With the rising awareness and popularity of eco-fashion, we have more materials to choose from but not necessarily the best information to help us do so. Much like our biofuel debate, sometimes the most hyped (read: corn-derived ethanol) is not the most sustainable.
Organic cotton is somewhat like the corn-derived ethanol of fabrics; yes, it’s better than conventional cotton which requires an enormous amount of carcinogenic pesticides and water to cultivate. (This combination of toxins and water often lead to contaminated ground, air, water and food supplies and hurt the health of the farmers who work that land.) However, even though organic cotton production involves relatively less water, is better for the health of the farmers, and has no pesticides, cotton of any kind decreases soil fertility and the crops require a lot of land.
Bamboo fabric is growing in popularity and the plant also serves as a great alternative to conventional wood but one must take into consideration that bamboo is primarily harvested mainly in China, so the importing alone contributes to the carbon footprint of bamboo-made clothes sold in the US. In addition, the current demand for bamboo is resulting in over-harvesting of the plant, a condition that endangers surrounding forests. On top of this, the manufacturing process may add to pollution but it is unclear to what extent. Namely, there are two ways to manufacture bamboo; one method results in a textile similar to hemp while the other is chemical-intensive and results in a regenerated cellulose fiber. Details, are hard to come by since the processors in China say the process is proprietary.
Like bamboo, hemp is largely imported due to US restrictions on hemp cultivation. The upside is that hemp does not require pesticides or an egregious amount of water, giving it an advantage over cotton, and as a fabric, it resists bacteria and mold. Hemp is also versatile and can be used to create ropes and even paper. Aside from its carbon footprint, it has some great properties — it is the strongest natural fiber known, wicks moisture and helps block UV and UVB rays. As an aside, linen has similar properties.
Organic wool is another fabric to consider and, like the others, it comes with its pros and cons. Though conventional wool is annually renewable, it also involves the use of pesticides, overuse of land by overgrazing, and inhumane treatment of sheep — many Australian and some New Zealand merino have a large hunk of skin and flesh hacked out from near the tail to prevent possible infection by blowfly eggs, which would kill the sheep. Though a nonsurgical alternative is due to be released this year and mulesing is due to be phased out in Australia by 2010, the other issues with conventional wool still remain. The organic version treats sheep ethically and helps keep the land healthy, but sheep, along with cows, contribute to the increase of methane gas in the atmosphere.
Of course, there are many other options out there and this is not an exhaustive report, but one thing’s for sure: the variety of more sustainable fabrics doesn’t make our fashion decisions any easier. That being said, sustainable fabrics ARE usually better than conventional ones, but we wanted to draw attention to the fact that is it not a black and white decision. Like many things in life (not to get philosophical), there are many shades of gray.