Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

Lots of people are concerned about the transportation costs of shipping fabric from China to the US, because they think the shipping contributes to an enormous carbon footprint of, say,  cotton fabric. The thinking goes that the homegrown variety (which doesn’t have the transportation burden) is far preferable because you save so much by not having to ship such long distances.

Well…A wise guy once said that green is not black and white.

An article which appeared in the New Yorker magazine by Michael Specter entitled  “Big Foot” describes how  easy it is to confuse morality and science.  It turns out that the carbon accounting thing is extraordinarily complex and often counterintuitive.
Mr. Specter quotes Adrian Williams, an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University in England:   “The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. ”  He cites as an example the environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to England.  New Zealand apples can have a smaller carbon footprint than those raised 50 miles outside London because in New Zealand they have more sunshine than in the UK, so the yield is higher and energy needed to grow the crop is correspondingly lower.  Also electricity in New Zealand is mostly generated by renewable resources, none of which emits large amounts of CO2.

Turns out that that applies to natural fibers and fabrics also.

We found two reliable LCA studies – one done by Patagonia (for finished products) and another by the the Stockholm Environment Institute (entitled “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”) , which  both  found that transportation costs account for only about 1% of the total energy used.  Resources used to produce the fibers require by far the greatest amount of energy.   Patagonia’s Director of Sustainability, Jill Dumain, is quoted in the WSJ  “Six Products, Six Carbon Footprints”, as saying that “there’s a lot of reasons to have a tight supply chain, but environmentalism isn’t one of them.”  By far the largest part of the footprint is from the production of the fibers.   And the situation is further complicated by  organic vs. conventional production – it’s not always true that organic (in terms of carbon footprint anyway) is always better.  In fact, the study done by the Stockholm Environment Instutite found that the total ecological fooprint, measured in global hectares, to produce one ton of spun fiber is higher for organic cotton grown in Punjab, India than that of conventionally produced cotton grown in the USA.  That’s due to the poor yields in Punjab, meaning they need more land to produce the same amount of fiber – therefore greater resource use.

Polyester, the most popular fiber in the world,  also has the largest carbon footprint – by a factor of about 4!  But that’s the next blog.

7 thoughts on “With global warming, shouldn’t we always buy fabric that’s produced nearby if possible?

  1. ana cañizares says:

    hi, im keen to read your next post on polyster. as is true, green is not black or white and weighing out the environmental (and social, lest we forget) impact is not so straightforward. couple of years ago i thought of creating a reusable bag system (not popular yet here in spain, and hence no good designs) and the dilemma ended up paralyzing my endeavour: in order for the design to work (that is, for system to actually be practical and thus not end up unused in someone’s closet) the bags had to be super light and compact. Natural fibers just wouldn’t do it. Polyester is terrible, yes, but what if it was so successful that is got people off disposable plastic bags? How can you calculate that plus all the other factors you mentioned? The only alternative I could think of was creating a similar fiber derived from recycled PET. But that would end up costing more and make the bags less accessible to the public, and thus less bought, less used, and CO2 gone to complete waste. I hope you can shed some light on this catch-22!!


    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Ana: I like the word you used: paralyzed. Because I think that’s what people often become when faced with these seemingly insoluable dilemmas! But you can’t convince me that humanity can’t come up with some better solutions; I think it just takes guts and determination and a bit of luck too, really. I love natural fibers but given the number of people on the planet it’s just not feasible for natural fibers to meet total textile demand, so we have to come up with suitable – sustainable – alternatives. I think we can devise a synthetic that is not fossil fuel based, and it’s up to manufacturers to figure out a way to deliver the goods at prices people will accept. And maybe it means not trying to be perfect, because the perfect green product doesn’t exist. I’m looking into PET and rPET and will talk about that in the blog soon – as soon as I can figure out what I think about it! Leigh Anne

  2. oecotextiles says:

    Hi again Ana: I forgot to mention that I came across a study done on the estimate of CO2 emissions as a result of the Irish Plastic Bag tax. The study can be found at: http://www.bestfootforward.com/downloads/itsinthebag.PDF

    In this study, they concluded that the reduction in the use of plastic bags would result in a savings of 31,000 tons of CO2 per year – and even if they used cotton bags and accounted for the CO2 required to produce the cotton, more than 15,000 tons would be saved if only 50% of shoppers switched to cotton.

    In an article in the New York Times on the successs of the Irish tax, it also talked about other benefits of the tax:
    “In January, 2008, almost 42 billion plastic bags were used worldwide, according to reusablebags.com; the figure increases by more than half a million bags every minute. A vast majority are not reused, ending up as waste — in landfills or as litter. Because plastic bags are light and compressible, they constitute only 2 percent of landfill, but since most are not biodegradable, they will remain there.
    In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.
    Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.
    Leigh Anne

  3. Diana Dobin says:

    Thank you for starting the buzz on this very important subject! What you make, how you make it, where you make it and how you transport it should be part of every environmental consideration in manufacturing textiles. In addition, after life scenarios should be thought through as well. The pressure on landfill capacity is critical and alleviating both waste and carbon in the textile industry is paramount. My company Valley Forge Fabrics sells to the Hospitality and Lodging space only. We are the largest company of our kind and supply millions of yards each year to our industry – and our impact is substantial because of our size. We do not distribute to retail or residential markets and our products are engineered for the fire codes and wearability requirements for hotels, cruise ships, restaurants, hospitals and theatres. We are a 30 year old company that redefined ourselves, our products and our processes less than 5 years ago; we are now known for our commitment to environmental textile development and distribution – a line we call FRESH. FRESH is an acronym for Fabrics Redefining Environmental Standards (for) Hospitality. Since the FRESH inception in 2007 we have released over 1000 products – all 100% post consumer recycled PET for upholstery, drapery and duvets. We recently introduced LIVING FRESH to our market – a blend of cotton and Tencel+Plus Eucalyptus fiber – these products are for sheets, towels, duvet covers, pillow inserts and duvet inserts. Eucalyptus is well known as a rapidly renewable resource and for its use in skincare products for health and well being. We view that human health and well-being is absolutely connected to environmental sustainability, and the use of this innovative fiber for bedding really does create a better, healthier sleep. The LIVING FRESH Tencel+Plus Eucalyptus fiber is produced at Lenzing Fibers which is one of the largest fiber producers in the world. The factory is enormously responsible, has been awarded numerous environmental awards, and the manufacturing of our Tencel+plus fiber yields 10 times more end product than cotton and utilizes 100 times less water! The green story goes on and on and is massively compelling. We also have an established reclamation program and take back all FRESH and LIVING FRESH products at the end of their useful lives – albeit being engineered the way they are they last quite a long time. I am pleased to read your conversation about transportation. We look at the environmental kaleidoscope for all our products and try to make the best decisions we can. We weave worldwide and have offices and sales worldwide. Because of our international structure a flexible production model works for us and we do try to limit shipping of both raw materials and finished products whenever possible. I completely agree with you that continuing to evolve and develop innovation in textiles is critical. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

  4. Emma Howard says:

    I’ve designed for Patagonia and know that they are extremely careful to keep their “carbon footprint” small:

    They do not use bamboo fabrics because of caustic treatments needed to break down fibers.Before I found out about this, I was anxious to design prints for bamboo fabric.

    I was told that they package some of the their clothing by using nothing more than a rubber band.

    Kahala Sportswear is the first company in Hawaii to use organic cotton for their aloha shirts. I am very proud to have one of my designs included in their upcoming organic line.

    Love your blog and will refer to it on Twitter and Facebook.

    Thank you,


    1. oecotextiles says:

      Hi Emma: I’m so glad to hear that you and Kahala are looking into organic fabrics and printing for your work! I confess to a bit of self interest here, because I can’t imagine living in a world that doesn’t include your beautiful islands.
      I know about Patagonia’s committment to the environment and applaud everything they’re doing; in fact, the whole eco movement in fabrics has been supported tremendously by apparel manufacturers like Patagonia and Marks & Spencer. But I wanted to make a plug for bamboo:
      There are two ways to produce bamboo yarns: through the viscose process and by natural retting. The naturally retted bamboo is similar to linen and is rare on the market – it’s expensive to produce and the final yarns don’t have the lustre that everybody loves about the viscose bamboo. The viscose bamboo, on the other hand, is produced using a variety of chemicals, such as sulfuric acid. The chemicals used in processing don’t affect the fibers, which can pass Oeko Tex standards. The problem with this process is that it creates both air emissions and chemically filled effluent which unscrupulous manufacturers dump into our waters. But there are responsible producers who capture emissions and treat the effluent so the chemicals are not a cause for concern in our environment. And the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) will accept fabrics made of up to 10% viscose fibers, so you might be able to find natural fiber fabrics with 10% bamboo viscose (made by responsible manufacturers) that have the lustre and drape of bamboo that everybody loves. And with bamboo being so carbon positive (sequestering 30 times more carbon than an equal size stand of hardwood forest), I think it’s worthwhile looking for that fabric!

  5. Encep Amir says:

    It is relieved to find your blog because my thesis research related to this post. I have proposed a thesis research. it is about to analyze how home industries of shred fabric handicraft help to reduce bad ecological impact reduction. This industries are working on recycling solid waste of the textile industry. However, I found it was hard to get the information about ecological footprint of many different kind of fabrics, Therefore, I would be grateful if you could share some (research, report or any kind). I also do not mind to share the result of my research if you feel interested about it. You may contact my personal email if it is necessary. Thanks you so much.

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