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Sustainable Fabrics 101

Tony Engelhart

Sustainable Fabrics 101

There was a time when people who cared about the environment were a fringe group and were often called “tree huggers,”but since the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth spawned public awareness in 2006, we have seen a shift in consciousness. Nowadays, if you don’t recycle, drive a huge truck or litter, you are looked upon as fringe.

Times, they are changing and the textile industry is just the latest to be scrutinized. And for good reason as the fashion industry is the second largest polluters in the world; only fossil fuels does more to harm the environment. One of the main reasons for this is, synthetic fibers have replaced natural fibers and polyester is the main culprit as it is made from a mixture of coal, petroleum, air and water. When coal or petroleum is burned, it causes air pollution. Yet, nearly 60% of the retail market contains this hazardous material. Worst yet, polyester is not biodegradable, meaning it can never break down.

Then of course there is the price we pay to protect our cotton. Large amounts of pesticides are used by cotton farmers resulting in water pollution or water eutrophication which is a fancy way of saying it causes a depletion of oxygen.

Lucky for us, we now have some alternatives to these polluters. First up is the organic cotton. Organic cotton is farmed without pesticides and the use of less water makes it extra eco-friendly. Plus, it’s softer. Then there’s good old silk, but wait, organic silk? Yes, you read correct. Silk is generally produced by killing the moth and destroying the cocoon. Organic silk, like Ahimsa silk, is produced without the killing of the moth. The main producers of green silk are India, Africa and north Asia. And like organic cotton, it has a softer hand.

Hemp is not just for smoking. In fact this the plant has been used for centuries as textile. It is an extremely durable fabric and very comfortable. When mixed with other natural fabric like silk or cotton it gets extra soft. Hemp is an easily grown plant that can be grown organically. Although few textile companies are going anywhere near hemp, laws are loosening up and currently 34 states have made the cultivation of hemp legal.

Bamboo is another natural fiber we rarely associate fashion goods with. The reason it falls under the sustainable umbrella is because, it grows wild, there is no need to replant a new crop and very little pesticides are used.


Flax is mainly used in the production of linen products. The reason why it is considered sustainable is every part of the plant used. Flax 13 times less pesticides than potatoes, but ironically only makes up 1% of the fabric consumption world wide. This is possibly due to the price as it is labor intensive thus costing a bit more than other fibers.

While we have a long way to go to reach 100% sustainability, we are making strides and quite a few companies have already hopped on board. Tree huggers unite.

By Anthony Starr

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