In this blog we will look at a range of sustainable alternatives to the mass produced synthetic nasties flooding our markets from the Far East and elsewhere.
There are many environmentally friendly fabrics made from all kinds of materials but some are more environmentally friendly than others, so here we will try and sort the good from the bad. Remember unless mixed with synthetic products all of these do not produce micro plastic fibres so that is already a big plus.
There are a whole range of factors that determine to what degree a material is environmentally friendly but one common element that can apply to most of them is the dyeing process. Whenever you look at clothing or sheets made from these materials look for their natural colours or vegetable based dyes. Unfortunately conventional dyes and other chemicals used in production can be toxic.
You will recognise many of the materials discussed below but maybe not all.
Hemp has been touted as the ultimate eco-friendly fabric because it requires no chemicals to grow. It is one of the most durable natural fibres that exists which makes it extremely versatile, and so it can be used to create strong, sturdy fabrics - even rope - or soft, delicate items.
It has a whole host of great properties, here are just a few:
Hemp is 5 times as strong as cotton and softens with use and yet remains hardwearing. Garments made from hemp breathe due to the porous nature of the fibres and have good resistance to mould.
The cloth stays cooler in warm weather as well as retaining heat in cool weather and stops up to 95% of the sun’s harmful UV light.
There is however a downside, that being hemp is not very well regulated, which means there’s little monitoring of the chemicals applied to a crop or where it was grown, however with more monitoring this can be easily rectified.
Bamboo is a fascinating material and can be used as a great alternative to synthetic materials.
Surprisingly it’s a grass and has been measured growing as fast as one metre IN ONE DAY! As it grows so fast bamboo groves are easily replaced and as such, bamboo is a very renewable material. In fact it can be grown in areas (such as hillsides) where other crops cannot be grown and harvesting can be done by cutting without damage to the surrounding environment.
Bamboo mainly grows in Asia (China has the most, then India) but did you know that you can also find it in Argentina, Chile, Sub-Saharan Africa and the United States? Part of the impact of buying or specifying a product is from the fuels used in transportation, so the closer the source the better, so it is worth checking the country of origin.
We have all seen bamboo used as scaffolding, cups, plates and so many other products but as a fabric grown organically it is very versatile and can be made into underwear, t-shirts, towels etc. These textiles have the added bonuses of natural antibacterial, antifungal and odour resistant properties and are as soft as cashmere.
The benefits of bamboo don’t end there. It’s naturally irrigated, organic, grows well without the use of pesticides or fertilizers and of course, it is also biodegradable. It’s starting to sound like the perfect product, just be aware that bamboo fabric is normally processed with solvents such as caustic soda and carbon disulphide which have been linked to health problems, however we are sure that with a little bit of effort this can be changed.
Conventionally grown cotton is very harsh on the environment. It takes a lot of fertilizer, pesticides and huge volumes of water to produce just 1kg. According to Wikipedia, Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop.
The environment has paid a huge price for our cotton demand.
In recent years, producers have banded together to create an organic, more sustainable cotton industry. Changes to common practices such as using manure to replace synthetic fertilizers, biological pest controls instead of pesticides and more efficient weeding strategies are being developed to help minimize the impact that cotton growing has on our planet. These along with crop rotation which is used to rest the land between planting helps restore fertility to the soil.
While the organic cotton industry has been doing very well, it’s still in its infancy. Growing organic cotton is a labour intensive process. Also, given the crop rotation requirements, it means that growers harvest less. This increased labour and decreased production does reflect in the price of true 100% organic cotton garments, but some companies are minimizing price increases by using blends of organic and non-organic cotton. Just beware, some unscrupulous companies may only add 1-3% organic cotton in the blend.
Always dig a little deeper to check the green credentials of the cotton and try to buy products which bear credible labels (such as Eco-Cert) indicating the product is certified organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly.
Luxury and high fashion junkies rejoice; silk is inherently natural because it’s made by silk worms, not chemical-based synthetic processing. Also try looking for silk that’s been dyed naturally and made as close to home as possible.
This is the generic name for the ‘Tencel’ brand. It’s made from wood pulp of the eucalyptus tree, so it’s both biodegradable and recyclable. Producing this fabric involves less emissions, energy, and water usage than other more conventional fabrics. Plus it’s naturally wrinkle-free, so you don’t need to waste time or energy on ironing! Not all lyocell fabric is made from sustainable wood so check labels carefully.
Soy fabric is made from the by-products of soy oil processing and is a good option for underwear and bras because its long fibres make it soft and silky. Just make sure your soy fabric is certified organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly. Also check you aren’t getting a less-eco “soy blend” that includes polyester and inorganic cotton in the mix.
As anyone who has ever caressed a cashmere cardigan knows, the fabric is luxurious. The fibre comes from combing out the under-hairs of Kashmir goats, a breed native to the Himalayas but now raised worldwide. Perhaps best of all from an eco-perspective, it’s also long-lasting. However, beware, cheap cashmere has become popular to keep its price down, but it has probably been treated with chemicals and dyed with carcinogenic dyes, so be wary. It may also be blended with other fibres, such as polyester. A truly green cashmere piece will likely be an investment but you’ll also keep it for a lifetime – making it one of the most eco-friendly wardrobe items you own.
True linen is made from cellulose fibres derived from flax plants, a crop that requires very little pest-controlling chemicals, water or energy. It’s also best when it’s a teeny bit wrinkly, so you can conserve energy by putting away the iron. Try to purchase linen that’s been made by an eco-certified clothing or fabric company. And, as usual, watch out for linen blends or cheap, chemical treated garments.
Because of its tensile strength and breathability, along with its cool touch, linen is great for everything from apparel to bedding and it’s naturally biodegradable and recyclable what could be better.
Alpaca sheep don’t require insecticides to be injected into their fleece, are fairly self-sufficient, don’t need to be treated with antibiotics, and don’t eat very much. It seems they’ve taken the idea of being eco-friendly upon themselves! Alpaca wool is also long lasting, which may help make up for the fact that the alpaca product you buy will likely be imported.
Many of the clothes and linen products made from the materials mentioned above may cost a little more than their equivalent in synthetics, but some of them can last 20+ years. You have the satisfaction of helping the environment and investing in a long lasting item.