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.


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


Greenwashing and textiles

29 12 2009

I have been saying for years that fabric is the forgotten product.  People just don’t seem to care about what their fabric choices do to them or to the environment.  (Quick, what fiber is your shirt/blouse made of?  What kinds of fibers do you sleep on?)   They are too busy to do research, or they’re gullible – either way they decide to believe claims made by many product manufacturers.  And I can’t really blame them, because the issues are complex.

Green products are proliferating so quickly (the average number of “green” products per store almost doubled between 2007 and 2008, according to TerraChoice’s Greenwashing Report 2009) and adding so many new consumer claims that the term “greenwash” (verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service) has become part of most people’s vocabulary.    In the area of fabrics, the greenwashing going on has led the FTC to make the publication of its new Green Guide on textiles a priority.

Incidences of greenwashing are going up, and that means increased risk:

  • Consumers may be misled into purchases that do not deliver on their environmental promise.
  • Illigetimate environmental claims will take market share away from products that offer legitimate benefits, thereby slowing the spread of real environmental innovation.
  • Greenwashing will lead to cynicism and doubt about all environmental claims.  Consumers may just give up.
  • And perhaps worst of all – the sustainability movement will lose the power of the market to accelerate real progress towards sustainability.

The first step to cleaning up greenwashing is to identify it, and Kevin Tuerff (co-founder of the marketing consultancy EnviroMedia) and his partners have hit on an innovative way to spotlight particularly egregious examples. They’ve launched the Greenwashing Index,  a website that allows consumers to post ads that might be examples of greenwashing and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5–1 is a little green lie; 5 is an outright falsehood.  This hopefully teaches people to be a bit more cautious about the claims they hear.  Read more about greenwashing here.

TerraChoice published its six sins of greenwashing in 2007 but added a seventh sin in 2009.  Let’s look at these sins:

1)      The Sin of Worshiping False Labels:  a product that (through words or images) gives the impression of third-party endorsement or certification where none really exists; basically fake labels.  Examples:

  1. Using the company’s own in-house environmental program without further explanation.
  2. Using certification-like images with green jargon including “eco-safe”, “eco-preferred”.

I’ve begun to see examples of products which claim to be certified to the GOTS standard  (Global Organic Textile Standard) – but the reality is that the fiber is certified to the GOTS standard while the final fabric is not.  There is a big difference between the two.  And the GOTS-certifying agencies have begun to require retailers to be certified – to keep the supply chain transparent because there have been so many incidences of companies substituting non- GOTS products for those that actually received the certification.

2)      Sin of the Hidden Trade-off:  a claim suggesting that a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.  The most overused example of this is with recycled content of fabrics – a textile is advertised as “green” because it is made of x% recycled polyester.  Other important environmental issues such as heavy metal dyes used, whether the polyester is woven with other synthetics or even natural fibers  (thereby contributing to other environmental degredation), the fact that plastic is not biodegradeable and contains antimony or bisphenol A  may be equally important.  Cargill Dow introduced it’s new Ingeo fiber with much fanfare, saying that it is based on a renewable resource (rather than oil).  Missing entirely from Cargill Dow’s press materials is any acknowledgement of the fact that the source material for these products is genetically engineered corn, designed by one of Cargill Dow’s corporate parents, Cargill Inc., a world leader in genetic engineering.  (See our blog postings on genetic engineering dated 9.23 and 9.29.09) That’s a potentially huge problem, since millions of consumers around the world and several governments have rejected the use of genetically engineered (GE) products, because of the unforeseen consequences of unleashing genetically altered organisms into nature.

3)      Sin of No Proof:  An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.  Google organic fabric and you can find any number of companies offering “organic and natural fabrics” with no supporting documentation.   And the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals really took exception to this claim:

4)      Sin of Vagueness:  a claim so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic,  mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, used widely in textile processing,  and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’. Hemp is a fabric that has been expertly greenwashed, as most people have been led to focus on the fact that it grows in a manner that it is environmentally friendly. Few realize that hemp is naturally made into rope and that it requires a great deal of chemical softening to be suitable for clothing or bed linen.  Or this ad from Cotton Inc.:

5)      Sin of Irrelevance:  An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.  The term “organic” is the most often used word in textile marketing – and what does it really mean?  Organic, by definition, means carbon-based, so unless the word “organic” is coupled with “certified” the term is meaningless.  But even “certified organic” fiber can cause untold harm during the processing and finishing of the fabric – think of turning organic apples into applesauce (adding Red Dye #2, stabalizers, preservatives, emulsifiers) where the final result cannot be considered organic APPLESAUCE even though the apples started out as organic. It is said that the amount of “organic cotton” supposedly coming out of India far outweighs the amount of organic cotton actually being grown. It is common practice for vendors to call a batch of cotton “organic”, if minimal or no chemicals have been used, even if no certification has been obtained for the fiber. It’s also generally understood that certification can be “acquired”, even if not earned.

6)      Sin of Lesser of Two Evils:  A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.  Again, the use of recycled polyester as a green claim distracts from the greater environmental impact that plastics have on the environment,  the much greater carbon footprint that any synthetic has compared to any natural fiber,  the antimony used in polyester production, the fact that polyesters are dependent on non renewable resources for feedstock…the list goes on.

7)      Sin of Fibbing:  just what it says – environmental claims that are simply false.

I’d like to add an additional sin which I think is specific to the textile industry: that of a large fabric company touting it’s green credentials because it has a “green” collection  (sometimes that “green” collection is anything but) – but if you look at the size of the green collection and compare it to conventional offerings, you’ll find that maybe only 10% of the company’s fabrics have any possible claim to “green”.  Is that company seriously trying to make a difference?

Dyes – synthetic and “natural”

1 09 2009


I thought we’d take a look at the dyeing process because so many people ask if we use “natural” dyes.  The answer is no, we don’t (although we’re not entirely objecting to natural dyes), and I hope the next two blogs will explain our position!  Let’s first take a look at what makes the dyes (and how they are applied) an area of concern.

Dyeing cloth is one of our oldest industries;  people used natural products found around them to change the color of the fibers used to make their cloth  – things like leaves, berries, or roots.   The first synthetic dye was created in 1856.  Today the use of natural dyes on a commercial scale has almost disappeared (except for a resurgence in the craft market) in favor of the newer synthetic dyes.  The production of synthetic chemical dyestuffs has become big business, but unfortunately the production and use of these synthetic dyes is one of the world’s most polluting industries.  Conventional synthetic dyes present health risks to those working with them and to those who wear them, as well as damaging the environment in a number of ways.  Why?

Dyes are compounds that can be dissolved in solvents, usually water.  The process of dyeing cloth uses a great quantity of water – according to the United States EPA, it takes an average of 5 – 35 gallons of water for every pound of finished fabric.  That translates into 125 – 875 gallons of water to dye 25 yards of fabric – enough to cover one sofa![1]

The dyes in solution are absorbed by the fibers.  The process of transferring the dye from the water to the fiber is called exhaustion or “fixation rate”, with 100% exhaustion meaning there is no dye left in the dyebath solution.   Most conventional dyes have an exhaustion rate of 80%, meaning the dyestuff which is not affixed to the fiber is flushed into our rivers with the spent process water.  Each year the global textile industry discharges 40,000 – 50,000 tons of dye into our rivers, and more than 200,000 tons of salt.[2]

One of the most pressing issues today is the lack of fresh drinking water, and as one of the most polluting industries, textiles – and especially the dyeing of textiles – is responsible for many instances of pollution making fresh water undrinkable.  In the worst cases, communities have to use polluted water to drink, wash clothes, bathe and irrigate crops and the toxins they’re exposed to can have catastrophic effects.  Even in those instances where water treatment is in place, toxic sludge is a byproduct of the process.  Often  sludge is sent to the landfill, but the toxicity of the sludge remains – containing, among others,  heavy metals, gypsum, malachite green (identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a priority chemical for carcinogenicity testing).


The 40,000 to 50,000 tons of  synthetic dyestuffs expelled into our rivers are complex chemical formulations containing some things that are very toxic to us,  such as heavy metals (like lead, mercury, chromium, zinc, cobalt and copper), benzene and formaldehyde.  Many certifications, such as the new Global Organic Textile Standard and Oeko-Tex, restricts the kinds of chemicals allowed in certified products.  For example, GOTS restricts amine releasing AZO dyes and disperse dyes (must be <30 mg/kg); chromium, cobalt, copper, nickel, mercury, lead, antimony and arsenic are all restricted (rather than prohibited as many people believe).  So the dye formulation means a lot when you’re evaluating the eco credentials of a fabric – but almost never will you be able to find out what dye was used in any  particular fabric.                                                                                                              Copyright: Jucheng Hu

In addition to the formulation, there are requirements that dyestuffs must meet regarding oral toxicity, aquatic toxicity, biodegradability, eliminability and bi-accumulation in fatty tissues. The GOTS details are on their website: www.global-standard.org. Some dyestuff producers advertise that they have a dye group that meets these standards, such as Huntsman and Clariant.  So the formulation of dyes used makes a big difference – look for dyestuffs that have been certified by a third party, such as GOTS.

Remember that if the average exhaustion rate is 80% for most dyes (i.e., that 20% of the dyestuff is expelled with the wastewater) then that means that 80% of the dyestuff remains in the fabric!  In other words, those toxic chemicals remain in the fabrics you bring into your homes.  What do I mean by “toxic” – if you can stand it, I’ll give a short synopsis of the effects some of these chemicals found in many dyestuffs have on us:

  • Mercury:  Easily absorbed thru the skin or inhalation of dust which contains residues; effects the immune system, alters genetic and enzyme systems, damages the nervous system.  Particularly damaging to developing embryos, which are 5 to 10 times more sensitive than adults.
  • Lead: Easily absorbed thru the skin or inhalation of dust which contains residues. Impacts nervous system.   Even low levels of lead can reduce IQ, stunt growth and cause behavior problems.
  • Chromium:  Necessary for insulin activity and an essential trace metal; at toxic levels it causes squamous cell carcinoma of the lung.
  • Copper:  Fatigue, insomnia, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, migraine headaches, seizures. Mental disorders include depression, anxiety, mood swings, phobias, panic attacks and attention deficit disorders.
  • Cadmium:  Extremely toxic to humans because of its inhibition of various enzyme systems; primary target organ is the kidney; but also causes lung cancer ; also causes testicular damage and male sterility. Plants readily absorb cadmium from the soil so it easily enters food chain. Chronic exposure is associated with renal disease.
  • Sodium chloride (salt): not toxic in small doses (thankfully for me and my salt addiction), but the industry uses this in such high volumes it becomes an environmental hazard; an organochlorine (the class of organochlorines are very stable (i.e. does not break down into other compounds) and they bioaccumulate; 177 different organochlorines have been found in the  average population in Canada and the US.  Each person has a unique level at which this build-up becomes critical and triggers a wide range of health problems.)  Well known effects of chronic organochlorine contamination include hormonal disruption, infertility and lowered sperm counts, immune system suppression, learning disabilities, behavioral changes, and damage to the skin, liver and kidneys. Newborns, infants, children, childbearing women and the elderly are even more vulnerable to these health impacts.
  • Toluene:  affects the central nervous system; symptoms range from slight drowsiness, fatigue and headaches, to irritation of the respiratory tract,  mental confusion and incoordination; higher concentrations can result in unconsciousness and death.  Prolonged contact can cause dermatitis.  Teratogenic, embryotoxic.
  • Benzene:  Highly carcinogenic, linked to all types of leukemia but believed to cause the rarer forms (acute myelogenous leukemis (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL); effects the bone marrow and decrease of red blood cells, leading to anemia, excessive bleeding and/or immune system disfunction. Low levels cause rapid heart rate, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion.  Easily absorbed by skin

Better Thinking Ltd., a UK based organization, took a look at the dyes used in the industry and what they do to us and our environment.  They published their findings in a paper called “Dyeing for a Change” which explains the various synthetic dyes available and how they’re used.  (Click here to read about it.)

There are several classes of dyes:

  1. Direct dyes:  given this name because they color the fibers “directly” and eliminates the need for a mordant (the chemical fixing agent lots of dyes need).  Azo dyes are a type of direct dye made from a nitrogen compound; azo dyes are known to give off a range of carcinogenic particles and have been banned in many places, including the EU.  Effluent contains 5 – 20% of original dyestuff, plus salt and dye fixing agents.
  2. Vat dyes:  these dyes need a powerful reducing agent, such as alkali, to make them soluble.  Expensive and complicated to use, effluent contains 5 – 20% of residual dyestuffs, plus reducing agents, oxidizing agents, detergents and salts.
  3. Sulphur dyes:  90% of all sulphur dyes contain sodium sulphide, which endangers life and alters DNA, corrodes sewage systems, damages treatment works and leads to high pH and unpleasant odors.  Effluent contains 30 – 40% of the dyestuff plus alkalis and salt.
  4. Reactive dyes:  these dyes bond directly with the fibers, rather than merely remaining as an independent chemical entity within the fiber.  Applied with relatively cool water (saving energy) and

Of all the classes of synthetic dyes, a subset of  “reactive” dyes (called “low impact fiber reactive”) seems to be the best environmental choice.  As “Dyeing for a Change” explains:

Low-impact reactive dyes are usually defined as “low impact” because of the supposed lower fixation rate – however, these dyes have a fixation rate of at least 70%, which still leaves much room for improvement.  What does make them “low impact” and classified by the EU as eco-friendly:   they have been formulated to contain no heavy metals or other known toxic substances, and do not need mordants. The high cost of this dye becomes an environmental advantage, as it is cheaper to reclaim dye from the effluent rather than discharge it all and start from scratch. The water can also be recycled. The dye cycle is shorter than it is for other dye processes, meaning less water, salt and chemicals are needed. The entire process normally occurs at a pH of around 7.0, meaning no acids or alkalis need to be added to the water.

However, there are still disadvantages: like other environmentally damaging dyes, these dyes are made from synthetic petrochemicals. The process requires very high concentrations of salt (20%-80% of the weight of the goods dyed), alkali and water. Even if the unfixed dye is reclaimed, the effluent from this process can still contain high concentrations of salts, surfactants and defoamers, and is strongly alkaline. It’s also quite expensive, whereas conventional dye is cheap. This process’ effluent normally contains salt, alkali, detergent and between 20% to 50% of dye used. As reactive dyes currently make up 50% of world dye consumption, more knowledge on how to improve upon this method is needed.

Fortunately, research is being undertaken in this area, and a number of companies have produced products that improve on its impacts. It’s been found that, by pre-treating cotton with 120g of phosphate buffer per kg of fabric, no salt or alkali is needed in the dyeing process as the process can occur at a neutral pH. It also means the amount of water required can be halved and the whole dyeing process can be significantly reduced, presenting additional benefits in the form of cost savings. Compared to the other chemicals used to dye fabric the conventional way, this is a relatively low concentration, and its high exhaustion value means the effluent would only contain it in small  proportions, making it a greener alternative.  And British scientists have developed a way to use algae (called diatoms) to color the fabric – eliminating dyes entirely![3]

So you see why water treatment is critical – even if a dyestuff has a rather benign chemical formulation, the associated salts, defoamers and fixing agents must be dealt with.   We chose low impact fiber reactive GOTS approved dyestuffs for our fabrics – and we made sure that all wastewater is treated adequately before release.  But that’s not good enough – partly because there is still the question of the sludge created during the process and partly because we need to make sure that ALL process inputs have a benign chemical profile.

Tune in next week, when the subject will be “natural” dyes  – hopefully the discussion will clear up our thinking on synthetic vs. natural dyes.

[1]“Analysis of the Potential Benefits of Recycled Water Use in Dye Houses”, Water 3 Engineering, Inc., April 2005.

[2] Dyeing for a Change, page 4

[3] Madrigal, Alexis, “How Pond Scum Could Lead to Eco-Friendly Fabric and Paint”, Wired magazine, 10.11.07

Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings?

4 08 2009

The more I learn about organic farming the more impressed I become with the dynamics of it all.   As Fritz Capra has said, we live in an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy. Everything has an intrinsic pattern which in turn is part of a greater pattern – and all of it is in flux.  That sure makes it hard to do an LCA, and it makes for very wobbly footing if somebody takes a stand and defends it against all comers.

For example, I have been under the impression (based on some published LCA’s) that the production of wool is very resource inefficient, largely based on the enormous need for water: it’s generally assumed that 170,000 litres of water is needed to produce 1 KG of wool    (versus anywhere from 2000 to 5300 to produce the same amount of cotton).  That’s because the livestock graze on land and depend on rainwater for their water – and some LCA’s base the water use on the lifetime of the sheep (reminding me to check the research parameters when referring to published LCA’s).

In addition, industrial agricultural livestock production often results in overgrazing.  As we now see in the western United States, overgrazing in extreme cases causes the land to transform from its natural state of fertility to that of a desert. At the very least, it severely limits plant reproduction, which in turn limits the soil’s ability to absorb water and maintain its original nutrient balance, making overgrazing difficult to recover from. And then there’s methane: livestock are often vilified for producing more greenhouse gases than automobiles.

The exciting thing is that what is known as “holistic management” of the soil makes it possible to use animals to improve, rather than degrade, land.  What’s consistently ignored in the research  is the failure to distinguish between animals raised in confined feedlots and animals grazing on rangeland  in a holistic system.  Research on holistic land management is, in fact, showing that large grazing animals are a vital and necessary part of the solution to climate change and carbon sequestration. Read about holistic land management on the Holistic Managmeent Institute (HMI) website.

The reason holistic practices work, according to HMI, is that grazing animals and grassland co-evolved.  According to the HMI website, hooves and manure accomplish what mechanical tilling and petrochemical fertilizers cannot: healthy, diverse grassland with abundant root systems and improved soil structures that makes highly effective use of existing rainfall.  Domestic animals can be managed in ways that mimic nature, called “planned grazing”:  rather than allowing animals to linger and eat from the same land repeatedly,  animals are concentrated and moved according to a plan which allows the land long periods of rest and recovery.   This planned grazing allows the animals to till packed soil with their hooves, distribute fertilizer and seed in their manure and urine, and move from one area to another before they can overgraze any one spot. In fact, the animals help maintain the soil, rather than destroying it, and increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, making it function as a highly effective carbon bank. Properly managed, grazing animals can help us control global climate change:  soil carbon increased 1% within a 12 month period  in a planned grazing project (a significant increase).

This carbon is essential to not only feeding soil life and pasture productivity, but it also affects water infiltration rates. On one trial site where planned grazing was implemented, within two years, the  soil water infiltration rate increased eightfold in comparison to the conventional grazing treatment.

In addition, holistic management of grazing animals eliminates the need for the standard practice of burning crop and forage residues.  That burning currently sends carbon directly into the atmosphere.  If we convert just 4 million acres of land that’s operating under the traditional, conventional agriculture model to holistically managed land – so the residue is not burned – the carbon is captured rather than released.   Look at the difference in erosion in the picture below: compare the severely eroded, conventionally managed riverbank on the left with the Holistically Managed bank on the right.  All the shrubbery and grass means abundant root systems and healthy soil infrastructure underground – both of these sequester CO2.

HOLISTIC mgmtWhat you see on the right is the result of managed animal impact.                     Source: Holistic Management International

According to Christine Jones, Founder, Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation, “The fabulous thing about sequestering carbon in grasslands is that you can keep on doing it forever – you can keep building soil on soil on soil… perennial grasses can outlive their owners; they’re longer-lived than a lot of trees, so the carbon sequestration is more permanent than it is in trees: the carbon’s not going to re-cycle back into the atmosphere if we maintain that soil management… and there’s no limit to how much soil you can build… for example, we would only have to improve the stored carbon percentage by one percent on the 415 million hectares (1,025,487,333 acres) of agricultural soil in Australia and we could sequester all of the planet’s legacy load of carbon. It’s quite a stunning figure.”


Data from a demonstration project in Washington State is confirming other worldwide research that grazing could be better for the land than growing certain crops in dryland farming regions – it reverses soil decline (erosion and desertification), restores soil health, and instead of losing carbon through tilling or systems requiring inputs (like wheat farming) planned grazing sequesters carbon; biomass to soak up carbon is increased, and the use of fossil fuel has been reduced by more than 90%.  Wildlife habitat has improved.  The Washington State project even sells carbon credits.

In April of this year, Catholic Relief Service, one of the country’s largest international humanitarian agencies, is launching a worldwide agricultural strategy that adopts a holistic, market oriented approach to help lift millions of people out of poverty.   Read more about this here.

Organic agriculture and climate change

29 07 2009


The debate over sustainable agriculture has gone beyond the health and environmental benefits that it could bring in place of conventional industrial agriculture. For one thing, conventional industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on oil, which is running out; and it is getting increasingly unproductive as the soil is eroded and depleted. Climate change will force us to adopt sustainable, low input agriculture to ameliorate the worst consequences of conventional agriculture, and to genuinely feed the world.

And climate change is upon us.  I’m sitting in Seattle experiencing an “historic heat wave” while reading that the Hadley Center of the British Meteorological Organization has said the world’s temperature will increase by 8.8 degrees F rather than 5.8 degrees F this century.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said we can expect a considerable increase in heat waves, storms, floods, and the spread of tropical diseases into temperate areas, impacting  the health of humans, livestock and crops. It also predicts a rise in sea levels up to 35 inches this century, which will affect something like 30% of the world’s agricultural lands (by seawater intrusion into the soils underlying croplands and by temporary as well as permanent flooding). If the Hadley Center is right, the implications will be even more horrifying: Melting of the Antarctic, the Arctic, and especially the Greenland ice-shields is occurring far more rapidly than was predicted by the IPCC. This will reduce the salinity of the oceans, which in turn  weakens (if not diverts) oceanic currents such as the Gulf Stream from their present course . And if that continues, it would eventually freeze up areas that at present have a temperate climate, such as Northern Europe.

According to the Institute of Science in Society, “It is becoming clear that climate change and its different manifestations (as mentioned above) will be the most important constraints on our ability to feed ourselves in the coming decades. We cannot afford to just sit and wait for things to get worse. Instead, we must do everything we can to transform our food production system to help combat global warming and, at the same time, to feed ourselves, in what will almost certainly be far less favorable conditions.”

But before we tackle the question of how best to feed ourselves during these “less favorable” times: how can organic agriculture help with global warming?

It’s generally assumed that various Greenhouse Gases (GHG) are responsible for
global warming and climate change.   On a global scale, according to a study commissioned by IFOAM, agriculture has been responsible for approximately 15% of all GHG emissions:

  • 25% of all CO2 emissions come from agriculture
  • 60% of CH4 (methane) emissions come from agriculture
  • 80% of N2O (nitrous oxide) emissions  come from agriculture

About 60% of the CO2 emissions from human and animal activities is absorbed by the oceans and plants; the remaining 40% builds up in our atmosphere.    So what to do about the 40% that’s building up in our atmosphere?  Where can it be stored?


In  looking at ways to “defuse” this CO2 build up, scientists began looking at carbon “sinks”.  Carbon sinks are natural systems that suck up and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The main natural carbon sinks are plants, the ocean and soil. Plants grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to use in photosynthesis; some of this carbon is transferred to soil as plants die and decompose. The oceans are a major carbon storage system for carbon dioxide. Marine animals also take up the gas for photosynthesis, while some carbon dioxide simply dissolves in the seawater.

Initially forests were thought to be the most efficient way to sequester (or absorb) this carbon.  It was thought that escalating fossil fuel consumption could be balanced by vast forests breathing in all that CO2.   But  these sinks, critical in the effort to soak up some of our greenhouse gas emissions, may be maxing out, thanks to deforestation, and human-induced weather changes that are causing the oceanic carbon dioxide “sponge” to weaken.

New data is beginning to show that it may be that the soil itself makes more of a difference (in terms of carbon sequestration)  than what’s growing on it.  On a global scale, soils hold more than twice as much carbon as does vegetation (1.74 trillion tons for soil vs. 672 billion tons for vegetation) – and more than twice as much as is contained in our atmosphere.

The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST), launched in 1981, is a 12 acre side by side experiment comparing three agricultural management systems: one conventional, one legume-based organic and one manure-based organic.  In 23 years of continuous recordkeeping,  the FST’s two organic systems have shown an increase in soil carbon of 15 – 23%, with virtually no increase in non-organic systems.


This soil carbon data  shows  that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [2]

But although it is well established that organic farming methods sequester atmospheric carbon, researchers have yet to flesh out the precise mechanisms by which this takes place.   One of the keys seems to be in the handling of organic matter – while conventional agriculture typically depletes organic matter, organic farming builds it thru the use of composed animal manures and cover crops.  In the FST, soil carbon levels increased more in the manure-based organic system than in the legume-based organic system, presumably because of the incorporation of manures, but the study also showed that soil carbon depends on more than just total carbon additions to the system–cropping system diversity or carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of inputs may have an effect. “We believe that the differences in decay rates [of soil organic matter] have a lot to do with it,” says Hepperly, since “soluble nitrogen fertilizer accelerates decomposition” in the conventional system.

The people at Rodale put the carbon sequestration argument into an equivalency we can all understand: think of it in terms of the number of cars that would be taken off the road each year by farmers converting to organic production.  Organic farms sequester as much as 3,670 pounds of carbon per acre-foot each year. A typical passenger car, according to the EPA, emits 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year (traveling an average of 12,500 miles per year). Here’s how many cars farms can take off the road by transitioning to organic:  car

U.S. agriculture as currently practiced emits a total of 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. Converting all U.S. cropland to organic would not only wipe out agriculture’s massive emission problem, but by eliminating energy-costly chemical fertilizers, it would actually give us a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds.

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.  In addition to emitting fewer GHGs while sequestering carbon, organic agriculture uses less energy for production.  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.

Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming:

  • 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.[3] 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.

And actually, it seems that modern industrial agriculture is on the way out.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) admitted in 1997 that wheat yields in both Mexico and the USA had shown no increase in 13 years  – blamed on the fact that fertilizers are becoming  less and less effective, as are pesticides.   The farmers are losing the battle.  Conventional agrochemical use (which includes many highly toxic substances) also has many immediate human impacts:  documented cases of short term illnesses, increased medical costs and the build up of pesticides in human and animal food chains.  The chemicals also contaminate the drinking and ground water.  And industrial agriculture is far too vulnerable to shortages in the availability of fuel and to increases in the price of oil.

That’s a lot to think about when looking for your next T shirt, so before you plunk down your money for another really cool shirt,  think about what you  will be getting in exchange.

[1] I should point out that although “sinks” in vegetation and soils  have a high
potential to mitigate increases of CO2 in the atmosphere, they are not
sufficient to compensate for heavy inputs from fossil fuel burning.  The long-term solution to global warming is simple:  reduce our use of fossil fuel, somehow, anyhow!
Yet the contribution from agriculture  could buy time during which
alternatives to fossil fuel can take affect – especially if that agricultural system is organic.

[2] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

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

Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?

14 07 2009



Synthetic fibers are the most popular fibers in the world – it’s estimated that synthetics account for about 65% of world production versus 35% for natural fibers.[1] Most synthetic fibers (approximately 70%) are made from polyester, and the polyester most often used in textiles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET).   Used in a fabric, it’s most often referred to as “polyester” or “poly”.

The majority of the world’s PET production – about 60% – is used to make fibers for textiles; about 30% is used to make bottles.   It’s estimated that it takes about 104 million barrels of oil for PET production each year – that’s 70 million barrels just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics.[2] That means most polyester – 70 million barrels worth –  is manufactured specifically to be made into fibers, NOT bottles, as many people think.  Of the 30% of PET which is used to make bottles, only a tiny fraction is recycled into fibers.  But the idea of using recycled bottles – “diverting waste from landfills” – and turning it into fibers has caught the public’s imagination.

The reason recycled polyester (often written rPET) is considered a green option in textiles today is twofold, and the argument goes like this:

  1. energy needed to make the rPET is less than what was needed to make the virgin polyester in the first place, so we save energy.
  2. And  we’re keeping bottles and other plastics out of the landfills.

Let’s look at these arguments.

1) The energy needed to make the rPET is less than what is needed to make the virgin polyester, so we save energy:


It is true that recycling polyester uses less energy that what’s needed to produce virgin polyester.  Various studies all agree that it takes  from 33%  to 53% less energy[3].  If we use the higher estimate, 53%,  and take 53% of the total amount of energy needed to make virgin polyester (125 MJ per KG of ton fiber)[4], the amount of energy needed to produce recycled polyester in relation to other fibers is:

Embodied Energy used in production of various fibers:

energy use in MJ per KG of fiber:

hemp, organic




hemp, conventional


cotton, organic, India


cotton, organic, USA


















rPET is also cited as producing far fewer emissions to the air than does the production of  virgin polyester: again estimates vary, but Libolon’s website introducing its new RePET yarn put the estimate at 54.6% fewer CO2 emissions.  Apply that percentage to the data from the Stockholm Environment Institute[5], cited above:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber:

crop cultivation

fiber production


polyester USA




cotton, conventional, USA






hemp, conventional




cotton, organic, India




cotton, organic, USA




Despite the savings of both energy and emissions from the recycling of PET, the fact is that it is still more energy intensive to recycle PET into a  fiber than to use organically produced natural fibers – sometimes quite a bit more energy.

2) We’re diverting bottles and other plastics from the landfills.


That’s undeniably true,  because if you use bottles then they are diverted!

But the game gets a bit more complicated here because rPET is divided into “post consumer” PET and “post industrial” rPET:  post consumer means it comes from bottles; post industrial might be the unused packaging in a manufacturing plant, or other byproducts of manufacturing.  The “greenest” option has been touted to be the post consumer PET, and that has driven up demand for used bottles. Indeed, the demand for used bottles, from which recycled polyester fibre is made, is now outstripping supply in some areas and certain cynical suppliers are now buying NEW, unused bottles directly from bottle producing companies to make polyester textile fiber that can be called recycled.[6]

Using true post consumer waste means the bottles have to be cleaned (labels must be removed because labels often contain PVC) and sorted.  That’s almost always done in a low labor rate country since only human labor can be used.   Add to that the fact that the rate of bottle recycling is rather low – in the United States less than 6% of all waste plastic gets recycled [7].  The low recycling rate doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to try, but in the United States where it’s relatively easy to recycle a bottle and the population is relatively well educated in the intricacies of the various resin codes, doesn’t it make you wonder how successful we might be with recycling efforts in other parts of the world?

pet-recycling-graph-2 SOURCE: Container Recycling Institute

There are two types of recycling:  mechanical and chemical:

    • Mechanical recycling is accomplished by melting the plastic and re-extruding it to make yarns.  However, this can only be done  few times before the molecular structure breaks down and makes the yarn suitable only for the landfill[8] where it may never biodegrade, may biodegrade very slowly, or may add harmful materials to the environment as it breaks down (such as antimony).  William McDonough calls this  “downcycling”.
    • Chemical recycling means breaking the polymer into its molecular parts and reforming the molecule into a yarn of equal strength and beauty as the original.  The technology to separate out the different chemical building blocks (called depolymerization) so they can be reassembled (repolymerization) is very costly and almost nonexistent.

Most recycling is done mechanically (or as noted above, by actual people). Chemical recycling does create a new plastic which is of the same quality as the original,  but the process is very expensive and is almost never done, although Teijin has a new program which recycles PET fibers into new PET fibers.

The real problem with making recycled PET a staple of the fiber industry is this:  recycling, as most people think of it, is a myth.  Most people believe that plastics can be infinitely recycled  – creating new products of a value to equal the old bottles or other plastics which they dutifully put into recycling containers to be collected. The cold hard fact is that there is no such thing as recycling plastic, because it is not a closed loop.  None of the soda and milk bottles which are collected from your curbside are used to make new soda or milk bottles, because each time the plastic is heated it degenerates, so the subsequent iteration of the polymer is degraded and can’t meet food quality standards for soda and milk bottles.  The plastic must be used to make lower quality products.  The cycle goes something like this:

  • virgin PET can be made into soda or milk bottles,
  • which are collected and recycled into resins
    • which are appropriate to make into toys, carpet, filler for pillows, CD cases, plastic lumber products,  fibers or a million other products. But not new soda or milk bottles.
  • These second generation plastics can then be recycled a second time into park benches, carpet, speed bumps or other products with very low value.
  • The cycle is completed when the plastic is no longer stable enough to be used for any product, so it is sent to the landfill
    • where it is incinerated (sometimes for energy generation, which a good LCA will offset)  –
    • or where it will hold space for many years or maybe become part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch![9]

And there is another consideration in recycling PET:  antimony, which is present in 80 – 85% of all virgin PET[10], is converted to antimony trioxide at high temperatures – such as are necessary during recycling, releasing this carcinogen from the polymer and making it available for intake into living systems.

Using recycled PET for fibers also creates some problems specific to the textile industry:

  • 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.[11]
  • Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.
  • Many rPET fibers are used in forgiving constructions such as polar fleece, where the construction of the fabric hides slight yarn variations.  For fabrics such as satins, there are concerns over streaks and stripes.

Once the fibers are woven into fabrics, most fabrics are rendered non-recyclable  because:

  • the fabrics almost always have a chemical backing, lamination or other finish,
  • or they are blends of different synthetics (polyester and nylon, for example).

Either of these renders the fabric unsuitable for the mechanical method of recycling, which cannot separate out the various chemicals in order to produce the recycled yarn; the chemical method could  –   if we had the money and factories to do it.

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving McDonough’s Cradle-to-Cradle vision lies outside the designers’ ordinary scope of interest – in the recycling system itself. Although bottles, tins and newspapers are now routinely recycled, furniture and carpets still usually end up in landfill or incinerators, even if they have been designed to be  recycled [12] because project managers don’t take the time to separate out the various components of a demolition job, nor is collection of these components an easy thing to access.

Currently, the vision that most marketers has led us to believe, that of a closed loop, or cycle, in which the yarns never lose their value and recycle indefinitely is simply that – just a vision.  Few manufacturers, such as Designtex (with their line of EL fabrics designed to be used without backings) and Victor Innovatex (who has pioneered EcoIntelligent™ polyester made without antimony),  have taken the time, effort and money needed to accelerate the adoption of sustainable practices in the industry so we can one day have synthetic fabrics that are not only recycled, but recyclable.

[1]“New Approach of Synthetic Fibers Industry”, Textile Exchange,  http://www.teonline.com/articles/2009/01/new-approach-of-synthetic-fibe.html

[2] Polyester, Absolute Astronomy.com: http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Polyester and Pacific Institute, Energy Implications of Bottled Water, Gleick and Cooley, Feb 2009, http://www.pacinst.org/reports/bottled_water/index.htm)

[3] Website for Libolon’s RePET yarns:  http://www.libolon.com/eco.php

[4] Data compiled from:  “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,                                                                       http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm and  “Ecological Footprint and Water

Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute

[5] “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute

[6] The Textile Dyer, “Concern over Recycled Polyester”,May 13, 2008,

[7] Watson, Tom, “Where can we put all those plastics?”, The Seattle Times, June 2, 2007

[8] William McDonough and Michael Braungart, “Transforming the Textile Industry”, green@work, May/June 2002.

[9] See http://www.greatgarbagepatch.org/

[10] Chemical Engineering Progress, May 2003

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

[12] “Taking Landfill out of the Loop”, Sarah Scott, Azure, 2006

Elephants Among Us

29 06 2009


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


polyester USA




cotton, conventional, USA




hemp, conventional




cotton, organic, India




cotton, organic, USA




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)
















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.