When sustainable clothing first burst onto the scene, we were introduced to a number of “eco-friendly” textiles and fabrics, clothing was being made with new, environmentally-friendly materials such as organic cotton, Tencel Lyocell fabric, modal, and even clothing made from bamboo.
Each carried sustainable properties, whether that meant being free of pesticides or fertilizers, produced in a closed-loop system, or made from durable and renewable materials. Today I want to look at three of the most used eco-friendly textiles and see what these materials really bring to fashion and the environment.
What is sustainable clothing exactly?
Sustainable clothing is made from fabric/textile material that is either sourced from recycled materials or natural elements, such as bamboo. The premise behind sustainable clothing is that it lowers the impact of the manufacturing process on the environment. Companies do this by using closed-loop production systems, modifying fiber, and cutting out harmful chemicals in production and farming.
How does sustainable fashion help the environment?
When you decide to buy clothing made from sustainable materials you are helping reduce your carbon footprint. Eco-friendly clothing manufacturers make their fabrics in a way that focuses on waste reduction. Including soil regeneration, lowering emission, and water conservation to name a few.
Sustainable Clothing Materials: Bamboo vs. Lyocell vs. Organic Cotton
At first, BAMBOO fabric made a lot of sense. Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, with one species recorded growing three feet in a single day. Bamboo does not use or rely on chemicals, fertilizers or insecticides to grow. And it requires little water, unlike conventional cotton. Bamboo has great potential when it comes to producing sustainable clothing material but it has some issues.
Bamboo vs cotton sustainability
In comparison to cotton, bamboo is known to improve watersheds, purify air quality, and remove toxins from contaminated soil, all with less water consumption and no harmful environmental impact. Bamboo is often planted to prevent soil erosion, it can absorb up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare and it produces 30% more oxygen than any hardwood forest of similar size. It can also be selectively harvested annually, and it naturally regenerates without replanting.
How is bamboo fabric made? A Look at the viscose fibre manufacturing process
The viscose process is the name of the method used for the transformation of the bamboo fiber into eco-friendly clothing material. Hence the name “Viscose from Bamboo”. This process includes dissolution and extrusion. To dissolve the wood, it is necessary to use water and solvent. As we know, water is a very valuable resource in this world. The problem is we do not really know how water is used in the viscose process. Perhaps responsibly, but maybe not. There is no guarantee or certification for this.
Not to mention the corrosive solvents such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide, used to alter the genetic structure of natural bamboo, and turn it into a rayon. While no residue remains in the fiber after the procedure, if the effluent was not disposed of responsibly, or cleaned and reused (closed-loop) it can lead to soil and water contamination. Still, it is not as harmful as the 25% of the world’s pesticides that are dumped directly into the environment to grow conventional cotton!
But it isn’t great, so we either need to find a substitute or use it without damage to the environment.
Bamboo clothing manufacturers in Canada
An example of a Canadian brand that uses a closed-loop manufacturing process to produce bamboo textiles, is Miik. Their fabric is custom milled at a weight that provides a rich luxurious drape and offers additional coverage, and is more durable – so it will last you for years!
What is Tencel lyocell fabric?
You may have noticed on your clothing labels (for those of you who check!) the fabric TENCEL®. This fabric has undergone the Lyocell process, which is the name of the transformation process that changes wood into textile fiber. TENCEL® is the name of the fiber developed by Lenzing whose raw material comes from eucalyptus and is processed according to the lyocell process, which is a trademark.
The solvent used for the transformation of the eucalyptus fiber is hard to pronounce so I don’t want to scare you with it – but it is non-toxic and biodegradable in addition to being an organic compound. This means that if it is dumped into nature by accident, it won’t (most likely) damage the environment. It is, by far, a better choice than sodium hydroxide to proceed with the dissolution of wood into a textile fiber that is used to produce eco-friendly clothing.
Is lyocell fabric really eco-friendly?
The Lyocell process used for the transformation of eucalyptus fiber is a closed-loop process that guarantees that 99% of the water and solvent used are recovered and reused again. This results in better water management and aims to preserve this natural resource we all need to live.
You might be surprised to learn that big brands like Zara and The Gap are increasing their use of TENCEL® in their clothing material. But for more local options check out Tamga Designs and Encircled (both also use organic cotton and/or bamboo), and Triarchy who use a TENCEL®/cotton blend made in a factory that uses 85% recycled water.
Bamboo may seem like a miracle fibre. In addition, it is soft, affordable, it saves water and is free from pesticides. However, it is transforming it from the plant into a fabric that’s the more complicated issue.
What is sustainable organic cotton?
Compared to its conventional counterpart, organic cotton scores much higher in terms of environmental impact. It does not require pesticides or fertilizers to grow, and it uses much less water.
According to a recent study conducted by Textile Exchange, organic cotton has the potential for environmental savings in several areas: it’s 46 percent less harmful to global warming, there’s 70 percent less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops by 26 percent, surface and groundwater use falls 91 percent, and demand for energy could go down by as much as 62 percent. Making it a real contender in the sustainable fabric race.
How is water used in the production of textiles?
Let’s take a closer look at water using the example of a cotton t-shirt. If made with conventional cotton, it would require 2,168 gallons of water compared to 186 for organic (a difference of 1,982 gallons). To make a pair of jeans, conventional cotton would take 9,910 gallons of water compared to 932 with organic (a savings of 8,978 gallons).
But the real water issue here is pollution. Runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and minerals from cotton fields contaminates rivers, lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers. These pollutants affect biodiversity directly by immediate toxicity or indirectly through long-term accumulation.
In addition to local fashion brands referenced earlier, larger apparel brands have been increasing their use of organic cotton. According to the Textile Exchange, the five biggest users of organic cotton, by volume are: C&A, H&M, Tchibo, Inditex and Nike. And in the years ahead, they anticipate those volumes will continue to grow. I hope so!
So... What's better lyocell, cotton, or bamboo when it comes to sustainable, eco-friendly clothing material?
Well, it depends on what you are buying. It's super important to read the labels and get to know the fabric you have in your closet. Are most of them synthetic, can you slowly change them out? And make sure to check you these sustainable fabric guides:
If you love to shop at secondhand and thrift shops, make sure you keep a look at the types of fabric you are buying. Even though supporting secondhand is great, there are a ton of synthetic fibers that shed microplastics, something to be aware of.