The Best Eco-Friendly Fibres

The Best Eco-Friendly Fibres

To make clothing, you need fabric → to make fabric, you need yarn → to make yarn you need fibres. The raw material choice has a big impact on the footprint of a garment. Some fibres are inherently more eco-friendly than others.

What is an eco-friendly fibre?

It’s an alternative to two things:

  1. Petroleum-derived fibres (polyester, nylon (polyamide), acrylic, spandex, etc.). We must aim to be independent of the petroleum industry. Such fibres are not biodegradable and cause problems when the garment reaches the end of its cycle. It's also a huge source of microplastic pollution (microfibres) in the ocean, air and on land when the end-product garment is washed. Synthetic fibres account for about 63% of textile fibres used in the world.
  2. GMO cotton. 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 25% of textile fibres used in the world.

The aforementioned facts mean that all other fibres make up only about 10% of fibres used worldwide. It’s not much, but to change these proportions, we must first understand.

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.

 

Cotton field
#5 CERTIFIED 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 gin, spin and knit cotton.

Organic cotton plays a complementary role with other eco-friendly fibres with which it is often blended.

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.

Organic cotton is grown in the USA. It can be locally grown and transformed.

Pros:

  • No transformation. Just ginning (removing the seeds from the fibres)
  • Affordable price.
  • Well-developed expertise.
  • Biodegradable.
  • Locally grown.

Cons:

  • Can need irrigation water.
  • Very demanding on soil.
  • Must be certified.
  • 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.

 

Linen flax flower
#4 VISCOSE FROM BAMBOO

Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world. Its cultivation needs no chemical fertilizers or pesticides... yadda yadda yadda...you already know that. It's now pretty much established that growing bamboo is sustainable. 

However, the viscose transformation process requires the use of hazardous chemicals to transform bamboo wood pulp into viscose from bamboo (or bamboo rayon). Viscose = rayon (it's the same thing).

This process can be used responsibly and has a great potential. But it's often used irresponsibly and Chinese viscose producers need to get their $#*% together if we want to keep calling this fibre eco-friendly.

This image above shows the viscous liquid (looks like honey) obtained when carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide are mixed with bamboo wood pulp. It's a key step in the viscose process. And this is what we should all picture in our heads when we read "viscose or rayon from bamboo".

Because of the complexity of its transformation process (viscose) and lack of potential for local culture, bamboo is at number 4. And if Chinese viscose producers don't raise their standards to EU BAT before 2025, this fibre will no longer be on this list.

Learn more about how we can make viscose production responsible
→ dirtyfashion.info
→ changingmarkets.org

Pros:

  • Absorb 35% more CO2 than any other forest.
  • Grows without pesticide or insecticide.
  • Good yield of fibre per acre.
  • Viscose clothes are easy to dye & wash (wrinkle free).
  • Viscose fabrics are comfortable and soft.
  • Requires no irrigation water.
  • Biodegradable.

Cons:

  • Making viscose requires sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid and carbon disulfide.
  • Does not grow and isn't transformed in Canada or the United States.

Linen flax flower
#3 TENCEL™ LYOCELL

TENCEL™ Lyocell fabric is extremely soft and suitable for sensitive skin. It's a man-made cellulosic fibre extracted from wood grown in sustainable plantations (often eucalyptus). The lyocell fibre production process is environmentally friendly at all levels as no hazardous chemicals are used. The solvent (NMMO) and water used for its transformation are up to 99% recycled subsequently in a closed loop process.

TENCEL™ is a trademark of Lenzing AG.

There is a Lenzing lyocell plant in the US. So it can be produced locally. Moreover, TENCEL™ Lyocell with REFIBRA™ technology opens the door to using recycled cotton scraps (up to 30% as of 2020) which is pretty cool.

There's a bunch of new fibres made with either wood from certified sustainable plantations, agricultural waste or post-consumer cotton clothes. These a great but currently unavailable to market like TENCEL™ Lyocell is. Still it's inspiring to see all this innovation:
→ spinnova.com
→ monocel.com
→ ioncell.fi
→ renewcell.com
→ circulo.se

So TENCEL™ Lyocell is number 3 with its closed loop transformation process and all around carefulness for the environment.

Pros:

  • Eucalyptus grows on arid land, on which it's impossible to plant other crops.
  • Requires no irrigation water.
  • Grows without the need for insecticides or pesticides.
  • Lyocell is inherently eco-friendly.
  • Easy to dye and wash.
  • Comfortable and soft.
  • Excellent moisture management.
  • Biodegradable
  • Wood comes from certified responsibly managed forest.
  • There is a plant in Axis, AL, USA. Can be locally transformed.

Cons:

  • The raw material used is wood… so they do have to cut down trees.
  • From my experience, TENCEL™ Lyocell is not as durable as viscose. Fabric will wear out faster.

That's not a lot of cons...TENCEL™ Lyocell is pretty good on the planet.

Linen flax flower
#2 LINEN (FLAX)

Linen is an all-natural luxurious fibre that requires no chemicals for growth or for transformation. Its fabric keeps us cool in summer and warm in the winter because the fibres retain air, thus creating natural insulation. Linen clothes have a beneficial effect on sensitive skin and is one of 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.
  • Can grow in Canada (in fact, Canada is the largest flax seed producer in the world).
  • Very strong fibre. Clothes last longer.
  • Flax seeds are beneficial for health.
  • Provides raw material that can be used by several industries.
  • Biodegradable 

Cons:

  • The expertise for processing, spinning and knitting flax remains to be developed in Canada and USA (if you are in France or Belgium, that's a pro for you).
  • Linen fabric requires higher maintenance (wrinkles easily).
  • The fibre may need to be degummed using sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. I still need to find more info on that.

 

Linen flax flower
#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; 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:

  • Mechanically processed.
  • 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 & USA ... and everywhere.
  • Hemp regenerates soils.
  • It removes contaminating metals from the soil.
  • Perfect crop rotation for soybean and corn.
  • The whole hemp industry (building material, food, and many more) has infinite potential.
  • Hemp seeds are the perfect balance of omega 3 and 6.
  • Growing hemp is carbon negative.
  • Biodegradable

 

Cons:

  • The expertise to scutch, degum, spin and knit hemp remain to be developed in Canada (some start up companies are starting to offer Canadian grown hemp textiles. Check out eko-terre.com)(soon to be a pro?)
  • Often needs to be blended with other fibres to reduce price.
  • For now, hemp fabric comes from either from China or Romania.
  • Hemp fabric is higher maintenance (wrinkles easily).
  • There's still this stupid confusion between hemp and marijuana.
  • The fibre may need to be degummed using sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. I still need to find more info on that.

 

Ugo DutilWritten by Ugo Dutil :
I grew up in the ecovillage Cite Ecologique. I like this way of life that values human relationships, sustainable development and personal growth. I’ve been working with Respecterre since 2013. I'm fascinated by hemp, minimalism, slow fashion, local supply chains, zero waste, viscose production and transparency.
instagram.com/ugodutil
youtube.com/respecterre


4 comments

  • Nadia

    I am a very big fan of hemp, but, in China they often use chemical processes instead of natural mechanical for decortication. Enzym processes are investigated and often succesful but then it depends on the variaty of the plant and the purpose/enduse of the fiber. Also, when we talk about fibers for apparel, and colors are desired, first bleaching is needed.
    The worst of all is that countries, firms, labo’s…. do not all share their information, because of competition …

  • Fiona

    I am looking for an eco friendly waterproof reasonably priced string
    What would be best?
    Thanks

  • Fiona Gregory

    Interesting post! Where would you put Wool on this list?

  • Francis

    Thank you Ugo for this very insightful text.


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