Do not be fooled by this phrase because, unfortunately, several textiles are not so eco-friendly. Many times, they are made with harmful dyes and toxic chemicals. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned against manufacturers who choose to label their products with "eco-friendly" and "environmentally friendly' because the average consumer believes they are supporting environmental standards and materials that realistically far exceed what the product actually is. Instead, the FTC requests clarification on marketing or packaging, or a deterrence from vague terms like these.
Cotton, for example, may seem more eco-friendly, but a single t-shirt and a pair of jeans can take up to 5,000 gallons of water to be made. However, polyester clothing uses up 70 million barrels of oil every year. 25% of global chemicals produced are for textiles and the fashion industry is the second major water polluter with all of its bleaches, solvents, acids, alkalis, dyes, inks, resins, softeners, and fluorocarbons (just after agriculture).
And typically, going cheap on nicer materials is costly on the environment. Take Mongolian cashmere, for example. Going less expensive not only delivers smaller goat strands which can break and cause pillage, but it is a product of mass goat hair production to cater to Western consumerism that comes from over-grazed barren lands that were once fields of wildlife. This causes extremely dangerous dust storms and desertification, plus an unsustainable economy for the cashmere industry- all a direct result of the Tragedy of the Commons. If cashmere is something you’re after, however, try William Lockie that uses long-strand fibres or look for labels that say “Made in Scotland”.
Another growing trend (thank gods) is fabric made from plants so as to be more compostable, because polyester is a synthetic petroleum-based fibre, and is therefore made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. Furthermore, the production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, and if emitted to water and air untreated, can cause significant environmental damage. Again, however, plant-based may appear as eco-friendly on the surface, but be weary of companies that suggest that they use plant-based materials but don’t list the percentage of the product containing it. Or they use some ingredients that aren’t as beneficial than others. Take Reebok, for example. They’re releasing a “Cotton + Corn” line that is completely compostable, which sounds great! Except both cotton and corn are extremely thirsty crops that require vast amounts of water to grow. Furthermore, corn requires a lot of space to grow; nearly one third of U.S. cropland already. And unfortunately, many of these textile companies use cotton and corn that are not organic. However, compostable is still better than the alternative! The best plant-based fabrics contain a Global Organic Textile (GOTS) stamp of approval, or a tencel product that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to ensure it was responsibly harvested and hasn't disrupted the forest's ecosystem.
Hemp is always a great alternative ingredient that uses far less water than cotton and less pesticides. Stella McCartney, Giorgio Armani, and Calvin Klein all are major hemp advocates that use the plant in some of their clothing lines. And now flax is the new hemp that also uses less water and pesticides when not organic, as well as being a cheaper crop. Flax is stalky and fibrous and so it works perfectly for textiles, albeit very, very new for such a material. Crailar Flax is a Vancouver-based company that is just getting its bearings and Hanes is working to create undergarments made from flax, as well as doing their part in other sustainable ingredients.
Bamboo bedsheets and towels are crazy soft and favored by spas. They are typically advertised as "eco-friendly" but nearly all bamboo textile products are made through a viscose process that spins the material into fiber in a solvent called, carbon disulfide. This chemical can be toxic as an airborne to factory employees, and only 50% can be recovered. Thus, at least half has to be transferred to a wastewater treatment plant if processed properly, but there's always a risk of discharge with on-point pollution. Depending on where the product comes from, the carbon disulfide can result in on-point pollution where the solution is dumped straight into nearby lakes and rivers. Unfortunately, the same results come from modal fabric that is derived from beech wood.
Eucalyptus is woody like bamboo but does not require chemically harmful solvents during the spinning process (though some manufacturers use formaldehyde to prevent pilling and fuzz, so always check or contact them first). Tencel is the material that is derived from eucalyptus and mostly comes from South Africa.
RECYCLED AND UPCYCLED
Another environmental fashion trend is textiles made from post-consumer recycled material like plastic water bottles, recycled fabric from previous clothes, or upcycled from discarded materials like couch stuffing for insulating coats and rubber from old tires used for shoes.
To successfully recycle old cotton t-shirts, or other types of clothing, into brand new, spun ones; the plant cellulose has to be extracted from it by using a solvent. However, most of our clothing is made from polyester blends and so researchers from Aalto University are finding ways to still be able to pull the cellulose from these textiles for recycling. Upcycling is the process of taking one material and giving it new life into another form, which helps to divert from landfills; especially when the material is something that does not biodegrade as easily or contains chemicals and dyes that can lead to soil toxicity. Turning post-consumer recycled materials into textiles is still a new procedure that may have detrimental effects with its carbon footprint in regards to greenhouse gases. However, it is a wonderful way to convert our non-biodegradable waste epidemic into something that can be reused! Plastic bottles, for example, are cleaned, shredded into pellets, crushed and melted, and then spun into polyester. Many companies are starting to jump on this trendy bandwagon to generate more environmentally conscious and sustainable textiles for their eco-friendly customers, such as: Patagonia, Waterlust, Eileen Fisher, Synergy, Insecta, and so many more!
Then there’s the blooming clothes; clothes that can be planted straight into the ground when you’re done and they will biodegrade and grow! Equilicuá was the first to innovate this idea with their Spud Raincoat that is made from potatoes and contains a tree seed inside. Another is OAT shoes that grow flowers when you throw them into your garden.
So remember, if it’s plant-based, look for organic that’s GOTS-certified and eucalyptus (that’s FSC-certified), flax, and hemp or a last resort- organic cotton and corn since it still compostable. Also, look for plant-based dyes and treatments. If it’s upcycled, recycled, or post-consumer recycled; look for the percentage of it in the product and where that material was originally sourced. Sometimes a company will say their textiles are environmental because it’s vegan, like Hugo Boss did when they released their vegan pineapple leaf shoes. This is because the leather industry has a high carbon footprint that contributes to global warming, the same way the meat industry does.