I am often asked from where I source my inspirational stories. Is it from my worldly, educated grasp of current affairs? My uncanny ability at reading people, or maybe my remarkable knowledge of science, arts, animals….…and….stuff? Well I know what all of you are thinking right now… it’s all a bit unreal, you’re feeling out of your depth, awe swamping your senses as you contemplate what mind blowing event started me down the path of writing this article. In answer I have just one word..
Yes undies! In my annual trek to find that elusive spectre… a pair of underpants that would not ride up, not pinch, keep me cool in this hot humid weather and not burn too much of a hole in my budget, I found myself encountering again and again a question that I had in the past barely given consideration.
Cotton versus bamboo?
As I delved further into this never ending pit trying to extract the science from reams of marketing blurb, I found my quest became one not merely of fashion and comfort but also one pertaining to greater issues such as sustainability and the effects on environment.
Fashion is one of the largest industries in the world and has always been plagued in controversy, from human right issues relating to child exploitation in third world countries, too low wages, to excessive pollution caused by chemical runoffs from factories. Fast, cheap, mass-produced fashion, mostly consisting of cotton mixed with synthetic fibres is quickly becoming one of the largest pollutants today. Often finding their way into our waterways and landfills, these too readily disposable synthetic products take over 200 years to breakdown.
Price has always been a factor in determining which products we buy, but with climate change rearing its ugly head in daily news coverages, more and more people are looking for natural alternatives, with the cost to environment being an important determining factor. Synthetic clothes may be cheap but they are not environmentally friendly. With this in mind there has started much debate over which natural fibres are the most sustainable.
Cotton has always been the most popular natural fibre and is often boasted as being the cheapest to produce. But cotton is generally heavily subsidised by governments to keep its price down. Cotton though we love it, however has a staggering cost to our environment. It takes 20,000 litres to produce one kilo of cotton, which in layman terms is one tee shirt and a pair of jeans. Cotton also requires an excessive use of pesticides which often end up finding their way into soils and water tables. Another issue is that the plant itself on harvest is dug up from the root making pesticide infiltration and soil stability an even greater problem. Cotton however is the toughest of the natural fibres being discussed in this article.
Bamboo on the other hand requires minimal water and can be grown in the most diverse of environments. It is also self-sustaining as it grows fast and is harvested from its base, leaving root systems established and soil stable. Bamboo also has other amazing advantages such as its ability to minimise carbon dioxide and produce 35% more oxygen than trees. The bamboo plant is indeed a remarkable thing to grow, but how does it measure up in producing environmentally friendly fabric? Much of the argument against bamboo is the chemical usage required to breakdown the incredibly tough stalks into the sludge required to run it through the spinnerets to create the thread for fabric. The process is quite extensive, but it must be noted that this is the same process used to breakdown cotton and wood for making rayon. The bamboo fibre is the weakest of our three and is usually strengthened with cotton.
Hemp, our final plant under focus, requires more water than bamboo, but significantly less than cotton. Hemp can produce two and a half times more fibre over the same acreage as cotton. It grows fast and requires little to no pesticides. Its large and complex root systems also remain intact during harvest thereby minimising soil erosion. Hemp also does not require the extensive chemical treatment to reduce it to fibres. It is however a very tough, coarse and strong fibre that limits its use in the making of clothing. It is a much more suited to producing tougher and more durable items such as bags and tea towels.
Providing they are not mixed with synthetics, all three are totally biodegradable.
So what does all this mean?
Buying 100% cotton though cheap, soft and natural has strong environmental and sustainability issues that cannot be ignored. The mix of this with synthetics is also becoming an environmental nightmare.
Buying 100% bamboo would see you spending more for a soft natural fabric that, because of the weaker fibres, may not last as long as cotton.
Hemp is great for bags but too tough and coarse for clothes.
In short we need all three of these natural products and we need to reduce our reliance on synthetics. Cotton being the softest yet strongest natural fibre is needed to boost the durability of bamboo. It’s cultivation however should be environmentally controlled so it is grown in regions with excessive water and not in areas where waterways are unnaturally diverted to meet the crops extensive water needs. Cotton use should also be restricted in areas where hemp can be substituted.
As consumers we drive the markets, our choices have the ability to change even the biggest of industries. Being more conscious of our decisions and buying will influence the way things are made. Anything we do to get back to more natural fibres and reduce the synthetics in our fabrics is a positive move. I ended up buying 96% bamboo 4% viscous underwear which are incredibly soft and durable, though not exactly cheap. It is hoped the durability and comfort will over time make up for the price.
Your choice may have been different, but as long as we all go into making our purchases with eyes wide open I think the world will be a better place, don’t you?
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