Outdoor fabrics

25 03 2012

We love being outdoors. I’ve been told that the most popular outdoor activity in the U.S.A is picnicking.  I would think barbeque must be a close second.  So we love fabrics that we can use outdoors  – you know the ones that resist fading, are stain resistant and can be cleaned with mild soap and water?  They don’t fade or degrade.  Perfect!

Let’s look at America’s most popular outdoor fabric, Sunbrella, which their website claims is recognized as “a fabric with a conscience”, because, as they claim:

  • all Sunbrella fabrics are fully recyclable;
  • they require no dyeing that produces wastewater;
  • and they have received the GREENGUARD and Skin Cancer Foundation certifications.

Before we show why we think these are all claims which exemplify different facets of what Terra Choice calls the “Six Sins of Greenwashing”, let’s first look at the stuff Sunbrella is made of.

Sunbrella is, as their website says, a 100% solution dyed acrylic fabric.   Solution dyeing is simply mixing the dyestuff into the melted polymer.  So unlike dyeing that penetrates a fiber,  this method means that the color is inherent in the fiber, and there is no dye or water waste.  This is a good method of dyeing – but that’s not the issue  – the real issue is what the fabrics are made of.

The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide).   Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly.  It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere – because the burning of acrylic releases fumes of hydrogen cyanide and oxides of nitrogen.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that there is inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of acrylonitrile, but classified it as a Class 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic).   Acrylonitrile increases cancer in high dose tests in male and female rats and mice. (1)    A recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine  found that women who work in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population.(2)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. It is considered a group 7 plastic among recycled plastics and is not collected for recycling in most communities. Large pieces can be reformed into other useful objects if they have not suffered too much stress, crazing, or cracking, but this accounts for only a very small portion of the acrylic plastic waste. In a landfill, acrylic plastics, like many other plastics, are not readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Now that you know what Sunbrella’s made of, let’s look at their claims:

  • All Sunbrella fabrics are fully recyclable – If you check the website, Sunbrella has a proprietary recycling program, which means they will pick up your old Sunbrella.  Why do they do this?  Because the local municipalities do not accept acrylic fabric nor do most plastic recycling companies.  It’s admirable that Sunbrella has put this program into place, but we don’t really know that they actually re-purpose the old fabric rather than simply cart it to the landfill, do we?
  • Sunbrella fabrics require no dyeing that produces wastewater  – because it’s solution dyed, so therefore this is, well if not exactly a red herring, certainly irrelevant to the fact that the fabric is made from acrylic.
  • Sunbrella fabrics have received the GREENGUARD and Skin Cancer Foundation certifications.
    • Sunbrella fabrics have been certified by GreenGuard Children and Schools because the chemicals used in acrylic production are bound in the polymer – in other words, they do not evaporate. So Sunbrella fabrics do not contribute to poor air quality, (you won’t be breathing them in), but there is no guarantee that you won’t absorb them through your skin. And you would be supporting the production of more acrylic, the production of which is not a pretty thing.
    • With regard to the Skin Cancer Foundation – the certification seems to be based on the fact that Sunbrella fabrics block the sun, which prevents skin cancer, rather than anything inherently beneficial in the fabric itself – because the certification is not valid for any Sunbrella fabric which is sheer or transparent.  So another red herring.

Now that you know what Sunbrella is made of, do you really want convenience at such a great cost?


(1) Hagman, L, “How confident can we be that acrylonitrile is not a human carcinogen?”, Scandanavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 2001;27(1):1-4 .

[2] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321


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3 responses

7 10 2013
melanie426

Thank you for covering the important topic of outdoor fabrics! Do you have recommendations for durable, environmentally friendly alternatives? Or would you primarily recommend using any fabric, but being sure to bring it inside after use?

8 10 2013
O Ecotextiles

I think you guessed it: the safest alternative is to find a third party certified fabric (GOTS or Oeko Tex) and bring it inside if it rains.

3 09 2015
April

I love reading your blog because I do find certain articles interesting, but at the same time extremely frustrating because I think you are giving a very 1 sided review to push a certain agenda. There are PLENTY of things in life that are toxic until altered or treated. Take Lima Beans or Kidney Beans for instance. They can make a person extremely sick and have killed if not fully cooked but once cooked are completely safe.

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