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EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
ABOUT NATURAL FABRICS

Some companies use the term "natural fabric" for apparel or linens as a means of green-washing products that may be laden with pesticides, chemicals or other yucky stuff that is by no means sustainable or eco-friendly. There's no legal definition of a natural fabric, the way there is of a certified organic fabric, so it's important to understand what the term implies. People also toss out phrases such as "man-made fabrics" or "synthetic fabrics." Does that make them bad? And what's the difference?

Since there's no legal definition, the following are the most common interpretations of the terms. More importantly, though, understanding what goes into each fabric will help you make a more informed decision about what you choose to put on your body regardless of what it's called.

Natural Fabrics

There is a set of input materials found in nature that can be directly woven, knit or cured into fabric with no or at most minimal processing. That is, the final fabric looks and feels very similar to the original source material. By that definition, cotton, hemp, flax (linen), jute, ramie, wool, silk and even leather are considered natural fabrics.

It is important to note here that "natural" doesn't necessarily mean eco-friendly; nor does it imply vegan or even chemical-free. It's simply that the input material is found in nature (as a plant or animal) and can be directly turned into fabric.

Man-made Fabrics

Man-made is a particularly odd term since really all fabric is made by humans. Cotton doesn't go weaving itself while we aren't looking. But ok, we can move past the misnomer. There are a set of fabrics that start with natural inputs, but require so much processing that the final fabric doesn't look or feel anything like the original material. These fabrics are derived from natural materials.

Bamboo is an excellent example. Most bamboo textiles are created using a viscose process similar to rayon production. Since the fabric is derived from bamboo versus being directly woven or knit from the bamboo plant itself, it's considered man-made, not natural. Man-made fabrics derived from natural materials include rayon, tencel, modal and pine tree fabrics, all of which are derived from various wood pulps, as well as bamboo, biophyl (derived from corn) and rubber (derived from the Hevea brasiliensis tree).

Synthetic Fabrics

There is another class of man-made fabrics that are derived from manufactured materials. So the input material has itself already been processed or manufactured from something else. One way to think of it is that fabrics derived from natural materials are "once removed" and fabrics derived from manufactured materials are "twice removed" from their natural source material. Those terms have no real meaning, but they can be helpful in keeping track. These are the fabrics most commonly referred to as synthetic fabrics, and include nylon, polyester, acrylic, Spandex, elastane, Lycra and polypropylene.

One caveat is that there are a few cross-over materials. Unprocessed hemp makes a somewhat coarse fabric that stands up extremely well to washing and wear. That makes it fantastic for khakis and jeans. However, it's a little rough when it comes to shirts. While hemp blended with other materials like cotton or tencel mostly resolves the softness issue, there is also a class of hemp textiles that are processed as a viscose to provide a truly silky finished fabric. Therefore, while natural hemp fabric is more common, there is a hemp viscose fabric which is actually man-made.

There's also a bamboo linen, which is a linen-like material woven from the leaves of the bamboo tree, which is a natural fabric. It's much less common than man-made bamboo viscose, though.

An initial reaction might be that natural fabrics are more sustainable than man-made fabrics which are more sustainable than synthetic fabrics. Alas, that is simply not the case.

Conventional cotton requires enormous amounts of water to grow and accounts for more than 10% of total pesticide use and nearly 25% of insecticide use worldwide.

There are some completely synthetic fabrics that are eco-friendly. For example, recycled PET is a polyester fleece made from recycled plastic bottles which minimizes land-fill waste and avoids the use of virgin petroleum.

Which Fabrics are the Most Eco-Friendly?

You want to be eco-friendly, but you've read bad things about bamboo, you've never heard of Modal® and you have no idea where linen fits into all of this. No worries, we’ve got you covered.

There are 3 factors considered when determining the most eco-friendly fabrics:

• The sustainability of the input materials,

• The harshness/toxicity of any chemicals required for processing,

• Production waste.

With that in mind, here's our well-reasoned and researched (but not scientifically tested), Most Eco-Friendly Fabrics list.

1. Hemp

Marijuana's non-psychotropic cousin leads the list in eco-friendly fabrics. It is indeed a weed, growing prolifically without the need for pesticides, herbicides or extensive amounts of fertilizer. It uses very little water compared to other fabric crops. Hemp stalks can be directly spun into yarn without any chemical inputs and there is essentially no production waste from yarn to fabric. Hemp was used extensively in the USA up until 1937 when it was included in the Marijuana Tax Act. Since industrial hemp cannot be used to get high, there is some speculation that it was included in the Act as a way to minimize competition for timber-based paper and nylon fabrics. The first USA flag was made from hemp.

2. Organic Linen

The Flax plant is moderately easy to grow, and when grown organically without chemical pesticides or herbicides, is very eco-friendly. The outer layers must be retted to get to the inner core which can be directly spun into yarn. Retting of organically grown flax can be done with water alone; no chemicals are required. Only natural, biodegradable waste products are produced.

3. Organic Cotton

Cotton is a very water-intensive crop. So even organically grown cotton, which can be spun directly into yarn, falls lower on the eco-scale than hemp or linen; while conventionally grown cotton is off the eco-chart completely. Organic cotton is the most commonly used eco-fabric as it's softer than hemp and doesn't wrinkle like linen does. It's readily available, reasonably priced and one of the most versatile fabrics on the list.

4. Tencel® / Modal®

There's a tie at the number 4 spot between two Lenzing developed fabrics, Tencel® and Modal®. Both fabrics are man-made from tree cellulose using Lenzing's eco-award winning processes which include low-toxicity chemicals along with closed-loop, very low waste, production systems. The resulting fabrics drape beautifully. Tencel® has been shown to have moisture management and bacterial resistance properties, while Modal® has unparalleled softness.

5. Bamboo / Soy

Spot 5 results in another tie, this time between Bamboo and Soy fabrics. Both of these have fantastic input materials. Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant on the planet. (It's actually a member of the grass family.) Soy is created using the discarded, inedible outer casing of soybeans, essentially reclaiming a waste product. While 89% of USA grown soy is now GMO, most soy fabric is made in China using non-GMO soy. Unfortunately, in 2013, China approved the import of GMO soy seeds. So this will be something to watch in the future. The reason these two near-perfect input materials are way down at number 5 is that both require a fair amount of chemicals to process into fabric. So they fall lower in the chemical and production waste categories.

6. Recycled PET

All the recycling rage now is turning plastic bottles into polyester fleece clothing. In truth, putting this at number 6 versus number 5 is fairly arbitrary. This is a very energy-intensive process, but requires fewer chemicals than in bamboo or soy fabric production. Polyester is very beneficial in some applications like swimwear, and keeping all that non-biodegradable plastic out of our oceans and landfills is a very good thing.

Caveats

Choosing any of these fabrics over conventional cotton, polyester, nylon or rayon is a step in the eco direction. However, fabric is only one piece of the eco-friendly puzzle. The very cleanest hemp fabric that is conventionally dyed and doused with chemical finishes will fall lower on the sustainability scale than a low-impact dyed bamboo with no finishing agents. If you choose something certified under Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) or OEKO-TEX 100 standards, you can be certain the dyes and finishes are non-toxic and free of harsh chemicals.

Workers rights and Fair Trade practices should figure into your evaluation of eco-friendly. One can argue whether a fair-trade, conventional cotton shirt is better or worse than an organically-grown cotton shirt made under unsustainable working conditions such as those in the recent Bangladesh incident. Happily, GOTS certifications also include some working condition requirements for employees. Intentionally missing from this list are controversial animal-derived fabrics such as wool and silk. Hand-sheared, free range wool can be very high on the eco-scale (perhaps second or third), providing a synergistic (and often caring) relationship between the sheep and the farmer. However, mass-produced wool using mulesing and factory-farming techniques has no business in eco-fashion.

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Written by: Adrienne Catone, Faeries Dance


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