The end of the cotton era
Rated as one of the most carbon-polluting industries in the world, the textile market creates more CO2 emissions than international flights and maritime transport combined. Our belief for a more sustainable future of the textile industry relies on the need for fundamental change in the manufacturing and business models, as well as a change in consumers behaviour and demands. Change is a two way street.
In this article we want to emphasise how making the right choices already at the fiber level can improve this industry we all rely on.
At senscommon, we challenge material science being a subject strictly reserved to specialists and introduce it throughout our dedicated series as common knowledge to our audience, with the desire to help you become fluent on this subject and use it to make informed decisions when purchasing clothing. Today, we want to bring your attention to the centuries old material cotton and anticipate the end of its era.
Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world. Approximately 1/3 of all textiles are made of cotton while it's classified as environmentally harmful.
It is cultivated in regions of limited water resources while requiring a water intensive production process and using 25% of world’s pesticides. That is huge! Soil degradation from aggressive farming is a massive undermined environmental issue plus the use of pesticides has a big impact on farmers welfare - causing their economic dependence on chemical suppliers monopole and putting serious threats to their health - we need to seriously start asking ourselves, are there really no better choices that we can all make?
While most sustainability oriented designers and brands are busy improving their cotton supply chain, claiming to be working with organic and fair-trade cotton, we want to point out that your organic cotton t-shirt may have actually used up about double of the resources than producing one of conventionally grown cotton. No matter how well you grow it, the water spillage in obtaining this basic fabrics is beyond imaginable.
Shifting now to your wellbeing and comfort as a consumer, we want to bring your attention to all the cotton disadvantages to the wearer, that no brand seems to be talking about: breathability to start with. Cotton fiber is extremely absorbent, takes stains in easily and requires long time to dry, meaning even air humidity and sweating is a tough task for cotton to handle. If left damp it easily develops mould in it.
Taking into account most of our basic layers, like socks and underwear, are still made of what sounds to be the least clean fiber there is, we can guess the reason behind this being economic.
And why is cotton so cheap? You'd be surprised but even nowadays, labour is cheaper than technology. Cotton is grown mainly in third world countries with methods similar to those of 18th century cotton slave farms. The primary material choice influences all aspects of the product - price, environmental impact, durability and afterlife but we can also agree there should be our moral responsibility that comes into consideration when we make our choices.
Brands and consumers that understand clothing as a functional product rather than decoration and that do not compromise on quality for a lower pricing of the primary costs in the detriment of the environment, turn towards the so-called smart alternatives: bio-based, man-made fibers.
Since we at senscommon are part of the above mentioned category of brands, we want to give you a brief introduction to these fibers and present you some of the countless arguments on why these are the smartest choice by their very nature, giving you a responsible alternative to buying cotton-made articles.
What are the smart and future-proof fiber alternatives?
Mainly known as rayon in United States or viscose in the rest of the world, man-made cellulosic fibers are found on the market under various names: modal, lyocell, acetate and cupro. The difference? It really comes down to the manufacturing process and structure of the filament.
Viscose and modal.
Invented at the end of the 1800s, viscose was the first man-made textile fiber. Made from wood pulp, just like paper, cellulosic fibers are considered man-made as their production requires certain machinery and chemicals applied in a controlled environment to go from wood to liquid to fine fiber state. Cellulosic fibers are derived from fast-growing, regenerative trees such as eucalyptus, beech and pine, as well as plants such as bamboo, soy, and sugar cane which are grown with a minimum of water and are grown using sustainable forestry initiatives.
We love the fact that in 1924, to name these fibers, the name Rayon was adopted in United States where Ray (of light) implied fiber brightness and the added suffix -on represented the fibers cotton-like structure. First advantage consumers saw was the smooth and lustrous appearance of silk in combination with cotton's strength. Which is basically the most important properties associated with these smart fibers!
You've probably mostly heard of viscose as it has 93% of the man-made cellulosic fiber market, yet be aware - it is not made with the cleanest of the processes.
Lyocell is our favorite and is the same plant-based fibre as viscose and modal, but it is processed using an organic solvent to extract the cellulose from the wood and is spun using jet-wet technology. This solvent-spinning process recycles process water and reuses the solvent at a recovery rate of more than 99%.
The Austrian firm Lenzing, a partner of senscommon, goes a step further by only making their lyocell, branded as Tencel™, from sustainably managed forests of fast-growing eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus trees can thrive on land that is not fertile enough for food crops. It’s a hearty tree that grows quickly, requires no irrigation, no treatment with pesticides, and no fertilizer. Needing 20 times less water than cotton, you could say eucalyptus grows like a weed – a very helpful weed.
Overall this fibre is much less toxic. Production of lyocell is short. It takes about two and a half hours from chopping the wood down to the carding. Thus, compared to the production of other man-made fibers it uses less water and energy. Consumers can have the assurance that their fashion choices are not contributing to an adverse impact on the environment.
Why are these smart fibres the sustainable solution?
It goes back to the source, as previously mentioned: eucalyptus trees grow quickly, without irrigation and virtually any pesticides, on land no longer fit for food crops. The production of lyocell doesn’t use toxic chemicals, and 99.5% of the dissolving agent can be used repeatedly. Compared to cotton, lyocell has the potential to use less than half as much water in production. The fabric’s breathability is also great for the planet, as it keeps odour free longer and therefore can be washed less frequently, saving water.
Now let's zoom into material science! In the image above you can see the internal structures of (a) viscose and (b) Tencel™ (lyocell)under an electron scanning microscope. The dark areas are where water has been absorbed into the micro-pores of the fibres: you can see clearly that the absorption of the water in Tencel™ is more uniform. This internal structure is a product of the different manufacturing process and gives fabrics made from Tencel™ excellent moisture absorbency properties as well as a 50% higher breathability than cotton.
Breathability is the ability of a fabric to absorb moisture and release it through its fibers, allowing your clothes to breathe and stay dry and fresh. Now is time to think about our basic layers again and decide what is not only better for the environment but also for our comfort and well-being, especially if you are part of the population with higher natural perspiration or with skin sensitivity issues aggravated by humidity. Due to its excellent moisture management, it rarely can become damp which means bacteria have no chance to develop in it.
Did you know that fabrics start to smell not from our bodily oils or fluids but from bacteria that starts to grow in them? Tencel™ is also the most anti-bacterial choice making it really beneficial for maintaining our skin's health.
Worth mentioning again are the obvious aesthetic advantages for the consumer - the luxurious, peachskin surface with a subtle surface lustre. But most important aspect to consider from a sustainable point of view is the product's maintenance and afterlife.
Caring for natural fibers like cotton gave us the habit to throw clothes into the laundry bin after a single use. Tencel clothes, however, remain fresh up to 5 wears or more. No better way for decreasing clothing purchases and increasing garment lifetime by at least 5 times. And when it will come to the end of its lifetime - Tencel™ will biodegrade, even in compost, closing the loop.
With so many benefits for the environment and the user, for sure you’re asking yourself why is the wood-base textile market share just 6%? Unlike cotton, which requires water, pesticides and is extremely labour-intensive, Tencel relies on innovation, requiring investment in technology and highly educated chemists and technicians to operate it, which is far more expensive than water, pesticides and field-labour. And the innovative and more ecological step is far from being the of brands led by profits only.
We at senscommon are determined to always favour progress and responsible design. And we invite you to make that choice for yourself too since with a bigger demand from consumers, this innovation will become widely available, diminishing the higher costs to certain extents and thus helping with diminishing the environmental impact of our choices.
Article by guilt.studio