Saturday, July 30, 2016

Exploring Cotton Alternatives

Cotton is the leading fiber of use within the fashion and textile industry, making up nearly half of the total fiber usage worldwide [1]. When thinking about how much cotton this actually is, it is important to look at the amount of freshwater and land use that goes into cotton production, let alone the other mostly synthetic fibers that make up the other half.

As mentioned in previous posts, cotton is in nearly 40% of our clothing, while at the same time being one of the leading chemically and water dependent crops out there. While cotton takes up 2.4% of the world’s crop land (this is a very large amount considering the total crops grown), it accounts for 24% of the global sales and use of insecticides, and 11% of global sales and use of pesticides. Agriculture is the largest source of pollution in many countries, and the unsafe use of these chemicals can have severe health impacts on the workers and ecosystems that are polluted by run-off from farms [1].

Even more importantly though, is the water usage that goes into cotton production. Did you know that it takes nearly 713 US gallons of water to make just one t-shirt (that is roughly 2,700 liters)? With the amount of clean, accessible freshwater on our planet being only 0.01% of all total water on Earth, we can see that this crop is largely unsustainable (2.5% of Earth’s water is freshwater, but only 0.3% is accessible to humans) [2]. Of that 0.01% of clean water, only 8% goes towards domestic use, while 22% is used by industries, and a whopping 70% is used for irrigation. Cotton is a crop which needs nice, irrigated land in most areas to be grown properly and effectively. Cotton is associated with a significant natural capital dependency because of its heavy reliance on water for irrigation, land requirements, and the chemicals used that pollute the land, water, and air. Over 53% of cotton fields globally require irrigation to be grown effectively, and the majority of these farms are located where water is already a scarce resource [3].

As we can see, the time is now to start exploring other and more sustainable options for the fashion and textile industries. With our current rate of consumption on these types of products and the natural resources that go along with that consumption,, it will all inevitably come to a dangerous end even in the most abundant, developed countries.

There has been a number of more recent innovations with natural and raw materials to replace the unsustainable cotton plant, and some of them seem to be pretty amazing candidates (you can read the full article here):


Billions of tons of banana plant stems are wasted every year on plantations, either thrown away or burned. Since these plantations already exist for the bananas themselves, banana stem fiber production would have little to no waste involved in its farming and production. The Philippine Textile Research Institute concluded in a 2012 study that plantations in the Philippines alone can generate over 300,000 tons of banana fiber –  it would only take about 37kg of stems to produce 1kg of fiber [4]. For clarity, 300,000 tons is equal to 272,155,422kg of fiber, and 1kg of banana fiber can yield roughly two shirts.

“Eco-textile company Offset Warehouse recognizes the banana’s potential and currently partners with an NGO in Nepal to ensure banana fabric production supports the artisan sector by relying on local skills, and that workers are paid fairly and operate in safe conditions” [4]. If you want to see the process, with pictures, of how the banana plant is taken apart after harvest and broken down into fibers that can become almost anything,  you can do so here. This process uses little to no electricity aside from being waste free, and the resulting fabrics are extremely “soft, durable, and luxurious." According to the Offset Warehouse founder, Charlie Ross, the material is ideal for both soft furnishings and fashion – perfect for jackets, skirts, and trousers [5]. Offset Warehouse already has products available on their website made of banana fabrics.


The founder of pioneering and innovative textile company Ananas Anam, Carmen Hijosa, developed an alternative to leather and petroleum-based textiles known as Piñatex. Also a byproduct of an already harvested fruit, the leaves of the pineapple plants are turned into fibers that can be used for garments and textiles. “Our leaves do not need any additional land, water, or fertilizers to grow,” says Juame Granja, a member of the Ananas Anam team [4]. Instead of creating waste, the process used to create Piñatex actually produces a biomass which can be used by farmers, once converted into a fertilizer, to grow the next pineapple harvest. The resulting material is canvas-like and biodegradable, and could be up to 40% cheaper than good quality leather yet comparable.


I know. What CAN’T coconuts be used for? Not only are there never-ending uses for a coconut’s meat, milk, and water, but we have come to learn that the husks themselves have fibrous qualities. It is said that one thousand coconuts can make about 10kg of fiber, with a new harvest happening every 30-45 days [4]. Coir is the thickest and most resistant of all commercial natural fibers. It is a coarse, short fiber extracted from the outer shell of coconuts. Its low decomposition rate means it is a key advantage for making durable geo-textiles [6]. There are amazing environmental benefits to the use of coir as well. When woven into geo-textiles and placed on areas in need of erosion control it promotes new vegetation by absorbing water and preventing top soil from drying out [6].

Currently, there are two outdoor clothing companies – Tog 24 and North Face – using a textile called cocona, also made from the coconut husks, but with the addition of volcanic materials. Cocona currently lives under the name of 37.5 Technology, where a spokesperson for the company says the material is a particularly good choice for sportswear as it's designed to improve performance – as a result, these brands are relying less on synthetic materials [4]. Just like the pineapple leaves, the coconut fibers can also be turned into a biowaste-charcoal and used by farmers as an organic fertilizer – already being done in the Maldives. This cycle can ensure that the coconut fashion supply chain would remain circular and beneficial, rather than harmful to the environment.


This last one is not necessarily natural, but never the less it is a plant for the future. Designer and researcher Carole Collet has taken the relationship between nature and technology to the next level with her Biolace project. While this concept is definitely for the future, it is very interesting at that. The Biolace project focuses on the “possibilities of developing systems where plants can be genetically modified” [4]. The main idea is to grow hydroponic organic greenhouses, where new species of plants would produce ‘augmented’ food at the same time as growing fabrics from their roots. “In such a scenario, we would harvest fruits and fabrics at the same time from the same plants” [7].

Aside from the already listed alternatives here, there are still even more – Tencel, hemp, and bamboo. While these alternatives are already widely known and being used, there is an informative infographic here that shows these materials in more detail in regards to their benefits to the environment and sustainability.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for including Offset Warehouse in your article. Absolutely delighted to see more and more people spreading the word on amazing alternatives to cotton. Thank you!