Spotlight on Sustainable Vegan Textiles: Natural fibers cotton, linen and hemp
by Summer Edwards | Posted on October 14 2016
More and more conscious consumers are looking to veganism as a way approach their diet and lifestyle in a way that is cruelty-free and environmentally just. As a vegan company, Bead & Reel curates a selection of vegan-friendly garments to make this choice more accessible for you. Yet avoiding animal fibres or skin does not always guarantee that your choice is ethical, nor does it always guarantee that your choice does no harm to animals or the environment. For this reason it is important to also know which vegan textiles are genuinely sustainable options- textiles that avoid polluting habitats and harming wildlife and ecosystems.
Today's post will introduce you some key sustainable textiles that are made from natural plant fibres and have been used to clothe human being for thousands of years. These are linen, hemp and cotton.
Cotton alone is not a sustainable or harmless choice for your wardrobe. Cotton is considered the world's dirtiest agricultural crop, and is responsible for 16% of the world's insecticide use. The hazardous chemicals used on cotton crops are a threat to water supplies in regions where cotton is farmed, many of the toxic chemicals used on cotton crops are harmful to fish, birds, bees and other wildlife. I was astounded to learn that one of the commonly used cotton pesticides- aldicarb- is capable of poisoning a human being with a single drop absorbed through the skin. This toxic chemical is used substantially in the US, and in many other countries across the world. The chemicals used on cotton also poison farm workers, particularly in developing countries, where worker protections are lax. In addition to this, forced labour and child labour is also a significant issue in the cotton industry.
For these reasons, it is important that you choose certified organic cotton, which ensures that toxic chemicals are not used, that high standards of environmental protections are in place, and that safe working conditions are in place. For an even better choice, the cotton can also be Fair-trade certified.
It is possible for some cotton to be a reasonably good choice, even if not organic. Cotton that is produced in a traditional manner may be far lower impact. For example, Ethiopia is one of the world's oldest cotton producing nations, and although their cotton is not certified organic, most of it is still produced in the chemical-free way that it has been produced for thousands of years. Similarly, you can find Peruvian cotton which has been traditional grown and can be considered sustainable. With cotton like these, you need to do your research to know that you a making a good choice.
Cotton is so ubiquitous because it is so versatile. Denim is made from cotton, so to ensure that your jeans do not poison wildlife, look for organic cotton denim. Organic cotton lasts much longer than conventional cotton, and is much softer. I own a couple of organic cotton dresses which I wear every week, almost all year long- layered up with leggings and cardigans for cold weather or with sandals for warm weather. A good quality organic cotton dress will last you 4-5 years worn this way, so it is worth investing in one that you love. Linen
Linen is perhaps my favourite sustainable textile. It has been grown and produced traditionally in Japan and across Europe. The beautiful textile is one that seems to grow better with age, softening with wear. The Japanese decorative mending tradition Boro, was inspired by the beauty and longevity of this textile. Linen has been used by humans for a very long time- there are archaeological remains of linen from 8000BC from the Swiss lake area. So it is the type of textile that can be farmed and produced with very low impact.
However, some modern linen is more harmful that it should be. As a general rule of thumb, linen produced in China has been grown with agro-chemicals and the processing is also higher impact, whereas European and Japanese linen is produced in more natural and low impact methods. For the lowest impact, choose organic linen. But you can also feel confident that good quality linen from European or Japanese mills is a good sustainable choice, that does not do unnecessary harm to wildlife and the environment. Linen is a wonderful investment for your sustainable cruelty-free wardrobe.
A linen garment will last for years, and soften beautifully with age. You will get many years of wear out of a good quality linen garment. Even more if you are game enough to get creative and try out some decorative mending techniques for yourself.
Hemp comes close to linen for me, as one of my favourite sustainable textiles. As a amateur textiles artist and a sustainable textiles nerd, my love for hemp (and also linen) says a lot about their beauty and sustainability. In fact, in Japanese tradition, there is no distinction between hemp and linen. Their production methods, finished qualities, and their low impact on the environment are very similar.
Hemp can be grown on marginal land, so unlike cotton, it doesn't displace food crops. The deep root structures of the crop also protect the soil against erosion. Like linen, hemp can be grown without agro-chemicals. Hemp also has the highest yield of all natural textiles, with up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton. Hemp has been much maligned in the US, and the cotton industry used it's relationship to marijuana to push out it's production. But the sustainability benefits of hemp have seen it come back into favour, particularly because the hemp crop for textiles does not actually produce THC in sufficient quantities to be cultivated for drug use.
Hemp is becoming much easier to access this beautiful natural textile, and I highly recommend seeking it out for your sustainable vegan wardrobe. It is commonly blend with other plant fibres, particularly organic cotton, to improve it's strength.
Garment Care & End-of-life
All of these textiles are hard-wearing and can be washed in a normal wash. If you have outdoor space, the best way to dry these textiles is on a washing line, not in a dryer. As with all clothing, they will last much longer and have a much lower ecological footprint that way. Many hemp, linen and organic cotton garments will need a light iron to remove creases before wearing.
With all of these natural textiles, at the end of their useful life they can be safely composted. They will break down in just a matter of months and will enhance the quality of the soil. If you are lucky enough to have a backyard, pop them in your compost pile. If not, cut them up for cleaning rags and use for as long as possible, before discarding them with your food waste. If these garments go to regular landfill, they will not break down properly and will produce excessive methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. As much as possible, we should try to avoid this.
If you enjoyed getting an insight into the your sustainable vegan textile options, you will get a lot out of my Guide to Sustainable Textiles- a 60 page guide to all the sustainability considerations for textile choice in your wardrobe. At only $9, it gives you all the information you need to be able to make sustainable choices when shopping for your wardrobe.
(This post contains some affiliate links)