Textile Primer: Manufactured Biodegradable Fibres
Textile choice is at the heart of ethical fashion. Organic, recycled, handwoven, biodegradable, manmade. These are all options that have different environmental and social costs to consider when shopping. I've asked my knowledgeable friend Summer of tortoise & lady grey to help us sort them out. In the following primer, she has laid out the benefits and drawbacks of the most common manufactured biodegradable fibres and made recommendations for buying new textiles.
Bamboo fibre, also known as bamboo cotton, is a type of viscose — a manufactured fibre that is produced by chemically processing cellulose from wood. It produces a high-quality soft textile that maintains the structure of its surface quite well, and is commonly used in underwear, t-shirts, leggings, dresses, and babywear. Whilst this textile has many environmental benefits, it also has some drawbacks that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Bamboo is a fast-growing highly-renewable crop which requires no irrigation and is not water intensive. It does not require fertilisers or pesticides, and can be grown on marginal and degraded land to improve the quality of the soil. It is considered a carbon neutral crop. The fabric produced is affordable and is a long-lasting high-quality fibre.
Processing raw bamboo into fibre is chemically intensive, and this process does not operate on a closed loop system, meaning some of the chemical pollutants are released as waste. The majority of the world’s supply of bamboo comes from China where environmental and worker protections are far from ideal.
There are more environmentally sustainable textile options available which are worth trying to buy first. However, bamboo is affordable and good quality so the options for bamboo clothing are abundant. If your choice is between another conventional textile (polyester, non organic cotton, etc.), then bamboo is a lower impact choice. If buying bamboo clothing, try to go for reputable small-scale brands that ethically produce their clothing.
For more comprehensive coverage of these issue, please see my textile review on the environmental impacts of bamboo.
Viscose, also known as rayon, is a soft manmade fibre derived from cellulose that is commonly used for dresses, shirts, and as linings. It's strong, doesn’t wrinkle easily, maintains the quality of it’s surface well, and is often used as a "natural" alternative to petrochemical based fibres. However, the production of this fibre involves significant environmental impact.
Soft but strong, maintains a good quality, and doesn’t wrinkle easily. The fibre source is natural and renewable cellulose from softwoods such as beech. The raw material crop is considered carbon neutral and does not require pesticides or chemical fertilisers. The fibre is biodegradable and is more environmentally friendly than fibres derived from petrochemicals and is considered slightly less impactful than conventional cotton.
Producing viscose from cellulose is both water and energy intensive. The cellulose is bleached and chemically treated to manufacture the fibre. The production is not on a closed loop system, and in most countries of manufacture the waste water is not treated before being released into waterways. Waste water contains harmful chemicals, heavy metals and oil and is devoid of oxygen (thus cannot support microorganisms).
Viscose is not a sustainable fibre but despite this it is often used by labels trying to claim some eco credentials. It is best avoided when purchasing new garments because, despite being derived from a natural raw material, it is still a highly impactful fibre. Lyocell/Tencel is a similar fibre that is considered sustainable, so look for this as an alternative to viscose.
Lyocell is a soft manufactured fibre that is similar to viscose, but requires less chemical processing. It has similar use in clothing as viscose, commonly used for dresses, shirts and as lining. It holds its shape and surface quality well. Tencel is a trademarked version of Lyocell which uses certified sustainably managed wood stock and is GMO free.
Lyocell/Tencel is biodegradable, soft and strong, maintains good quality, and doesn’t wrinkle easily. It's made from renewable softwood crops, and the raw material is considered carbon neutral. Chemical processing of the fibre operates on a closed loop system, meaning that 99.5% of chemicals are captured and reused in continuous processing. The small amount of effluent that is discharged is considered nonhazardous. The manufacturing process is reasonably low in water and energy intensity. It does not require bleaching and can be coloured using low impact dying processes.
Depending upon the origin of the fibre, it's possible that it has been made with wood from irresponsibly managed forests (and therefore may be contributing to deforestation) or may be derived from GM crops.
Lyocell is considered a low impact fibre and can be considered sustainable if it's been derived from sustainably managed forests. To be certain that you are choosing a sustainable garment, opt for garments made from Tencel, or ask about where the material was produced before deciding whether to purchase.
Modal is another soft manmade fibre which is manufactured from cellulose using chemical processing. It is commonly used as an alternative to cotton jersey (t-shirt fabric), and is used for t-shirts, soft dresses, and cardigans.
Modal is biodegradable, soft and strong, and drapes well. It is made from renewable softwood crops, and the raw material is considered carbon neutral if from a responsibly managed source. The chemical processing of the cellulose into fibre operates on a closed loop system. Modal can be dyed using low impact dying processes.
Modal that has been produced in Indonesia is known to be manufactured with wood that has been taken from clearfelled rainforest. Indonesian modal is therefore a significant contributor to climate change through the deforestation of vital rainforests. Modal garments manufactured in China are often made with Indonesian modal.
It is essential that you find out the origin of your modal before buying. If manufactured outside of Europe and North America ,it is likely that the modal was not sustainably produced; but if derived from a sustainably managed forest, it can be considered a sustainable choice.
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