A lot of confusion surrounds earth-friendly textiles. It isn't always clear how much energy and how many resources it requires to produce a fabric, whether it's natural or synthetic, since different companies sometimes follow different manufacturing processes. To better understand why some textiles are more beneficial for the environment than others, it can be helpful to find out what distinguishes a natural fabric from a synthetic one and why the differences can matter so much.
The Environmental Impact of Organic Textiles
Because of the standards according to which they're grown, harvested, produced, and manufactured, organic textiles almost always have a lesser impact on the environment than conventional fabrics, even if the conventionals are made from natural materials. Organic textiles meet standards declared by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which requires organic certification for each stage of production. Among other standards, GOTS requires that any fabric that is marketed or labeled organic be:
- Made of 95 percent or more certified organic materials
- Grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and substances including formaldehyde, solvents, and heavy metals
- Spun, woven, or knit with only natural substances such as paraffin and starch
- Barred from being treated with ammonia and mechanical or thermal treatments
- Colored only with natural dyes
- Produced by a company that has written measures in place to minimize waste and pollution, has no child labor, pays living wages, and has safe and hygienic working conditions
Impact Levels of Various Earth-Friendly Textiles
Fibers made from natural materials like cotton, wool, and silk are more environmentally friendly than synthetics because they require less energy to manufacture and produce less pollution overall. However, some earth-friendly textiles are far more impactful than others.
When it is not produced organically, the cotton fabric used to make T-shirts and other materials can have a significant impact on the environment.
- Cotton uses 16 percent of insecticides for crops around the world.
- It's treated with a variety of pesticides that are suspected or confirmed carcinogens.
- Cotton plants require about 925 gallons of water to produce a single pound of material.
- These plants degrade soil fertility and may contribute to global climate change.
Environmental concerns about the production of wool fabric are chiefly about methane, although pesticides and insecticides are a secondary issue as well.
- Thousands of pounds of insecticides and pesticides are applied yearly to sheep in the United States that are sheared for the wool industry.
- It requires approximately 500,000 liters of water to produce a metric ton of wool.
- Each sheep sheared for wool production releases an average of 20 to 30 liters of methane per day.
- In New Zealand, the world's primary wool exporter, methane gas emissions account for more than 90 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions.
Silk is a natural, renewable, biodegradable, and compostable fabric that is often produced on looms, making its environmental impact minimal. Factory, worker, and source concerns constitute the main issues with silk.
- Most silks are dyed with chemical or synthetic substances.
- Chemical-based treatments are applied to many silk products before they are sold, resulting in extra pollutants.
- Silks that don't meet organic textile standards may have been produced by workers who labor in oppressive conditions or factories that utilize child labor.
- Silks that are best for the planet will be labeled wild, free-range, or cruelty-free.
Bamboo is a quick-growing, self-sustaining plant that produces a soft fabric much like cotton, but it isn't as natural as some other textile options because its fibers are created either chemically or mechanically.
- Since there is no official textile classification for bamboo, some companies are free to market rayon and other synthetic fabrics as bamboo or bamboo blends.
- Bamboo fiber that is produced mechanically has less impact than that produced chemically, but since it's the more expensive method, it's used most rarely, meaning that most of the bamboo sold commercially was manufactured with the chemical process.
Be Informed and Choose Fabrics Wisely
Protecting the environment is essential to the well being of every person on the planet. Seemingly small choices about which fabrics to wear can add up to a major global impact, so look for earth-friendly fabrics manufactured in environmentally sound ways.