Problems that are also opportunities, like the one we are facing now with our climate, have a way of taking us places where we never thought we’d go. For example, I thought a good way of solidifying my connection with Mother Nature was to go walking in the woods, not to start wearing them. But as a recent article in treehugger points out, textile crops such as cotton may not be the affordable wardrobe staple for billions of people in the future.
Although it has been used for centuries, the production of cotton reached 26.5 million metric tons last year (an all-time high). Cotton requires large amounts of pesticides, and because of the large quantities of water and land required, it poses the dilemma of competing with food crops. Water use can be reduced somewhat with appropriate irrigation and pesticide use can be curtailed with organic cultivation methods, but there still remains the land requirement and the question of scale.
Is there a more sustainable way to produce textile fibers? Because without one, it appears there might be a problem growing enough fiber to clothe our burgeoning population.
That’s where the idea of using wood fibers came from. Trees do not use arable farmland and can be managed sustainably with relatively minimal impact. A number of fabrics can be produced including rayon, viscose, lyocell and modal. I’ve also seen fabrics made out of bamboo. Between them, they can reasonably substitute for just about any application that normally requires cotton.
A paper cited in the article, called The Cellulose Gap claims that by 2030, food demand will increase by 43 percent and demand for textile fibers will grow by 84 percent, this increase in demand will come alongside a 5 percent decrease in arable land over that same time period.
In order for the fabric to have the characteristics that people expect, namely absorbency and breathability, roughly one-third of the fiber content needs to be made from cellulosic materials. Currently, man-made cellulosic fibers that are derived from wood make up roughly 5.7 percent of the fiber demand. That number is projected to grow to 14 percent by 2030, while cotton is expected to decrease from 30.0 percent to 19.4 percent. In fact, the paper goes on to tell us, that cotton alone will not be able to meet the growing demand.
These man-made, wood-derived cellulosic fibers have considerable advantages. Because they come from wood which can be grown on marginal land, the land impact is minimal. Likewise, the need for pesticides is also minimal. But the biggest benefit is in its use of water. Lyocell, which can be used in anything from knits to bed linens, especially if blended with other fibers, requires only one-tenth as much water per acre as rain-fed cotton, or one-quarter as much as irrigated cotton. Viscose and modal require roughly three times as much, but still 30 percent less than irrigated cotton.
It appears that the answer to the question raised above is likely, yes.
So what slogan would you like on your tree shirt?
“What will I wear out tonight? Something other than the planet.”
“Embarking on a new wardrobe.”
“Save water. Wear trees.”
Leave your choice in the comments.
[Image credit: Benefit of hindsight: Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.