We economize on our driving by using shared resources, or we bike to work, or walk to save on our carbon footprint. We reduce our energy usage where we can by buying appliances that conserve water and electricity and we lobby for energy-smart concepts like solar or wind energy production.
And yet, one of the world’s greatest culprits in environmental pollution is something we use every day and probably give the least consideration to its environmental impact: our clothes.
Conventional textile production is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. The World Bank estimates that the textile industry is responsible for as much as 20 percent of industrial pollution in our rivers and land.
Finding ways to curb the environmental pollution caused by textile production starts with finding new ways to produce fabrics that don’t require toxins and large amounts of water, and which minimize harm to local the ecology.
One company that has devoted its product line to sustainable clothing methods is California-based Synergy Clothing. Owners Henry Schwab and his wife, Kate Fisher have been working in the sustainable textile industry for more than 20 years. While most of Synergy’s products use organic cotton, the company is also known for its textile blends of cotton and bamboo or hemp. Their sustainable methods are also certified by Green America.
“We use low-impact dyes and we follow all fair-trade guidelines for our employees,” explains Schwab. That ethical criterion even extends to their supply chain. “We go out of our way to make sure that anyone who is connected with our company has fair working conditions and pays an above average wage.” Synergy also donates a portion of its proceeds to “nonprofits working on environmental or social justice and educational activities.”
The materials Synergy uses represents only a few of the sustainable textile choices on the market these days, although they are among the more favored by consumers. The following is a brief list to highlight some of the differences between sustainable and conventional textile production methods.
As the name implies, organic cotton is grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Textiles made of organic cotton require less water to manufacture than conventional cotton textiles and are often more comfortable.
For the consumer, the advantages are obvious, says Schwab. “It is softer [and] it feels better on the skin. The skin is your largest organ, so you are not absorbing the chemicals.”
Organic cotton requires specialized equipment that allows the cotton to be harvested easily without conventional methods. Some fair trade cooperatives don’t advertise organic cotton, but still strive for a sustainable, humanely produced product. Still, the use of third-party certification, such as used by Mata Traders, that supports worker cooperatives and non-toxic dyes have their own sustainability value.
Silk is produced by moths, and conventional methods destroy the moth and cocoon in the process. Sustainable products, such as Ahimsa silk, use methods that don’t kill the moth pupa. Eco-friendly silk is produced primarily in India, North Asia and Africa.
Like organic cotton, “green” silk is often softer because it lacks the harsh dyes that are common in conventional silk production. There are a variety of types of sustainable silk, each with their own unique colors and characteristics. The most common is produced by a creamy white-colored silk worm that is found on the mulberry tree in India. The Ethical Silk Company, based out of Ireland, specializes in products made from this delicate weave. Tussur silk, also from India and Mopani silk, from Africa, are darker, rich-colored silks.
Popular lore places this versatile plant in the category of marijuana. While it is technically a member of the cannabis family, its textile use is less controversial (and a lot less psychoactive). Its true benefits can be found in its durability and ruggedness, although as a fabric, hemp is surprisingly comfortable to wear. It also blends nicely with other lighter materials like cotton and silk. It is a fast-growing plant that is easily managed, can be grown organically and used for everything from clothing and nutritious food to paper and building materials.
Few textile companies use hemp right now, but that is likely to change with the passage of the latest Farm Bill, which contained a provision to legalize hemp farming. Nine states have already passed laws supporting its cultivation.
Bamboo is used quite differently today than in early Chinese culture, when it was used as a source for shoes and corsets. Today, weavers blend it with other fabrics through complex processes that soften the fabric.
There are two ways that bamboo can be used to produce fabric. The first involves pulverizing the woody fiber until it can be combed and spun into a yarn. It is a labor-intensive process that makes the end linen product more expensive.
The second way involves solvents that break down the fibers and create a viscose bamboo solution that is eventually hardened and spun into fibers. Techniques can vary, and not all manufacturers use sustainable methods to break down the fibers.
So why is bamboo considered a sustainable source for textiles? In a word: adaptability. It is an extremely fast growing plant that doesn’t need to be replanted each year, doesn’t require massive amounts of pesticides and is a great air cleaner for global warming concerns. As Schwab points out, the advent of cultivated bamboo plantations that negate the demand for clear-cut forest harvesting has made bamboo a worthwhile choice for some textiles.
The versatility and popularity of wool dates back thousands of years and can be found wherever sheep have been cultivated. It’s been used as a source for clothing in both cold and warm climates, although it gains its fame in part from its insulating properties in chilly, windy environment of the British Isles. Because of its natural ability to wick away moisture, it’s a favorite fabric during the winter. It is also used for summer throws and light blankets.
Sustainable wool is harvested from sheep that are raised in humane conditions. Research shows that adequate living conditions and reduced stress results in less disease and a better agricultural product. Organically raised sheep have been shown to have better immune systems that can withstand the parasites and diseases that commonly plague conventionally raised animals.
Wool is naturally hypoallergenic, and many people who have allergy sensitivities find that organic wool, which is void of chemical dyes, soaps and residues, are a comfortable fabric for year-round apparel.
The U.S.-based apparel company Appalatch specializes in unique organic wool products.
Newer trends that present exciting opportunities for textiles, says Schwab, include ocean products like seaweed, which have so far only been used by those who can afford to invest and promote its textile production. Hemp blends are another area that has value, particularly if hemp production does take off in the U.S.
“I think there could be thousands of new materials that could come out in blends,” says Schwab, who admits that affordable production of hemp or seaweed needs larger companies to invest first, increase availability and “help bring the price down.” Doing so “makes it practical” for smaller manufacturers when there is increased demand and production. And it makes it affordable for the consumer to support sustainable products.
“If the mainstream companies would devote 1 percent to sustainability, we could change the whole industry,” says Schwab.
Images courtesy of Synergy Organic Clothing
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.