The environmental impact of natural fabrics



This category includes rayon, cotton, linen, ramie, hemp, jute, bamboo, soy, and Tencel®.


Really a synthetic fibre, but made from wood pulp, a sustainable resource. Regrettably, old forests are often cleared to plant faster growing pulpwood plantations of species such as Eucalyptus, which draw enormous amounts of water from the ground. Hazardous chemicals such as caustic soda and sulphuric acid are used to treat the pulp.

Cotton boll


Although cotton is the most widely used textile in the clothing industry, its cultivation certainly has an adverse effect on the planet. It requires a lot of water, pesticides as well as herbicides, and takes up large tracts of land that could be used for food production. Organic cotton is grown with the use of organic fertilizer (of plant or animal origin), and no pesticides or herbicides. Only natural dyes are used to colour the fabric. An exciting development is the cultivation of coloured cotton. This is only available in shades of green and brown, however.

Flax stem cross-section, showing locations of underlying tissues. Ep = epidermis; C = cortex; BF = bast fibres; P = phloem; X = xylem; Pi = pith


Made from the flax plant. The fibres must be loosened from the stalk through retting, a process which uses bacteria to decompose the pectin binding them together. Natural retting methods take place in tanks and pools, or directly in the fields. There are also chemical methods which are faster, but typically more harmful to the environment and the fibres themselves. The plant requires less fertilizer and fewer pesticides than cotton.


Like flax, ramie is a bast fibre plant, which requires retting. The fibre is difficult to spin because of its brittle quality and low elasticity and weaving is complicated by the hairy surface of the yarn. It is frequently blended with other textiles e.g. wool.



Also of the bast fibre family, industrial hemp (cannabis sativa sativa as opposed to cannabis sativa indica, the narcotic variety) is arguably the most versatile eco-friendly crop from which fabric can be manufactured. The plants grow quickly and densely enough to discourage the intrusion of weeds, so herbicides and pesticides are not necessary. It does not need to be fertilized either; in fact the deep roots of hemp bind and enrich the soil in which it grows. Irrigation is superfluous, as hemp survives on natural rainfall. In addition, it provides oil, hemp seeds have a high nutritional value, the plant can be used to manufacture biodegradable plastic, some fuels, and ever building materials. The long fibres are suitable for spinning with minimum processing, the only problem being the fact that the length of the fibres necessitate the use of specialized machinery.


Used to make sacks and coarse cloth, and also woven into curtains, chair coverings, carpets, rugs, hessian cloth, and backing for linoleum. Also a bast fibre crop.


Bamboo produces a lustrous textile with beautiful draping qualities, which has anti-bacterial properties and is biodegradable. It is a highly renewable resource; the grass grows quickly and does not need to be replanted as the shoots spontaneously sprout from the root system. Refining the bamboo pulp from bamboo, however, requires a number of chemical processes, rendering the product less environmentally friendly.


Soy silk is manufactured from okara, a by-product of tofu making. The fabric is soft to the touch, has a lustrous appearance, takes dye exceptionally well so less dye is needed, and wicks moisture from the skin more effectively than cotton. It is resistant to bacteria as well as UV rays, and fully biodegradable. The fibres are also stronger than those of wool, cotton or silk. Henry Ford is reputed to have had a suit manufactured out of soy silk in the 1940’s.


Tencel is similar to Rayon in that it is also manmade, from cellulose found in wood pulp, but differs in that it is available in a variety of finishes. The closed-loop production process recovers the solvent used in the spinning process and re-uses 99% of it. No chlorine is used for bleaching. Though the manufacturer claims it to be eco-friendly and suitable for people with sensitive skins, it does not dye easily without treatment with a number of chemicals. It is frequently blended with other fibres, which may affect the biodegradability of the product.

To follow: The Human Angle


17 Eco-friendly fabrics. (2008, April 10).

[Web log message]. Retrieved March23, 2012 from

Challa, L. (n.d.). Impact of textles and clothing industry on environment: approach towards eco-friendly textiles. Fibre to Fashion. Retrieved March 20, 2012 from


Cotton boll [image]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2012 from

Flax stem cross-section, showing locations of underlying tissues [image]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2012 from      

Hemp [image]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2012 from