Every day brings countless choices, countless opportunities to make improvements in or worsen our health and the health of our precious planet. Even the more health-supporting and earth-friendly options carry with them some negative implications, however the consequences are still much improved over most mainstream choices. Therefore it is imperative for all of us who are aware of the power of our more positive choices to be steadfast in making them, thereby creating a world where the new mainstream is a green-stream.
One such area of focus is textiles. While all areas of greening are important to focus on, fabric production has an especially important place in the green revolution. This is because cotton, which is the most popular fabric in the world, is also the most pesticide-dependent one: Cotton crops account for around 25% of all pesticide use. For every conventionally-made T-shirt of cotton, ¼ pound of harmful chemicals is used. According to the USDA, just in one year in the U.S. over 50 million pounds of pesticides were used on cotton fields. Conventional cotton farming depletes the soil and creates pollution for all water above and below ground, which negatively effects entire ecosystems and humans. The finished product of cotton production, i.e. clothes, sheets, etc. carry with them toxins from their cultivation which come in continuous contact with our skin. While our skin is our largest elimination organ, it also absorbs in much of what it comes into contact with, transporting the substances into our bloodstreams for distribution throughout the body.
The good news is that there are many more eco-friendly and health-friendly options for fabric. Remember that no one greener fabric choice alone is going to save the world and ourselves but each one plays an important part of the collective solution.
Organic cotton is a much better environmental and health choice than conventionally-grown cotton because it spares our ecosystems from tremendous amounts of toxic materials. It is important to know that the crop, grown either way, uses tremendous amounts of water. Even so, if we remember the goal is to make positive movements in the green process, choosing organic cotton over it’s conventional alternative will definitely leave a lighter eco-footprint, and be more health-sparing. Items made from recycled cotton have a huge eco-benefit in that the industry keeps billions of pounds of materials out of landfill and decreases demand for new items, which further protects the earth.
Another wonderful option for a lighter imprint is materials made of bamboo. For building materials, bamboo is a wonder-material, completely sustainable, strong, and durable. The process of getting bamboo into fabric does carry with it some use of chemicals, however bamboo producers at least have the option to recycle the chemical elements of the of the processing. Bamboo requires very little water and is a sustainable and renewable resource. Bamboo plants reduce soil erosion and release a significant amount of oxygen into the air, even more than most trees. It can be planted in areas that are in danger of erosion to help protect the land and in areas that have experienced significant soil degradation. Bamboo has an advantage over many of the other eco-friendly choices in that it is better known as a good eco-option and as such it is widely available making it a choice that is readily accessible. It is durable, soft, easy to care for, naturally antibacterial and hypo-allergenic, and usually affordable. It also has a luxurious feel, like silk, but is less expensive.
Hemp is another one of best eco-choices for fabric. Not only does it require very little if any herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides, but it is also a weed suppressor. Hemp is not only sparing to the Earth, it is actually helpful to it in that it improves soil structure (by replenishing the soil with nitrogen and other nutrients and preventing topsoil erosion), cleans up ground pollution (it was used to clean up radioactive elements at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site), and it produces a lot of oxygen (more than some other plants due to its leaf/root ratio). Hemp material blocks sun from the skin better than most materials. Hemp is strong and lasts longer than most fabrics without stretching or wearing thin. The challenges it faces are ignorance of most people to its benefits and that it is illegal in the U.S. to grow it.
An alternative material choice that is lesser known is stinging nettle. It is finally starting to get the attention it deserves as an option that has many of the benefits of more commonly known eco-materials, and some additional advantages as an eco-friendly crop. Stinging nettle is finer than hemp and stronger than cotton. The plant grows like a weed and doesn’t need pesticides or much water. The material has natural fire retardant properties which offers a non-toxic eco-friendly option for items such as office chair cushions and baby clothes. Camira Fabrics has developed a design that is 25% stinging nettle and 75% wool, made with metal-free dyes, and is 100% renewable and compostable. The product, STINGplus, has been certified as being biodegradable in 28 days, and is manufactured using green electricity sources. Another interesting fact about stinging nettle crops is that they actually benefit from waste from human settlement, making them easy to grow in populated areas.
Tencel, the registered name for a material called Lyocell, is a biodegradable fabric made from wood pulp cellulose. While this option is more eco-friendly than most mainstream fabrics, it is difficult to dye it without using chemicals that are not environmentally-friendly and could possibly irritate sensitive skin, although many who have sensitive skin have worn it without problems. While the material is relatively inexpensive to make, it is expensive to buy. It is a good choice for travel, as it is light, dries quickly, retains its shape well, and is easy to care for.
Other great options are items made from recycled yarn, recycled polyester, and recycled soda bottles (which can be transformed into fleece). Other natural materials to consider are linen, wool, and cashmere.
For more information on eco-friendly and socially conscious fabrics and eco-fashion see: