No Blue, No Green. Attire Sustainably! – Part 1

“It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility to figure out what’s cruel and what’s kind, what’s environmentally destructive and what’s sustainable. Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal. We don’t need the option of buying children’s toys made with lead paint, or aerosols with chlorofluorocarbons, or medicines with unlabeled side effects. And we don’t need the option of buying factory-farmed animals.” – Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

No Water, No Life. No Blue, No Green. Attire Sustainably – Part 1

The textile industry uses more than 8,000 chemicals to make the 400 billion m2 of fabric sold annually around the world. Many are toxic and persist in the environment. They include heavy-metal-rich dyes and fixing agents, bleaches, solvents, and detergents.

Making textiles is also a water-intensive business. Producing a pair of jeans requires about 1,800 gal of water; a T-shirt takes 700 gal. Treating such large volumes of waste water is costly—if it is treated at all. All toxic chemicals cannot be treated and end up into our fresh water ways which is causing pollution all over the textile manufacturing countries. Read more

Pollution also can occur after clothing leaves the factory. Outdoor gear is often stain- and waterproofed with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), but these additives can detach during use. The PFCs or their breakdown products end up in the environment where they can be persistent, bioaccumulative, and carcinogenic hazards.

Clothes and textiles come from oil or natural fibers, begins as fibers – which are either natural (e.g. cotton, silk, wool), man-made (made from cellulosics, e.g. viscose) or synthetic (oil used to create polymers, e.g. polyester, acrylic and nylon).

Sustainability is elusive because it is expected to achieve many things. In general terms, sustainability means: to hold up; to bear; to support; to provide for; to keep going; to keep up; to support the life of (Dictionary); and is therefore capacity to endure. In ecology, the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well-being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.

Sustainable textiles are a process or method utilized to attempt to make the production of that textile more ethical for example, by conserving an ecological balance and by avoiding depletion of natural resources and development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

There is no denying that sustainability in fashion is a complicated topic and a challenge for brands who wish to produce sustainable fashion that consumers will want to wear.

Today we see what options we have for sustainable textiles and clothing.

Below is  a list of sustainable fiber:

Alternative Plant Fibers
Alternative plant fibers can be considered sustainable because they are produced in very small quantities, and generally can be cultivated without the use of pesticides. They are classified as any fiber that comes from a plant that is not agriculturally produced. Alternative plant fibers include nettle, kapok, milkweed, pina, raffia, sunn, aloe, and abaca.

Fibers from By-Products
There is a broad spectrum of fibers which are made from by-products salvaged from industrial, agricultural, or commercial production.  Often these fibers fall into the category of rayon, however two aspects define by-products; the first is its origin, the second is the type of processing it undergoes to become a textile.   By-product fibers that are rayon processed are regenerated cellulosic fibers and include: Lemur™ and Cupro. Azlon fibers are by-products of naturally occurring proteins generally from industrial food production that undergo a different type of processing; soy milk protein fibers are the most common in this category.  These proteins are subjected to enzymatic treatments and a wet spinning process to create a filament, which is used to create the fiber.

An alternative plant fiber source, abaca is part of the bast family. The word bast means that the fiber comes from the bark of the plant. It is naturally stiff and is therefore often blended with soft fibers to make textiles. Abaca use promotes biodiversity by decreasing the dependency on mass agricultural crops. Since it is a natural fiber, it is biodegradable.

Alginate is a biopolymer, an alternative plant fiber which is extracted from seaweed. It is a soft fiber that is often blended with other fibers to improve its resilience and although its processing produces chemical pollutants, it is biodegradable and nutrient-rich and is said to have antibacterial properties. The most common fabric made from alginate is Seacell™, which is a blend of lyocell and seaweed. (see Seacell™).

Aloe is an alternative plant fiber and is a native plant of Africa. It is also known as “lily of the desert” and “the plant of immortality” due to its medicinal effects. The textile is made from the leaf, which contains minerals, amino acids and vitamins. Aloe is soft and prevents chaffing when incorporated in textiles through micro-encapsulation, whereby the aloe is embedded into airtight and waterproof micro capsules.

Alpaca is an animal fiber, which falls under the wool category and the fibers range from very fine to coarse. The alpaca is a small member of the camelides, camel family, that range freely grazing on organic vegetation, where they nibble at new shoots rather than rearing out plants and are found on the heights of the Andes in Bolivia and in neighboring South American countries.

Angora is an animal fiber, which comes from the hair of the angora rabbit, which is farmed in Europe and East Asia. The name derives from Ankara, in Turkey. Angora fiber is available in small quantities, reducing the dependency on large-scale wool farming.

Azlon is a manufactured fiber made from regenerated, naturally occurring proteins such as casein, a by-product of skimmed milk; zein, derived from corn (maize); keratin, a substance that can be obtained from chicken feathers; collagen, derived from leather and hide wastes, or egg albumin.

Most of the bamboo product on the market, while still sourced from a natural and renewable source, is actually processed as rayon.

Bamboo is the world’s fastest growing plant and can be grown without pesticides or chemicals. Bamboo fiber is made from cellulose derived from the fast-growing and typically woody bamboo grass.

Banana fiber is classified as medium quality fiber that is generally derived from banana leaves. It is an alternative plant fiber that is part of the bast family and performs very well when blended with other fibers.

Biophyl™ is Advansa´s new trademark for fabrics and garments that are made with PTT, a special polyester polymer. In the case of Biophyl™ petrol based Glycol, has been replaced with Bio-PDO™, which is made of corn sucrose. This resource is renewable and therefore reduces the dependability on petro-chemicals, which is the classical raw material for polyester.

Cashmere is an animal fiber and is a type of wool. It comes from the cashmere goat which lives in Mongolia and the Himalayan mountains at altitudes of up to 5000 meters. To withstand the cold, it has an unusually fine undercoat. It is cleaned and processed like standard wools, then spun into yarns for hand knits or textiles.

Chitosan is derived from chitin; which is the white and porous polysaccharide compound that forms a base on the hard shell of crustaceans like crabs, lobsters and squids, and has chemical structures similar to that of cellulose.

Coir is a cellulosic fiber that is extracted from the outer shell of the coconut palm and is an alternative plant fiber. There are two types of coir: brown fiber, which is obtained from mature coconuts, and finer white fiber, which is harvested from immature green coconuts. Coir has one of the highest concentrations of lignin, which makes it stronger but less flexible than cotton and unsuitable for dyeing Coir fiber is relatively waterproof and is resistant to damage by salt water. Its harvest supports the small trade of coir product and alleviates the reliance on mass agricultural crops.

Today, the world uses more cotton than any other fibre. Cotton comes from cultivated plants from the genus Gossypium. They have been cultivated since ancient times for their fibres which are used as textiles. Cotton is a part of our daily lives from the time we dry our faces on a soft cotton towel in the morning until we slide between fresh cotton sheets at night. It has hundreds of uses, from blue jeans to shoe strings. Clothing and household items are the largest uses, but industrial products account from many thousands of bales. Cotton has other, more surprising uses too from medicines and mattresses to seed oil and even sausage skins.

The cultivation of conventional cotton uses 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides (Environmental Justice Foundation, 2010). Growing cotton accounts for only 3% of all cultivated land, but uses 20% of all chemical pesticides used. Eight times more chemicals are used on cotton than on an average food crop. The Ethical Fashion Forum states on its website that cotton takes approximately 150 grams of chemicals to grow enough cotton to make just one t-shirt; another company, Aura Herbal Wear, estimates that up to 8000 different chemicals are used in various stages of chemical dyeing.

Alternatives to conventional cotton production are primarily the use of organic cotton. For cotton to be considered organic, it must be farmed without the use of pesticides, synthetic chemical fertilizers, and genetically engineered seeds (GM seeds). Organic cotton must be third-party certified to meet rigorous production standards, which include manufacturing as well as agricultural methods. The UK-based Soil Association is one of over 100 such certification agencies worldwide, which are accredited and audited by various bodies such as the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movement or the US Department of Agriculture.

Organic cotton is typically more expensive than conventional cotton due to lower crop yields and fibers are often shorter as well. It is non-polluting, non-toxic, biodegradable, and can be recycled. Organic cotton farming uses crop rotation to enrich the soil and employs natural predators to control unwanted pests, this in turn means that the land can also be used to grow food alongside the cotton crops and eliminates the risk of harmful substances potentially entering the food chain through water supplies. Organic cotton farmers also receive a premium price for their quality cotton, and do not have to buy expensive chemicals, enabling them to increase their income.

The Cleaner Cotton Campaign is an effort lead by the Sustainable Cotton Organization in California to reduce the environmental impact of cotton’s cultivation and production. The seeds used are not genetically modified (non-GM) and the cultivation and processing uses 73% fewer chemical inputs than conventional cotton and directly benefits the local environment. The cotton is not organic, but is a low-impact variety. It can be found under the trademarked name, Cleaner Cotton™.

Pima cotton, like all cotton, is an agricultural fiber that comes from its seed and is grown primarily in the southwest region of the United States, Peru, Australia, and a few other countries. Pima cotton is of particularly high quality as it has an extra-long staple (ELS) and is one of the superior blends of cotton, although it is not necessarily organic. It is known for its luster and silkiness, is extremely durable and absorbent and is named after the Pima Native Americans who first cultivated the plant in the US, but its origins date back to its cultivation in Peru.

For conventional cotton farms to become organically certified, they must go through a three-year cleansing process to rid the soil of harsh chemical fertilizers. Cotton that is within this stage of obtaining certification is classified as “Transitional Organic Cotton” or “Transitional Cotton”.

Crabyon textiles are a blend of natural and synthetic fibers mixed with chitosan. It is currently made from waste crab shells from crab meat processing factories and is totally biodegradable. It has been attributed to several health improving properties such as its antibacterial function, inhibiting growth of bacteria and its moisture keeping properties.

This class of fibers refers to rayon created from cellulose that is a by-product of logging, in which the source of the fiber is cultivated forests rather than timber from unnatural deforestation. These fibers are biodegradable. (see Lemur and Rayon).

The fiber is made through a process that involves dissolving the cellulose from wood pulp or cotton linters in a solution of copper oxide and ammonia, and then forcing the substance through a spinneret so that it is extruded in filaments that undergo stretch spinning. The result is a lustrous, very fine yarn that can be utilized to create sheer, lightweight fabrics with superior draping qualities, as well as hosiery.

Cupro is a regenerated cellulosic fiber made from a cellulose source such as cotton linters which are by-product of the industrial harvest of cotton (waste fibers too small to spin) using a solution including copper sulfate and aqueous ammonia. Cupro is a lustrous textile, commonly used as a lining fabric.

Ecosensor™ is a synthetic fiber, made from recycled polyester textiles and PET bottles. Ecosensor™ is the first commercial chemical-process polyester recycling fiber using a repolymerization process and is the trademark of Asahi KASEI Fibers Corporation of Japan. The textile is not biodegradable, but can be recycled.

Ecowool is an animal fiber; it is pure merino lamb’s wool. The animals are bred in unpolluted clean alpine pastures, in New Zealand. The wool is softer and lighter than traditional wool and no harmful chemicals are used in production.

Even as apparel companies propel sustainability innovation forward – designing sustainable fibers, launching chemicals management programs, enhancing product trace- ability and supply chain transparency, decreasing product packaging, and promoting textile recycling – the specter of fast fashion and its related environmental and social problems cannot be ignored. While the slow fashion and Made in the USA movements offer glimmers of hope for the industry, tough questions about our modern apparel system remain.

Globalization allows us to not pay very much for clothes,” said Linda Welters, fashion professor at the University of Rhode Island. “If people buy at a deeply reduced priced, they have a throwaway mentality about clothes, and that’s the one major factor that’s a problem.”

Part 2 of No Blue, No Green. Attire Sustainably next week……

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Eco Fashion image courtesy:


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