Smarter Living: Stuff

Fabrics are so ubiquitous it’s easy to forget the acres of cotton crops, herds of sheep and barrels of petroleum behind the yards and yards of fibers we use every day. But growing and manufacturing the mountains of fabric that we dress ourselves in, towel off with, sleep under and hang over our windows takes a measurable toll on the planet. Here’s the environmental impact behind the fabrics of our lives, and a guide to choosing responsibly when shopping for blankets, sheets, towels, curtains, clothing, pillows and bags, to name a few.

COTTON (clothing, bedding, towels and more)

Every thirty days, another 50,000 million pounds of cotton is produced worldwide. There’s no debating the utility of the crop, which is used to make everything from clothing to coffee filters, but those tons of material come with a substantial trade off. For one, cotton production is responsible for 18 percent of worldwide pesticide use. Among the top 15 pesticides used on cotton are seven that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens, and 13 of cotton’s registered pesticides have been associated with bird population die-offs. Furthermore, pesticides and fertilizers inevitably run off into groundwater, which supplies about 50 percent of drinking water in the U.S. In addition to troublesome pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, which reduce biodiversity, are also common in cotton production. Finally, cotton, even organic cotton, consumes enormous amounts of water, and diverting it from waterways for irrigation has caused near-drought conditions in some areas of the world.

How to get it green:

Look for certified organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically engineered seeds.

Even organic cotton may be dyed using heavy metals and toxic substances. Look for products certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which requires the use of certifed organic cotton manufactured according to low-impact processes (see GOTS sidebar).

Another good option is Foxfibre color-grown cotton, which has been bred to grow in varying shades of brown, green, beige, white, red and pink. Their Colororganic line is all dye -free and certified organic.

Cotton can also be dyed red, yellow and grey-blue using clay.

RAYON (clothing, bedding, towels and more)

Wood pulp is a naturally antimicrobial fiber, and is actually softer and silkier than cotton. Derived from eucalyptus trees, rayon is the most common wood-pulp fiber. Its production is a water- and chemical-intensive process, and also contributes to deforestation and pollution in developing countries like Indonesia. Clothing made from rayon tend to require dry-cleaning, which usually involves the use of the cancer-causing dry cleaning solvent perchloroethylene.

Bamboo has been trumpeted as a more eco-friendly fiber source for rayon, because the grass can be harvested every three to four years and the crop is also naturally pest-resistant, allowing it to be cultivated without pesticides. Unfortunately, to keep up with increasing demand for bamboo products, farmers have started raising it on plantations as a monocrop, which leads to a reduction in biodiversity and an increase in pesticide use. Furthermore, the process of turning stalks into soft, absorbent fibers often involves the caustic chemicals sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide.

A greener wood pulp derived option is Tencel produced by Lenzing. Like most rayon it is derived from eucalyptus trees, but is dissolved in N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (a less-toxic chemical than that used in standard rayon processing) in a closed loop process, which recycles the solvent rather than dumping it in waterways. Tencel has been certified by Oeko Tex as containing low levels of manufacturing chemicals and byproducts. Some wood pulp is sourced from forests certified by the highly regarded Forest Stewardship Council. However, wood pulp is also sourced from forests certified by bodies accredited by the PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification), an umbrella organization which allows for clear cutting and holds harvesters to lower standards than FSC. It can be blended with cotton and Lenzing claims that because of the lower water consumption involved in cultivation, a 25-percent Tencel blend would reduce water consumed by 25 percent.

How to get it green:
Look for Tencel, which has a less polluting production process than standard rayon.

Also, seek out these certifications:

  1. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which means that the pulp comes from wood from well-managed forests.
  2. Oeko-Tex, which guarantees fabrics have very low levels of manufacturing chemicals and byproducts.

WOOL (clothing, bedding)

Not nearly as resource-intensive as cotton, wool is a versatile fiber with its own unique perks. For one, wool is naturally fireproof, alleviating the need for treatment with chemical fire-retardants on products that require them as a safety precaution, such as mattresses. On the other hand, conventional wool does have its problems. Before it’s sheared from the sheep, it can be a cozy haven for external parasites such as lice, ticks and mites. To prepare wool for human use, it’s often dipped in pesticides that can harm farm workers and can even linger on the material. Wool is also usually treated with mothproofing insecticides.

How to get it green:
Choose certified organic wool. Organic wool producers use no chemical pesticides on their sheep, and follow the same standards set for USDA organic meat, dairy and other animal-fiber products. Also, organic livestock farms can only carry to capacity, preventing land degradation from overgrazing.

Choose PureGrow wool, an effort by Sonoma County organic farmers that eliminates pesticides and ensures sheep graze on pasture and are raised according to organic standards.

SYNTHETICS (clothing, bedding)

Synthetic fibers, like polyester and nylon, are made from petroleum and contribute to the depletion of this non-renewable resource. Manufacturing synthetic fibers is also energy-intensive and can release lung-damaging and globe-warming pollutants such as nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide, heavy metals and carbon dioxide into the air. Infants of female workers exposed to antimony, a chemical used in polyester production, have suffered from higher rates of miscarriage, premature birth, and stunted growth, and breathing antimony has caused lung cancer in some animal studies. Polyester textiles are also typically treated with wrinkle-minimizing finishes that contain formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen that also causes flu-like symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, throat irritation, headache, fatigue, and respiratory problems.

How to get it green:
Although there aren't eco-friendly ways to produce synthetic fibers, purhcasing recycled polyester goods extends the life of the fabric and keeps it out of landfill.

HEMP AND LINEN (clothing, bedding, curtains and more)

Both hemp and linen are derived from plants that, like bamboo, grow quickly and need few pesticides or insecticides. But for different reasons, both textiles aren’t currently produced in the United States. Though linen is naturally durable and the flax plant, which is used to make it, can be easily produced organically, all textile-grade flax fiber is currently imported. Hemp bark, which has been cultivated to make clothing and other products for 12,000 years, contains some of the strongest and longest soft fibers on the planet, is a naturally pest-resistant crop. But because it belongs to the same species as marijuana, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has
effectively banned hemp production in the U.S. since the 1950s, despite the fact that hemp contains too little THC
(tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, to produce any narcotic effects. Fortunately, hemp is grown legally in Europe, Asia and Canada.

How to get it green:
Though hemp and flax crops require little to no synthetic pesticides and herbicides to produce, a certified organic label is the only guarantee that hemp and linen materials were produced without pesticides. Look for linen that has been certified organic by Quality Insurance International (QAI) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM). Few companies claim to manufacture organic hemp, but Rawganique’s Romanian grown hemp received organic certification in 2005.

SILK (clothing, bedding, curtains and more)

Long considered a sleek luxury fiber, conventional silk’s production process is actually decidedly unpleasant. The fabric’s yarn comes from the cocoons of domesticated silkworms. Because the natural emergence of the adult moth damages the silk fibers in the cocoon, the larvae are boiled or roasted alive to kill the worm and remove the cocoon intact. Only enough adult moths as are needed to continue the species are allowed to emerge naturally

How to get it green:
Choose Ahimsa Peace Silk. Peace silk is made from the cocoons of semi-wild and wild moths in India that have emerged from their cocoons naturally. Wild-crafted silk also helps maintain the forest habitat of moths by linking the livelihood of tribal spinners and weavers to the existence of these trees.


  • Look for fabrics that bear the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) (see sidebar)
  • When GOTS-certified products aren’t available, look for Oeko-Tex. Oeko-Tex is a little less stringent, and primarily ensures that any chemicals used in dyeing or finishing aren't lingering on the finished product.
  • Look for either heavy-metal-free or vegetable-based dyes. "GOTS-certified" products are free of heavy metals.
  • Choose recycled fibers whenever possible, and look for fleece made from post-consumer recycled materials.
  • Look for cotton that is either unbleached or bleached with hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine bleach.
  • Avoid textiles labeled permanent press, no-iron, crease-resistant, shrink-proof, stretch-proof, water repellent, or water-proofed. Some finishes, such as those to prevent stains and wrinkles, can release formaldehyde into the air.
  • Look for products that are machine-washable to keep dust and allergen levels at a minimum (wool is naturally inhospitable to dust mites).

last revised 11/8/2011

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