How Are Eco-Friendly Fabrics Made?

4 eco-friendly fabrics to look for when buying clothes, plus insider tips for selecting the right products

The textile industry is one of the most ecologically damaging industries in the world. Petroleum-based products release dangerous emissions that wreak havoc on our environment, and bleaching and dying create toxins that pollute our air and waterways. The growing trend of eco-friendly fabrics, however, reduces the carbon footprint of both the textile industry and the consumer.

Organic cotton

Traditional cotton farming requires the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals. The World Health Organization estimates 20,000 deaths annually due to pesticide poisoning in developing countries. Cotton fabrics labeled organic are an eco-friendly option as they are produced without the use of chemicals or pesticides.

Organic cottonseeds are non-genetically engineered and grown with natural fertilizers. Organic certification doesn’t come easily; a field must remain pesticide-free for three years and the cotton harvested by international organic standards in order for cotton to be certified organic. Organic cotton farming has a lower carbon footprint than traditional cotton farming, as organic farming uses less energy and fuel, emits fewer greenhouse gases into the air and reduces water consumption and toxic run-off. Organic farmers forgo the use of pesticides to control harmful insects, and instead use beneficial predator insects and old-fashioned techniques such as trap cropping to lure insects away from the cotton.

Planting several crops together (intercropping) helps control pests, and, if necessary, organic farmers use approved organic pesticides like Bt and neem oil to protect their cotton crops. Covering crops with leguminous matter and implementing crop rotations sustain fertility and keep the soil healthy and nutrient rich. Organic cotton farmers use traditional mechanical devices such as hoes and flame weeders and techniques such as intercropping and crop rotation to manage weeds. Organic cotton is typically hand-harvested and often hand-spun. Organic cotton production is on the rise and, according to the Organic Trade Association, comprises 0.76 percent of global cotton production.

The eco-friendly status of cotton can easily be displaced once the finishing process begins, as certain companies inevitably end up bleaching or dying the fabric, creating a product that is toxic and anything but eco-friendly. Be sure to purchase organic cotton in its natural shades of cream, tan, light brown or pale green, or organic fabric that has been dyed using vegetable or natural based dyes.

Hemp

Hemp is another eco-fabric that is grown without the use of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Hemp is harvested using a traditional harvester machine. The long fibers of the hemp plant are separated from the short and then washed to break down the natural glue that binds the hemp strands together. The hemp is then combed, spun, knitted and weaved, completely pesticide- and chemical-free.

Bamboo

The bamboo plant is an excellent resource for eco-friendly fabric. Bamboo is naturally sustainable, and quick to grow, harvest and replenish. The eco-friendly way to make bamboo fabric is to compress the wooden portions of the bamboo shoots and then soak the crushed bamboo in a mixture of water and enzymes to soften the fibers into a pulp-like consistency. After being dissolved and liquefied, the softened bamboo fibers are combed and spun into yarn.

Not all bamboo fabric is eco-friendly. Some companies choose to chemically process the bamboo. Look for the Oeko-Tek certification to ensure that you are purchasing true eco-fabric.

Soy silk

Soy silk is produced using tofu-manufacturing waste. This 100 percent biodegradable eco-fabric is liquefied, cut, processed and spun much like cotton, hemp and bamboo.

Additional eco-fabrics

Tencel is the trademark name of Lyocell, which is a recyclable and biodegradable fiber made from wood pulp. This eco-fabric is produced using a closed-loop process without the use of detrimental chemicals and toxins.

Lenpur is an eco-friendly fabric fabricated from the pulp of sustainable white fir trees.

Inego Fiber is an eco-friendly fabric formed from the fermentation of plant sugars in corn.

Eco-Fi, or Ecospun, is a polyester fiber made from recycled plastic bottles. Look for these labels when making your next eco-fabric purchase.

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