in part to its release of microfibres. Microfibres are tiny particles almost invisible to the naked eye, which make their way into our water supply, food chain and even the air we breathe.
From this brief comparison, it may seem obvious that natural textiles are the more sustainable option.
Well, let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
Why not kick off with the big guns eh? Yup, it’s time to talk about cotton.
Despite being a natural textile, the sustainability issues surrounding cotton are widely acknowledged.
Cotton gained popularity during the British Industrial Revolution, and in the 1800s was one of the UK’s biggest exports.
Though the United Kingdom no longer produces much of its own cotton, the industry has expanded dramatically in countries such as India, China and the US.
With its growth has come gradual recognition of its significant environmental issues.
Traditional cotton growth requires vast amounts of water, as much as 20,000 litres per kilogram ~ or 2700 litres per T-shirt. The water used in growing cotton is thought to make up a whopping 69% of all water used in today’s textile fibre production.
As well as its excessive use of natural resources, traditional cotton production also involves large amounts of toxic chemicals.
Before the plant is grown, seeds are often treated with fungicides or insecticides, whether or not they’ve already been genetically modified for resistance. These chemicals are harmful to animals, the planet, and people working with cotton or living in nearby communities.
Cotton accounts for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides used worldwide, disproportionately high numbers compared with its 2.5% share of cultivated land. Many of the cotton industry’s favourite chemicals are known to be highly toxic.
In fact, several were originally created as toxic nerve agents during World War 2 and Aldicarb, the 2nd best-selling insecticide for cotton, can kill a person if just one drop is absorbed through the skin. Still, Aldicarb is used in around 25 countries and has been found in the groundwater of 16 US States.
Inhalation of toxic chemicals has been shown to cause various cancers, neurological diseases and reproductive difficulties in both people and animals, causing a major health risk to farmers, communities and local species.
Pesticides and insecticides are consumed by local wildlife, inducing illness and fatalities, as well as causing naturally fertile soils to be lost – limiting biodiversity and growth of crucial vegetation which normally acts as a key source of nutrition and shelter several animal species.
Not only damaging the Earth itself, run-off from pesticides can also enter local water supplies, furthering its contamination.
And the chemicals involved in cotton textiles do not end when crops are harvested.
The conversion of cotton into usable fabric involves several processes, each of which may use its own toxic chemicals. Cotton may be scoured, softened, dyed, coated or brightened with various chemicals including petroleum, ammonia, lead, mercury and formaldehyde.
Cotton treatment can also require a lot of energy, for example, traditional dyeing processes demand exposure to high temperatures. Even more water is needed, with an estimated 1.3 trillion gallons being used in fabric dyeing each year.
The chemicals used within the production cycle leave their trace on our environment and its inhabitants, contaminating water supplies and food chains while polluting the air.
The sustainability issues of cotton go beyond environmental problems. An increasingly competitive market demands consistent, high yields – placing pressure on farmers to invest in expensive chemical inputs or GMO seeds, often without sufficient training and certainly without the promise of fair weather conditions.
This has led to significant numbers of smallholder farmers being trapped in situations of debt and poverty. Farmer suicides are a widely recognised phenomenon, while survivors are often bought off and forced to work on larger farms for low, exploitative wages.
The intensity of cotton farming has resulted in further exploitation of children as an additional source of labour, with a 2016 report finding this common practice in the cotton production of 18 different countries.
Of course, not all cotton is created equal.
Recent interest in sustainability has seen growth in the organic cotton industry.
This industry is far less resource-intensive, estimated to use up to 91% less water. With the majority (around 80%) of organic cotton crops being rainfed rather than irrigated, farmers are less reliant on local water supplies.
Organic cotton is non-GMO, and grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. It uses natural processes, protecting soils, animals, and local communities.
Without dangerous runoffs, water pollution can be reduced by as much as 98%. The organic movement also encourages the use of natural dyes and finishing techniques, in fact this is a requirement of common certifications.
With the production cycle remaining as natural as possible, organic cotton production provides an even greater reduction in pollution and contamination.
Ecosystems remain healthy and with natural farming techniques such as crop rotation or water recycling, resources can even be revitalised for future use.
As well as being more environmentally sustainable than traditional cotton, organic production generally provides benefits for local farmers and communities. In fact, GOTS – the most widely recognised certification for organic textiles – certified cotton must be produced to fair trade standards.
This means that unfair wages and child labour are banned, and strict protocols are in place to ensure regulation and transparency throughout the cotton supply chain.
Sustainable agriculture is linked with ethical lending, microfinance initiatives and the maintenance of traditional, local skills and livelihoods.
This suggests that whether fair trade certification is in place or not, organic cotton is likely to have more benign social impacts than its traditional counterpart.
However, there is concern that as consumer demand for organic cotton grows without a proportionate decline in demand for quick, high~volume yield, the benefits of organic cotton may be lost.
A study by the University of Oregon has found that as large corporations find their way into the organic cotton market, there has been an increase in less sustainable farming practices.
Fairtrade certification does not necessarily mean cotton has been farmed organically, nor is organic cotton guaranteed to be fair trade – but often the two come together.
To conclude the cotton debate: Cotton is a natural textile, which gives it an edge over synthetics due to its ability to biodegrade and the fact that (unless blended) it does not release plastic microfibres. However, mainstream cotton production has significant environmental and social costs.
Cotton can be one of the most sustainable textile options, but the vast majority is not. When seeking sustainability, it’s important to be critical and look out for cotton which is organic, encouraging of regenerative farming AND fairly produced.
I must say, linen is one of my favourite options when it comes to finding sustainable textiles.
Linen is made using flax, a versatile plant that serves many other uses – such as its seeds being used for oil or as a healthy snack in themselves.
This means that there is little waste when growing flax. What’s more, flax can be grown without intensive resources, using somewhere between 5 and 20x less water than cotton.
Flax is also excellent when it comes to storing carbon, with one hectare retaining an average of 3.7 tonnes per year. When sustainable agricultural techniques of crop rotation are used, flax production regenerates the soil which enriches local ecosystems and provides fertile ground for future crops.
Furthermore, flax is a resilient crop, which means it can grow successfully without irrigation, pesticides or fungicides. The linen fabric produced by flax is similarly resilient and is sturdy enough to be used in upholstery, curtains, canvas and even within American dollar bills.
Its durability means it can last longer than alternative textiles, reducing the need for excess consumption.
While all of this points to linen as a highly sustainable option, it does have its limitations.
Although flax does not require toxic pesticides or fertilisers, that in itself does not guarantee that they aren’t used. Nitrate fertilisers, which cause harm to the environment and contaminate water supplies, are often used in commercial linen production.
Beyond the growth of flax, harsh chemicals may also be used to dye linen. While its natural colours include a gorgeous variety of neutral tones, it must be bleached if it’s required to be pure white, or dyed to produce the most fashionable shades.
When chemically dyed linen is disposed of, the material itself biodegrades while the chemicals themselves leach out into the Earth.
So, although linen has the potential to be a truly sustainable, natural textile, it’s important to look out for organically grown options coloured with natural dyes.
Further limitations to linen include its tendency to crinkle, which makes it less versatile than alternatives in what it is practically used for.
With its short fibres, linen can be fragile during its production stage which means that spinning and weaving machines must operate more slowly than they would with other textiles.
This lowers the efficiency and increases the cost of linen production which is why it’s often seen as a more ‘luxury’ commodity, limiting its scale to market.
Similar to flax, hemp can be grown without intense use of resources, demanding just 300~500 litres of water per kg and managing perfectly well without pesticides or fertilisers.
Hemp is a wonder in its capacity for carbon storage, with studies suggesting it absorbs more per hectare than any other forest or commercial crop. It also shares flax’s ability to naturally regenerate soil, returning between 60 and 70% of nutrients, allowing it to safeguard biodiversity and remain fertile for future use.
The CO2 absorbed by hemp is permanently bonded to its fibre, meaning that it won’t be released when hemp is converted for textile use.
Hemp has an incredibly high yield, growing quickly and using less land than alternatives. On the same amount of land, hemp’s average yield can average between 485 and 809 lbs., substantially more than the 323~465 lb. average of flax.
A thoroughly versatile plant, hemp production produces little waste with its parts being used for everything from dairy alternatives to flour to storing energy for power tools or electric vehicles.
Hemp-based textiles are incredibly strong, meaning it takes dye well and is difficult to tear or stretch, and it even has antimicrobial properties which prevent it absorbing odours.
Despite sounding like a miraculous, sustainable textile, hemp does have some limitations.
Unless organically produced, chemicals may still be used in production or dyeing, which defeats the benefits of natural biodegradability. Unlike linen or cotton, GOTS certification cannot yet be applied to hemp, making it difficult to be sure when trying to opt for organic.
Lack of certification for organic hemp is, in part, due to its market being limited by legal regulation, anti-hemp lobbying, misinformation and its association with weird ‘hippy’ clothing.
This means that despite being a promising option when trying to find natural textiles that really are sustainable, it may take years for the hemp industry to scale.
Materials made with 100% hemp can also be coarse, stiff and wrinkly, making them less appealing to consumers.
It is often mixed with other textiles or put through energy and chemical-intensive processes to make it more pleasant, but this can drastically increase its environmental footprint.
This enables corporate ‘greenwashing’ (see my post on greenwashing here!) as companies boast their use of hemp without disclosing the processes used to adapt it.
So though hemp has high potential as a truly sustainable, natural textile, it’s worth doing the research to be sure that it’s been produced without harm to the environment. Seek options labelled organic, and beware of those listed as “hemp viscose”.
Ah, bamboo, the ultimate in sustainable, natural textiles. But is it really?
Though it resembles trees, bamboo is actually a grass. Some studies have found that it produces 35% more oxygen than equivalent tree coverage, and absorbs up to 12 tonnes of CO2 annually per hectare.
Found mostly in warmer climates across South East Asia, Africa, Latin America and the most southerly points of the US, bamboo’s incredibly fast growth does not require any pesticides or herbicides and uses just a small amount of water.
Bamboo is naturally renewable, as it is able to regrow from its own root system. This means that it never needs to be replanted and, rather than being disturbed, the soil remains intact and is held together by fibrous networks of underground roots.
Protecting the soil in this way avoids its erosion, particularly through landslides which are common in the wetter climates in which it grows. Ecosystems are able to thrive among bamboo forests, with positive effects on the environment.
For the above reasons, bamboo has potential as an extremely sustainable material – and indeed it is an excellent resource for creating furniture and household items.
However, there are common farming and manufacturing processes that place doubt on whether this natural textile is really sustainable.
An upsurge in demand for bamboo has lead to mass clearance of land to make room for plantations.
This clearance displaces local wildlife and indigenous communities and replaces it with bamboo monoculture – which means that bamboo is the only plant species and others are removed to the detriment of fungi, bacteria, insects and smaller animals who depend on biodiversity for nutrients and shelter.
With its commercial production mostly taking in China, most of the bamboo products we see on the shelves have travelled across the world, giving them a distinctly unfriendly environmental footprint.
Though bamboo grows quickly without chemical help, misinformed farmers often use pesticides and fertilisers anyway in the hope of larger yields and boosted income. Such chemicals are hazardous to soils, farmers, water supplies and food chains.
When grown organically, bamboo textiles can still be sustainable, when fibres are woven into thread to create ‘bamboo linen‘.
Unfortunately, this fabric is rough and uncomfortable, as well as being expensive and time-consuming to produce.
Bamboo linen is rarely used and hard to find. Instead, most bamboo products are made with rayon – a more pleasant fabric that is cheaper and quicker to make.
Turning bamboo into rayon most often involves harsh chemical processes which use a lot of energy and release toxic substances such as carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide into the environment.
So, though marketed as a green alternative, the majority of soft fabrics labelled as ‘bamboo’ contain very little of the actual bamboo plant. Bamboo itself may really be sustainable and natural, but the textiles we use it for rarely are.
When discussing hemp and bamboo, I’ve used terms such as “blended”, “chemical processes”, “viscose” and “rayon”, so perhaps I should provide further explanation.
Semi-synthetic textiles are those which take natural, plant-based cellulose but use synthetic processes to create appealing, practical fabrics.
They are often marketed as more sustainable, natural alternatives to fully synthetic options such as polyester or acrylic.
When not blended with other fabrics, they are biodegradable and compostable. With their breathable, moisture-wicking properties they make efficient and versatile fabrics.
Examples include modal, which is made from beech trees. Modal is extremely durable and can last far longer than cotton, reducing the need for excessive consumption.
Many of the plants used to make semi-synthetic textiles are fast-growing and don’t put too much strain on resources. So, they can seem like sustainable options and are often branded as such.
However, lax regulation can contribute to poor working conditions and excessive or illegal logging.
In addition, the production of semi-synthetic textiles often involves chemicals including sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, bleach and various other dyes or coatings, which are toxic to people and wildlife alike.
It can also be extremely resource-intensive, placing a burden on the environment through its water and energy consumption. However, an alternative method known as the Lyocell process has been developed which uses less water and switches harmful dissolving agents for more environmentally friendly chemicals, up to 99.5% of which are reused.
So, while some semi~synthetic textiles contribute to environmental destruction, some really might be sustainable options.
Understanding the different terms and labels used can be difficult. Notably, semi~synthetics are named by their process rather than by their source, and most can be made with a variety of raw materials.
Some terms to look out for include:
Rayon An overarching term for materials made by synthetically breaking down natural plant~based fibres.
Traditional Viscose Rayon is broken down using toxic chemicals and resource-intensive processes.
Lyocell Rayon is broken down using more sustainable processes.
Tencel A branded version of textiles made with the Lyocell process by its pioneering corporation, Lenzing AG. ‘Tencel’ is to semi~synthetics what ‘hoover’ is to vacuum cleaners, i.e. a brand name that has become so widely used it is rarely recognised as such.
Next up is perhaps an easier to understand natural textile – wool. Wool is made from the coat of shorn animals (sheep, goats, alpaca and similar) which is spun and woven into cloth.
As animals regrow their coat each year, wool is naturally renewable and often heralded as a sustainable, natural textile option.
Its breathability means that it adapts well to different temperatures, and its flexibility allows it to maintain its natural shape without wrinkling, sagging or stretching.
This makes wool an extremely durable, yet naturally biodegradable, material with versatile use. Woollen products require less, washing and generally avoid tumble drying. They last for a long time and are commonly donated or resold to allow continued use.
These characteristics reduce the need for excessive consumption, adding to the sustainable qualities of wool.
Where most fabrics use a lot of energy in the production phase, wool has been found to have a much lower carbon footprint, further promoting it as a natural, sustainable textile choice.
However, despite saving on carbon emissions, the raising of sheep and other livestock contributes significantly to methane emissions. Methane is another greenhouse gas, with a more intense warming impact than carbon dioxide.
As industries have expanded, more and more land has been cleared to make room for animal grazing.
This land clearance displaces local wildlife and indigenous communities while overgrazing causes desertification, soil salination, soil erosion and an overall decline in biodiversity.
Protecting biodiversity is crucial in ensuring sustainability, as land without life has little to no fertility and can no longer be used in farming.
Furthermore, without networks of plant roots, the problems of soil are increased as there is nothing to hold it in place.
Wool may also be dyed with chemicals, which contaminate the Earth when the material itself naturally biodegrades. These chemicals then enter water supplies, with significant health costs to the animals and people that rely on them.
Of course, wool also comes with ethical implications. While animals can be shorn without lasting harm, studies have shown that this group is particularly susceptible to fear and the experience can be greatly distressing.
In addition, video evidence from PETA has shown alarming cases of mutilation and abuse, exacerbated as shearers are paid by volume rather than hours and seek to boost their income.
While wool boasts some sustainable credentials, it is important to be sure of how it has been farmed.
While smallholder, sustainable farms may be able to provide ethical and responsible wool which can go on to be used in naturally dyed, sustainable products – there are several catches to be aware of along the way, and personal values should be considered.
Leather And Its Alternatives
As most people are aware, leather is a material made from the hide and skins of animals, most commonly cattle. Its use dates back to around 2200BCE, and it continues to be used on an industrial scale today.
Among the most controversial of natural textiles is leather. Some argue that leather really is sustainable, on the basis that it’s often a by-product of the meat industry, meaning that the livestock and land they graze on would have been used anyway.
Other claims for leather’s sustainability refer to its durability, and it is indeed a hardy and valued material. Given that it is technically a natural textile, leather is able to biodegrade without harming the environment, unlike synthetic alternatives.
However, that’s about it for positives when it comes to leather, and in many cases, these arguments can be quickly discredited.
By-product or not (and it is often difficult to prove given the distinct lack of traceability in most leather supply chains), land is still cleared to raise livestock and mass produce their feed.
Deforestation to clear this land causes habitat loss, removes carbon-absorbing tree cover and contributes towards climate change.
Recent developments have seen more brands committing to improving the traceability of their leather, and ensuring that no new deforestation occurs, but progress remains slow and poorly regulated.
Processing animal skins into leather involves a process called tanning, which in most cases demands a large amount of energy and several highly toxic chemicals including formaldehyde, mineral salts and chromium.
Discharge from the chemical tanning process contains salts, lime sludge, sulfides and acids which have drastic effects on the local environment and have been associated with cancers and other health problems for tannery workers and local communities.
Beyond the tanning process, additional chemicals are used in dyeing and finishing leather, many of them based on cyanide.
Leather is thought to be the most significant contributor to eutrophication, a process whereby runoff waste drives overactive plant life in water systems and causes oxygen levels to decline.
It is possible for leather to be tanned and treated with vegetable-based tannins. This removes the need for toxic chemicals and maintains leather’s natural biodegradability, and committed tanneries ensure that hides are reclaimed from the meat industry.
Such leather can make far greater claims as to its sustainability but remains the minority.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to leather. These are often celebrated as a vegan alternative, which many automatically believe to be a more sustainable option.
Unfortunately, the most common vegan leathers are made using polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride, which are plastic polymers. These textiles sacrifice the biodegradable properties of natural leather and release their chemicals into the environment both during and after the product’s use.
There are several innovative textiles that use natural ingredients to create vegan leather substitutes. Using pineapple leaves, cork, apple peals… the list goes on and is truly awe-inspiring.
A favourite example of mine (and I must admit I am amazed by these ideas) is mushroom leather, which makes use of post-consumer wood chips, straw and corn to grow mushrooms which are used to make fully biodegradable, vegan leather with any waste being used as organic crop fertiliser or smoking product for beekeeping.
Though natural textiles like this really are environmentally sustainable, they are yet to be brought to scale, and there is some concern that doing so would push the textiles industry further into an urban system, damaging the incomes and livelihoods of vulnerable agricultural communities.
There are several natural textiles that I haven’t delved into within this post, such as silk, jute, banana, and many biosynthetic or lab-based approaches.
I could go on, particularly when it comes to nerding out over the innovative new materials made with coffee grounds, coconut, cow dung… but I feel this post is already getting far too lengthy.
Though incomplete, I hope that this has brought to light some of the complexities within the textiles industry and explained why natural doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable.
My aim was to point out some of the compromises to be aware of when attempting to make more sustainable choices, and if I’ve achieved that in any way then I’m satisfied and I hope you will be too.
Thank you for reading, and please do leave any thoughts in the comments below. Do you have any natural textiles to add? Or perhaps a favourite sustainable solution?