What is the Most Sustainable Fabric?

Posted by Steve Reble on

We want sustainability!  

But why is it that sustainable so often means ultra hippy looking, bland or way beyond affordable?  

We want lively! We need long-lasting! Surely that can also mean sustainable? Let’s get this hunt for the most sustainable fabric on the road!


Cotton is rotten, polyester is bester... or is it?

More than a decade ago I made my way to a Kayaking mecca - the Futalefu river in Chile’s Patagonia region - which also happens to be the namesake of one of my most beloved brands - Patagonia.  Patagonia is a pioneer in both the gear it makes and it’s commitment to sustainability - they were the first brand to make their fleece tops out of recycled pop bottles.

Riding Canadian (in the back of a pick-up stuffed under a bunch of kayaks) in Chile's Patagonia region circa 2001

And so Patagonia’s gear was the foundation of my outdoor adventures in Chile because it subscribed to the general rule that “cotton is rotten and polyester (fleece) is bester” by keeping you warmer and drier when riding in the belly of beast.

Great right?

Fast forward to 2017 and the birth of Etee, where my education in eco-friendly materials went full tilt, and soon discovered the fleece that kept me warm on the river contributed to the same problem that I’m fighting against at this very moment - adding microscopic plastic particles to the same rivers, lakes and Oceans I love:

That fleece you're wearing is starting to pill — and may be polluting Lake Winnipeg… New research suggests the world's 11th largest freshwater basin is taking in a surprising amount of microplastic — on par with the Great Lakes — and it could be coming off the backs of nature-lovers.  (CBC News)

Ignorance certainly was bliss, but I was done with sticking my head in a hole - I was ready to learn about what my options were, and make better choices.

 

Okay, so maybe Cotton isn’t so bad after all because it comes from a plant right?  Not so fast...

“Cotton production still uses just over 2 percent of the world’s arable land and accounts for about 3 percent of global water use, according to the United Nations.

Cotton also requires pesticides. According to the Department of Agriculture, 7 percent of all pesticides in the United States are used on cotton. Many of those chemicals seep into the ground or run off into surface water.

Consumers can choose organic cotton grown without pesticides, but it uses more water and requires more land than conventional crops. Organic cotton can also be much more expensive and difficult to find.” (New York Times)


Hmmm, okay, what about animal hides and leather - that’s natural, right?

For the vegans in the house, this is obviously a no go, but a quick youtube search will pop up some pretty heart breaking videos about the treatment of animals in leather industry making even the meat lovers in our audience cringe.  I used to bypass this guilt by convincing myself that the hide of an animal is just a byproduct of the meat industry and so leather was at least some sort of atonement in that it it was making full use of the animal.  

Wishful thinking.

Sadly, animals used for leather are a whole other category unto themselves.

“Leather? What could possibly be wrong with this ubiquitous shoe, jacket, and everything else product? Sadly, quite a lot. It’s worth noting that more than half of leather comes from China or India, where animal welfare and environmental regulations either don’t exist or are not enforced.” (Huffington Post)


And if you don’t mind the reality of where your steak and leather boots come from, what about the cattle industry’s impact on global warming.

"Methane, which is a byproduct of digestion by cud-chewing animals, is a gas 23 times more warming to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. A 2006 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization attributed 18 percent of the greenhouse gases produced each year to livestock." (New York Times)


Keeping our earth at the forefront of our minds, next we learned of the harmful effects that the process of tanning the leather can have (and no, we don’t mean sending the hide off to a sunny beach to catch some rays).

"The process of tanning leather is incredibly toxic. Most is chrome tanned, which results in carcinogenic chromium (VI) being pumped into the water table. While most factories in Europe and America can no longer get away with this practice, the same cannot be said of the vast leather industry in China, where many bags, jackets, and shoes begin life - including many bound for the luxury market. While leather can be tanned used non-toxic vegetable dyes, chrome tanning is faster and produces a flexible leather that's better for high-end bags and coats, so there's no incentive for factories to switch."  (The Guardian)


In the immortal words of Charlie Brown... "Ugh!", which leaves you wondering “where do we go from here?"  

Simple answer - just don’t use leather. No animals harmed in the writing of that sentence, no environment detriment incurred. Easy peasy.

Opting for vegan leather is the perfect answer, right? Not so fast, says Mother Jones:

“Most fake leathers are made of some kind of plastic product—which was is almost certainly derived from petroleum. Some faux leathers are even made of polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC), a product that contains, among other” not-so-nice chemicals, phthalates.” (Mother Jones) 

Add to that the issue we already covered with polyester and other synthetic fibres - namely that they’re derived from petroleum and therefore shed plastic filaments once in the hands of consumers:  

“...Scientists have not been able to fully quantify the scale of the problem, but early research showed that plastic fibers are among the most abundant environmental debris in the world, according to Mark Browne, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.” (New York Times)


Okay, I’ve got, I’ve got it…. Wool! It can’t be that baa-aaad!

Though sometimes itchy, wool keeps us super warm on the dampest of days, is a rapidly renewable resource, biodegradable, reusable and recyclable.

All right, we’re done here - slam dunk on the best pick.

But there’s always the flip side to the coin, isn’t there? Let’s start with the mixture of pesticides and fungicides used to protect sheep from infestation, and its tremendous health effects to the animals themselves, their farmers, not to mention the associate contamination and water pollution.

Oh, and then there’s the huge amounts of water and extra chemicals used to scour the wool, leaving heavily polluted waste-water. Up for more? Mothproofing by way of sheep dipping isn’t an uncommon treatment to keep your woolies hole-free, but it comes with possible health problems, production of waste that finds its way into our waterways, and is toxic to aquatic life.  (Daily Post)

 

Stunned with our findings, we pulled up our dropped jaws and set out on a path to become 'more' sustainable, if not 100% sustainable.

Cause here's the thing, we know there are a lot of unique fabrics being developed like 'mushroom leather', but if you want to be able to produce products at a somewhat reasonable price and volume that will reach an audience outside just the hardcore environmentalists, you have to make some concessions.

 

So we have resolved to use the following fabrics in the creation of our reusable foodwraps, cutlery pouches, lunch & market bags:

Organic Cotton & Hemp

When I first heard about organic cotton, I didn't really get it. Organic food made sense, 
but I didn't understand why Organic cotton was so important. But it turns out that cotton requires a lot of processing and it's really hard on fields, which in turn runs off into our water table.


Here's a quote from Huff Post that elaborates:

"What makes organic materials, like cotton, so much better than the conventional ones? Organic cotton is grown in a way that uses methods and materials that lessen the impact on our environment. A big effort in the organic movement is to use growing systems that replenish and maintain soil fertility and build biologically diverse agriculture. Organic cotton uses far less water too."

Of course, organic cotton still uses a lot of water, land and it sucks up a fair bit of energy, which is why we started incorporating more hemp into our products because it uses less water

"Overall, hemp appears to be slightly easier on the environment than cotton, considering it's superior on water and land requirements, and only slightly worse for energy use." (Slate)

Hand Waxed Canvas

To make our bags more weather resistant - without relying on nylons and polyester - we started hand waxing our bags and wraps with organic beeswax and non-gmo soy.  

Reclaimed Leather 

There's a lot of used leather out there.  And once it's done, most gets trucked to landfills or sits in factories, so we decided to start by using reclaimed leather for all our straps and trim. And after a fair bit of digging we settled on old horse straps and reins from a Mennonite farmer we met outside of Toronto and reclaimed military gun slings from wars gone by. 

And there's something poetic in that, don't you think?  

So there you have it.  Are we sustainable in the truest sense of the word?  No, we are not.  Are we moving in the right direction?  I would give a resounding YES YES YES!

 

 

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