Cotton hasn’t been fashionable for a long time. Even when grown biologically it doesn’t offset the problems it causes. Sustainable alternatives can be made from milk, nettles, pineapples, algae, coconuts, and the stalks of lotus flowers. This article has the Dif top three.
Text: Jacqui Burger, Milan Carels
Photography : Imke Ligthart
We’ve been using hemp to make clothes for centuries. It is stronger than cotton, uses less water, and grows fast. Hemp cultivation requires less arable ground and doesn’t need pesticides. It can be grown in nearly every climate and even absorbs Co2. Hemp is now more often used for textiles than for drug use. Adidas, Quicksilver and Patagonia are using it. The Dutch company Stexfibers developed a technique to make hemp-fibers compatible with machines which process ‘normal’ cotton. Ben Ratelband, Stexfibers CEO, wants to turn hemp into a game changer in the textiles industry.
In Thailand and Myanmar, they’ve been making clothes with lotus stalks for ages. The fabric is tight woven, lightweight, superior quality, and (something which is useful if its white) stain resistant. Lotusfabric is the most ecological in the world. Lotus plants require little pesticides, the fabric is more durable, and needs to be washed less. Hero’s Fashion made a dress shirt with it, the No Mark Lotus Shirt.
Singtex in Taiwan created a thread from coffee grounds and recycled PET bottles. S.Café protects against UV rays and bad body odours, and dries quickly, about 200 times as fast as cotton. S.Café is sustainably produced and has widespread uses, examples include sports clothing, bedsheets and shoes. Timberland, Puma, and The North Face are using S.Café. Singtex is also working on other variants using wood pulp instead of polyester, making the fabric completely biodegradable.
(LONGREAD 7 MINUTES)
After synthetic clothing it is now cotton that is under scrutiny. Is the cotton industry sustainable enough? Are there sustainable alternatives? We no longer want clothing made from resources which required loads of pesticides and water. Dif Report has looked at what alternatives you can wear.
In the documentary ‘The True Cost’, you can see the devastating effect of the upscaled and industrialized cotton cultivation. LaRhea Pepper shows us the influence of the cotton industry on the health of the people who work in it, the planet, and our habitat. Pepper grew up within the industry and is now one of the biggest proponents of organic cotton and ecofarming.
The ecological cotton farmer and CEO of Textile Exchange sees how awareness is growing both with customers and within the industry. The demand for bio cotton is increasing, but the industry seems unable to keep up. According to LaRhea Pepper the market is growing steadily, but the speculative growth is over, now it is less attractive to invest in a volatile market. Stricter certification also plays a role in this.
Consumers and clothing brands can show they’re willing to pay a fair price and demand good conditions through clear certification. The organic industry in turn needs to be willing and able to invest in training and development of the farmers. Organic farming is not something which just happens but needs to be carefully guided.
Cotton cultivation will become more sustainable
‘Not everything can be controlled’, says Pepper in an interview with Dif. ‘GMO companies couldn’t control their technology – resulting in GMO pollution. There is no fence that I can put up as an organic farmer that can keep this type of criminal trespass out of my field. I can put up buffers, we are investing in our own seed-breeding, paying extra for greater segregation – doing what we can. We live in a polluted and fallen world – so there are things beyond my control – the rain that comes, the water in the rivers – and the air that comes through my field. It should also be noted that organic is NOT a purity claim – it is a production claim – it is about HOW I am growing my crop.’
LaRhea Pepper is optimistic. She anticipates that cotton cultivation will increasingly become more sustainable. Cotton Made in Africa, Reel by CottonConnect, Fairtrade, BCI, the first steps towards complete sustainability and recovery have been made. Thanks to the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit there is a 2025 Sustainable Cotton Initiative, in which brands commit to using 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. This way ‘brands move from token programs to company wide strategies’
‘My personal vision is to change the structure of agriculture – to a system that supports life – life in the soil, life in the water, life on the farm, life for the family – and for the community. Healthy and resilient communities!! Cotton, as a crop in that system can be a powerful market driven solution. Cotton not only provides a cash crop with the fiber, but also creates oil and meal from the seed – serving the food and cattle industries. Cotton also provides cooking fires in many communities by harvesting the cotton stalks. Cotton grown in an organic production system brings rotation crops, food security and biodiversity – all without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides. Speaking as a farmer – it is about life!!!’
The international market research institute Markets&Markets predicts that market for ecological fibers will have a 70 billion euro revenue. In 2020, according to M&M, about 22.000 kiloton ecological fibers will be produced, mostly bio cotton, polyester and viscose,
largely from India and the United States.
Polyester, acrylic, nylon and spandex use petroleum as a resource, not exactly good for the environment. And ‘manmade fibers, such as Tencel and Lyocell, might need less resources, but require a lot of energy and manpower. But there are more alternatives, each with their own advantages over cotton.
A steam explosion to turn hemp into the perfect thread
Hemp has been used for clothing for centuries. It is stronger than cotton and it grows fast. Hemp needs less water and arable land and can be grown without pesticides. In dry and warm areas, the hemp stalks are thick and produce a jute like fiber, in colder areas it grows thinner and ends up more like linen. Textiles made from hemp keeps its shape and absorbs paint more effectively. Hence needing less and having more color retention after washing. Hemp cultivation actually enriches the soil.
Hemp cultivation for use in the textile industry is overtaking that for drugs. China is a frontrunner, because the industrial use of the cannabis plant was never prohibited. China produces over 50% of global hemp and is heavily investing in better fibers and environmentally friendly production methods, without poison and heavy metals. Adidas, Quicksilver and Patagonia use hemp in their products.
Ben Ratelband, CEO of the Dutch company Stexfibers, want to make the local agriculture and production industry more sustainable. His innovative technique makes use of a steam explosion, through which the hemp fibers becomes so soft it can replace cotton. ‘the hard, unrefined hemp fibers are put in a large kettle’, Ratelband says. ‘this is filled with steam and pressurized. Next the fibers are filled with steam. At a certain moment we then take away all the pressure at once. This will cause the fiber to explode and turns it into smaller softer fibers. You can make incredibly strong yarn with this, suitable for the textile industry as an alternative for cotton.’
Several well-known denim brands are working on jeans made from hemp and cotton. The consumer wont notice, besides through marketing campaigns which highlight their sustainable production. Marketing professionals are already on board, but the problem lies with the buyers, who would rather not pay more as this could negatively impact their position in the market
‘there will only be a radical change when the textile industry will be willing to invest in materials and production methods, and when big brands are willing to make less profit and have a smaller marketing budget.’ Ratelband expects public opinion to go the same way for cotton as it did with food. We don’t mind paying a little more for free range eggs or organic produce.
Long lotus thread is resistant to stains
In Thailand and Myanmar, they’ve been making clothing from lotus stalks for centuries. A mindful process. Exactly three days after harvesting the long thin fibers are pulled from the stalk for the best result. Those threads are washed and dried and handwoven. You can’t use them in fast-fashion, but they’re a great alternative for the higher segment. The fabric is tightly woven, lightweight, and of a superior quality and stain resistant. It is the most ecological fabric in the world, throughout the whole process there are no polluting substances.
Hero’s Fashion has developed a dress shirt with the look of crisp cotton and the feeling of soft silk. The No Mark Lotus Shirt is tailored and GOTS certified. It is more durable, and requires less cleaning. And because they’ve used hydrophobic nanotechnology, the shirt is stain resistant, coffee, red wine, and even ink bounce right off.
According to Binoy Ravjani, CEO of Hero’s Fashion, wearing the shirt has a meditative effect, and helps against asthma, heart problems and headaches. As such it is the perfect shirt for every business man and woman.
Weeds or superthread, the rise of the nettle
Nettle fibers have been used for over 2000 years to make clothing. The production process however has become easier over time through innovations in technology and more respect for the plants. Nettle fibers have a natural advantage over cotton, they’re hollow, and therefore can insulate, like a natural aircon. Professor Ray Harwood, former professor Textile Engineering at the university of Leichester, works with his organization Copernicus Textile Solutions on the innovative “cottonization” of hemp and nettle fibers to make them usable in high quality textile applications.
And even waste can be used to make clothing. Man-made waste, such as recycled PET-bottles, but also natural waste, such as pineapple leaves, tomato skins, or coffee grounds can serve as resources. Singtex from Taiwan for instance created a thread from coffee grounds, which offers an array of advantages over cotton. S.Café protects against uv rays, bad odors, and dries fast, according to Singtex 200x faster than cotton. And the production process is sustainable and low in energy expenditure. You can use the thread for sports clothing, but also for bed sheets or shoes. Coffee grounds is globally available as waste. Take Colombia for example, where thousands of tons of coffee grounds are incinerated annually. S.Café has transformed a declining textile industry into a circular economy which uses waste in the one industry as a resource in another.
Jason Chen, the mastermind behind S.Café and chairman of Singtex, aims to create more ecofriendly textiles than just those based on coffee. Mylithe is one of those Singtex developed, a light, airy, and water resistant (through coffee oil) fabric which feels like cotton, but with better characteristics and cradle-to-cradle. The fabric is already being used by brands such as Timberland and The North Face.