More about fabric choices for your sofa.

25 06 2015

Our previous blog post we talked about fabric – how to determine the quality of the fabric you’re considering for your new sofa.  But the most important consideration merits a blog all its own, and that is the safety of the fabrics you’ve chosen.  We define “safe” as a fabric that has been processed with none of the many chemicals known to harm human health – and in a perfect world we’d  throw in water treatment and human rights/labor issues too.

It’s a great idea to start with organic fibers, if you can.  By substituting organic natural fibers for conventionally grown fibers you are supporting organic agriculture, which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits. Not only does organic farming take far less energy than conventional farming (largely because it does not use oil based fertilizers)[1], which helps to mitigate climate change, but it also:

  • Eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (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 production has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles. As such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change [2]. For example, one of the original goals of the organic movement was to create specialty products for small farmers who could receive a premium for their products and thus be able to compete with large commercial farms.

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) shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [3]

But even if you start with organic natural fibers (a great choice!) but process those fibers conventionally, then you end up with a fabric that is far from safe. Think about making applesauce: if you start with organic apples, then add Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and who knows what else – do you end up with organic applesauce? The US Department of Agriculture would not let you sell that mixture as organic applesauce.  There is no similar protection for consumers when buying fabric, even though the same issues apply, because over 2000 chemicals are used routinely in textile processing.[4] Many of the chemicals used in textile processing have unknown toxicity, and many others are known to be harmful to humans (such as formaldehyde, lead, mercury, bisphenol A and other phthalates, benzenes and others). In fact, one yard of fabric made with organic cotton fiber is about 25% by weight synthetic chemicals – many of which are proven toxic to humans [5] and are outlawed in other products.

I know you’re saying that you don’t eat those fabrics, so what’s the danger? Actually, your body is busy ingesting the chemicals, which are evaporating (so we breathe them in), or through skin absorption (after all, the skin is the largest organ of the body). Add to that the fact that each time you brush against the fabric, microscopic pieces of the fabric abrade and fly into the air – so we can breathe them in. Or they fall into the dust in our homes, where pets and crawling babies breathe them in.

Should that be a concern? Well, there is hardly any evidence of the effects of textiles themselves on individuals, but in the US, OSHA does care about workers, so most of the studies have been done on workers in the textile industry:

  • Autoimmune diseases (such as IBD, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, for example, which are linked to many of the chemicals used in textile processing) are reaching epidemic rates, and a 14 year study published by the University of Washington and the National Institutes of Health found that people who work with textiles (among other industries) are more likely to die of an autoimmune disease than people who don’t [6];
  • We know formaldehyde is bad for us, but in fabric? A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths. [7] Note: most cotton/poly sheet sets in the U.S. are treated with a formaldehyde resin.
  • Women who work in textile factories which produce acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[8]
  • A study in France revealed a correlation between the presence of cancer of the pharynx and occupation in the textile industry.[9]
  • A high degree of colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and nasal cancer has been found among textile workers, and a relationship between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and working in the textile industry was observed.[10]

And consider this:

  • The Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center published a list of the top 10 chemicals they believe are linked to autism – and of the 10, 6 are used in textile processing and 2 are pesticides used on fiber crops. [11].
  • Phthalates are so toxic that they have been banned in the European Union since 2005. They have recently been banned in the State of California in children’s toys. They are ubiquitous – and are also found in most textile inks.[12] So parents careful not to bring toxic toys into their homes for can be nevertheless unknowingly putting their kids to sleep on cute printed sheets full of phthalates.

Are these rates of disease and the corresponding rise in the use of industrial chemicals a coincidence? Are our increased rates of disease due to better diagnosis? Some argue that we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens. All plausible.  But it’s also true that we’re encountering an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that are taxing our systems to the maximum. And our children are the pawns in this great experiment. And if you think artificial  pathogens  are  not the main culprits, your opinion is not shared by a goodly number of scientists, who believe that this endless barrage of artificial pathogens that is taxing our systems to the max has replaced bacteria and viruses as the major cause of human illness. We don’t have to debate which source is primary; especially because, with the rise of super bugs, it’s a silly debate. The point remains that industrial pollution is a cause of human illness – and it is a cause we can take concrete actions to stem.

Textiles are the elephant in the room – the industry is global, relatively low tech, and decentralized – certainly not the darling of venture capitalists who look for the next big thing. So not many research dollars are going into new ways of producing fabrics. Most of the time people are looking for the lowest price fabric for their projects or products – so the industry is on a race to cut costs in any way possible: in 2007, the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer detailed the pollution caused by Chinese textile industries who were being pushing by their multinational clients to cut costs, resulting in untreated effluent discharge [13].

You can begin to protect yourself by looking for fabrics that have third party certifications:  either Oeko-Tex or The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which we believe is the gold standard in textiles because though Oeko-Tex assures you of a safe fabric and while GOTS confirms the same assurance, GOTS  also requires water treatment (important because the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet (14) – and in this era of water shortages we have to start paying attention to our water resources) and prohibits child or slave labor (sadly still an issue) and makes sure workers have safe conditions to work in and are paid fair wages.

[1] 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>

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.

[2] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, p. 19

[3] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf Also see: Muller, Adrian, “Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy for Developing Countries’, Environement for Development, April 2009

[4] See the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ (AATCC) Buyers Guide, http://www.aatcc.org/

[5] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609

[6] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard”, Washington Post, March 16, 2008

[7] Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.

[8] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:

10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

[9] Haguenour, J.M., “Occupational risk factors for upper respiratory tract and upper digestive tract cancers” , Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol 47, issue 6 (Br J Ind Med1990;47:380-383 doi:10.1136/oem.47.6.380).

[10] http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/3/297/safety-and-health-issues-in-the-textile-industry2.asp

[11]http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/service-areas/children/areas-of-care/childrens-environmental-health-center/cehc-in-the-news/news/mount-sinai-childrens-environmental-health-center-publishes-a-list-of-the-top-ten-toxic-chemicals-suspected-to-cause-autism-and-learning-disabilities

[12] “Textile Inkmaker Tackles Phthalates Ban”, Esther D’Amico, Chemical Week, September 22, 2008 SEE ALSO: Toxic Textiles by Disney, http://archive.greenpeace.org/docs/disney.pdf

[13] Spencer, Jane, “China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom”, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2007.

(14)  Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication”, Ecotextile News, May 2007





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





Estimating the carbon footprint of a fabric

19 01 2011

We published this blog almost two years ago, but the concepts haven’t changed and we think it’s very important.   So here it is again:

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.[1]

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.[2] 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[3]

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. [4] By contrast, a person in Haiti produced a total of only 0.21 tons of total carbon emissions in 2006.[5]

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.  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, nylon or polyester.[6]

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 [7] 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 [8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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. [15] 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.

But there is an additional dimension to consider during processing:  environmental pollution.  Conventional textile processing is highly polluting:

  • Up to 2000 chemicals are used in textile processing, many of them known to be harmful to human (and animal) health.   Some of these chemicals evaporate, some are dissolved in treatment water which is discharged to our environment, and some are residual in the fabric, to be brought into our homes (where, with use, tiny bits abrade and you ingest or otherwise breathe them in).  A whole list of the most commonly used chemicals in fabric production are linked to human health problems that vary from annoying to profound.
  • The application of these chemicals uses copious amounts of water. In fact, the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet.[16] These wastewaters are discharged (largely untreated) into our groundwater with a high pH and temperature as well as chemical load.

Concerns in the United States continue to mount about the safety of textiles and apparel products used by U.S. consumers.  Philadelphia University has formed a new Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety, where they are busy analyzing clothing and textiles for a variety of toxins.  Currently, there are few regulatory standards for clothing and textiles in the United States.  Many European countries,  as well as Japan and Australia, have much stricter restrictions on the use of chemicals in textiles and apparel than does the United States, and these world regulations will certainly impact world production.

There is a bright spot in all of this:  an alternative to conventional textile processing does exist.  The new Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a  tool for an international common understanding of environmentally friendly production systems and social accountability in the textile sector; it covers the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fibers; that means, specifically, for example:  use of certified organic fibers, prohibition of all GMOs and their derivatives; and prohibition of a long list of synthetic chemicals (for example: formaldehyde and aromatic solvents are prohibited; dyestuffs must meet strict requirements (such as threshold limits for heavy metals, no  AZO colorants or aromatic amines) and PVC cannot be used for packaging).

A fabric which is produced to the GOTS standards is more than just the fabric:

It’s a promise to keep our air and water pure and our soils renewed; it’s a fabric which will not cause harm to you or your descendants.  Even though a synthetic fiber cannot be certified to  GOTS, the synthetic mill could adopt the same production standards and apply them.   So for step #2, the weaving of the fiber into a fabric, the best choice is to buy a GOTS certified fabric or to apply as nearly as possible the GOTS parameters.

At this point in time, given the technology we have now, an organic fiber fabric, processed to GOTS standards, is (without a doubt) the safest, most responsible choice possible in terms of both stewardship of the earth, preserving health and limiting toxicity load to humans and animals, and reducing carbon footprint – and emphasizing rudimentary social justice issues such as no child labor.

And that would be the end of our argument, if it were not for this sad fact:  there are no natural fiber fabrics made in the United States which are certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).  The industry has, we feel, been flat footed in applying these new GOTS standards.  With the specter of the collapse of the U.S. auto industry looming large, it seems that the U.S. textile industry would do well to heed what seems to be the global tide of public opinion that better production methods, certified by third parties, are the way to market fabrics in the 21st Century.


[1] 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

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

[3] Rupp, Jurg, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”,  Textile World,  Nov/Dec 2008

[4] Rose, Coral, “CO2 Comes Out of the Closet”,  GreenBiz.com, September 24, 2007

[5] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Annual 2006”, posted Dec 8, 2008.

[6] 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

  • it applies only to clothing; even sheets aren’t washed as often as clothing while upholstery is seldom cleaned.
  • is biodegradeable detergent used?
  • Is the washing machine used a new low water machine?  Is the water treated by a municipal facility?
  • 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.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “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/

[9] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles,  Earthscan, 2008,  Page 13

[10] “Why Natural Fibers”, FAO, 2009: http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/iynf/sustainable.html

[11] Ibid.

[12] 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>

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

[14] 24th session of the FAO Committee on Commodity Problems IGG on Hard Fibers of the United Nations

[15] “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

[16] Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication,” Ecotextile News, May 2007.