Are plant-based materials sustainable? Many boast about the sustainable properties of plant-based fibres such as organic cotton, bamboo and linen - but are these fibres all they are cracked up to be?
Here you will find more information about the sustainability of plant-based fabrics from cotton to bamboo; linen to hemp. Other natural fabrics deriving from animals such as leather, wool and silk will be/are covered in other posts. However, this guide will focus exclusively on the sustainability of plant-based fabrics starting with the controversial crop - cotton.
Organic Cotton (Jersey & Denim) | Organic cotton is certified to organic agricultural standards. To receive the organic cotton certification cotton is not allowed to be grown with the use of toxic chemicals such as those found in pesticides or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). To learn more about organic certifications entitled Defining Ethical Fashion Terms. While organic cotton is a better option than standard cotton, this crop is none-the-less a thirsty one. The Higg Index ranks cotton's environmental impact at a staggering 98 out of 100. While organic cotton is likely to be lower than this, it goes without saying that cotton is inherently unsustainable.
Recycled Cotton (Jersey & Denim)| Recycled cotton is generally cotton fabric that has been converted into cotton fibre that can be reused in textile products. Recycled cotton may also be labelled as reclaimed or regenerated cotton. Recycled cotton can come from pre-consumer sources (e.g. factory off-cuts) and post-consumer sources (e.g. worn clothing). However, the former is more commonly recycled as it is easier to sort through and is more likely to be a uniform colour. As already established cotton is an unsustainable crop, but choosing recycled cotton is a much better option than standard cotton or organic cotton. However, the energy that goes into the recycling process must also be taken into consideration.
You may be wondering what bast fibres are and what them distinctive? Bast fibres derive from the inner layer of plants such as underneath the tree bark. They are known for being highly-durable but typically have a more coarse texture than other plant-based fibres such as cotton. Bast fibres as a group are generally seen as being highly-sustainable as their cultivation requires little water irrigation and , therefore, the impact of growing bast fibres on soil is low.
Flax (used to produce Linen) | Flax is used to make the fabric we commonly refer to as Linen. Linen is highly durable, absorbent, and it dries faster than the likes of cotton. Due to such characteristics, linen is often an excellent choice to wear in a humid summer. As it is a natural fibre linen is biodegradable and receives bonus points for a being moth-resistant fabric. The cultivation of flax produces no waste when grown in its ideal geographical zone and all parts of the flax plant are used not only for textiles production but for a plethora of other purposes. After the plant has been harvested, the left behind roots fertilise the soil. Furthermore, growing flax requires no irrigation, pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers, making its cultivation pollutant-free! In sum, linen is a pretty awesome fabric.
Hemp | For a long-time hemp has been considered to be the go-to sustainable fabric as this fibre requires no irrigation. Furthermore, hemp does not strip the soil of vital nutrients, making it a fantastic choice when it comes to crop rotation. As a natural fibre, hemp can also bio-degrade in a harm-free manner. For these reasons, hemp can be considered to be a highly sustainable fibre which is why it is so well-loved in eco-fashion circles.
Nettle (used to produce Ramie) | The cultivation of nettle to make the fabric ramie has a relatively low ecological footprint. Nettles can be grown on low-quality land and require only small amounts of chemicals. However, the extraction and processing of nettle fibre can be labour-intensive as chemicals are necessary to separate the raw plant fibre from the gum that coats it, so that is usable for textiles production. Arguably, this is one of the least sustainable options out of the bast fibre group.
Jute | Jute reaches maturity quickly, between 4-6 months, making it an incredibly efficient crop. Similarly to flax, jute relies on natural rainfall, rather than irrigation systems that consume large amounts of water such as is the case with cotton. Jute is also not only biodegradable, but it can also be recycled, meaning that it is sustainable across multiple frontiers. Like other bast fibres, jute is incredibly strong and durable, meaning that it will stand the test of time.
You may not have heard of the following fabrics as most of them are typically used in artisanal bag/hat production rather than mainstream clothing production. However, they are fabrics we should not ignore because they are not so widely used.
Abacá | Abacá (also known as Manila hemp) is a species of banana, which is grown as a commercial crop in the Philippines, Ecuador and Costa Rica. Unlike most other leaf fibres, Abacá is obtained from the plant leaf stalks. Abacá is very durable and it is also biodegradable. Interestingly, is also highly resistant to salt water decomposition compared to many other vegetable fibres.
Piña | Piña as the name suggests is derived from the leaves of the pineapple plant. Cultivating pineapple plants does not require additional water, fertilisers or land to grow on. Furthermore, the land on which pineapple plants do grow does not require re-tilling compared to fabrics such as cotton. Despite, these positive credentials, piña is an incredibly labour intensive fabric to produce. Piña is a beautifully lightweight fabric with a similar appearance to linen. It is used far less frequently in textiles production than linen probably because of how labour intensive it is to produce.
Raffia | Raffia is a fibre is widely used to make baskets, hats and shoes. Raffia has great sustainability properties as it is highly durable, renewable and biodegradable. This fibre is also very easy to dye using natural and organic dyes. Raffia has a rather down-to-earth bohemian look which isn't for everyone but if you are looking for a straw hat or bag one made out of Raffia is a great way to go!
Sisal | Sisal is a corse fabric which is is native to Mexico and derives from the Agave plant. It is usually used to create "straw" bags and hats. Put it this way it is the last thing you would want rubbing up against your skin. However, like other bast fibres, sisal possesses high levels of strength and durability. Interestingly, sisal is also able to stretch and like raffia it is affine to dyes. Sisal grows in wild hedges of fields and the crop has short renewal times, therefore, land does not need to be set aside for its production. According to the UN "Sisal is a renewable resource par excellence and can form part of the overall solution to climate change". An added benefit of sisal is that over its life-cycle, the plant absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces. During processing, it generates mainly organic wastes and leaf residues that can be further used to generate bioenergy, produce animal feed, fertiliser and material for eco-homes. Furthermore it is 100 percent biodegradable. Go Sisal!
Other Natural Fibres:
Organic Bamboo (differs from Bamboo Viscose) | There is much controversy surrounding bamboo and claims that it is a sustainable fabric stretch far and wide. The true sustainable option is what we call organic mechanically-produced bamboo. However, mechanically-produced bamboo fibre is much harder to come across than bamboo viscose, which due to the stages of transformation it undergoes can no longer be considered to be a "natural" or "sustainable" material. Genuine organic bamboo fabric that is made using mechanical methods is also more expensive than bamboo viscose. Bamboo is often presented as a sustainable fabric as it is easy to grow, matures quickly and can be grown in less desirable areas. However, while the environmental impact of cultivating bamboo is low how it is processed and turned into fabric is another matter. Crucially, it is important to consider the difference between organic mechanically produced bamboo and bamboo viscose, the latter of which will be discussed in due course. So, when you next pick up a garment that is "made from bamboo", make sure to ask how this bamboo has been produced.
Britannica - Abaca
Business Leader - Is Bamboo the Right Fibre for Your Products?
Common Objective - Fibre Briefing: Cotton
Cotton Works - Organic Cotton
Eden Project - Raffia
Good on You - What are the Most Sustainable Fabrics?
The Sustainable Fashion Collective - Jute - Why is it a Sustainable Fibre?
Sustainability in the Textile and Apparel Industries - Sustainable Textile Designs Made from Renewable Biodegradable Sustainable Natural Abaca Fibers
Textile Exchange - What is Organic Cotton?
Textiles + Fashion - Sisal
Textile Learner - Abaca Fiber (Manila Hemp) | Uses/Application of Abaca Fiber
Trusted Clothes - Sustainable Fibres: What is Abaca?
Trusted Clothes: Sustainable Fibres: What is Cotton?
Trusted Clothes - What is Sisal?
Love and solidarity,