There has been a great deal of publicity lately about fabric construction and the various materials from which it is made. “Synthetic” fabrics made from petroleum feedstocks have been panned as not sustainable. There has been progress in manufacturing these kinds of fabrics from bio-based oil derivative raw material, but not much is being done commercially.
“Organic” cotton has gotten a lot of press as well, but the inherent issues in producing cotton remain. The long hot growing season, the copious amount of water required for the crop, and the vulnerability to a variety of pests and diseases require a great deal of intervention by the farmer, whether with herbicides and pesticides or equivalent quantities of organic alternatives.
Some other “rapid renewal” fabric products are currently on the market such as bamboo, abaca, linen, and fabric made from other grasses. Their rapid growth means they absorb a great deal of carbon in the atmosphere quickly, but especially in the case of bamboo, the toxic chemicals needed to separate the fiber from the other plant material before it can be woven, is problematic.
There is one rapidly growing natural product that lends itself nicely for fabric that is environmentally friendly from a growing and processing point of view. The product is primarily grown in Eastern Europe and Asia where subsistence farms make it a cash crop.
I am speaking of hemp–a fiber that has been grown by people since prehistoric times for its fiber, oil, medicinal qualities, and as a base for soaps, creams, moisturizers and shampoos.
Annually, an acre of land will produce as much fiber as 2-3 acres of cotton. The fiber is stronger and softer than cotton, lasts twice as long in use, and will not mildew.
Historically most hemp fiber was used for cordage (ropes) and the many strange names for marine ropes derive from the various specific fiber blends and strengths for specific onboard ship uses.
Hemp grows in a much wider climate range than cotton and is frost tolerant. In addition to the fiber for fabrics, hemp can be used for paper, cardboard, a plastic substitute and even as fuel (think bio-diesel).
It is interesting to note that in the US most paper is made from tree fiber–which take many years to grow to harvestable size. A hemp crop can be harvested in 120 days and requires no toxic chemicals to release the fiber from the pulp. (Anyone who has passed an operating paper mill will relate to this!) Hemp fiber is released mechanically by steam and machinery.
It is distressing that hemp has been illegal to grow in the US since the 1930’s, and made even stricter about a decade ago. Its cousin, marijuana, has virtually indistinguishable leaf and stem structure, but Cannabis Hemp (Indian hemp) does not have the THC content that makes marijuana such a social problem.
Most countries in the EU, plus Canada and Australia, allow industrial hemp to be grown. In Eastern Europe and Asia, hemp has always been a valid crop that replenishes the soil and doesn’t require expensive herbicides and pesticides. Nevertheless, industrial hemp is legal for import and sale in the US, but illegal to grow as a domestic crop.
This state of affairs means that American consumers can benefit from the eco-friendly nature of the product, when used in their clothing or furniture, and are supporting mostly third world agricultural efforts to be self-sustaining and enriching their standard of living.