Which fabric has the lowest environmental impact?
What is the most environmentally friendly material for clothing and household linen - hemp, cotton or bamboo? There isn't a clear cut answer, but hopefully we can provide you with some insight into three of the most common 'eco' fabrics.
Ethical organic clothing is on the rise, with more and more fashion designers committed to working with environmentally sustainable materials and processes. Exciting eco-labels and eco-designers are sprouting up across the fashion industry. We're seeing stylish and sustainable options open up for the eco-friendly consumer, but, as always, there are sharks swimming in the pool. When you're shopping for ethical and eco-tastic outfits, don’t be fooled by the name on the label. Conduct your own investigation of the fabric, look at the details on the garment's label to see what it is made of and where it is fabricated.
Pure hemp is the greenest material for fabric currently available. Hemp has been produced for thousands of years as a source of fibre for paper, cloth, sails, canvas and building materials. Natural fibre from the hemp stalk is extremely durable and can be used in the production of textiles, clothing, canvas, rope, cordage, archival grade paper, paper, and construction materials. But there is a slight problem. At present it’s hard to produce a decent cloth from it. And on top of this, there is still some stigma attached to the fabric due to its 'psychedelic' associations. So what is being done to make it more palatable? Blending is the answer, with ‘hemp silk’ – usually 60 per cent hemp to 40 per cent silk – now widely available along with hemp versions of traditional fabrics such as corduroy, although cotton still makes up around 40 per cent of the blend. But while the hemp element is truly green, the silk and cotton parts aren’t always as eco-friendly as they could be – so at this stage, a blend may not be the ‘greenest’ option.
As you might already know, conventional cotton production is very environmentally unfriendly and one of the most destructive crops in the world. It uses extensive agrochemicals and a huge amount of water. Organic cotton is somewhat better as it doesn’t use pesticides and fertilisers, but it’s still a thirsty plant with around 256.6 gallons of water required to grow enough to make a single t-shirt.
As our world gets greener, bamboo is becoming more and more popular. Because it grows so quickly, bamboo is an easily renewable resource. It requires a third of the amount of water that cotton uses and has no natural pests. Bamboo fabric is very soft, often described as feeling like cashmere. Another unique quality of bamboo fibre is its antibacterial qualities - due to an antimicrobial bio-agent called “bamboo kun”, found in the plant's fibre. This kun makes bamboo a naturally antibacterial, antifungal and odor resistant fibre, through multiple washings. Organic Clothing Blog recently brought our attention to the important distinction between bamboo, the miracle plant, and bamboo fibre, the more troublesome fabric.
While bamboo is indisputably one of the world’s most sustainable and eco-friendly grass plants, the clothing fibre is not easy to produce from the raw grass, and is not as sustainable. Manufacturing the fibre into a usable fabric appears to be wrought with environmentally concerning effects. Thankfully there's a small handful of organic bamboo processing pioneers out there, so it's only a matter of time before we develop environmentally friendly processes to transform the pulp into fine fibres. Find out more about bamboo.
If you'd like to find out more about eco-fashion and fabric options, Ethical clothing Australia provides some good insight into credible brands and other useful information.