We all know by now that organic is better than conventional. And if the eco-revolution started with organic food, nowadays we have a choice in every aspect of life including clothing. There are so many good reasons to choose organic clothing that we almost never ask ourselves which fiber is really green. Is it possible a synthetic fiber to be better for the environment than an organic one? Let’s have closer look at some of the most popular green fibers – organic cotton, organic hemp and recycled polyester, and find out how much eco-friendly they actually are.
Chemicals & GMOs
- Organic cotton
It is grown without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers as well as GM (genetically modified) organisms. Organic cotton farmers save money on production by reducing the high costs associated with chemical processing as well as avoid workers’ poisoning, water contamination and depletion of soil nutrients.
It is one of the most ecologically friendly plants. It is pest resistant – no pesticides are needed. Moreover, when hemp is grown in rotation, it has been known to reduce the pests in future crops. Hemp is grown so thickly that it kills the other plants around due to which no herbicides are required. Finally, hemp not only needs little or no fertilizers, but it turns back most of the nutrients it takes from the soil. So, because of its unique nature, the changes required in the cultivation of hemp to produce organic hemp are minimal.
- Recycled polyester
It is done by used plastic bottles. The recycling is either mechanical or chemical. The former can be done only a few times before the yarn gets good only for the landfill. The latter turns the yarn as strong and beautiful as the original polyester, but it is costly and rarely done. Another consideration is the antimony trioxide (carcinogen) that is released during the production of recycled polyester. Antimony causes cancer in mice and its exposure is accumulative. Though it is bound to the polymer while heated (as during the recycling process), we are still not absolutely sure that its presence in our recycled polyester clothing is 100% safe.
Energy & CO2 emissions
Since herbicides and pesticides are responsible for most of the energy used in farming, organic methods produce less carbon-dioxide emissions. In this category, organic cotton is a winner requiring a bit less energy than organic hemp.
Recycled polyester is the most energy intensive fiber among organic cotton and hemp. It is estimated that Americans use over 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour, which “contribute” to the deaths of 100,000 marine animals every year. Next time, when you buy a fashion t-shirt from recycled polyester, know that it is made from approximately five plastic bottles. It is one very beautiful way to limit the amount of plastics in the world, isn’t it?
Organic cotton requires less energy to grow, but the lack of synthetic fertilizers and the adoption of crop rotation results in 20 to 50% lower yields. So, if organic cotton is to replace the production of conventional cotton, a greater land area would be needed.
On the other hand, one acre of hemp will produce as much fiber as 2-3 acres of cotton every year.
One big environmental drawback of cotton is water use. Organic cotton, however, may go to extremes and use 5900 liters of water per kilogram of fiber in California to make two t-shirts or 80 liters in Brazil where organic cotton is mostly rain-fed.
Unlike cotton, hemp does not have a high water requirement. This plant has deep roots, which enable it to take advantage of the subsoil moisture, thus requiring little or no watering.
Though difficult to compare, the water used in recycled polyester production is only a fraction of what is required in cotton growing. Water is not an input in the recycling process. It is mainly used to clean the shredded pieces of plastic and to remove the dirt and debris.
Most of the world’s organic cotton is grown in developing countries. Before reaching the consumers in the West, it travels the world for processing and manufacturing. That’s a big carbon footprint for one T-shirt!
Though, one can surely find organic cotton fiber made in USA, this is not true for hemp. Industrial hemp (Cannabis Sativa) is classified as marijuana in the USA. It means that hemp fiber is imported from China, Europe, Chile and North Korea. Thus, shipping costs greatly increase the ecologic footprint of hemp.
Recycled polyester is soft and durable. It is wrinkle – shrink – stain resistant. Its benefits include:
– less soil, water and air contamination;
– less dependence on oil used in the production of original polyester;
– millions of plastic bottles saved from the landfill daily and less emissions from incinerators.
However, recycled polyester is not recyclable, unless the chemical recycling process is used. There are few manufacturers, e.g Victor Innovatex, who make synthetic fabrics (without the use of antimony!) that are recycled and are recyclable (closed loop = the fiber never loses its value) too.
There will be always certain trade offs when choosing one fabric over another regardless of whether it’s synthetic or organic. But let’s look at the glass as half full and appreciate the fact that by buying organic fabrics we vote for healthy farmers, fair wages, clean water, fresh air, sweatshop-free production and a lot more. On the other, recycled polyester is a good try to “save” the used plastic bottles (at least for a while) from the landfills, while looking for an affordable way to manufacture synthetic fibers that are recycled and recyclable.
“Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute
“Is Recycled Polyester Fabric Recyclable?” O Ecotextiles, http://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/is-recycled-polyester-fabric-recyclable/