Who could have guessed that the textile choices you make today can have serious implications for your client’s health and the health of the planet? Until very recently, the thinking around “natural and healthy” fabric choices has been pretty simplistic… fabrics made from cotton, linen and other natural fibers were considered safe choices. But the truth may surprise you.
“Natural” fiber fabrics are not a green choice. Not unless the fiber used was raised organically—that is, without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, defoliants… you get the picture.
But here’s the important and little understood point: The fabric is only a good choice if those organic fibers are then turned into fabric without the use of harmful chemicals at each step of the production process: fiber prep, carding, retting, scouring, spinning, bleaching, weaving, dyeing, printing and finishing. All of these fabric production steps use tremendous amounts of water and chemicals—many of them unsavory chemicals—unless the processing is organic.
Think of turning organic apples into applesauce: If the manufacturer mixes the organic apples with Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, then the final product is far from organic. The same is true of fabrics.
Commonly, textile production methods uses dyes, bleaches, de-foamers, detergents, optical brighteners and many other chemicals as well as large amounts of water to first dissolve those chemicals, then to wash and rinse them out again. You might be surprised to learn that the production of the 25 yards of fabric in your draperies may have included the use of 25 pounds of chemicals and 500 gallons of water.
Water from fabric production often is returned to the environment untreated because treatment costs money, and low cost is the name of the game. Some mills might dump wastewater directly into the rivers in violation of most countries’ water-pollution laws.
So look at how the fabric—and not just the fiber—is manufactured.
What are some of the chemicals that you might choose to try to avoid in fabric? Phthalates are so toxic that they have been banned in the European Union since 2005. They recently have been banned in the state of California in children’s toys. They are ubiquitous, and are found in most textile inks. So parents careful not to bring toxic toys into their homes for their children can be nevertheless and unknowingly putting their kids to sleep on sheets full of phthalates.
The chemicals in a sofa can be absorbed by our bodies in ways other than breathing them in as they evaporate:
• They can be absorbed through our skin
• Microscopic pieces of fabric are abraded each time we draw the curtains. They fly into the air, then we breathe in the microscopic pieces of fabric or they settle into the dust in our homes, where toddlers and crawling babies breathe them in.
The World Wildlife Fund has named chemical pollution as one of the two great environmental threats to the world, alongside global warming, and is particularly worried about “persistent and accumulative” industrial chemicals and endocrine (hormone) distorting substances linked to changes in gender and behavior among animals and even children. These bio-accumulative chemicals are often used in fabric production.
If you find the “why” of going green in fabric choices compelling, the next question is, “How can I go green?”
You may want to choose fabrics that are safe to use and safe to produce. What to do?
First, choose fabrics that are organic fabrics, not simply fabric made from organic fibers. How can you recognize them? Search for a fabric or product that is certified by any third-party, independent textile certification agency.
There are new fabric certification standards, which will help you spot responsibly produced textiles. Look for fabric carrying the new Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). SMART and Cradle-to-Cradle and Oeko-Tex 1000 are also good.
Although, admittedly, there are not a great many certified fabrics available today, you can drive demand and production by asking for them and by educating your customers about healthier choices in fabrics.
You also can contribute greatly to minimizing your environmental footprint in your fabric choices by minimizing your purchase of fabrics that are blends of natural and synthetic fibers (i.e., cotton and polyester), or blends of two or more different synthetic fibers (polyester and acrylic). These blends cannot be either composted or recycled. At end of life, these fabrics cannot be re-used. They go directly to a landfill where they degrade and release more toxins into the environment.
Leigh Anne Van Dusen and and Patty Grossman formed O Ecotextiles, Inc., Seattle, WA, in 2004. They are interested in cradle-to-cradle processes of creating no impact, perfectly safe, luxurious fabrics.