by Staff Writer Megan E. Hunt.
But what exactly is rayon made of? How about spandex? Or acrylic? Isn’t acrylic something that’s used in salons for artificial nails?
What exactly am I dressing my body in, and why does it matter?
As society develops and the global population increases, we find ourselves focusing more and more on the environmental effects of our industries, our societies, our businesses, even our daily choices.
The textile industry is not (as of now) known for its environmental hazards. That is to say, it has not gained the reputation that has amassed around other “non-ecofriendly” materials, such as the plastic bag.
However, in actuality the textile industry is expansive and is one of the worst industries for the environment.
One of the most common ways this industry touches us (literally) everyday is through clothing. The materials out of which our clothes are made tell us something about its cost to the environment. Unfortunately, a clothing tag with the word “rayon” or “spandex” inscribed on it does not usually tell us the whole story.
Below you will find a break down of eight common fabrics: a description of what materials are used to produce the fabric, and positives and negatives of both practical and environmental aspects of the fabrics. Think of it as a decoder of label tags – words we’ve seen so often but never really understood what they signified.
These products are constantly presented before us for purchase. The more information we have about them – and about their environmental ramifications – the easier it is to weigh our options and make choices that give us the best results for us and for the environment.
Unit I: Natural
Ingredients: Cotton plant, Gossypium
Pros: This is a natural fiber. Cotton fabric is easy to find and inexpensive.
Cons: Mass amounts of pesticides are used in cotton production (cotton wins the prize for the crop with the most pesticide use!), cotton also requires a lot of water. For example, 257 gallons of water are needed to produce one t-shirt.
Overall: Natural fiber, inexpensive, pesticide-free when organic, comfortable, easier and easier to find organic. unfortunately, heavy water use.
Pros: Natural fiber, no pesticides needed.
Cons: Possible water contamination from manure, detergents used for cleaning the unrefined wool, animal rights issues surrounding factory-farmed sheep.
Overall: Relatively easy to find, warm, sparse chemical use. unfortunately, occasionally itchy, and not exactly practical for everyday wear.
Ingredients: Flax plant
Pros: natural fiber, processed using relatively low amounts of energy, a great fabric for warm weather, requires less water and chemicals than cotton, long fabric life
Cons: pesticides (not used if organic), somewhat expensive, not practical for cooler temperatures, not as widely available as other fabrics
Overall: Relatively low environmental impact, however it is not widely manufactured, is not great for cooler weather, and can be expensive.
Unit II: Manufactured
Pros: Holds its shape, can be highly elastic and wicks away moisture-thus is good for sportwear, breaks down quickly in the environment.
Cons: Acrylonitrile is also used in the production of plastics, debated whether or not it actually breaks down easily, high levels of exposure to acrylonitrile are considered toxic.
Overall: Extremely useful in certain contexts (just ask the NBA and NFL-acrylic socks are included in their uniform!), however extensive exposure is not recommended.
Pros: Strong yet lightweight, versatile fabric, inexpensive and widely available.
Cons: Not biodegradable, creates a greenhouse gas 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide, manufacture is energy intensive.
Overall: Numerous environmental negatives surround nylon, arguably so many that they outweigh the positives of this fabric.
Pros: Durable, extends the life of garments, widely used not only in clothing but in furniture, as insulation, and for many other goods, inexpensive.
Cons: Not biodegradable, energy intensive production, water and air pollution.
Overall: Practical, widely used, but unfortunately has heavy environmental ramifications.
Ingredients: Polyester, diisocyanate (two isocyanate- nitrogen, carbon, and oxygen compound)
Pros: Can be greatly stretched, comfortable
Cons: Spandex is not used for many items, not everyone can (should) wear spandex in public, same negatives as polyester listed above.
Overall: Useful for a limited amount of sectors and due to the environmental damage, it should remain limited.
*Other manufactured fabrics with similar chemical processes as those listed above include acetate, lycra, lastex, etc.
Unit III: Half and Half
Pros: Rayon can be created from a number of sources, which makes it easy to manufacture. It’s also comfortable and inexpensive.
Cons: Rayon often contributes to deforestation and the chemical process produces harmful water and air emissions.
Overall: Rayon does well when graded according to practical requirements. Unfortunately, it scores low on the environmentally friendly test.
ATTENTION: Safety Warning
There are positives and negatives to every fabric we come across. There are innovations in the textile industry. Hemp*, an easily grown plant is being increasingly used for many items including textiles. Bamboo, growing densely and quickly, is another eco-friendly fiber that has become a bit more popular.
We do need to be careful, however, as companies try increasingly to freeload of of the “green” success. Bamboo is a good example of this. As seen above, rayon can be made from anything. Manufacturers have been using bamboo to make rayon and calling it “bamboo”. However, the rancid chemical process used makes it no longer classifiable as eco-friendly or bamboo. Fortunately, the FTC has begun to crack down on this false labeling.
*Hemp is an extremely versatile plant, capable of being used for an enormous amount of purposes (over 25,000)! It grows densely, making it difficult for weeds to grow thereby naturally minimizing the need for chemical weed-killers. Check back soon for an introductory course to hemp!
Preview of Fabrics 201: Textiles of Tomorrow
Ecotextile production and use is a new frontier! The RITE group, a major leader of the movement, was created just three years ago in 2007.
“Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment”, RITE seeks to “provide advice and fact based information to reduce/minimise the negative environmental effects of the production, use and disposal of textiles. To drive forward the sustainable and ethical production of textiles and apparel throughout the global supply chain.”
There are still many changes that need to be made in order for environmentally friendly textiles to be inexpensive, comfortable, and widely used.
As Prof Michael Braungart, the founder of the chemical section of Greenpeace, said at the first annual RITE conference on sustainable textiles and clothing, “Paving the way to hell with good intentions is not enough.” Tomorrow is here; it’s time to address the issues.