Fabric and your carbon footprint

3 10 2013

In considering fabric for your sofa, let’s be altruistic and look at the impact textile production has on global climate change.  (I only use the term altruistic  because many of us don’t equate climate change with our own lives, though there have been several interesting studies of just how the changes will impact us directly, like the one in USA Today that explains that wet regions will be wetter, causing flash flooding;  dry regions will get drier, resulting in drought. And  …  a heat wave that used to occur once every 100 years now happens every five years (1)).

Bill Schorr

Bill Schorr


Although most of the current focus on lightening our carbon footprint revolves around transportation and heating issues, the modest little fabric all around you turns out to be from an industry with a gigantic carbon footprint. The textile industry, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States, after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals.[2]  And the US textile industry is small potatoes when compared with some other countries I could mention.  Last week we explained that a typical “quality” sofa  uses about 20 yards of decorative fabric, plus 20 yds of lining fabric, 15 yds of burlap and 10 yds of muslin, for a total of 65 yards of fabric – in one sofa.

The textile industry is huge, and it is a huge producer of greenhouse gasses.  Today’s textile industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses (GHG’s) on Earth, due to its huge size.[3] In 2008,  annual global textile production was estimated at  60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric.  The estimated energy and water needed to produce that amount of fabric boggles the mind:

  • 1,074 billion kWh of  electricity  or 132 million metric tons of coal and
  • between 6 – 9  trillion liters of water[4]

Fabrics are the elephant in the room.  They’re all around us  but no one is thinking about them.  We simply overlook fabrics, maybe because they are almost always used as a component in a final product that seems rather innocuous:  sheets, blankets, sofas, curtains, and of course clothing.  Textiles, including clothing,  accounted for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total CO2 emissions produced by each person in the U.S. in 2006. [5] By contrast, a person in Haiti produced a total of only 0.21 tons of total carbon emissions in 2006.[6]

Your textile choices do make a difference, so it’s vitally important to look beyond thread counts, color and abrasion results.

How do you evaluate the carbon footprint in any fabric?  Look at the “embodied energy’ in the fabric – that is, all of the energy used at each step of the process needed to create that fabric.   Not an easy thing to do!  To estimate the embodied energy in any fabric it’s necessary to add the energy required in two separate fabric production steps:

(1)  Find out what the fabric is made from, because the type of fiber tells you a lot about the energy needed to make the fibers used in the yarn.  The carbon footprint of various fibers varies a lot, so start with the energy required to produce the fiber.

(2) Next, add the energy used to weave those yarns into fabric.  Once any material becomes a “yarn” or “filament”, the amount of energy and conversion process to weave that yarn into a textile is pretty consistent, whether the yarn is wool, cotton,  or synthetic.[7]

Let’s look at #1 first: the energy needed to make the fibers and create the yarn. For ease of comparison we’ll divide the fiber types into “natural” (from plants, animals and less commonly, minerals) and “synthetic” (man made).

For natural fibers you must look at field preparation, planting and field operations (mechanized irrigation, weed control, pest control and fertilizers (manure vs. synthetic chemicals)), harvesting and yields.  Synthetic fertilizer use is a major component of the high cost of conventional agriculture:  making just one ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits nearly 7 tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

For synthetics, a crucial fact is that the fibers are made from fossil fuels.   Very high amounts of energy are used in extracting the oil from the ground as well as in the production of the polymers.

A study done by the Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group  concludes that the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fiber is much higher for synthetics than for hemp or cotton:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun   fiber:
crop cultivation fiber production TOTAL
polyester USA 0.00 9.52 9.52
cotton, conventional, USA 4.20 1.70 5.90
hemp, conventional 1.90 2.15 4.05
cotton, organic, India 2.00 1.80 3.80
cotton, organic, USA 0.90 1.45 2.35

The table above only gives results for polyester; other synthetics have more of an impact:  acrylic is 30% more energy intensive in its production than polyester [8] and nylon is even higher than that.

Not only is the quantity of GHG emissions of concern regarding synthetics, so too are the kinds of gasses produced during production of synthetic fibers.  Nylon, for example, creates emissions of N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2 [9] and which, because of its long life (120 years) can reach the upper atmosphere and deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone, which is an important filter of UV radiation.  In fact, during the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.[10] A study done for the New Zealand Merino Wool Association shows how much less total energy is required for the production of natural fibers than synthetics:

Embodied   Energy used in production of various fibers:
energy use in   MJ per KG of fiber:
flax fibre   (MAT) 10
cotton 55
wool 63
Viscose 100
Polypropylene 115
Polyester 125
acrylic 175
Nylon 250

SOURCE:  “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,      http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm

Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have many additional  benefits:

  1. being able to be degraded by micro-organisms and composted (improving soil structure); in  this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed.   Synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release  heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater.       Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces  pollutants – in the case of high density polyethylene, 3 tons of CO2 emissions are produced for ever 1 ton of material burnt.[11] Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640,000 tons of abandoned  fishing nets in the world’s oceans.
  2. sequestering  carbon.  Sequestering carbon is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.) and soils.       Jute, for example, absorbs 2.4 tons of carbon per ton of dry fiber.[12]

Substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers is not just a little better – but lots better in all respects:

  • uses less energy for production,
  • emits fewer greenhouse gases
  • and supports organic farming (which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits).

A study published by Innovations Agronomiques (2009) found that 43% less GHG are emitted per unit area under organic agriculture than under conventional agriculture.[13] A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers. Further it was found in controlled long term trials that organic farming adds between 100-400kg of carbon per hectare to the soil each year, compared to non-organic farming.  When this stored carbon is included in the carbon footprint, it reduces the total GHG even further.[14] The key lies in the handling of organic matter (OM): because soil organic matter is primarily carbon, increases in soil OM levels will be directly correlated with carbon sequestration. While conventional farming typically depletes soil OM, organic farming builds it through the use of composted animal manures and cover crops.

Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisims      (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
  • conserves water  (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening      irrigation requirements and erosion)
  • ensures sustained  biodiversity
  • and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric      carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  provides convincing evidence that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.

At the fiber level it is clear that synthetics have a much bigger footprint than does any natural fiber, including wool or conventionally produced cotton.   So in terms of the carbon footprint at the fiber level, any natural fiber beats any synthetic – at this point in time.   Best of all is an organic natural fiber.

And next let’s look at #2, the energy needed to weave those yarns into fabric.

There is no dramatic difference in the amount of energy needed to weave fibers into fabric depending on fiber type.[15] The processing is generally the same whether the fiber is nylon, cotton, hemp, wool or polyester:   thermal energy required per meter of cloth is 4,500-5,500 Kcal and electrical energy required per meter of cloth is 0.45-0.55 kwh. [16] This translates into huge quantities of fossil fuels  –  both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production.  In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.

(1)    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/02/28/climate-change-remaking-america/1917169/

(2)    Source: Energy Information Administration, Form EIA:848, “2002 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey,” Form EIA-810, “Monthly Refinery Report” (for 2002) and Documentatioin for Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2003 (May 2005). http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb1204.html

(3)    Dev, Vivek, “Carbon Footprint of Textiles”, April 3, 2009, http://www.domain-b.com/environment/20090403_carbon_footprint.html

(4)    Rupp, Jurg, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”,  Textile World,  Nov/Dec 2008

(5)    Rose, Coral, “CO2 Comes Out of the Closet”,  GreenBiz.com, September 24, 2007

(6)     U.S. Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Annual 2006”, posted Dec 8, 2008.

(7)    Many discussions of energy used to produce fabrics or final products made from fabrics (such as clothing) take the “use” phase of the article into consideration when evaluating the carbon footprint.  The argument goes that laundering the blouse (or whatever) adds considerably to the final energy tally for natural fibers, while synthetics don’t need as much water to wash nor as many launderings.  We do not take this component into consideration because

  1. it applies only to clothing; even sheets aren’t washed as often as clothing while upholstery is seldom cleaned.
  2. is biodegradeable detergent used?
  3. Is the washing machine used a new low water machine?  Is the water treated by a municipal facility?
  4. Synthetics begin to smell if not treated with antimicrobials, raising the energy score.

Indeed, it’s important to evaluate the sponsors of any published studies, because the studies done which evaluate the energy used to manufacture fabrics are often sponsored by organizations which might have an interest in the outcome.  Additionally, the data varies quite a bit so we have adopted the values which seem to be agreed upon by most studies.

(8)     Ibid.

(9)    “Tesco carbon footprint study confirms organic farming is energy efficient, but excludes key climate benefit of organic farming, soil carbon”, Prism Webcast News, April 30, 2008, http://prismwebcastnews.com/2008/04/30/tesco-carbon-footprint-study-confirms-organic-farming%E2%80%99s-energy-efficiency-but-excludes-key-climate-benefit-of-organic-farming-%E2%80%93-soil-carbon/

(10)  Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles,  Earthscan, 2008,  Page 13

(11) “Why Natural Fibers”, FAO, 2009: http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/iynf/sustainable.html

(12)  Ibid.

(13) Aubert, C. et al.,  (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

(14) International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO and Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL);    Organic Farming and Climate Change; Geneva: ITC, 2007.

(15) 24th session of the FAO Committee on Commodity Problems IGG on Hard Fibers of the United Nations

(16)  “Improving profits with energy-efficiency enhancements”, December 2008,  Journal for Asia on Textile and Apparel,  http://textile.2456.com/eng/epub/n_details.asp?epubiid=4&id=3296

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How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: natural fibers

10 10 2012

Since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibers has increased dramatically,  causing the natural fiber industry to lose much of its market share. In December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres (IYNF); a year-long initiative focused on raising global awareness about natural fibers with specific focus on increasing market demand to help ensure the long-term sustainability for farmers who rely heavily on their production.

                       International Forum for Cotton Promotion

Natural fibers  have a history of being considered the fibers that are easiest to live with, valued for their comfort, soft hand and versatility.  They also carry a certain cachet:  cashmere, silk taffeta and 100% pure Sea Island cotton convey different images than does 100% rayon,  pure polyester or even Ultrasuede, don’t they?  And natural fibers, being a bit of an artisan product, are highly prized especially in light of campaigns by various trade associations to brand fiber:    “the fabric of our lives” from Cotton, Inc. and merino wool with the pure wool label are two examples.                                                              

Preferences for natural fibers seem to be correlated with income; in one study, people with higher incomes preferred natural fibers by a greater percentage than did those in lower income brackets.   Cotton Incorporated funded a study that demonstrated that  66% of all women with household incomes over $75,000 prefer natural fibers to synthetic.

What are the reasons, according to the United Nations, that make natural fibers so important?  The UN website, Discover Natural Fibers lists the following reasons why natural fibers are a good choice.  Please remember that this list does not include organic natural fibers, which provide even more benefits (but that’s another post):

  1. Natural fibers are a healthy choice.
    1. Natural fiber textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibers cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way. That is why a cotton T-shirt is so comfortable to wear on a hot summer’s day, and why polyester and acrylic garments feel hot and clammy under the same conditions. (It also explains why sweat-suits used for weight reduction are made from 100% synthetic material.) The bends, or crimp, in wool fibers trap pockets of air which act as insulators against both cold and heat – Bedouins wear thin wool to keep them cool. Since wool can absorb liquids up to 35% of its own weight, woollen blankets efficiently absorb and disperse the cup of water lost through perspiration during sleep, leaving sheets dry and guaranteeing a much sounder slumber than synthetic blankets.
    2. The “breathability” of natural fiber textiles makes their wearers less prone to skin rashes, itching and allergies often caused by synthetics. Garments, sheets and pillowcases of organic cotton or silk are the best choice for children with sensitive skins or allergies, while hemp fabric has both a high rate of moisture dispersion and natural anti-bacterial properties.   Studies by Poland’s Institute of Natural Fibers have shown that 100% knitted linen is the most hygienic textile for bed sheets – in clinical tests, bedridden aged or ill patients did not develop bedsores. The institute is developing underwear knitted from flax which, it says, is significantly more hygienic than nylon and polyester. Chinese scientists also recommend hemp fiber for household textiles, saying it has a high capacity for absorption of toxic gases.
  2. Natural fibers are a responsible choice.
    1. Natural fibers production, processing and export are vital to the economies of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and low-wage workers. Today, many of those economies and livelihoods are under threat: the global financial crisis has reduced demand for natural fibers as processors, manufacturers and consumers suspend purchasing decisions or look to cheaper synthetic alternatives.
    2. Almost all natural fibers are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world.
      1. For example, more than 60% of the world’s cotton is grown in China, India and Pakistan. In Asia, cotton is cultivated mainly by small farmers and the sale of cotton provides the primary source of income for some 100 million rural households.
      2. In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million marginal farmers earn their living – and support 20 million dependents – from the cultivation of jute, used in sacks, carpets, rugs and curtains. Competition from synthetic fibers has eroded demand for jute over recent decades and, in the wake of recession, reduced orders from Europe and the Middle East could cut jute exports even further.
      3. Silk is another important industry in Asia. Raising silkworms generates income for some 700 000 farm households in India, while silk processing provide jobs for 20 000 weaving families in Thailand and about 1 million textile workers in China.
      4. Each year, developing countries produce around 500 000 tonnes of coconut fiber – or coir – mainly for export to developed countries for use in rope, nets, brushes, doormats, mattresses and insulation panels. In Sri Lanka, the single largest supplier of brown coir fiber to the world market, coir goods account for 6% of agricultural exports, while 500 000 people are employed in small-scale coir factories in southern India.
      5. Across the globe in Tanzania, government and private industry have been working to revive once-booming demand for sisal fiber, extracted from the sisal agave and used in twine, paper, bricks and reinforced plastic panels in automobiles. Sisal cultivation and processing in Tanzania directly employs 120 000 people and the sisal industry benefits an estimated 2.1 million people.
  3. Natural fibers are a sustainable choice.
    1. Natural fibers will play a key role in the emerging “green” economy based on energy efficiency, the use of renewable feed stocks in bio-based polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials that minimize waste.  Natural fibers are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable.
    2. An FAO study estimated that production of one ton of jute fiber requires just 10% of the energy used for the production of one ton of synthetic fibers (since jute is cultivated mainly by small-scale farmers in traditional farming systems, the main energy input is human labor, not fossil fuels).
    3. Processing of some natural fibers can lead to high levels of water pollutants, but they consist mostly of biodegradable compounds, in contrast to the persistent chemicals, including heavy metals, released in the effluent from synthetic fiber processing. More recent studies have shown that producing one ton of polypropylene – widely used in packaging, containers and cordage – emits into the atmosphere more than 3 ton of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. In contrast, jute absorbs as much as 2.4 tonnes of carbon per tonne of dry fiber.
    4. The environmental benefits of natural fiber products accrue well beyond the production phase. For example, fibers such as hemp, flax and sisal are being used increasingly as reinforcing in place of glass fibers in thermoplastic panels in automobiles. Since the fibers are lighter in weight, they reduce fuel consumption and with it carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.
    5. But where natural fibers really excel is in the disposal stage of their life cycle. Since they absorb water, natural fibers decay through the action of fungi and bacteria – this releases the fixed CO2 in the fibers and closes the cycle; it also improves soil structure.  Synthetics present society with a range of disposal problems. In land fills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants and, in the case of high-density polyethylene, 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of material burnt. Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640 000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets and gear in the world’s oceans.
  4. Natural fibers are a high-tech choice.
    1. Natural fibers have intrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight and low cost – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry.
      1. In Europe, car makers are using mats made from abaca, flax and hemp in press-molded      thermoplastic panels for door liners, parcel shelves, seat backs, engine shields and headrests.
        1. For consumers, natural fiber composites in automobiles provide better thermal and acoustic insulation than fiberglass, and reduce irritation of the skin and respiratory system. The low density of plant fibers also reduces vehicle weight, which cuts fuel consumption.
        2. For car manufacturers, the moulding process consumes less energy than that of fibreglass and produces less wear and tear on machinery, cutting production costs by up to 30%. The use of natural fibres by Europe’s car industry is projected to reach 100 000 tonnes by 2010. German companies lead the way. Daimler-Chrysler has developed a flax-reinforced polyester composite, and in 2005 produced an award-winning spare wheel well cover that incorporated abaca yarn from the Philippines. Vehicles in some BMW series contain up to 24 kg of flax and sisal. Released in July 2008, the Lotus Eco Elise (pictured above) features body panels made with hemp, along with sisal carpets and seats upholstered with hemp fabric. Japan’s carmakers, too, are “going green”. In Indonesia, Toyota manufactures door trims made from kenaf and polypropylene, and Mazda is using a bioplastic made with kenaf for car interiors.
    1. Worldwide, the construction industry is moving to natural fibres for a range of products, including light structural walls, insulation materials, floor and wall coverings, and roofing. Among recent innovations are cement blocks reinforced with sisal fibre, now being manufactured in Tanzania and Brazil. In India, a growing shortage of timber for the construction industry has spurred development of composite board made from jute veneer and coir ply – studies show that coir’s high lignin content makes it both stronger and more resistant to rotting than teak. In Europe, hemp hurd and fibres are being used in cement and to make particle boards half the weight of wood-based boards. Geotextiles are another promising new outlet for natural fibre producers. Originally developed in the Netherlands for the construction of dykes, geotextile nets made from hard natural fibres strengthen earthworks and encourage the growth of plants and trees, which provide further reinforcement. Unlike plastic textiles used for the same purpose, natural fibre nets – particularly those made from coir – decay over time as the earthworks stabilize.
  1. Natural fibers are a fashionable choice.
    John Patrick Organic Fall/Winter 2010
    1. Natural fibers are at the heart of a fashion movement that goes by various names: sustainable, green, uncycled, ethical, eco-, even eco-environmental. It focuses fashion on concern for the environment, the well-being of fiber producers and consumers, and the conditions of workers in the textile industry. Young designers now offer “100% carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle – from production, processing and packaging to transportation, retailing and ultimate disposal. Preferred raw materials include age-old fibres such as flax and hemp, which can be grown without agrochemicals and produce garments that are durable, recyclable and biodegradable. Fashion collections also feature organic wool, produced by sheep that have not been exposed to pesticide dips, and “cruelty-free” wild silk, which is harvested – unlike most silk – after the moths have left their cocoons.
    2. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)   sets strict standards on chemicals permitted in processing, on waste water treatment, packaging material and technical quality parameters, on factory working conditions and on residue testing.
    3. Sustainable fashion intersects with the “fair trade” movement, which offers producers in developing countries higher prices for their natural fibres and promotes social and environmental standards in fibre processing. Fair trade fashion pioneers are working with organic cotton producers’ cooperatives in Mali, hand-weavers groups in Bangladesh and Nepal, and alpaca producers in Peru. A major UK chain store launched in 2007 a fair trade range of clothing that uses cotton “ethically sourced” from farmers in the Gujarat region of India. It has since sold almost 5 million garments and doubled sales in the first six months of 2008.
    4. Another dimension of sustainable fashion is concern for the working conditions of employees in textile and garment factories, which are often associated with long working hours, exposure to hazardous chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing, and the scourge of child labor. The  Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), widely accepted by manufacturers, retailers and brand dealers, includes a series of “minimum social criteria” for textile processing, including a prohibition on the use of child labor, workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, and “living wages”.




The case for natural fibers

26 06 2012

I’m going to be taking a few weeks off,  and thought I’d recycle some of our old posts.  So if you think you’ve seen these before – you have.   But the issues remain important and it doesn’t hurt to remind you.    I’ve updated the topics a bit if necessary.

Since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibers has increased dramatically,  causing the natural fiber industry to lose much of its market share.  Polyester – especially recycled polyester – became the fabric of choice in the United States.   It was cheap, and oil was plentiful.  But with with dawning realization that the party might be over, polyester prices – and those of other synthetics – will reflect climbing oil prices, so the price of synthetics may equal those of natural fibers.

International Forum for Cotton Promotion

Natural fibers  have a history of being considered the highest quality fibers, valued for their comfort, soft hand and versatility.  They also carry a certain cachet:  cashmere, silk taffeta and 100% pure Sea Island cotton convey different images than does 100% rayon,  pure polyester or even Ultrasuede, don’t they?  And natural fibers, being a bit of an artisan product, are highly prized especially in light of campaigns by various trade associations to brand its fiber:   “the fabric of our lives” from Cotton, Inc. and merino wool with the pure wool label are two examples. 

Preferences for natural fibers seem to be correlated with income; in one study, people with higher incomes preferred natural fibers by a greater percentage than did those in lower income brackets.   Cotton Incorporated funded a study that demonstrated that  66% of all women with household incomes over $75,000 prefer natural fibers to synthetic.

What are the reasons, according to the United Nations, that make natural fibers so important?  As  the UN website, Discover Natural Fibers says:

  1. Natural fibers are a healthy choice.
    1. Natural fiber textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibers cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way. That is why a cotton T-shirt is so comfortable to wear on a hot summer’s day, and why polyester and acrylic garments feel hot and clammy under the same conditions. (It also explains why sweat-suits used for weight reduction are made from 100% synthetic material.) The bends, or crimp, in wool fibers trap pockets of air which act as insulators against both cold and heat – Bedouins wear thin wool to keep them cool. Since wool can absorb liquids up to 35% of its own weight, woollen blankets efficiently absorb and disperse the cup of water lost through perspiration during sleep, leaving sheets dry and guaranteeing a much sounder slumber than synthetic blankets.
    2. The “breathability” of natural fiber textiles makes their wearers less prone to skin rashes, itching and allergies often caused by synthetics. Garments, sheets and pillowcases of organic cotton or silk are the best choice for children with sensitive skins or allergies, while hemp fabric has both a high rate of moisture dispersion and natural anti-bacterial properties.   Studies by Poland’s Institute of Natural Fibers have shown that 100% knitted linen is the most hygienic textile for bed sheets – in clinical tests, bedridden aged or ill patients did not develop bedsores. The institute is developing underwear knitted from flax which, it says, is significantly more hygienic than nylon and polyester. Chinese scientists also recommend hemp fiber for household textiles, saying it has a high capacity for absorption of toxic gases.
  2. Natural fibers are a responsible choice.
    1. Natural fibers production, processing and export are vital to the economies of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and low-wage workers. Today, many of those economies and livelihoods are under threat: the global financial crisis has reduced demand for natural fibers as processors, manufacturers and consumers suspend purchasing decisions or look to cheaper synthetic alternatives.
    2. Almost all natural fibers are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world.
      1. For example, more than 60% of the world’s cotton is grown in China, India and Pakistan. In Asia, cotton is cultivated mainly by small farmers and its sale provides the primary source of income of some 100 million rural households.
      2. In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million marginal farmers earn their living – and support 20 million dependents – from the cultivation of jute, used in sacks, carpets, rugs and curtains. Competition from synthetic fibers has eroded demand for jute over recent decades and, in the wake of recession, reduced orders from Europe and the Middle East could cut jute exports by 20% in 2009.
      3. Silk is another important industry in Asia. Raising silkworms generates income for some 700 000 farm households in India, while silk processing provide jobs for 20 000 weaving families in Thailand and about 1 million textile workers in China. Orders of Indian silk goods from Europe and the USA are reported to have declined by almost 50% in 2008-09.
      4. Each year, developing countries produce around 500 000 tonnes of coconut fiber – or coir – mainly for export to developed countries for use in rope, nets, brushes, doormats, mattresses and insulation panels. In Sri Lanka, the single largest supplier of brown coir fiber to the world market, coir goods account for 6% of agricultural exports, while 500 000 people are employed in small-scale coir factories in southern India.
      5. Across the globe in Tanzania, government and private industry have been working to revive once-booming demand for sisal fiber, extracted from the sisal agave and used in twine, paper, bricks and reinforced plastic panels in automobiles. Sisal cultivation and processing in Tanzania directly employs 120 000 people and the sisal industry benefits an estimated 2.1 million people. However, the global slowdown has cut demand for sisal, forced a 30% cut in prices, and led to mounting job losses.
  3. Natural fibers are a sustainable choice.
    1. Natural fibers will play a key role in the emerging “green” economy based on energy efficiency, the use of renewable feed stocks in bio-based polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials that minimize waste.  Natural fibers are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. They are also carbon neutral: they absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide they produce. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable.
    2. An FAO study estimated that production of one ton of jute fiber requires just 10% of the energy used for the production of one ton of synthetic fibers (since jute is cultivated mainly by small-scale farmers in traditional farming systems, the main energy input is human labor, not fossil fuels).
    3. Processing of some natural fibers can lead to high levels of water pollutants, but if the processing is done to Global Organic Textile Standards, it consists mostly of biodegradable compounds, in contrast to the persistent chemicals, including heavy metals, released in the effluent from synthetic fiber processing.
    4. The environmental benefits of natural fiber products accrue well beyond the production phase. For example, fibers such as hemp, flax and sisal are being used increasingly as reinforcing in place of glass fibers in thermoplastic panels in automobiles. Since the fibers are lighter in weight, they reduce fuel consumption and with it carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.
    5. But where natural fibers really excel is in the disposal stage of their life cycle. Since they absorb water, natural fibers decay through the action of fungi and bacteria. Natural fiber products (processed organically)  can be composted to improve soil structure, or incinerated with no emission of pollutants and release of no more carbon than the fibers absorbed during their lifetimes. Synthetics present society with a range of disposal problems. In land fills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants and, in the case of high-density polyethylene, 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of material burnt. Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640 000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets and gear in the world’s oceans.
  4. Natural fibers are a high-tech choice.
    1. Natural fibers have intrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight  – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry.
      1. In Europe, car makers are using mats made from abaca, flax and hemp in press-molded      thermoplastic panels for door liners, parcel shelves, seat backs, engine shields and headrests.
        1. For consumers, natural fiber composites in automobiles provide better thermal and acoustic insulation than fiberglass, and reduce irritation of the skin and respiratory system. The low density of plant fibers also reduces vehicle weight, which cuts fuel consumption.
        2. For car manufacturers, the moulding process consumes less energy than that of fibreglass and produces less wear and tear on machinery, cutting production costs by up to 30%.  German companies lead the way. Daimler-Chrysler has developed a flax-reinforced polyester composite, and in 2005 produced an award-winning spare wheel well cover that incorporated abaca yarn from the Philippines. Vehicles in some BMW series contain up to 24 kg of flax and sisal. Released in July 2008, the Lotus Eco Elise (pictured above) features body panels made with hemp, along with sisal carpets and seats upholstered with hemp fabric. Japan’s carmakers, too, are “going green”. In Indonesia, Toyota manufactures door trims made from kenaf and polypropylene, and Mazda is using a bioplastic made with kenaf for car interiors.
    1. Worldwide, the construction industry is moving to natural fibres for a range of products, including light structural walls, insulation materials, floor and wall coverings, and roofing. Among recent innovations are cement blocks reinforced with sisal fibre, now being manufactured in Tanzania and Brazil. In India, a growing shortage of timber for the construction industry has spurred development of composite board made from jute veneer and coir ply – studies show that coir’s high lignin content makes it both stronger and more resistant to rotting than teak. In Europe, hemp hurd and fibres are being used in cement and to make particle boards half the weight of wood-based boards. Geotextiles are another promising new outlet for natural fibre producers. Originally developed in the Netherlands for the construction of dykes, geotextile nets made from hard natural fibres strengthen earthworks and encourage the growth of plants and trees, which provide further reinforcement. Unlike plastic textiles used for the same purpose, natural fibre nets – particularly those made from coir – decay over time as the earthworks stabilize.
  1. Natural fibers are a fashionable choice.
    John Patrick Organic Fall/Winter 2010
    1. Natural fibers are at the heart of a fashion movement that goes by various names: sustainable, green, uncycled, ethical, eco-, even eco-environmental. It focuses fashion on concern for the environment, the well-being of fiber producers and consumers, and the conditions of workers in the textile industry. Young designers now offer “100% carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle – from production, processing and packaging to transportation, retailing and ultimate disposal. Preferred raw materials include age-old fibres such as flax and hemp, which can be grown without agrochemicals and produce garments that are durable, recyclable and biodegradable. Fashion collections also feature organic wool, produced by sheep that have not been exposed to pesticide dips, and “cruelty-free” wild silk, which is harvested – unlike most silk – after the moths have left their cocoons.
    2. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)   sets strict standards on chemicals permitted in processing, on waste water treatment, packaging material and technical quality parameters, on factory working conditions and on residue testing.
    3. Sustainable fashion intersects with the “fair trade” movement, which offers producers in developing countries higher prices for their natural fibres and promotes social and environmental standards in fibre processing. Fair trade fashion pioneers are working with organic cotton producers’ cooperatives in Mali, hand-weavers groups in Bangladesh and Nepal, and alpaca producers in Peru. A major UK chain store launched in 2007 a fair trade range of clothing that uses cotton “ethically sourced” from farmers in the Gujarat region of India. It has since sold almost 5 million garments and doubled sales in the first six months of 2008.
    4. Another dimension of sustainable fashion is concern for the working conditions of employees in textile and garment factories, which are often associated with long working hours, exposure to hazardous chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing, and the scourge of child labor. The recently approved (November 2008) Global Organic Textile Standard, widely accepted by manufacturers, retailers and brand dealers, includes a series of “minimum social criteria” for textile processing, including a prohibition on the use of child labor, workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, and “living wages”.




Can it be an organic fabric if it uses synthetic dyestuffs?

3 11 2011

At the  International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM ) Congress   in February, 2011, Ann Shankar from Biodye India, a company that produces natural dyes based on wild plants,  made a provocative suggestion –  that the term “organic textile” is not an accurate description of any textile where synthetic dyes and auxiliaries are used.  The Global Organic Textile Standard   allows the use of synthetic dyestuffs ( which are made from unsustainable sources and are not biodegradable).  She suggests that a separate category for such textiles be called “organic fibers with responsible synthetic dyes”.  According to Ann, even if it takes another couple of years for anyone to be able to claim a fully organic supply chain that would warrant the name ‘organic textile’ it should exist as a goal. Until then, natural dyes and auxiliaries (definitions by GOTS) should be given a separate standard such as ‘Organic fibers with natural dyes’ – a term separate but equal with the label for synthetic dyes.

She said that her company has recently overcome the technical difficulties often associated with using natural dyestuffs, especially at an industrial level.   Biodye is not the only company which produces dyestuffs from organic material which can be used for manufacturing; Rubia Natural Colors also has developed dyes in the red range from madder.

One of the major problems with synthetic dyestuffs is the pollution problems they present coupled with our “end of pipe” solutions.  Pointing out the impracticality of this end of pipe scenario, she points to two examples:

  1. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in India categorizes process waste sludge from synthetic dye production as hazardous, yet has no norms for proper disposal.  The result is that solid waste is stacked in any available space,  on riverbanks and roadsides, where it leaches back into the water or soil.

    National Geographic

  2. Water is a critical concern, since the dye process uses so much water.  In 2006, over 6.9 million acres of agricultural land in 68 villages in India was destroyed (meaning no crops could grow on the land)  by water from the Noyyal River, which had long been the recipient of untreated textile mill effluent.  The water pollution was so bad that the Madras High Court ordered the dyeing and bleaching facilities which used the river to pay fines to both the government as well as to local farmers, who had lost their livelihood.[1]  They also instituted  a “zero discharge” requirement for all dyeing units.  However, in January 2011, the Madras High Court again forced  the closure of all dyeing units in the area when it was found that pollution levels were above allowable limits.  Despite a grant from the government to build treatment facilities, the General Secretary of the Tirapur Dyes & Chemicals Association, said “At present we do not have any technology for zero discharge.”

The use of natural dyes means that there is no pollution to dispose of, and it also increases the green cover for plants and animals.   She uses as an example the differences between synthetic indigo and natural indigo:

Synthetic indigo:

  • Made from petrochemicals.
  • Impurities include toxic aniline and N-methylaniline residues.
  • Not biodegradable – incineration is the only recommended means of disposal.
  • Toxic to daphnids and algae.
  • Small creatures do not live around the rims of fermentation vats containing synthetic indigo, nor can a frog survive a dip in the vat.
  • Called “nature identical” by chemists.

Natural indigo:

  • Dye is made in the leaves of the plant Indigofera.
  • Impurities include plant polymers and soil particles
  • Biodegradable. If natural indigo ceases to be added to a natural fermentation vat, it loses its power to dye within 75 days. A sour vat will consume the indigo within 15 days.
  • Small insects and creepy crawlies live around the rims of natural fermentation vats containing natural indigo, and frogs can hop in and out without harm

Biodye uses no toxic mordants and treats its waste water so sludge is available as fertilizer and water can be used as irrigation.





What can be considered the “good” chemicals in textile processing?

9 02 2011

We’re often asked if ALL the chemicals used in textile processing are harmful.  And the answer is (surprisingly maybe)  no!   Many chemicals are used, many benign, but as with everything these days there are caveats.

Let’s look at the chemical that is used  most often in the textile industry:  salt.  That’s right.  Common table salt.  Safe, natural salt is used in textile dyeing.

Salt shaker painting by Jeff Hayes

The way the dyestuff bonds to the fibers is very important – and the most permanent, wash fast dyes are the most tightly attached to the fiber molecules (called reactive dyes).  Here’s how salt comes into the picture:

To dye a fabric made of a cellulosic fiber (i.e., cotton, hemp, linen) or its close cousin (viscose),  the fabric is put into water, where its surface gets covered in negative ionic charges.  The reactive dyes used most often to dye cellulosic fabrics also develops a negative charge, so the fibers actually repel the dye – like two magnets repelling each other.   If we try to dye a cellulosic fabric without using  salt, the dye molecules just roll off the surface of the fibers and the fabric does not show much color change.

But when salt is added to the water, the solution splits into positive sodium ions (Na+) and negative chlorine ions (Cl-).  The  positive Na+  ions then dive into the surface of the fabric to neutralize the negative charge.

The dye molecules are then attracted to the fiber by weak Van der Waals forces and as the dyes get close to the fiber molecules, the salt acts like a glue to hold the dyes in place.  If we add alkali, the dyestuff will permanently grab hold of the fiber and become a part of the fiber molecule rather than remaining as an independent chemical  entity.

The color fastness of reactive dyes is so good that  it’s no wonder that they have become so widely used.  And natural salt has been crucial to their success.

We sprinkle salt on our foods – indeed salt is essential for life itself.  But (there is always a “but”) the “dose makes the poison”  – and the textile industry uses a LOT of salt!

The concentrations to suppress those negative ions can be as high as 100 gm per liter.  In the worst cases, 1 kg of salt is used to apply reactive dye to 1 kg of fabric.  Think of the billions of yards of fabric that’s produced each year:   In Europe alone, 1 million tons of salt is discharged into our waterways each year.[1] In areas where salt is discharged into the ecosystem, it takes a long, long time for affected areas to recover, especially in areas of sparse rainfall – such as Tirupur, India.

Tirupur is one of the world’s centers for clothing production , home of 765 dyeing and bleaching industries.  These dyehouses  had been dumping untreated effluent into the Noyyal River for years, rendering the water unsuitable or irrigation – or drinking.   In 2005, the government shut down 571 dyehouses  because of the effluent being discharged into the Noyyal.  The mill owners said they simply couldn’t afford to put pollution measures into place.   The industry is too important to India to keep the mills closed for long, so the government banned the discharge of salt and asked for an advance from the mills before allowing them to re-open.     But … on February 4, 2011, the Madras high court ordered 700 dye plants to be shut down because of the damage the effluent was doing to the local environment.  Sigh.  (Read more about Tirupur here.)

Unfortunately, the salt in textile effluent is not made harmless by treatment plants and can pass straight through  to our rivers even if treated.  This salt filled effluent can wreak havoc with living organisms.

There are some new “low salt” dyes that require only half the amount of “glue”, but these dyes are not widely used because they’re expensive – and manufacturers are following our lead in demanding ever cheaper fabrics.

Recycling the salt is possible, and this has been used by many of the dyers in Tirupur, and elsewhere, who operate zero discharge facilities.  The effluent is cleaned and then the salt is recovered using an energy intensive process to evaporate the water and leave the solid, re-useable salt.

This sounds like a good idea – it reduces the pollution levels – but the carbon footprint goes through the roof, so salt recovery isn’t necessarily the best option.  In fact, in some areas of the world where water is plentiful and the salt can be diluted in the rivers adequately, it may be better to simply discharge salt than to recover it.

But the best option is to avoid salt altogether.

Next week we’ll look at how to do that.


[1] Dyeing for a change: Current Conventions and New Futures in the Textile Color Industry (2006, July) www.betterthinking.co.uk





Organic cotton fraud?

7 04 2010

A recent report in The Financial Times of Germany alleged  that a ‘gigantic fraud’ was taking place in the sale of cotton garments marked as organic by leading European retailers like H&M, C&A and Tchibo, because they actually contained genetically modified (GM)  cotton.   GM cotton (often called Bt cotton in India) is prohibited in organic cotton.  The source of fabrics, it said, was India.
Interestingly, the paper quoted Sanjay Dave, director of Apeda (Indian Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), as saying that the fraud was on a large-scale and that two European certifying agencies had been fined for lax processes.  Lothar Kruse, director of the laboratory which ran the tests, was quoted as saying that around 30% of  organic cotton samples from India  were found to be contaminated with GM cotton.   There were charges and countercharges by all involved – and Indian organic cotton has become suspect.  How did this happen?

In August, 2009, the Indian Ministry of Textiles took several initiatives to strengthen their textiles industry  —  among them was a commitment to “safeguard and promote” organic cotton.  Organic cotton had become an important crop in India:  according to the Organic Exchange, India accounted for about 65% of all the organic cotton produced worldwide in 2008-09, making India the No.1 producer of organic cotton in the world. And since the global market for organic cotton is growing by as much as 150 per cent per year (based on 2008-09 figures) its make sense for India to support organic cotton where it is already a market leader in a product for which an assured market exists and is growing.

And yet at the same time, the Indian government (through the Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of Science and Technology) is supporting and promoting genetically modified cotton.  India allowed the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) cotton in 2002, and by 2006, GM cotton accounted for 42% of the total Indian cotton crop. This makes India the country with the largest area of GM cotton in the world, surpassing China.  According to Reuters,  Indian farmers will grow genetically modified cotton on 90 % of the area under cotton cultivation by 2012.  See our blog posts on GMO crops:  Reasons for concern regarding GMOs and GMO Cotton.

Organic cotton  and genetically engineered cotton are mutually self-excluding commodities –  organic cotton prohibits the inclusion of any genetically engineered cotton.  So the Indian government is bumbling in two contradictory directions at the same time.  There have been warnings from opponents of genetically engineered crops that if GM cotton were to contaminate traces of organic cotton, the consignments of organic cotton would lose the certification that gets them a premium price advantage and be rejected by markets interested in buying organic cotton.  Organizations such as Gene Watch (UK) and Greenpeace have warned that it is impossible to keep agricultural produce like cotton or rice or strawberries apart once they are ready for the market.  These organizations also maintain a register of instances where genetically engineered crops have contaminated conventional or organic crops. The contamination cases run into hundreds across the world, often with grave economic consequences. Not so long ago, consignments of US rice exported to several countries had to be recalled because traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared as conventional, non GM rice. The cost of recall was prohibitive but the greater damage was done to America’s future rice exports. Once countries returned the contaminated US rice, other rice exporting nations like Thailand entered the newly available markets in Europe, Japan and South Korea and established themselves there.

And the warnings by Gene Watch and Greenpeace have just come true in the form of the scandal which broke in January, 2010 based on  the report in the German edition of Financial Times

This casts a cloud over all exports of organic products from India, of which cotton is the leading item.

But in all this uproar, who is losing the most?  Once again it’s the small farmer in India.   The African proverb that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers, is certainly true in this case.

A bit of history:  The Indian government, in a desperate bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds, banned traditional seed varieties from many government seed banks in 2002  and allowed Monsanto to sell their new seed creations.  In return for this access, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans.

Because the family livelihood of Indian farmers depends entirely on good decisions being made, they often seek advice or take a lead from someone she/he thinks knows best. The average farmer is illiterate and ignorant of the implications of planting a GM crop, but lives in the hope that money borrowed to produce a cash crop will be more than repaid after a good harvest.   Monsanto began advertising the new GM seed heavily;  it was pervasive, with utterly misleading claims,  emanating from  celebrities, government officials, journalists, agricultural and corporate scientists, larger landowners and seed dealers who had either jumped on the media bandwagon or had vested interests in GM cotton sales. Bollywood personalities such as Nana Patekar attributed almost miraculous powers to the product on TV. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh  personally endorsed the Bollgard brand (one of Monsanto’s GM seed varieties sold in India). Local opinion leaders such as larger landowners received seed and pesticide discounted or free, and ‘poor farmers’ who extolled the virtues of GM cotton locally  turned out not to be farmers at all.

In the past, if a crop failed, the farmer could use his seed from prior years to replant his crop.  But with GM seeds they could not do this, because the seeds contain “terminator technology” meaning that the crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.  So farmers must buy seeds each year – at punitive prices:  GM seed costs about $15 for 4 ounces of seed, compared to $15 for 4,000 ounces of traditional seeds.

Farmers are also desperate to avoid the spiraling cost of pesticides, and were taken in by GM cotton advertising and Monsanto’s extravagant claims. For example, at the point of sale, when farmers are vulnerable, seed dealers  hyped up the yield of a hypothetical farmer’s GM cotton (based on Monsanto claims that yields are 30 – 40% higher than conventional hybrid seed) because the seed dealers profit is four times greater per drum than for non GM seed.  In addition,  Monsanto claims pesticide use will be 70% less because their Bollgard variety is supposed to  kill 90% of bollworms.

This perfect storm led to widespread adoption of GM seeds by Indian farmers.  But the promises made by Monsanto have proven to be false over time: GM cotton required double the amount of water that non GM varieties required (proving to be a matter of life and death for many),  many crops have been devastated by bollworms and there have been widespread crop failures.  (read  more here ).   Farmers, beguiled by  promises, incurred debts that they could not repay.  Thousands of farmers, according to the Mail Online in November, 2008, “are committing suicide”.  The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and condemned ‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.
Read more here and here.

Many organizations have been trying to convert Indian farmers to organic practices –  “desperate times call for organic measures”.  The fact that farmers don’t have to spend money on pesticides and fertilizers coupled with the premium of 15 – 20% over conventional cotton that organic cotton commands in the marketplace has helped convince many farmers that organic agriculture is worth a try.   Yet now  organic cotton from India has been reported to be contaminated with GM cotton, leading many to cry fraud.

This was not unforeseen:  drift or contamination of GM with non-GM crops has long been a concern, especially now that 65-75% of total cotton production is made up of  GM cotton.  According to P.  Gouri, adviser on organic products to Apeda,   “measures to prevent contamination through strict implementation of a 50-meter refuge (buffer zones around farms growing GM cotton to prevent the pollens from contaminating neighboring farms) are absolutely essential.  If GM farming practices are regulated strictly, we can keep contamination at manageable-levels, specially if farmers use non-cotton as a buffer.”  Yet,   there have been  many violations of biosafety regulations; in addition there are no standards for the permissible amount of contamination in organic cotton.    Nobody is addressing the problem of gene transfer to conventional plants; and a general disregard of separation distances between the GM and non-GM crop makes contamination a fait acompli . Similarly, there is a general lack of enforcement of 20 percent non-GM refugia, designed to slow the evolution of pest resistance. The several generations of bollworm that live annually on a crop can lead to 60 percent resistance in a single year.

According to the Human Genome Project, the act of genetically modifying something like organic cotton has its own ripple effect from the potential environmental impacts of unintended transfer of trans genes through cross-pollination and unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), to the loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.  With no regulation of GM cotton, GM produce is entering our food and feed chain as cottonseed oil and cake.  (Did you know that we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear?)  Genetically engineered cotton has all kinds of stuff we’ve never eaten before: viral promoters, antibiotic-resistant genes, special bacteria.  Organic food producers are very concerned. This problem will continue to grow as fourteen new GM varieties of India’s staple crops were approved for field trials that began in 2005.

 

 

Currently, India and her customers rely on third party certifying agencies, such as Control Union, to substantiate organic claims.  Certification is being done as per GOTS, or Global Organic Textile Standards, but India is formulating its own standards. The biggest innovation is TraceNet, a web-based traceability system that has been introduced in the country, to trace and track all organic certifications for exports to ensure purity.   Inspectors employed by certification agencies will use GPS devices for capturing data so that wrong certifications are eliminated.

Fingers crossed.

 





Textiles and water use

24 02 2010

Water.  Our lives depend on it.  It’s so plentiful that the Earth is sometimes called the blue planet – but freshwater is a remarkably finite resource that is not evenly distributed everywhere or to everyone.  The number of people on our planet is growing fast, and our water use is growing even faster.  About 1 billion people lack access to potable water, and about 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, or poor sanitation often resulting from water shortage[1] – that’s 10 times the number of people killed in wars around the globe.[2] And the blues singers got it right: you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.

I just discovered that the word “rival” comes from the Latin (rivalis) meaning those who share a common stream.  The original meaning, apparently, was closer to our present word for companion, but as words have a way of doing, the meaning became skewed to mean competition between those seeking a common goal.

This concept – competition between those seeking a common goal – will soon turn again to water, since water, as they say, is becoming the “next oil”;  there’s also talk of “water futures” and “water footprints”  – and both governments and big business are looking at water (to either control it or profit from it).  Our global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.  The pressure is on.

Note: There are many websites and books which talk about the current water situation in the world, please see our bibliography which is at the bottom of this post.

What does all this have to do with fabrics you buy?

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerizing, use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used in that step before moving on to the next step.  The water used is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater which is returned to our streams contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

When we say the textile industry uses a lot of water, just how much is a lot?  One example we found:  the Indian textile industry uses 425,000,000 gallons of water every day [3] to process the fabrics it produces.  Put another way, it takes about 20 gallons of water to produce one yard of upholstery weight fabric.  If we assume one sofa uses about 25 yards of fabric, then the water necessary to produce the fabric to cover that one sofa is 500 gallons.  Those figures vary widely, however, and often the water footprint is deemed higher.  The graphic here is from the Wall Street Journal, which assigns 505 gallons to one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans [4]:

The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion.  What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem.  The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs,  phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated.  And we are all downstream.

The process chemicals used by the mills are used on organic fibers just as they’re used on polyesters and conventionally produced natural fibers.  Unless the manufacturer treats their wastewater – and if they do they will most assuredly let you know it, because it costs them money – then we have to assume the worst.  And the worst is plenty bad.  So just because you buy something made of “organic X”, there is no assurance that the fibers were processed using chemicals that will NOT hurt you or that the effluent was NOT discharged into our ecosystem, to circulate around our planet.

You might hear from plastic manufacturers that polyester has virtually NO water footprint, because the manufacturing of the polyester polymer uses very little water – compared to the water needed to grow or produce any natural fiber.  That is correct.  However, we try to remind everyone that the production of a fabric involves two parts:

  • The production of the fiber
  • The weaving of the fiber into cloth

The weaving portion uses the same types of process chemicals – same dyestuffs, solubalisers and dispersents, leveling agents, soaping, and dyeing agents, the same finishing chemicals,  cationic and nonionic softeners, the same FR, soil and stain, anti wrinkling or other finishes – and the same amount of water and energy.  And recycled polyesters have specific issues:

  • The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades.  Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
  • Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process.  Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
  • Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.[5]
  • Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.

So water treatment of polyester manufacturing should be in place also.  In fact there is a new standard called the Global Recycle Standard, which was issued by Control Union Certifications.   The standard has strict environmental processing criteria in place in addition to percentage content of recycled  product – it includes wastewater treatment as well as chemical use that is based on the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Oeko-Tex 100.

And to add to all of this, Maude Barlow, in her new book, Blue Covenant (see bibliography below) argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust.  These mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right?  If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state?  Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water a a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The World’s Water:  http://www.worldwater.org/

Water.org:    http://water.org/learn-about-the-water-crisis/facts/

Ground water and drinking water:  http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/faq/faq.html

New York Times series, Toxic Waters:  http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters

Barlow, Maude, “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008

Water Footprint Network:  http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home


[1]Tackling the Big Three (air and water pollution, and sanitation), David J. Tenenbaum, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Number 5, May 1998.

[2] Kirby, Alex, “Water Scarcity: A Looming Crisis?”, BBC News Online

[3] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur, South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.

[4] Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to worry about: Water”, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009

[5] “Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”,  Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008