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The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

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Which Textiles Are Best for Protecting the Planet?

23 Sep 2020 10:46 AM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
Years ago people often made clothes from untreated plants, like this Mexican rain cape made from palm fronds  
Last week I endured a flea invasion in my house and consequently spent a huge amount of time washing and vacuuming. Can I draw any positive lessons from this extremely annoying occurrence? What I learned is that I have way more textiles (AKA flea habitats) in my house than I ever realized. Carpets, curtains, bedding, pillows, upholstery…it’s a lot of textile. And why is this positive? Because it got me thinking about different types of textiles — especially clothing — and their environmental impact. In this post I focus on natural and synthetic fabric, and I’ll give you some tips about how to make an environmentally sound choice the next time you buy a new pair of sweatpants for your pandemic wardrobe.

Textiles: The Stealth Polluter?

Pollution from textiles tends to remain somewhat outside of the environmentalist spotlight compared to other problems. But in fact the production of textiles is very resource intensive and contributes significantly to the degradation of our environment.

But let’s start on the bright side

Most sources agree that the most environmentally sustainable fabrics are organic cotton, linen made from flax, wool, and silk (as well as the lesser known hemp, jute, and ramie). These natural textiles are all biodegradable, typically within a year. The exception is silk, which is the most tough, and doesn’t begin to biodegrade for approximately four years.


And the bad choices?

Conventional (i.e., nonorganic) cotton seems to have earned first place in the textile hall of shame. Pesticides are poisoning workers and wreaking havoc on the planet. Cotton is grown on 2.5% of arable land in the world but uses 6% of pesticides, including one particularly toxic one that is a nerve gas.

Nylon stockings became popular in the 1930s. During World War II silk and nylon stockings were recycled into parachutes.  
Also problematic are the majority of synthetic textiles. The oldest one, nylon, was invented in 1935. Derived from petrochemicals, the production of nylon is three times more energy intensive than cotton. Producing nylon results in the release of nitrous oxide, a very harmful greenhouse gas.

So far so bad, but also, unlike cotton and flax, nylon takes natural dyes poorly, and the chemical dyes that are used contribute to water pollution. And it is of course completely nonbiodegradable. It sheds fibers when it is washed, contributing to the microplastic pollution in our waterways.

OK, but what about recyling nylon? Many people throw out used clothing, but it can obviously be used by someone else, or it can be shredded for insulation, for example. Additionally, some clothing designers are experimenting with recycled nylon textile to create new products.

Bamboo? Greenwash? Say it isn’t so!
Recent developments……semi-synthetics

As a bamboo lover I am eager to believe that fabric made from bamboo would be fabulous. Bamboo is an extremely fast-growing crop requiring no chemical fertilization or pesticides and a fraction of the water used by cotton. Bamboo can be grown and harvested in a short amount of time and does not need replanting (as you know if you’ve ever tried to get rid of it from your yard).

Chemicals are used to turn cellulose from the bamboo into fiber, including sulfur, nitrous oxide, carbon disulfide and hydrogen sulfide, all toxic pollutants. This water intensive processing also results in water discharge that is also highly polluting if untreated. Moreover, nearly all bamboo textile is produced in China, where the energy needed to produce bamboo mostly comes from burning coal.

Textile artist and environmentalist Summer Edwards votes for organic cotton over bamboo in the textile sustainability smackdown. But she recognizes that bamboo may be “a first baby step in the progression towards stronger environmental practices in the fashion industry” and she concludes that it “lies somewhere in the middle on the continuum between unsustainable and sustainable textiles.” In terms of textiles, I am transferring my affection from bamboo to flax, which is sustainable as well as beautiful.

  This advertisement for Tencel highlights the benefit of closed loop production.
Tencel to the rescue?

Tencel is viewed by most designers as one of the most environmentally friendly semi-synthetic textiles. Tencel is a brand name for lyocell, a cellulose fiber made with wood chips that are washed (sometimes with bleach) and then mixed with a solvent made from petrochemicals. The company that holds the patent for Tencel uses a closed loop production process meaning that the solvent is reused and not discarded. The resulting fibers are woven into cloth. Lyocell requires less dye than cotton.

Most sources I consulted were happy about the sustainability of Tencel, with two caveats. The first caveat is that a great deal of tree material is wasted in the production of this fabric. If trees for Tencel production are not grown sustainably, production of this material could have a negative environmental impact. And second, most Tencel is now produced in China, and it is not always possible to ascertain that producers follow the sustainable closed-loop extraction model.

Questions remain…

It can be difficult for consumers to know the full story behind a particular item made of supposedly “sustainable” fabric. But it’s worth making the effort.

Labor abuse in the garment industry is egregious, particularly toward women.  
One suggestion is to check out the website of companies whose products you purchase, and see whether they appear to be engaged in sustainable practices. If you look at Eileen Fisher’s website, for example, you can read extensively about the company’s commitment to social consciousness, a term they use to refer to supporting human rights and environmental sustainability. You can also do a little internet research to see whether company claims are backed up by independent sources. Eileen Fisher is frequently described as a leader among environmentally-oriented clothing companies.

To find other clothing companies with a focus on environmental sustainability and fair labor practices check out the Toxic Textiles Scorecard developed by Green America. They evaluated 14 major American apparel companies. The top-ranked companies on their scorecard are Target, North Face, Nike, Gap, and Anne Taylor.  

  Flax flowers
  The little girl in this Korean story uses a patchwork cloth made by her grandmother from old clothing to carry her lunch and books to school.
What else can you do?
  • Check to be sure the clothing you buy is certified by The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-tex 100 or another international certification body. This ensures the organic status of textiles with respect to harvesting the raw materials and engaging in socially responsible manufacturing.
  • Investigate on-line consignment shops that sell clothes (e.g.,
  • Take a look at this thoughtful essay by a woman who loves clothes but learns to take a sustainable approach to buying them. 
  • Become a fan of flax. Flax flowers are beautiful and the process of making linen from flax is interesting. Read it about it here.
  • Consult Summer Edwards’ Guide to Sustainable Textiles. She describes all the ethical and sustainability considerations in textiles to enable you to make purchase decisions in line with your ethics and commitment to sustainability. Or take a look at this fascinating article about lyocell.
  • Read this article in the Atlantic about the edgy work being done by Modern Meadow, a company that biofabricates leather from a strain of yeast to produce collagen, the protein in skin that gives traditional leather its strength and stretch. 

  • Find out how to reuse and repurpose textiles. For instance, join the folks who wrap gifts in textiles called furoshiki, following the practice common among the Japanese.

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at

Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at Visit to see more birds and other images.

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