What is the Most Sustainable Fabric?

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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    • Just purchased my first wraps! I’m so excited!! Choosing green is always for me! https://youtu.be/K7MgKzwFJPE

      Emery on
    • I received your product in the mail and am using it to thaw out my morning English muffins from the freezer but taking one out the night before and wrapping it in the Etee wrap. Love the idea of less plastic for everyday use in the home, now for the rest of the world. My grandfather, back in the 1910s used to farm hemp for rope making around the farm and apparently it had many other uses, we need to get back to growing more varied and sustainable crops for all sorts of uses. Good luck with the adventure you are on.

      Anne Langley on
    • I am new to all this…My moment recently was the two whales found with tons of plastic in their intestines. I knew I had to make some changes, I stopped buying plastic water bottles two months ago, and just bought 4 sets of the wrappers, I am waiting for them to arrive. I am excited to make these changes and planning on making more. It’s baby steps, but steps in the right direction. Thank you for your product!

      Leslie on
    • I recently received your produce bags and small bags to replace all forms of plastic. I am amazed at how your bags preserve the freshness of produce… i.e. apples… mine were starting to get a little soft, so I thought I’d give the bags a real test! I placed 6 small Gala apples in a bag, kind of forgot about them, then remembered I needed them for a smoothie recipe… opened the bag and every one was as crisp and fresh tasting as though I had just brought them home from the store! (Same happened with half of an avocado… after several days, it didn’t turn brown and the flesh was still fairly firm! TY!

      Sharri Louise on
    • I just found your product and am waiting for them to arrive. Love the blog. You sound like you could belong to my family…Raft guides and conservationists.

      Jen Cheshire on
    • What about bamboo?? I’d love to talk more about this with you. Very passionate about this space and your work.

      Jackie on
    • This is a well-written and informative article. I agree with the basic thought behind it.

      However, human beings have been given dominion over the earth and all that lies therein. With that comes responsibility. One must remember that any and all actions have good (and laudable) consequences in the short term AND the long term. Nonetheless, these same actions will have bad (and untenable) consequences in the short term AND the long term.

      What must human beings do? Well, firstly, don’t drive oneself to the point of insanity over the issue. Don’t constantly change how one lives, to adjust to some newly perceived “danger,” a “danger,” subsequently proved to be insequential or not what it was hyped up to be.

      Think, go over all the aspects of what a change would produce, good and bad. Make the change, with the intent of ameliorating the negative that will occur and enhancing the positive. One must remember that NOTHING is 100% anything.

      We are not on this earth to be unhappy and miserable. One can have a happy (fulfilling) life as a responsible, thinking human being. Caroming back and forth does not reflect this nor does it produce this.

      E. Sherry Miller on
    • Thanks. I really enjoyed this post. It was informative AND fun! I’ve just started using your food wraps. We eat mostly home-cooked meals and refrigerate leftovers for reuse. We also have a large dog with digestive problems who can eat only raw meat and veggies. To keep costs down we buy huge packages of chicken wings, hearts, and gizzards for her, then freeze them in serving-size Ziplocs. Any ideas about a “greener” way to freeze smallish portions of raw meat?

      Judith Wilson-Pates on
    • This is very helpful information, thank you so much for your thorough research. Most of my bad choices when purchasing products are out of sheer ignorance, so I’m trying to learn as well. I hope you post more information about sustainable products in the future.

      Kerri Craig on

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