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Translated with the help of Lucie Battaglia. Thank you Lucie!

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To make clothing, you need fabric → to make fabric, you need thread → to make thread, you need fibres. This is the raw material which determines if a garment is eco-friendly.

What is an eco-friendly fibre?

It’s an alternative to two things:

  1. Petroleum-derived fibres (polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc.). For sustainable development, we must aim to be independent of the petroleum industry. Such fibres are not biodegradable and cause a problem when the garment reaches the end of its cycle. They also cause microplastic pollution in nature when the end-product garment is washed. Synthetic fibres account for about 60% of textile fibres used in the world.
  1. Conventional cotton (non-organic). Its culture requires a lot of pesticides and insecticides (those “gross” products that end up in the environment and contribute to serious diseases). Growing cotton is also very water-intensive and encourages Monsanto dictatorship due to GMO seeds. Cotton accounts for about 30% of textile fibres used in the world.

The aforementioned facts mean that all other fibres make up only 10% of fibres used worldwide. It’s not much, but to change these proportions, we must first understand the issue. The following article aims to help with this understanding.

So here is information on different eco-friendly fibres. Some are more sustainable than others, as we’ll discover.

And like any self-respecting countdown, we’ll start with number 5 to finish with the best at number 1.

5.Organic Cotton

Like all organic products, organic cotton was harvested without the use of GMOs, pesticides, insecticides or other chemicals that could harm the environment. Global expertise is already well developed to spin and knit cotton. Cotton plays a complementary role with other ecological fibres.

Organic cotton is number 5 on the list. Although it offers an alternative to conventional cotton, all types of cotton culture are extremely demanding on the environment because of the necessary water and soil depletion. It does not represent good potential for a local fibre in Canada.

Pros:

  • No transformation.
  • Low price.
  • Well-developed expertise.
  • Biodegradable fibres.

Cons:

  • Cotton does not grow in Canada. We will always have to import it.
  • The harvesting of cotton requires a lot of water and is very demanding on soil.
  • The products must be certified.
  • The cotton plant is very susceptible to pests and diseases (hence the extensive use of chemicals to grow non-organic cotton). There is always a risk of losing the crop or getting a lower yield.

4.Bambou

Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world. Its cultivation requires no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Bamboo requires four times less water than cotton and is totally biodegradable. The fabric resulting from this fibre also has an above-average absorption ability. However, there is a controversy about the products used during the process to transform the bamboo fibre (read more about this).

Because of the transformation process (viscose process) and lack of potential for local culture, bamboo is at number 4.

Pros:

  • Bamboo forests absorb 35% more CO2 than any other forest.
  • Bamboo grows without pesticides or insecticides.
  • The yield of fibre per acre is considerably higher (up to 50 more than cotton. But it takes 3 to 5 years for plants to grow to full maturity, versus nine months for cotton.)
  • Bamboo clothes are very easy to wash and almost wrinkle free.
  • The comfort and softness of bamboo fabric are unmatched.
  • Growing bamboo requires 4 times less water compared to cotton.
  • The fibres are biodegradable..

Cons:

  • The transformation (viscose process) requires sodium hydroxide (read more about this).
  • Bamboo does not grow in Canada.
  • Bamboo yarn often needs to be blended with organic cotton or cotton in order to have a better texture.
  • Sometimes it is impossible to have a fabric blend with organic cotton.
  • Bamboo fabric and thread come from China.

3.Eucalyptus (Tencel)

Eucalyptus fabric absorbs moisture and prevents bacteria formation. It is extremely soft and suitable for sensitive skin. It is a 100% natural fibre extracted from eucalyptus wood grown in sustainable plantations. The fibre production process is environmentally friendly at all levels (read more about this). The products used for its transformation are up to 99.7% recycled subsequently.

Eucalyptus (or Tencel) is at number 3 with its green transformation process. However, it will never grow in Canada, which keep us dependent on a global industry.

Pros:

  • Eucalyptus grows on arid land, on which it is impossible to plant other crops.
  • It needs a very low amount of water.
  • Eucalyptus grows without the need for insecticides or pesticides.
  • The Lyocell transformation process is very eco-friendly (read more about this).
  • Eucalyptus thread does not need to be mixed with organic cotton.
  • Eucalyptus clothes are very easy to wash and almost wrinkle free.
  • Eucalyptus fabric is comfortable and soft (less than bamboo).
  • Eucalyptus fabric has excellent moisture management.
  • The fibres are biodegradable.

Cons:

  • Eucalyptus does not grow in Canada.
  • Eucalyptus from South Africa or southern Europe (where it grows) is shipped in Austria (for processing and thread making) and subsequently shipped here to be knitted. That’s just a lot of transport

2.Linen

Linen is an all-natural luxurious fibre that requires no chemicals for growth or for transformation. The fabric keeps us cool in summer and warm in the winter because the fibres retain air, thus creating natural insulation. Linen cloth has a beneficial effect on sensitive skin and is the most resistant fabric. It does not pill or lose its shape, and gets softer with every wash.

Flax is number 2 on this wonderful list. Flax’s mechanical transformation process, its strength, and its potential to become a local fibre put it in a good spot.

Pros:

  • Mechanically processed by scutching: you just break the stem and manually extract the fibre. (read more about this)
  • Can grow in Canada (in fact, Canada is the largest flax seed producer in the world. The variety is not the same as for fibres and we do not have the expertise for scutching, but it could be done.)
  • Very strong fibre. Clothes last longer.
  • Flax seeds are very beneficial for health.
  • The flax plant provides raw material that can be used by several industries.
  • Biodegradable fibres.

Cons:

  • The expertise for processing, spinning and knitting flax remains to be developed in Canada (For now, there is no fabric made from flax grown in Canada. If you find any, we will buy it!)
  • Linen fabric requires higher maintenance (wrinkles easily).
  • Linen fabric comes from France (largest world producer of scutched flax).

1.Hemp

Hemp is much more resistant than cotton. It is hypoallergenic and non-irritating to the skin. In fact, hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics currently available. The plant is very naturally resistant to pests and growth requires little water. Hemp fabric is known for aging well; in fact, the more you wear it, the softer it becomes.

Hemp fibre takes the cake at number 1. It is not only renowned for its qualities and local potential, but also for all hemp’s various applications that could transform multiple industries.

Pros:

  • Grows like a weed (very resistant to insects and diseases) and does not require the use of any insecticide or pesticide.
  • Very strong fibre. Clothes last longer.
  • Only takes 11 weeks to mature.
  • Grows in Canada (But Health Canada’s regulation is binding. You need to have a licence to grow, transform, and transport hemp.)
  • Grows like a weed (very resistant to insects and diseases) and does not require the use of any insecticide or pesticide.
  • Very strong fibre. Clothes last longer.
  • Only takes 11 weeks to mature.
  • Grows in Canada (But Health Canada’s regulation is binding. You need to have a licence to grow, transform, and transport hemp.)

Cons:

  • The expertise to scutch, spin and knit hemp remains to be developed in Canada (For now, there is no fabric made from Canadian-grown hemp. If you find any, we will buy it!)
  • The hemp thread is often blended with organic cotton to reduce the price of the fabric and because hemp on its own is too rough for knits.
  • Higher price.
  • For now, hemp fabric is either from China or Romania.
  • Hemp fabric is higher maintenance (wrinkles easily).
  • Regulation for harvesting, processing, and transporting of industrial hemp apply because of its similarity to marijuana plants.

Learn more about sustainability in textileSubscribe to our Newsletter

About the author Ugo Dutil: I grew up at the ecovillage “La Cite Ecologique” from 1 to 11. I decided to go back and live there when I was 25 years old. I like this way of life that allows us to prioritize human relationships over material possessions. I’ve been working with Respecterre since 2013. Voluntary simplicity and responsible consumption, especially in textiles, fascinates me.
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