In this article I have decided to look behind some of the hype about organic textiles and their sustainability and find the materials which are truly sustainable and eco friendly. Global awareness of the real price of clothing is growing and consumers are pushing for more eco friendly apparel. There are more reported cases of people experiencing health problems such as rashes, allergies, respiratory problems and difficulties with focusing mentally due to chemical sensitivities and many have found organic clothing to be helpful in reducing exposure to the vast amount of toxic chemicals we are unknowingly exposed to on a daily basis.
Cotton is a wonderful fibre for making clothes but it is now recognized that conventionally grown cotton causes great harm both to the environment and to workers with its extensive use of pesticides and insecticides which cause ill health to people coming into contact with the chemicals and widespread pollution by soaking into water tables. Organic cotton is grown without chemicals and therefore does no harm to either environment or workers but is necessarily more labour intensive and furthermore fields must be free of chemicals for three years before the crop can be certified organic. There have been huge global increases in the demand for organic cotton and the problem now facing farmers is producing enough to meet the demand. LaRhea Pepper of Organic Exchange says" In order to encourage long term economically sustainable sources of organic fibre we need to be willing to discuss and implement models that acknowledge the value of the product from the farm gate and continuing right down the supply chain".
Hemp really does seem to be one of the good guys. It has many excellent properties being environmentally positive with no need of pesticides and insecticides it actually improves soil where it is grown. It is drought resistant and can be grown in most climates. Textiles can also be processed from the fibrous stalks without the use of toxic chemicals and because it does not require high technology to process it is ideal to be processed locally increasing local employment and saving transport costs and pollution. Hemp has been used to make clothing for thousands of years and it is in recent times that it has become controversial. Cannabis is produced from hemp and growing hemp in the United States is illegal but it is produced in Europe and Asia and is now legal in Canada. It would seem a great pity not to utilize this highly sustainable textile.
Bamboo is a material whose luxurious softness has been compared to cashmere. As a plant it is fast growing and highly sustainable and is mainly naturally organic. It does not require replanting after harvest but will regenerate from its vast root structure. Bamboo helps to improve soil quality and helps rebuild eroded soil.
There are two ways of manufacturing bamboo mechanically or chemically. The mechanical way involves crushing the woody parts of the plant and then using natural enzymes to break it down into a mush so that the natural fibres can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. Bamboo produced by this method is sometimes called 'bamboo linen'. However very little bamboo linen is manufactured for clothing because this method is labour intensive and costly. Bamboo fabric for clothing is mainly produced by chemical manufacturing which involves cooking the leaves and shoots in strong chemical solvents sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide in a process called hydrolysis alkalization combined with bleaching. Both these chemicals have been linked to health problems. Low levels can cause tiredness, headaches and nerve damage. Carbon disulfide has been blamed for neural disorders in workers at rayon manufacturers. Because of health problems associated with this manufacturing method and damage to the environment it is considered neither sustainable nor environmentally supportable. The good news is that other newer manufacturing methods have been developed and are more benign and environmentally friendly. Bamboo fabrics can be produced without any chemical additives but ensure that it is eco certified look for Oeko-Tex, Soil Association, SKAL, KRAV or similar organic or sustainable certification body.
This fabric is renowned for its softness, comfort, luster and drape combined with wash ability and durability. It is more expensive than organic cotton or hemp at this time and is seen as a new luxury product. One of the positives being talked about is the fact that the cloth is produced from a by product of food manufacturing of the Soya bean. Some Soya has organic certification but it is a small percentage.
My research did not lead me to anything very positive about the growing of soy but I fully acknowledge that there may be additional facts that I did not discover. Soy has been very aggressively grown with GM seeds in Argentina which has embraced GM culture. Crops were treated with glyphosphate during the growing season and a mono culture developed as other crops were driven off both by low prices and contamination from soy farmers spraying. New weeds resistant to glyphosphate are now prolific and further chemicals namely gramoxone(paraquat) and gesaprim(atrazine) have been introduced prior to planting. These practices are causing damage to stock and plants in neighbouring farms.In less than decade soya farming has driven people off the land, created serious ecological and agronomic imbalances, destroyed food security and led to dependence on technology controlled by a handful of multi national companies. I would suggest that before buying Soya fabrics it would be wise to check its credentials and whether it is certified organic.