Pros and Cons of 6 Natural Fabrics

Encourage a more sustainable textile market by choosing fabrics that protect the environment, honor producer health, and support your needs.

| May / June 2018

Which kind of fabric is best for the planet? Unfortunately, trying to choose might leave you with decision paralysis. While it’s well-advised to avoid the petroleum-based synthetic fibers such as polyester (which can burn through millions of barrels of oil), knowing what kinds of fabric to buy instead is hardly clear. Are you better off with breathable but resource-hungry cotton, or is fast-growing but heavily processed bamboo a smarter choice for the environment? Let’s look closer at the growing and processing methods of six of today’s most popular natural fibers to find out.

Cotton (Gossypium spp.)

Durable, breathable, and easy to wash, what’s not to like about cotton? For starters, this fluffy fiber is one of the most polluting products on the planet. The plant’s almost insatiable thirst means that it takes just shy of 5,300 gallons of water to produce about 2 pounds of cotton. Furthermore, the production of one cotton T-shirt requires a third of a pound of pesticides, many of which are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as carcinogens.

Is organic cotton an improvement? Not entirely. The product does come from non-genetically modified organisms (non-GMOs), is produced without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and isn’t processed with bleaches or artificial colors. Plus, organic cotton is typically grown in ways that replenish soil fertility, foster biological diversity, and prevent chemicals from entering the water system.

However, organic certification standards allow for the use of naturally occurring fertilizers and pesticides, many of which are still toxic to soil organisms and non-target species. Compounding these growing difficulties for organic farmers, cotton plants are notoriously vulnerable to insect damage, much of which is best managed with non-organic pesticides or by growing GMO varieties.

For use in final products, organic cotton tends to be regarded as higher quality than conventional. Several studies have also shown that consumers will choose organic cotton over conventional, especially when they have an understanding of the environmental implications. If you choose to buy cotton, organic still beats conventionally grown, but be aware that there are still drawbacks to the organic ways of processing.

Care Instructions

Dry cotton at low temperatures to avoid shrinkage, preferably on a clothesline. For the first wash, add 1⁄4 cup vinegar to the final rinse to set natural dyes and to prevent color from bleeding.

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