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Everything You Need to Know About Natural Fabrics

In many ways, natural fabrics are better for the environment. But simply saying that something is ‘natural’ shouldn’t be an automatic green-light. Let’s break down those natural fibres living in your closet.

Natural fabrics and fibres come from plants and animals. They are often touted as ecofriendly alternatives to the chemically-intensive procedures involved in synthetic fabric production. But if it takes nearly three thousand litres of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt, is it really more sustainable?

Humans have been growing, spinning and wearing cotton since Ancient times. From the Pakistani region in 3000 B.C.E to the fields of China, the US and Brazil, cotton has long been the world’s most popular fabric. It may be light and breezy but cotton is not all white and fluffy. For many years now, cotton production has taken a serious toll on the environment. Cotton is a thirsty crop which grows in arid conditions. It can take 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton shirt!

Cotton production also has a long history of worker exploitation. The industry has been most seriously corrupted in Uzbekistan, where the government conscripts millions of citizens to harvest their cotton. Companies and governments around the world are now boycotting Uzbek cotton in a stand against its forced and child labour practices.

The vast majority of cotton seeds today are also genetically modified (GM). GM cotton is pest resistant and weed resistant, but the plants cannot naturally reproduce, meaning new crops need to be bought and planted with every new season. Alongside the globalisation of the cotton industry, the introduction of GM crops poses a number of challenges in developing countries. But before you despair, there is a silver lining to this cotton cloud…

There are no chemicals or pesticides used in the production of organic cotton. This makes it safer to harvest, safer to wear and much better the environment.  Look for organic clothing brands with accreditations from the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Fairtrade or the Better Cotton Initiative.

One such example is Kowtow, a New Zealand brand that uses only fair trade organic cotton in their stunning and minimalist piece

Hemp – marijuana’s ‘sober cousin’ – is a wonderfully versatile plant. While now its uses range from food to building materials, to body care, to biofuel, it has been cultivated and used for hundreds of years as a fabric. The more that you wash and wear hemp fabric, the softer it becomes. This efficient, nutrient-rich plant is much kinder to the environment than many other fabrics as it requires very little water, no pesticides and naturally fertilises the soil it grows in.

Angora fur comes from a particularly fluffy species of rabbit. This silky fur is usually blended with different kinds of wool to make soft, warm clothes. Although the hair of the rabbit will shed naturally, the large scale ‘harvesting’ of angora involves plucking the rabbit hairs out. This causes great distress to the animals, and when the hairs grow back too slowly the rabbits will be killed. How could anyone hurt this adorable fluff ball? Make sure you support brands that boycott angora fur!

Any clothing made from wool can be a practical long-term investment for the winter months. It’s biodegradable and if cared for correctly, a quality, timeless woollen garment will last a lifetime. As with any industry that uses animals for commercial purposes however, there are ethical considerations around their treatment. While most of the world’s wool comes from either Australia and the US, and both these countries have fairly stringent standards of production, mulesing is still common. Mulesing involves cutting the sheep’s skin at the hind legs and buttocks and causes sheep considerable pain.

Silk has a long history as one of the most luxurious fabrics in the world. The fibres that make silk are spun from the threads of a silkworm cocoon. The worms subsist on mulberry leaves, which are resistant to pollution and easy to cultivate. However, silk producers need to boil the cocoon in order to extract the fibres, killing the worms in the process. There are cruelty-free options for silk-lovers – Ahimsa silk, also known as ‘peace silk’, allows the moth to evacuate the cocoon before it is boiled. Some silks that fall under the Ahimsa umbrella include ‘Eri silk’ and ‘Tussar silk’.

Linen yarn is derived from the flax plant. The flax plant requires minimal water or pesticides and even grows in poor-quality soil. The long fibres from inside the plant stem are extracted, using moisture (water or chemical) to rot away the bark, and are then spun into yarn. When it’s untreated, linen is a biodegradable fabric, meaning you don’t need to worry about your clothing going to waste at the end of its lifetime! It is also highly durable, becoming softer and more pliable the more that you wash it, which is why it’s treasured as a luxury fabric for bedding. Linen will last a lifetime, so is definitely worth the splurge.

Bamboo is marketed as a great natural alternative to cheap synthetics because it is fast growing and requires fewer pesticides than other natural fabrics. So when organically farmed and manufactured, bamboo fabric is an ecofriendly option.

However, when bamboo is grown in commercial quantities, farmers may use chemical fertilisers to increase their harvest. In order to create the soft bamboo derived that makes the popular silk alternative, viscose, most manufacturers also dissolve the bamboo wood in chemical solvents. Moreover, the increasing demand for bamboo means forest land is now being cleared in China to make way for bamboo crops, putting panda habitats at risk.

Keep your eye out for…

The innovative fabric, Tencel
On the bright side, you can now replace your old synthetic and viscose clothes with Tencel. This is actually the brand name for a type of material made from lyocell which is derived from wood pulp or bamboo and is produced through a closed loop process to minimise toxic waste. Tencel requires less energy and water to produce than cotton, and one producer called Lenzing AG are now using renewable energy sources to minimise their impact. It’s also 50% more absorbent than your average cotton tee making it ideal for activewear!

Labels: an ethical dilemma
Every piece of clothing has an impact. While synthetic fibres are both chemically and energy intensive to produce, we shouldn’t see that as a hall pass to buy natural fabrics without consideration. As we have seen, our insatiable and growing demand for certain natural fibres, like cotton and bamboo, has given rise to different problems of sustainability and ethics. Our advice is to buy less and buy better.