November 25, 2010

When is a Sustainable Textile Not a Sustainable Textile?

Keeper of the Home has a nice series of on going posts about sustainable gifts for the holidays. So far she's told us about some yummy lotions and lip balms and very cool reusable gift wrapping. Yesterday's post covers glass straws (I heart glass straws!) and green fashion. It was the featured green fashion website Fashion and Earth which got me agitated and inspired me to write a post about sustainable textiles.

In the world of eco-textiles we have the clearly bad, the slightly better, and the actually sustainable. There is a lot of confusion about which is which. If we are really interested in making the best choice we need to do some critical thinking about what a truly sustainable fiber is. 
Hand-sewn tea towel from naturally grown hemp.

I think there are three questions to be asked on this issue:
 1. How much do we really need? Sustainable clothing is expensive. If I spent the money I used to buy all my normal clothes on a few high quality pieces of sustainable clothing, I'd have much less clothing... but so what? 
2. Is it even worth it to buy a slightly less destructive version of my favorite t-shirt or should I stop all together and pay the money for true sustainability? Are the intermediate, "better than conventional" steps valid?
3. Should the intermediate, "better than conventional" products be marketed as sustainable? Are these really products that should make us feel "pride and satisfaction"? Will you indeed "positively affect your community and set examples for others"? Or is this just more green washing?

I'm only going to deal with question #3. My issue with Fashion and Earth (and other "eco" clothing purveyors) is not whether we should take intermediate steps or be more radical - that's another discussion. I don't want to talk here about how many clothes we need - maybe another time. But I do want to talk about what is and is not a sustainable textile. If you've made the decision to spend the money and buy a real sustainable textile, which should you choose?

Here's the short version: If we want truly sustainable fiber crops we're talking hemp, animal fiber, silk, and perhaps flax linen. Organic cotton and bamboo rayon are not and probably can not be sustainable fibers.

The Candidates:

Hemp: I'll start here because it's a clear winner. This is what Fashion and Earth's website says about hemp (emphasis mine): "Earning a reputation as one of the most environmentally friendly fibers in the world, hemp is also one of the oldest plant fibers harvested for clothing, popular as far back as 8000 B.C. A particularly hardy plant, there’s no need for pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers in its farming, and it needs very little water to grow. Strong, durable and naturally wrinkle-resistant, hemp fashions also offer the cool hand of linen and the softness of cotton." Anything you can do with cotton you can do with hemp. 

Organic Cotton: It's nice that some cotton is grown organically since conventional cotton is such a heavily sprayed crop. But, in order to grow cotton organically you have to grow it somewhere very dry and/or you use organic pesticides which (while better) can still be ecologically disruptive and toxic to animals other than the insects you're trying to kill. Cotton uses a ton of water. If you grow cotton in the desert for organic purposes (as many pest-susceptible crops are) then you have to use a ton of water in an ecosystem which already doesn't have much. So we see aquifers being drained to support "organic" farms. 

I'm not suggesting that there should be no organic, family-scale farms in dry areas. Everyone needs local agriculture. But, what we shouldn't have are enormous monocultured crops being grown in the desert so they can be organic. Fashion and Earth does mention these issues in their discussion of sustainable textiles. Still, they're selling about half organic cotton. Why would we use organic cotton when we can use hemp? Fashion and Earth acknowledges the problems with organic cotton on their website (emphasis mine): "Organic cotton is definitely a huge improvement as it removes synthetic pesticides, insecticides and synthetic fertilizers from the equation. However, water use is not considered in organic cotton certification so in a sense organic cotton production is not even truly sustainable as it stands right now. Organic cotton... does employ organic pesticides, organic fertilizers and irrigation." I don't see how we can get to truly sustainable cotton production without radically downsizing the scale of our cotton fields and inter-cropping with other species. But that means we're back to hand picking cotton because the quality of the harvest if significantly affected by the presence of any non-cotton plants in the field when harvested by combine. Cotton is an intermediate "better than nothing" step but not really a sustainable fiber. 

Reusable produce bags from salvaged material
However, for those of us sewing things ourselves (and probably for commercial producers as well), hemp is not as readily available as organic cotton. I use organic cotton in my products when necessary (as well as hemp and salvaged fabrics). An intermediate step indeed, but sometimes we compromise.

Bamboo and Soy (Rayon): While I agree that bamboo or the agricultural waste from soy bean processing makes more sense as the raw material for rayon than petroleum, why would we use a chemical process (which has environmental issues) to produce rayon fibers when we have natural fibers to spin? I think the only answer is because we want cheap clothes. There are good and innovative places in our lives for this fast growing, pest free plant, but fabric is not one of them.

Sheep, Alpacas, Camels, Cashmere Goats, Yaks, and Angora Rabbits, are happily and sustainably grazed all over the world turning grass (thus sunlight) into fiber, meat, and milk while improving the soils they're raised on (as long as they're raised in an ecosystem appropriate for grazing). Different animals' hair will yield different textiles with qualities suitable for a variety of purposes. I think it's safe to say however that there is an animal fiber textile for any purpose. Wool is amazing. It breaths but is water resistant. It is both cooler and warmer than other fabrics.

Tencel appears to be made with a zero emissions manufacturing process and is biodegradable. My concern with Tencel is not the fact that it's made from trees, which can be sustainably managed (although I think there are better uses for trees), but that it might be overkill when we have fibers which don't take much manufacturing in the first place. I also worry that, like with bamboo, the claims are false. Why use solvents and chemicals to turn wood into fiber when usable fiber is growing inside a hemp stalk or hanging off the side of a sheep?

One of my hand-sewn tea towels made from organic color grown cotton... no dye used, the color is from the cotton fiber itself!
Ultimately I have a problem with "green washing" that sells organic cotton and bamboo rayon as a sustainable choice. I appreciate that Fashion and Earth discloses the problems with those textiles but they also sing their praises. By all means, choose organic cotton if you're going to buy cotton but please don't go for bamboo! 

I wanted to make sure I wasn't just missing the sustainable textiles in their online store so I looked through all the products Fashion and Earth sells. 

In the category "tops" out of 26 total items they have:
1 hemp option (which is also the 1 organic wool option - 90% wool/10% hemp),
20 bamboo rayon options (which appear to all be rayon/cotton blends)
24 organic cotton options (all blended with rayon)
and 5 soy rayon options (blends with cotton)
*Only 1 out of 26 tops is made from a real sustainable textile. *

Of the three skirts and dresses for sale, 1 is made from 100% hemp. The other two are cotton/rayon blends. 
There are 6 bottoms and all of them contain cotton.
3 jackets, all with cotton.
8 intimates, all have cotton in them.
Of 6 accessories, 3 are made from recycled materials (which is sustainable) the rest are cotton or rayon. The wallet description does not say 100% hemp so it's unclear what other fibers it might use.

Of the 52 products for sale on their website, only 5 of them are made from 100% sustainable textiles. That's only 9.65% of the products.

I want to point out that clothing made from sustainable textiles is available, so this is not an impossible task. Rawganique, a Canadian company, has done the hard work of finding truly sustainable hemp and linen textiles. They specialize in hemp and flax - all fair trade and sweatshop free. While they do sell some organic cotton, out of their 59 women's tops they have 15 organic cotton, 16 hemp or hemp/linen blends knits , 20 pure hemp woven, 8 hemp/cotton blends and no rayons. That's 36 tops made from 100% sustainable textiles, or 61%. And that's just tops.

You can sometimes find 100% wool clothing in mainstream stores although not as often as you would think. Rambler's Way specializes in 100% sustainably grown wool clothing. Other companies have clothing with varying quantities of wool: Ibex might be worth checking out. Duluth Trading Company has some wool clothing. There is also the very green recycled option. Patagonia takes back their clothing for recycling, much of which was made from post consumer recycled soda bottles in the first place. They also have 100% wool options and use down in some of their products.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to share more information on this topic. It's one that I have only delved into somewhat, so I appreciate your knowledge on the topic. I was unaware of some of the issues with organic cotton and bamboo products.

    I don't doubt that for many companies the focus is still on cost/sales and not as high on sustainability. I couldn't say whether that is the case with Fashion and Earth or not (but it will be interesting to see their response to your email). I think there is still a real struggle with companies wanting to move towards sustainability, but needing to recognize that the market is still highly uninformed and for the most part, not prepared to spend the higher costs and own less "stuff". That is slowly changing, but it is a process, to be sure. Even in my own life, it is taking a while to let go of the cultural ideas and expectations that still affect me and play into my decisions. :)

    I appreciate some of the other stores that you mentioned. Thanks for the sustainable textile education!

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Stephanie. I agree, it's a slow process. I too am still working to break down my cultural conditioning around consumption.

    I hope it came across in the post that I am not critical of Fashion and Earth (and other companies) because they sell the perhaps "better than conventional" organic cotton but because of the way they sell it. In fact, while I suggest Rawganique as a good source for sustainable fibers, I have yet to find any information on their website even mentioning the problems with organic cotton, so they too don't quite meet my standards for honesty in marketing.

    By the way, I thought today's post on wooden toys and digital audio gifts was great!

  3. I came to see your post based on your comment at Keeper of the Home. I appreciate your explanation. Perhaps I'm not green/crunchy enough yet, but I don't see the problem with organic cotton being grown in arid climates. It will only be done if a water source is available and if it brings a livable wage to the grower, why is that bad? Or not best? If not getting adequate rainfall is a reason to to be called sustainable, then what happens to all the people living in those climates who want to grow their own food? Maybe I need to understand the terminology better.

  4. That's a good question Kelly. While there is water in the ground it's not an infinitely renewable resource. Aquifers are fragile water sources. You can over pump an aquifer and run out of water. And while they do recharge, they don't necessarily recharge as quickly as they're drained (and some recharge very, very slowly indeed). So if we want to be able to live in arid areas long term we have to be careful how we allocate ground water resources.

    In most places the law does not prioritize water uses. Texas for example has "right of capture" water laws. What that means is that in our state who ever has the biggest well and the largest pump gets the water. So if the City of San Antonio decides to build 6 PGA golf courses and water the heck out of the grass to keep it green and this means the Edwards Aquifer drains so low that surrounding farmers' wells run dry, there is nothing they can do about that. Same is true if someone has a huge cotton farm. If they have a big enough pump and a deep enough well they can use so much water that other farms, businesses, homes, or cities in the area begin to run out. There aren't laws which distribute water rights fairly or with the environment in mind. In fact, in Texas the only thing that has had any effect on over pumping by large users (large cities, bottled water companies, catfish farms, etc.) are lawsuits based on the Endangered Species Act. There are some protected species (most famously the San Marcos salamander) that live near the mouths of springs which are drying up completely because of over pumping. (If you're interested in reading more about that you can find the whole history of Edwards Aquifer water fights here

    So that's why there is an issue with organic cotton and water. Crops that require lots of water should not be grown on a large scale in places where there isn't much water. It's not sustainable - it can't be done long term without ecological and economic damage to the area.

  5. Something I don't think I made clear in my response is that the idea of sustainability is extremely contextual. A crop that uses tons of water is not going to be sustainable in a dry area but a low water crop would be. Another example: grazing is not sustainable in the rain forest because that is not an ecosystem that can support grazers. In fact grazing is incredibly destructive in the rain forest. But in dry, rocky, grasslands grazers are a natural part of the ecosystem. Not only can grasslands support it but those ecosystems are made healthier by the presence of grazers. But, in grassland ecosystems large scale vegetable farming often degrades the land because it's not suited to row crops. It's all about what is appropriate to the local ecosystem.

  6. Annie-thanks for that example. From that though, it sounds like golf courses are the bigger problem, not farming. Oh, and monocropping. Hmmm.

  7. Well, it is just an illustration that always comes to mind because about 10 years ago there was in fact an fight in San Antonio over the construction of a PGA golf course (not 6 though... that was hyperbole) because of the increased pumping it would entail.

    There are a lot of heavy users that are a problem. Large organic cotton farms (which are definitely monocrops, you're right) are just one of the problems. And it's one we could easily choose not to support. Not buying bottled water is another good way to protect scarce water resources, at least in this state. Avoiding farmed catfish is another. And not playing golf in San Antonio :-)

  8. Didn't see this before my last reply. I agree with that much more! Yes, we should focus on what's best for our region. However, in the culture we live, we also must rely on what those in other regions can raise/grow. It "should" be a symbiotic relationship, working hand in hand.

  9. Kelly, as the sustainable products industry stands now, we do have to rely on other regions. However, as you pointed out in your original comment, it is more desirable to grow locally. I think the key to that is for folks in each region to rely on crops that are well-suited to that region.

    For instance, a family on the north German coast who wants to produce fiber on their land should probably consider hemp, flax or sheep wool, rather than sisal, yak hair, or Manila hemp. If that same family desired a degree of self-sufficiency for grain, they would probably be better served by wheat, barley or rye, rather than corn, millet or rice.

    I'm not sure where you live, but I think the primary example of ridiculous globalism is Fiji water. If I want water, I turn on the tap. If I want "pure" water, I run it through a water filter. I don't get American billionaires to set up a bottling plant on South Pacific islands, pump out water from that aquifer, bottle it, and ship it almost halfway around the world to me.

  10. Fiji water really comes from Fiji? I guess it's so ridiculous that I just assumed it was a marketing ploy, not really bottled and shipped that far!

  11. i have been thinking exactly this for a while now. is is frustrating with how little sustainable clothing companies sell hemp, especially with how highly regarded it is in this aspect. i scour the web when i can to find small hemp producers, who make their clothing in countries with good labor laws, that are hopefully closer to new england. there are a few in eugene, oregon. i have had amazing experience with circle creations so far. i have a great hoodie from trust hemp cooperation. there is earth creations, though they don't make men's clothing much. some of efforts industries products fit this criteria, but you have to look for the made in canada label. i have been a little hesitant to buy from hempest, as they produce or use vendors that produce >90% in china.

    sorry if this discussion is more about an attitude to fibers than specific vendors, but i thought i would add a little info if people were interested

  12. @kanishka - Thanks for the comment and those suggestions! I'll have to check those out. Good to have some additional resources in this discussion. The more people can buy real sustainable clothing and stop buying from companies who green-wash, the better.