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.

Hemp
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.

Cotton
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.

Bamboo
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.

10 Comments

Of course the most environmentally thing we can do is buy clothes second hand from op shops and the like. If you are handy with a sewing machine you can also have a go at refashioning your existing clothing into something more fashionable/flattering etc.

I thought your section on cotton to be terribly light on. we actually believe that fairtrade organic cotton to be the most sustainable textile on the planet. But of course it needs to be grown in an area suited to it, and obviously Australia is not it. Check out my blog piece on organic cotton for alot more infromation... I also firmly believe that it is grossly remit to not discuss social sustainability alongside environmental sustainability because the two are intrinsically linked. http://fashionexposedonline.com.au/features/#organiccottonfor fashion exposed .... and for a very comprehensive discussion on bamboo, check this out...http://www.ecouterre.com/how-eco-friendly-is-bamboo-fabric-really/patagonia-5/....

What about sustainable and eco friendly synthetic materials? Are they not in existence?

Wool?
No discussion of wool but organic wool production from sustainably grazed pastures and native pastures that also provide significant biodiversity benefits should have a place in you analysis

I understood silk to be the most environmentally responsible. The silk worm keeps spinning using very little as inputs (food) and the silk itself doesn't need much during the fabric manufacturing process by way of chemicals, water, energy, etc.

Dear all, thanks for all your comments. There are many more products and materials to throw into the mix and we welcome all your suggestions, tips and ideas that add to this conversation. As said, there is often no clear cut answer to what is most sustainable, as each product has its own unique features including production methods and so on. Most importantly is that we understand the basic differences, and that we know what to look out for and which questions to ask ourselves in order to make the best possible and considerate decision. Please keep adding to the conversation... it is great to hear all the alternatives and options.

Hi this is complex and something I have wrestled with, the thing is not to be all or nothing about it. I have bought fair trade oranic cotton towels which are grown by marginalized farmers, this project has resulted in the reduction of 60 tons of pesticide in this community and improved the quaity of life of the farming community. This is very worthwhile even though maybe not perfect. I could buy bamboo too 3 of each but the bleaching and dying did put me off.

Hemp is exciting as is bamboo, but it is not only bamboo but hemp that often uses chemicals in the processing of the fibre especially hemp from china. Hemp from Hungary Romania is processed organically with mechanical and water based processing.

The thing I remember is the amount of pesticide chemicals, water pollution used in traditional fibre processing. We are at least on the way and supporting organic proessess where we can and reducing how much new fabric we use. I combine reuse, upcycling, ethical and environmentally buying and traditional because I can't do it all yet.

so i buy some tradtional some from op shops and i make things eg t-towels from old table clothes and wash cloths from rags, vegie bags from curtian mesh, Slippers from old jumpers. My sewing is slowly improving ,Then I feel I can pay forsome things organic fair trade I need eg towels and clothes that may be more expensive.

The exciting thing is that things are changing and we are moving to more environmentally friendly ways of doing things. This has been a very interesting discussion

Bamboo-rayon fabric is not anti-microbial and not environmentally friendly. The US Federal trade Commission have banned US companies from claiming these attributes on the basis that there is no evidence for either of them. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/08/bamboo.shtm

Bamboo-rayon fabric is not anti-microbial and not environmentally friendly. The US Federal trade Commission have banned US companies from claiming these attributes on the basis that there is no evidence for either of them. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/08/bamboo.shtm

Is there no one out there willing to argue the sustainability case for wool or silk?

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