This has been an ongoing discussion for quite some time now: traditional cotton is bad and organic cotton is only marginally better, so what's the alternative to cotton? Pound for pound, cotton, wether organic or not, uses the most water, most land and has almost the greatest environmental impact, so why do we keep using it? Short answer, there hasn't been a comprehensive, marketable alternative to date. We've been taking a look at some of the alternatives currently out there.
Hemp seems to have gotten a wrap for being a hippy-dippy fabric, and while this could be an unfortunate byproduct of its relationship with marijuana it's impact on the environment seems to make it a sensible alternative to traditional cotton. One of the major benefits of hemp is that it uses considerably less water than cotton and generally returns most nutrients it takes back to the ground, though it can only grow in favourable conditions. Hemp has several uses, in skincare products, as paper and a possible replacement for fossil fuels. Perhaps the biggest reason hemp fibre has not taken off yet is its texture; hemp has quite a rough, tough hand which is why one of its better uses is as cording and rope.
Bamboo seems to be a great alternative to cotton in the sense that it naturally needs no pesticides, requires very little water and once bamboo becomes mature it can be harvested repeatedly (unlike cotton, where the fields are devastated and replanted every year). Traditional bamboo clothing is also much more biodegradable, so when it does end up in a landfill, it doesn't stay there long. There is also the argument that bamboo forests help with global warming, as they can turn about 4 times more CO2 into oxygen than a traditional forest.
Bamboo fibres are produced in 2 main different ways, however, and both have advantages and disadvantages. One way of using bamboo for fabric is by using the bast fibres which occur naturally in the plant. While there is little energy use and environmental impact in this method, the feel is similar to that of flax linen or hemp which limits its uses in fashion. Viscose is the fabric made by combining bamboo pulp with chemicals then spun into fibres. Viscose has a silky-soft hand and has multiple uses in fashion, but there are concerns that the chemicals used in the traditional process are harmful to both people and the environment. While the impact of the use of sulphur hydroxide in the production of viscose is argued, if there were a way to be 100% environmentally friendly while producing viscose, it is a truly viable alternative.
Lyocell is the generic name for Tencel which is a cellulose fibre using the pulp of the eucalyptus tree using similar production methods as viscose. Lyocell also tends to have a similar feel to viscose, though through the production methods, a majority of the chemicals used to make lyocell are either not harmful to the environment or can be reused which only adds to the economical use of water and energy.
One futuristic method of creating fabric is being pioneered by Suzanne Lee who founded Biocouture. Biocouture creates fabrics by using cellulose-producing microbes in a vat of fermented liquid. Biocouture are currently experimenting with all kinds of microorganisms to see how nature can help the fashion industry move in a more sustainable direction. If you haven't seen the AEG film The Next Black, you can find it here. In the film, you can see Suzanne speak about the process she went through to create the first fabrics and how she sees the future of grown fabrics. One major current issue with using grown fabrics to replace cotton is that they are not widely available or cost effective in the market at the moment.
What will it take to turn the fashion industry from thirsty, environmentally taxing cotton? What other alternatives are out there?