Ask the Ecologist: cotton, hemp and bamboo - which is the green choice?

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Green Living Editor Ruth Styles answers your eco-lifestyle dilemmas. This week, we're talking textiles

Dear Ruth

Which of these is the most eco-friendly yarn: cotton, hemp or bamboo?

Maeve Smith, Natural Wisdom

The impact of fashion and its relentless demand for raw materials has long been a topic of intense debate among greenies. For some, the answer is second-hand, while others wax lyrical about the benefits of hemp. While, to answer your question, hemp is undoubtedly the greenest material for fabric available; there’s a problem. Currently, it’s hard to produce a decent cloth from it. What’s more, it has a serious image problem among the wider public, with many regarding it as an accoutrement to hair-shirted hippydom. So what’s being done to make it more palatable? Blending is the answer, with ‘hemp silk’ – usually 60 per cent hemp to 40 per cent silk – now widely available along with hemp versions of traditional fabrics such as corduroy, although cotton still makes up around 40 per cent of the blend. But while the hemp element is emerald green, the silk and cotton parts aren’t always as eco-friendly as they could be.

The environmental catastrophe that is conventional cotton production is widely known, with issues such as extensive agrochemical use, monocropping and immense water requirements topping the list of eco-unfriendly growing practices. While organic cotton doesn’t make use of the cocktail of pesticides and fertilisers routinely sprayed on the conventional version, it’s still a thirsty plant with around 256.6 gallons of water required to grow enough to make a single t-shirt. Bamboo is a similarly thirsty but is faster growing and hardy, so doesn’t really benefit from additional fertilisers. As a textile, it has similar properties to cotton but isn’t as widely grown, which makes it harder to get hold of.

In terms of water alone, hemp is by far and away the best choice, although the unappealing cloth it tends to produce is an issue. Organic cotton and bamboo come next with conventionally produced cotton lagging well behind the others. While that has answered your question, it hasn’t totally solved the problem of what’s good and what’s bad in textile terms. As previously mentioned, many believe that second hand is the way forward, although I’d argue that this is equally unsustainable given the large number of people dependent on textile production for their livelihoods. In terms of what to buy, the key things to take into account are avoiding fabrics created using by-products of the petroleum industry – nylon and acrylic for example – and making what you do buy last longer. Look for renewable materials including wool, silk and (organic) cotton, although its worth bearing in mind that silk production usually results in the death of the silkworm which many consumers could find unpleasant. Peace silk is an alternative more expensive but it does allow the moth to leave its cocoon naturally (and alive) before the fibres are harvested, so is probably a much better bet all round. Also worth looking into is Lyocell, - Tencel as it’s more commonly known - which is made from wood pulp. The textile result is long-wearing and comfortable but like organic cotton, it isn’t without its downsides, which include concerns over the amount of chemicals needed to turn the pulp into a viable fabric.

Clearly, textiles are a bit of an ecological minefield and until someone works out how to turn hemp into comfortably wearable cloth, it’s a problem that isn’t going away. For now, choosing upcycled and recycled pieces is a good idea although the expense involved puts them out of reach for many. Pieces made from hemp blends such as Nudie’s fabulous hemp/cotton blend jeans are similarly costly. On the high street aim for organic cotton, Tencel and wool (which has the benefit of being both renewable and locally produced), while sports fans should take a closer look at Nike’s Considered Design range which turns landfill-bound plastic bottles into polyester fabric. Don’t ignore vintage either, as there’s plenty of mileage in the best pieces, most of which are unique to boot. Personally, I like to mix it up, with vintage, upcycled and organic pieces all in my wardrobe. While not everyone will agree with my solution to the textile problem; until I find hemp that doesn’t feel like sacking and doesn’t look dowdy, it’s the one that works the best for me


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