Various cultural differences dictate the kind of clothing that is considered appropriate. The climate also has a say. Not to mention personal preferences. Whatever the case, people all over the world, from all walks of life, of all ages and ethnicities wear clothing. What is the environmental impact of the fabric?
The most eco-friendly fabrics are the ones you hold on to. There is nothing wrong with making or buying something that you intend to keep. A quality garment with a long usable life is better than “fast fashion” that goes from runway to store to landfill.
Fabrics that are repairable are also eco-friendly. Do you have a favorite pair of jeans that you can’t wear because the crotch blew out? Go to DenimRepair.com. That’s not a referral link. They do quality work which also helps the environment. This is a real issue that the United Nations has addressed.
Clothing created from fabric made with less polluting production methods is the least harmful to the environment. The fashion industry serves millions of people who want inexpensive clothing quickly. Fabrics that are naturally and sustainably grown and which undergo little processing are few.
Let's take a look at the first part with an example - Bamboo Linen.
GRADE: 🌏🌏🌏🌏 💵💵💵💵🕰🕰🕰🕰
Harvest the correct type of bamboo. Harvest the bamboo correctly. Perform minimal processing. Get Bamboo linen. Easy?
Bamboo grows quickly and plants harvested one season can be harvested the next. Sustainably managed bamboo can be a boon for local economies. Bamboo land management is very important for sound eco-friendly fabric. Cutting the shoots incorrectly - in the wrong month or too close to the ground - can ruin a tract of bamboo.
Linen made directly from bamboo starts via crushing - manual or mechanized - the woody parts of bamboo into a pulpy "enzyme factory" which naturally breaks down the fibers from the cell walls so they can be spun into yarn.
This process is very eco-friendly but expensive and takes much more time.
GRADE: 🌏 💵 🕰
Cotton requires a long frost-free environment, lots of sunshine, and about 2 to 4 feet of rain over a season. For many reasons, cotton cultivation depletes the land. This includes whether it’s conventionally or organically grown, whether the crops themselves are GMO or non-GMO, if the crops are rotated or synthetic fertilizers are used, and so on.
Like with bamboo linen, the raw cotton has to be processed into fabric. Cotton mills exist all over the world to turn cotton into yarn which then becomes fabric. Those mills run on energy typically derived from carbon.
The conventional/GMO cotton method outlined above is not very eco-friendly. It is cheap because of the scale (though not in terms of long-term environmental damage) and is relatively fast.
GRADE: 🌏 🌏 💵 💵 🕰
Fabric from organic cotton comes from non-GMO plants grown without the use of synthetic agricultural chemicals, such as fertilizers or pesticides. Adherence to these practices has to be certified by an appropriate government agency or approved NGO.
The fact that organic cotton uses natural pesticides and fewer harmful chemicals is an improvement over conventional methods. But, cotton still is thirsty. If you attempt to grow it in an unsuitable location - where there is little rainfall or changing rainfall patterns due to climate change - and it requires irrigation, damage to eco-hydrology can occur.
A stark example is the Aral Sea's disappearance due to the intentional diversion of water to cotton fields.
A newer fabric derived from bamboo is called Bamboo Lyocell. It uses a closed-loop industrial process that chemically transforms the plant fiber into a Rayon-like material that remains bio-degradable. The production process has a minimal impact on the environment and recovers or decomposes all the solvents and emissions produced. It still requires chemicals and energy.
(Hint: Because it’s not made like Rayon). Lyocell is more eco-friendly for two reasons:
1. Bamboo plants require far less water to grow than other sources, and
2. Conventional viscose Rayon is a chemical-laden open-loop process that is harsh on the environment and consumes energy during production and even during dyeing.
Lyocell, though related chemically to Rayon is much better in those regards.
What makes a fabric eco-friendly depends on a variety of factors. How the fabric is used, how it is made, from where it’s derived, how it's transported, etc.
Look at the label. Is it made from cotton or organic cotton? Viscose Bamboo or Lyocell Bamboo? Does it come from a factory? Is it made by an indigenous population using traditional techniques or by an artisan using a hybrid method?
Being informed helps you to make the decision you feel comfortable with and that works with your budget.