What Not to Wear

Posted in: Dear Mabel, ELNews | 0

A reader asks:

There have been numerous articles in the news about how much water is required to grow and produce cotton cloth. I am wondering which clothing materials use the least resources and would be considered ‘green’ in terms of a smaller footprint.

Mabel says:

When it comes to sustainability and finding the “greenest” material, it can be quite tricky. Each material and product comes with its own set of green challenges, whether that includes consuming large amounts of water (such as cotton) or extensive transportation (in the case of tencel).

Here are a few “greener” fabrics and textiles available.

Silk: produced from the chrysalises (cocoons) of silk worms. In order to grow and create their chrysalises, silkworms require trees and small amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. To make silk, hot water and steam are used to wash the chrysalises, but the resulting wastewater does have a low level of pollution which is then released into the groundwater. Do keep in mind that this practice often involves killing the worms, so if you’re looking for a fabric that is vegan, then there are plenty of alternatives.

Soy Cashmere: similar to silk or cashmere, soy fabric is derived from soybeans. After harvesting the beans for human consumption, the excess pulp can be used to make clothing. Considered a luxurious product, soy cashmere comes at a higher marketed price for consumers. Soybean, however is sustainable, renewable and biodegradable.

Tencel: wood pulp from eucalyptus that is fully biodegradable and uses no chemicals. While not as readily available in Canada, eucalyptus is one of the most sustainable materials around. In addition to being biodegradable, eucalyptus needs little water, no pesticides and can be grown on land that is otherwise deemed to harsh for most crops. Native to Australia, eucalyptus unfortunately needs extensive shipping and transportation to get to Canada.

Bamboo: naturally made from bamboo grass which is biodegradable, bamboo does not require the use of chemicals or pesticides, and uses significantly less water than cotton (almost four times less!). Using almost the least amount of resources than any other textile, bamboo is also one of the fastest growing plants. While most research puts bamboo at the top, it is important to consider that no bamboo grows in Canada, thus the materials will always have to be shipped overseas and long distances, typically from Asia and China.

Linen: made from flax plants, linen is biodegradable, recyclable, and requires little resources to grow. Flax can be grown on difficult land that is unsuitable for food and uses only small amounts of fertilizers and herbicides. To clean the flax stalks, they must decompose and rot before they can be properly processed. This can be done in two ways: through the use of water (which produces a large amount of contaminated wastewater) or through letting the stalks decompose in humid weather (producing no pollutants or wastewater). While Canada has not yet started the process of making linen out of flax, it can be done as flax can be easily grown here.

Hemp: one of the best, if not the best, “green” and sustainable fabric. Hemp is renewable, needs little to no pesticides, doesn’t require fertilizer to grow, and does not use excess resources to grow. Hemp is superior to cotton in many ways as it requires significantly less water and less land to produce the same amount of product. Like bamboo, hemp is one of the fastest growing plants, requiring only 11 weeks to mature. Strict regulations and laws keep hemp from being grown in Canada on a large scale, however that may be subject to change in the future, making Canada a key player in hemp production.

Less greener options include:

Wool: while renewable and biodegradable, pesticides can still be applied to sheep, resulting in health implications in humans and other animals. In order to properly clean wool, it must be scoured using high temperature water to rid grease and dirt from the product. Organic wool does use alternative solvents that can be recycled and reused, and is committed to ethical treatment of sheep by banning pesticides. Something important to keep in mind is that sheep do require a large amount of land use as well as produce significant amounts of waste.

Cotton: requiring a substantial amount of water and land use, cotton is very susceptible to pests and disease, thus requiring large amounts of pesticides and fertilizer. Due to the large amounts of pesticides used, non-organic cotton can create negative impacts such as reduced fertility, water contamination, and pesticide resistant insects. Since cotton farms do not yield as much product as other textiles, efficiency of resources and land use need to be called into question. Since no cotton is grown in Canada, it does need to be shipped and transported, typically from China, India or the US.

Synthetics: man-made from a combination of chemicals and polymers, synthetic fabrics use petrol, are non-renewable, and are not biodegradable. Synthetic clothing varies in it’s quality and expected lifespan, however due to some of the fibers used, they can be worn for a very long time. Synthetic fibres and materials can cause serious health and environmental impacts due to their toxins that do not easily break down and stay in the environment for years, contaminating groundwater, producing harmful emissions and ruining delicate ecosystems. Some popular synthetics include chiffon, acrylic, latex, nylon, velvet, polyester, denim (synthetic mixed with cotton), spandex, polypropylene, and satin.


While there are many materials that are sustainable and use less resources, Canada is limited when it comes to locally and nationally made materials. Due to this, almost all materials are subject to shipping from across seas, paired with large transportation costs. However, the most green and sustainable materials can be narrowed down to:

  1. Hemp
  2. Linen
  3. Bamboo

When you are purchasing clothing, there are a few additional steps you can take to ensure you are taking a “greener” approach:

  1. Look for organic fabrics wherever you can. By buying organic, you eliminate the release of chemicals, wastes, and pesticides into the environment.
  2. Find clothes that are not dyed, or that use eco dyes. Natural dyes and inks will reduce the amount of toxins and polluted water from the textile industry.
  3. Seek out natural, biodegradable materials. Stay away from synthetic and more toxic fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, microfibre and nylon.
  4. Try to find local and nationally made clothes that don’t require extensive shipping or travelling.
  5. Buy high quality clothes that will last a few years to reduce the amount of clothing being thrown away.

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