Are there sustainable textiles and does organic always mean sustainable?
The list below compiles some of the more common materials available in stores (and some less common ones) and how environmentally friendly they are. We hope this will help you make good decisions when buying textile products in the future. Read more about sustainable textiles and organic materials below.
Examples of synthetic fibers are viscose made from wood and polyamide made from oil. What these two have in common is that the raw material needs to be “boiled” and the fiber / thread is produced in a process similar to making spaghetti. The fiber / thread then becomes more even compared to a natural fiber / thread. Synthetic materials from oil require large amounts of water, energy and oil in the production. The products often have a short lifespan, think fast fashion, and degrade slowly. But even viscose processes can be very environmentally impactful and cause emissions of sulfur, nitrogen and other pollutants, however, there are good and closed processes and eco-labeled viscose fibers to choose from.
Organic cotton has grown in popularity and is often considered a cheap and durable alternative to synthetic materials. We often think that organic = good. Which is partly true when it comes to cotton. Conventional cotton requires large amounts of pesticides and that is why organic cotton is better. But the problem that cotton requires huge amounts of water still remains. According to the WWF, 2700 liters of water are required to produce a t-shirt. The same amount can give a person drinking water for 900 days. However, it is possible to reduce the amount of water used for cotton crops. WWF has started The Better Cotton Initiative where they work with farmers in Pakistan to reduce the amount of water used for cotton cultivation. The result is that 16% water is used for these crops. Read more about cotton here.
As with cotton, linen comes from a plant. Linen does not require much water to be produced, only 6.4 liters of water is required to make a sweater. As if that were not enough to make them more sustainable, the crops would absorb 250,000 tonnes of CO2 each year. Linen fabrics are also fully degradable if they have not been treated with toxic or synthetic substances. Common Objectives has classified organic linen as one of the world’s most sustainable fibers together with organic hemp, recycled wool and recycled cotton.
A disadvantage of linen is that even if the plant does not require pesticides to grow, it is still sometimes used and can thus harm the cultivators. Another problem is that harvesting the plant is manual and strenuous work that makes the cultivators exposed since they often they have to work long hours. That is why it is important to buy organic linen products with GOTS certificates and fair trade, because then we protect both the environment and the growers.
Bamboo has become a popular textile for the conscious consumer. Advantages of bamboo are that it grows quickly, does not require spraying and can be grown organically. But the problems are many with the production of bamboo textiles. Forests are cleared to make way for bamboo plantations, destroying ecosystems and animal habitats. To make bamboo fabric, it must undergo a chemical process that is harmful to both the environment and the people who live in the area. Patagonia, one of the world’s oldest and leading sustainable clothing brands, has been doing research on bamboo fabric for 14 years and has chosen not to use it in their products as they believe that the advantages do not outweigh the disadvantages. The production of bamboo fabric can be made more sustainable, if the production abandons the chemical viscose rayon method for the lyocell (Tencel) method. At present, it is mainly the viscose rayon method that is used in the production of bamboo fabric.
Hemp gives a high yield and produces a lot of product in a small area as it grows quickly and densely. A study by the Stockholm International Environmental Institute (SEI) shows that hemp only needs 300-500 liters of water to produce 1 kg of fabric (in contrast, cotton requires 20,000 liters for the same amount of fabric). The hemp plant removes toxins from the soil and absorbs large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Thus, growing hemp is good for our soil. Fabrics made from hemp are generally very durable, which means longer life for the garments. There is both organic hemp and sprayed hemp. Common Objectives has classified organic hemp as one of the world’s most sustainable fibers together with organic linen, recycled wool and recycled cotton.
Wool is a renewable product and in many cases also a by-product, but there are ethical implications with wool. It is important to note that organic wool does not mean that the fiber is cruelty free. Organic refers only to a lack of chemicals. The majority of angora wool comes from China where there is no legislation on how the animals are treated, and the wool is usually pulled from the rabbit’s skin. Domesticated sheep are usually sheared twice a year, which makes sheep wool a by-product, but documentation and videos show that it is not uncommon for violence against sheep to take place. Half of the world’s wool comes from Australia, where mulesing is common. When mulesing, large pieces of sheep’s skin are cut away from the buttocks to prevent flies from laying eggs in the wool. The process is usually violent and is done without anesthesia. But there are companies that have taken measures to ensure that the animals do not get hurt. An example is Fjällräven who in 2017 did a pilot project where they only used wool from Swedish sheep from Brattlandsgården.
What should Conscious Consumers think about?
- The most sustainable alternative is, as always, to circulate to the highest possible degree.
- Prioritize organic and eco-labeled textiles with high quality and long life. Many second-hand shops report that the quality of the clothes that come in today is so poor that they can not be resold and therefore much of the donations end up in the garbage.
Page updated 2021.