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Fashion guide II: greenest fabrics

Put a bit of hemp in a shirt and call it eco-fashion, but is it? Beyond the hype of alternative fabrics lies a more complex world of chemistry that may make you think twice before buying bamboo.

By Kirsten Dirksen

Organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, soy, corn, seaweed (Seacell), just about everything can be used to make fabrics these days, but not all eco-fabrics are created equal and just because they sound natural doesn’t mean they can’t inflict significant environmental damage.

There’s no question the fashion industry is in need of more fabric diversity. Consultant and author Kate Fletcher explained to us: “What we need to do is move away from being a sector that’s being dominated by two fibers. Cotton and polyester together account for more than 80% of textile fibers that are consumed annually.”

Given that both rely on petrochemicals- conventional cotton for the pesticides and herbicides used to grow it and polyester is petroleum-based-, Fletcher and others in the industry are advocating the need for a more pluralistic approach to fabric selection. And designers are beginning to heed that call.

From soy to sasawashi: all it takes to be green?

Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta and Donatella Versace have experimented with hemp. Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg and Agnes B have tried bamboo. And everyone- from Edun, the label started by U2 frontman Bono and his wife Ali Hewson in 2005 to mass retailers like H&M, Target, Zara and Wal-Mart- is offering organic cotton.

Some designers have based their entire reputation around one “green” fabric. Deborah Boria and Dearrick Knupp found the bamboo fabric while traveling in China and as Boria explained to us, “we were smitten once we learned more about it. We thought it could be the bases for an entire company/brand, hence the name ‘Panda Snack‘.”

Other designers extend their range to include a diversity of very natural-sounding raw materials. Los Angeles-based Linda Loudermilk uses sasawashi, bamboo, seaweed, soya and other “exotic self-sustaining plants” to create designs that sound very cradle-to-cradle. “Bamboo pointelles and soya blends go into clothes that honor nature in ethos, and then they go back into the earth.”

If only it were so easy to wear a quickly-growing plant or a seaweed, but according to industry insiders, some of these alternative fabrics can be highly polluting to convert into a fabric, to dye and to finish. Nothing new to an industry that, according to Greenpeace, uses at least 8,000 chemicals to turn raw material into clothes (the most hazardous are lead, nickel, chromium IV, aryl amines, phthalates and formaldehyde).

Todd Copeland, from Patagonia’s Common Threads Material Development program, explained to us that there are some so called “eco-fabrics” that Patagonia (a pioneer in eco-fabrics, addressing the “environmental crisis” with every business decision since 1991) not only wouldn’t use, but doesn’t consider environmentally friendly.

“A lot of eco-fabrics are getting attention because they are made from natural sources that are new for fabrics. But in many cases, such as bamboo or soy, the processes are chemical-intensive and were invented over 50 years ago. It seems more like novelty than true eco-fabrics.”

So what plants, or other materials, should we be wearing? While the experts we spoke with caution that simply looking at materials is only a small part of the solution to fashion’s environmental and social impacts, there are definitely some that are better than others, as well as some misinformation about what is truly “green”.

The real price of cotton

Given that conventional cotton is the world’s most pesticide-intensive crop, it’s no surprise that most experts would advise buying organic. Mathilda Lee, editor at The Ecologist and author of Eco Chic, calls it a good first step. “If you’re looking for an eco-fabric you can start off by looking for organic cotton. Organic cotton is a definite benefit to farmers, to the land. that’s a step in the right direction.”

Although cotton is grown on just 2.4% of the world’s arable land, according to the Organic Trade Association, its cultivation uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.)

Of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton in 2000, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled 7 of them- acephate, dichloropropene, diuron, fluometuron, pendimethalin, tribufos, and trifluralin- as “possible,” “likely,” “probable,” or “known” human carcinogens.

The health issues for those working on cotton fields are steep. According to Stephen Yafa, author of Big Cotton: How A Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map, 91% of men who work in cotton fields in India get sick.

The World Health Organization estimates thousands die yearly from pesticide poisoning in cotton agriculture and the Pesticide Action Network says another million suffer long-term effects. Many of those suffering are children.

A recent report from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) concluded that in India over 400,000 children are working in cotton fields, and more than half are under 14 years old.

Monsanto and Bayer- the 2 multinationals with ties in the area- have begun to work on the issue, but India Committee of the Netherlands director Gerard Oonk claims it’s a very pervasive problem: “The report makes it chillingly clear that our cotton products are tainted with massive bonded child labour.”

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is a relatively new classification- about a decade old- and it still only accounts for 0.4% of total cotton production, but that number is growing fast. Global retail sales of organic cotton increased 238% between 2005 and 2007, and are expected to reach more than $2 billion by the end of 2008, according to Organic Exchange.

Along with the largest buyers like Wal-Mart, Nike and Patagonia, new companies for 2006 and 2007 included C&A, NAU, Next, Target, Pottery Barn, Stella McCartney, and Barney’s.

Organic cotton, still just 1% of total cotton sales, is mostly grown in Turkey and India (a map of where organic cotton is grown), and in some parts of the world, a shift to organic may not make sense. As Lynda Gross, a consultant to California’s Sustainable Cotton Project (SCP) explained to us, in places where the cost of labor is high farmers are experimenting with a third option.

“Organic is just one tool to use. If it is not an effective tool then we have to choose a different tool… In California toxins are an issue and organic isn’t effective due to price, so ‘Cleaner Cotton’ is a better solution.” Cleaner Cotton is the result of the SCP’s work with California farmers using the BASIC (Biological Agriculture Systems In Cotton) program to reduce their pesticide use, but it stops short of organic.

BASIC cotton is farmed with up to 73% fewer chemicals than conventional cotton, a significant reduction considering that in 2006 almost 6 million pounds of chemicals were applied to cotton in California.

The final part of the equation involves creating a market for BASIC cotton by convincing California companies to use local cotton, something that is already beginning to happen. As USA Today reported in January of 2008, San Diego-based prAna bought “hundreds of pounds of BASIC acala cotton for its ‘Homegrown T-Shirt,’ and American Apparel has committed to buying nearly half a million pounds”.

Organic cotton: not a perfect eco-fabric

Organic cotton is not a perfect solution: it requires a lot of water for both cultivation (the most of any crop by weight of final product) and for washing. According to Cambridge University’s Well Dressed? report, in a life cycle analysis of a cotton t-shirt while “a switch to organic cotton with less toxic dyes causes a dramatic fall (of over 90%) in the toxic impact of the product”, the use phase of washing and the production process of finishing now dominate.

Aside from the water use, in material production and in washing, even organic clothing can be dyed and finished with harsh chemicals. Big Cotton author Stephen Yafa estimates that about a pound of chemicals goes into the average pair of jeans, including petroleum-based dyes, toxic bleach “finishers”, and formaldehyde-based color sealers.

According to a report by salon.com, although the organic standards don’t require it, some companies are choosing to cut chemicals from their organic collections. “For its fancy Capital E 501 jeans [Levi’s “Eco jean”], which retail for around $250, Levi’s insists it uses non-petroleum, plant-based dye and few or no finishing agents. Patagonia claims that it uses minimal finishers in its organic cotton jeans. Del Forte reports that it reduces the use of chemicals by hand-sanding its denim for that weathered look.”

Bamboo (and soy)

Despite the hype it’s received recently, except in rare cases, bamboo should not be considered an “eco-fabric”. The problem with bamboo is that while it is a rapidly renewable resource (though more often farmers are turning to clearcutting forest to plant bamboo) and naturally pest resident (though pesticides are being introduced as more farmers begin to monocrop the plant on farms), it’s a lot of work to turn it into a fabric.

“If you imagine bamboo grass it’s really stiff; it’s not the sort of thing you’d look at and automatically think it would make great garments,” explains Kate Fletcher, author of the book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. So to create a fabric from the strong plant, most manufacturers rely on toxic chemicals.

There are two ways to process bamboo. One is a mechanical method which involves crushing the plant and using natural enzymes to break it down so that the fibers can be combed out. This method results in what is often called bamboo linen (it is similar to the process of creating linen). It is very expensive because most of the labor is done by hand and very few companies are using it.

Most of the bamboo fabrics on the market today use a highly polluting chemical process to breakdown the bamboo leaves and shoots into cellulose, using solvents like sodium hydroxide (NaOH- AKA caustic soda or lye) and carbon disulfide as well as rounds of bleaching. This process is similar to that used to make soy fabric, as well as rayon/viscose (for rayon, beech wood is the source of cellulose).

For Todd Copeland, from Patagonia’s Common Threads Material Development program, this chemically-heavy production process is why he doesn’t view bamboo or soy as environmentally-friendly sources for materials. “These fibers are usually regenerated cellulosic or protein fibers which use solvents. The toxicity of these solvents and the handling of effluent must be addressed in order to consider these products environmentally-friendly.”

This method for making bamboo is far from environmentally-friendly. “This is highly polluting, creating disulphide emissions which are nerve toxins,” explains Linda Gross. “The fiber is renewable it’s true, [but] so is wood [used] for regular rayon. Tencel is a much more viable option, with a closed loop system of processing that creates little to no emissions.”

Tencel (lyocell)

Tencel (the brand name for a lyocell made by the company Lenzing), like bamboo, is a manufactured regenerated cellulose fiber, but unlike most bamboo (though there are some bamboo manufacturers attempting to appropriate the Tencel process), its entire manufacturing process was designed to minimize environmental impacts. The source of cellulose is wood pulp harvested from managed forests that is broken down using a non-toxic solvent that is continually recycled with a recovery rate of 99.5%. The final product is fully biodegradable.

Tencel is FSC-certified for the forest and the pulp and the fabric has been certified Oeko Tex 100, guaranteeing a low level of residual chemicals in the final product. The Lenzing company is the first fiber manufacturer worldwide to have been awarded the EU Eco flower label.


Hemp has been used for thousands of years as a source for fabric and more recently, as the fabric for the first Levi’s. While for most of the past century it was used mostly for rope, parachutes and denim, in the past couple of decades it’s become more widely used by even major brands like Armani, Polo Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Patagonia, Nike and Converse.

It’s been given a lot of attention from everyone from celebrities like Woody Harrelson, who wore an Armani hemp suit to the 1997 Oscars, to designers like Stewart and Brown who claim hemp has “one of the lowest ecological footprints of any fiber”.

Hemp mostly lives up to its hype. According to the Well Dressed? report, “hemp is four times stronger than cotton, twice as resistant to abrasion, and more resistant to mildew, soiling, shrinkage and fading in the sun, in addition, hemp plants need little irrigation and significantly less pesticide or other chemicals.” Other reasons hemp has developed its cult-like following (besides its association to a forbidden substance): It is rapidly renewable, reaching maturity in 80-120 days.

  • It is the strongest known natural fiber.
  • It helps block UV and UVB rays.
  • It wicks moisture and resists bacteria and mold.
  • It’s more insulating than cotton.
  • The crop grows well without pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Despite its strengths, hemp is not always ideal. Like flax, ramie and jute, hemp is a bast fiber which means the process to extract the fibers from the plant requires a retting process which while it can be done organically (using microorganisms) is increasingly being done chemically (using either chemicals or enzymes).

The chemical process is not as intensive as that for bamboo or wood since the plant breaks down easier, but there are viable options to the chemicals. Ecolution is one company making hemp using traditional Eastern European processing methods. This Romanian grower/manufacturer claims its process is preferable to that of its competitors in China on both ecological and quality bases.

“Chemical processing, which pulps the fiber with heavy caustic sodas and acid rinses, strips the fiber of much of its rich character and strength and produces hazardous, environmentally-destructive waste.”


While conventional wool is an annually renewable resource, it is not necessarily environmentally-friendly. Sheep are often confined to too small of an area and overgrazed, damaging the land. Pesticides are also used both on the pastures and on the animals to control pests and parasites.

According to the Organic Trade Association, pesticides used for sheep are not a small problem:

  • The top three insecticides used on sheep in 2005- fenvalerate, malathion and permethrin- are all slightly acutely toxic to humans, moderately to highly toxic to fish and amphibians, and suspect endocrine disruptors.
  • Pesticides used in sheep dips have consistently been linked with damage to the nervous system in workers that have been exposed to them in the United Kingdom.
  • Mounting evidence suggests that widespread use of agricultural antibiotics is contaminating surface waters and groundwater, including drinking water, in many rural areas as a result of their presence in animals waste.

Organic wool, though limited in supply, is- as Patagonia’s Tim Rhone explained to us for a video- much cleaner. “Organic wool is significant because the amount of antibiotics on the sheep is limited. The amount of sheep per acre is limited so there’s no overgrazing and also the fumigants that are used on the wool, they don’t exist there.”

Besides certified organic, there are other organic options, like the wool from California’s Tawanda Farms where Carol Pasheilich and Maggie Howard raise their grass-fed sheep according to organic standards (though without certification) and sell both the meat and the wool (for a video, they showed how they avoid overgrazing by practicing intensive rotational management).

Like with cotton, harsh chemicals are often used for cleaning, bleaching, dyeing and finishing wool. For a wool to be chemical-free, it needs to not only be organically-raised, but organically-processed as well.

PLA: a food-based fiber

PLA (polylactic acid or polylactide) fiber can be made from food products, such as rice, sugar beets, sugar cane, wheat and sweet potatoes. It’s the same PLA that is used to make bioplastics: a type of compostable containers, cutlery and bags.

Like bioplastics, PLA clothing is compostable and will turn to dirt in a commercial compost facility in 60 to 90 days (Aseem Das of World Centric showed us, for a video, the compostable PLA bowls, bags and cutlery they sell).

In the case of clothing, PLA is a substitute for petroleum-based polyester, but unlike traditional polyester, it doesn’t need a chemical treatment to naturally wick moisture, it is naturally more flame resistant and it’s lighter and so blends better with other fabrics.

Ingeo, the PLA fiber produced by Natureworks- a joint venture between Cargill and Teijin Limited- has been used by designers like Versace, Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Elisa Jimenez, Cop Copine and Linda Loudermilk, but not everyone sees it a true eco-fiber.

Keeping GMO-crops out of clothing

Ingeo- made from fermented corn sugars- has drawn criticism for its reliance on a GM (genetically modified, AKA GMO or GE) crop. Cargill- the multinational that developed Ingeo (Teijin joined the venture in 2007)- is not only the world’s leading producer of corn, but is also a leader in genetic engineering.

Before Ingeo was released to market, Patagonia was initially excited about the product and worked closely with Dow Cargill to help find a GMO-free source of corn sugar (dextrose). Since the dextrose market is so massive, this proved impossible, so Patagonia pulled out.

In 2001 shortly before the product went to market, Jil Zilligen, then vice president of Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia, wrote about the decision on the company website. “Because genetically engineered corn is the current raw material used for PLA, and studies have shown unintended, negative environmental impacts from GE corn, we cannot responsibly embrace PLA until we can guarantee a GE-free source of raw material. We have invested a significant amount of time, research, and even hope in PLA. Within the current agricultural infrastructure, no source separates conventional or genetically engineered corn from organic corn at the processing plant to guarantee a GE-free source of dextrose.”

Zilligen is now Chief Sustainability Officer at Nau, a new sustainably-focused outdoor clothing company based in Portland, Oregon. Nau uses Ingeo, but they participate in the offsetting program offered by NatureWorks for “customers who view corn variety as an important market issue”. These “source-options” include a polymer with no genetic content guaranteed by a third-party organization; an option with 50% GMO and 50% non-GMO corn; and “a seed-to-finished-product identity-preserved grade”.

Patagonia still doesn’t use Ingeo because of NatureWorks’ (and Cargill’s) support for genetically engineered crops and a situation they view as a slippery slope.

Apart from the GMO debate, the choice of corn as a source is not a long-term solution. Those at NatureWorks claim to be working to transition from using agricultural products to using agricultural waste streams, such as corn stover, wheat and rice straw and bagasse.

Future eco-fabrics

For major companies looking to diversify from conventional cotton and polyester, the decisions are complex and a whole-systems approach is paramount. Nike’s sustainable innovation director for apparel Eraina Duffy explained to Gear Trends Magazine in 2005: “We’ve researched both recycled cotton and Ingeo, but we don’t know where to place them. The Ingeo could replace performance synthetics, but it’s gotten hung up at the dyers. The recycled cotton, which doesn’t need to be re-dyed, is harder. There has to be supply chain connectivity.”

Todd Copeland agrees that while “a lot of eco-fabrics are getting attention because they are made from natural sources that are new for fabrics”, when Patagonia’s Material Development Program chooses fabrics, they don’t just look at raw material source, but the entire process of making the final product.

“Eco-fabrics of the future will make huge improvements in reducing the environmental impact of textiles: using less water, less energy, less petrochemicals, emitting less CO2, less VOC’s, less air and water pollution, and eliminating toxic substances. But the challenge will be marketing and educating the customers.”

Eco-labels for fabrics

Oeko-Tex or (Okotex or Öko-Tex):

  • Oeko-Tex 100: A standard for finished textile products that prohibits or limits the use of known harmful substances, like prohibited azo dyestuffs; carcinogenic and allergy-inducing dyestuffs; formaldehyde; pesticides; chlorinated phenols; chloro-organic carriers; extractable heavy metals; nickel; colour fastness; pH-value; phtalates in baby articles; butyl tin compounds (TBT and DBT); emission of volatile components; odours.
  • Oeko-Tex 1000 (or Öko-Tex 100 plus): Textiles conform with the Oeko-Tex 100 standards, but also certifies all the companies in the supply chain comply with the same standards.

The European Eco-label for Textiles (the flower): official EU mark for greener products. It analyzes the whole process from raw materials to the final product. The flower guarantees:

  • A limited use of substances harmful to the environment.
  • Limited substances harmful to health.
  • Reduced water and air pollution.
  • Textile shrink resistance during washing and drying.
  • Colour resistance.

Bluesign: an independent standard guaranteeing that “production processes that are designed around maximum resource productivity with a view to environmental protection, health and safety” that can be applied to the entire textile production chain– “from raw material and component suppliers who manufacture e.g. yarns, dyes and additives, to textile manufacturers, to retailer and brand companies, to consumers.” Relatively new. Patagonia became the first clothing brand to join in May 2007.

Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS): the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) organic fiber processing standards address all stages of textile processing, “from post-harvest handling to wet processing (including bleaching, dyeing, printing), fabrication, product assembly, storage and transportation, pest management, and labeling of finished products. They also include an extensive list of materials permitted for, or prohibited from, use in organic fiber processing under the standards.”

GreenBlue: Sustainable Textile Standard based upon the “cradle-to-cradle” approach developed at MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry). “GreenBlue is currently working with academic, non-profit, and industry partners to develop a shared, comprehensive, cradle-to-cradle Sustainable Textile Standard (STS) for application in all aspects of the textile industry.” The criteria to be considered:

  • Safety of chemical and material inputs.
  • Energy efficiency and mix.
  • Water efficiency and effluent quality.
  • Recycling and actual reclamation.
  • Social equity for workers.

Made in Green: a green seal from Aitex (a non-profit with funding from the European Commission) for overall quality for those “who provide or who are seeking textile products manufactured with the guarantee that they are free from substances harmful to health. A mark which certifies that the product, throughout its traceability chain has been manufactured in factories which respect the environment and the universal rights of workers.”

  • Free from harmful substances.
  • Respect for the environment.
  • Respect for human rights.

Sustainable Textile Standard (STS): an emerging standard from the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS), the STS establishes acceptable emissions levels for clothes/textiles. Defines a sustainable textile product, and their related systems, as having the following attributes:

  • All materials and process inputs and outputs are safe for human and ecological health in all phases of the product life cycle.
  • All energy, material and process inputs come from renewable or recycled sources.
  • All materials are capable of returning safely to either natural systems or industrial systems.
  • All stages in the product life cycle actively support the reuse or recycling of these materials at the highest possible level of quality.
  • All product life cycle stages enhance social well being.