Mahatma Gandhi rightly said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” The only footprints that man leaves behind on this earth are those that speak of his greed, flamboyant methods and obnoxious attitude towards the planet. The thinking global citizens now, therefore, question their lifestyle at every point.
Everything that they use is carefully weighed and assessed before adding them in their life. Fabrics are no exception. Same rules should be applied to the fabrics that we use daily because their manufacturing process of fabrics contributes heavily to environmental pollution. The comfort and luxury that we seek, or the fashionable clothes made of artificial fabrics we like to buy often cause pollution and prove detrimental to the personal health of the users as well as to the environment.
There is no alternate planet if we ruin this one…
So, what are the Eco-Friendly Fabrics?
Eco-friendly fabrics are the green fabrics which are comparatively safe options for the environment: these fabrics can be recycled, and most are of a biodegradable type. Some of the most common eco fabric varieties are cotton, linen, etc.
Nowadays, some more examples of fabrics are found in the market those are not only perfect for daily use but also, they are safe for the users as well as for the concerned environment. But before we explore more about Eco fabrics, let’s understand why the use of these fabrics is highly commendable.
The earth is manipulated and bled dry for fulfilling our unnecessary wants. Pollution occurs in many ways even while procuring raw materials, manufacturing or during the usage, or at all the stages right from the start till the finished product is made. Eco fabrics are one which is not toxic and can be trusted for its green nature.
Before we further talk about eco-friendly fabrics, you need to understand that this article discusses how the cloth is made and also with what are they made of, and to get the clear thought on the uses of green fabrics for your home furnishings and interior decors.
Try to think and understand – What does someone do who is looking to shop the drapery consciously?
By consciously reading this article, it will help you in deciding the right fabric for yourself and yes also for your interiors.
As we have already discussed, an eco-friendly fabric is one which does not damage the environment, one that doesn’t cause soil, air and water pollution. It shouldn’t involve cruelty to animals, it should be safe to wear on skin and leaves a minimal carbon footprint as an eco-friendly item.
There’s another significant factor which hardly receives notice but is very critical and which would have a direct effect on our health. We may call it as “slow-release poison” in our homes. It is the risk of Indoor air pollution. As per the ‘Green Facts- Facts on Health and the Environment’, making fabrics release toxic chemicals that affect our indoor air quality and it often causes health problems. These concerns are discussed later in the article. It is also important to note that all-natural fabrics aren’t eco-friendly and all synthetics aren’t as harmful as it is generally portrayed.
Types of Harmless Eco-friendly Fabrics for Your Interiors
01. Cotton Fabric
02. Natural Leather
03. Artificial Leather / Vegan Leather
Let’s take a look at all these ecofriendly fabrics in detail to get more knowledge about each of them.
01. Cotton Fabric
Cotton Buds in farm for making fabric
Cotton constitutes almost half of the textiles used in the textile industry. Although cotton is a natural source of fabric, during its cultivation, it may cause harmful effects on the environment.
According to the ‘Organic Cotton Market Report in 2018 of Textile Exchange’ (A global non-profit organization that works closely with all sectors of the textile supply network. They inspire and equips people to accelerate sustainable practices in the textile value chain. Nowadays many other sustainable practices are there such as a solar chimney.) the total production of organic cotton has spread among 18 countries, from which India holds 51%, China 19%, Kyrgyzstan 7%, Turkey 7%, Tajikistan 5%, the USA 4%, and 3% in Tanzania in terms of cotton production volume. Remaining 11 counties hold their individual cotton production at around 1%, which directly states that India holds best volume of organic cotton production.
Upside of Cotton:
a) Fabrics derived from organic cotton are an eco-friendly option, as there is no use of pesticides and herbicides.
b) It is beneficial to the environment, and the clothes are safer to wear. Accreditation from Textile Exchange, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Fairtrade and the Better Cotton Initiative guarantees the harmless quality of organic cotton.
c) Cotton fabrics are soft to touch and has hypoallergenic qualities. Cotton fabric is widely used to make the bed sheet. So, while Buying Bed Sheets for Your Beautiful Home, take care of this point, it will help you to select the perfect bedsheet.
Downside of Cotton Fabric:
a) Cotton demands high water supply at agricultural field. It leads to depletion of the freshwater sources and groundwater. According to ‘World Wildlife Magazine’, the water needed to produce a single cotton t-shirt is about 2700 liters.
b) The use of pesticides and fertilizers in its cultivation undoubtedly pollutes the soil and water bodies, not to mention that these elements cause the increase in production of these harmful chemicals, which in turn contribute heavily to environmental degradation.
c) A general observation is that cotton tends to lower the quality of soil over a period of time. Hence, new land is cleared to make room for expanding for further cultivation.
d) The use of nitrates to increase soil fertility leads to an increase in Greenhouse Gases.
e) Formaldehyde, a cancer-causing agent is used during manufacturing to prevent cotton from creasing. Its residue is often found on the ready-to-use clothing, which is harmful to health.
02. Natural Leather
Natural leather for Upholstery furniture
Natural leather is made from tanning the rawhide of animals. While this leather is durable and flexible, it is biodegradable too. The most common raw material for tanning is cattle hide.
Upside of Leather:
a) Eco-friendly options of leather are available in recent days such as vegetable-tanned leather or un-dyed leather.
b) Eco-friendly alternatives to natural leather are mushroom leather, recycled rubber, and tree bark leather.
Downside of Leather:
a) Tanning: It is the process in which it converts the animal skin into leather by soaking in a liquid containing tannic acid, or by the use of other chemicals.
- Chromium salts used in tanning are toxic for the environment and may cause cancerous disease in humans.
- Tanning chemicals in finished products may cause skin irritations and, in some cases may induce eczema.
- Tanning requires a lot of water. The chemicals and wastes produced in the process further contaminate the water.
b) Carbon Footprint: The methane gas produced by the cattle and their manure is a Greenhouse Gas which raises the temperature of global atmosphere and is counted as one of the causes for global warming.
c) Biological Waste: The skin, bones and other waste produced from harvesting leather often spoils the purity of the environment, and if not disposed of appropriately, may cause insect and pest infestation.
d) Animal Cruelty:
- Softest leather derived from the newborn or unborn calves is sourced directly from the mother’s womb.
- Animals are reared in captivity. Many a time, the sheds are overcrowded, hygiene is compromised, and the cattle need to compete and strive for food. The animals are subjected to pure agony for acquiring the luxury that humans don’t need.
03. Artificial Leather / Vegan Leather
You might think that if you substitute natural leather items with vegan leather, you are choosing an eco-friendly option. But that’s not the case. Artificial leather may be cruelty-free but it is not an eco-friendly item either.
Upside of Vegan Leather:
a) Alternative synthetic leather derived from cork and pineapple leaves (Piñatex) may work as the better options than natural leather or PVC or polyurethane leather. But we’re yet to see a leap in their production. Since their availability largely depends on the demand, it is quite challenging to abandon natural leather usage and move over to eco-friendly fabric options completely.
b) Leather is mostly the first choice for the sofa and chair in cold countries as it keeps you warm. If you have confusion in which types of sofa upholstery is preferable for you then Sofa Upholstery – What should you know before Buying? will definitely help you.
c) Leather can also be used as a flooring tile at some places. Enhance your knowledge by reading Leather Tiles: A Contemporary Choice for Flooring.
Downside of Artificial/Vegan Leather:
a) Vegan leather is not durable. Hence its use demands frequent refurbishing and excess production.
b) Vegan leather consists of PVC and polyurethane. These elements are not biodegradable.
c) Chlorine gas and dioxins are released during the manufacturing of PVC.
d) Phthalates used in PVC production are harmful to the environment. PVC is one kind of plastic.
e) Polyurethane based leather has shorter durability than natural or PVC leather.
f) Faux leather cannot be recycled.
g) Plasticizers used in manufacturing synthetic leather leach out over a period of time and that doesn’t sound pretty either.
Bamboo – Tall Grass
Bamboo is a tall grass that grows in clusters. It is known as the fastest-growing plant in the world and it holds the Guinness world record.
Upside of Bamboo:
a) It doesn’t require extra care for cultivation.
c) Bamboo doesn’t necessitate the use of fertilizers and pesticides.
d) Also, it is considered safe for the soil, water, and the environment in general.
e) Bamboo grows in dense clusters; hence, a lot of it grows on a small piece of land.
f) It also absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and generates more amount of oxygen.
g) As it requires less water for growth, it can withstand drought conditions.
h) The softness of bamboo fibers makes it an excellent fabric for baby clothing and towels. It’s been an eco-friendly substitute for disposable diapers and is frequently used in reusable cloth diapers.
i) Bamboo is hypoallergenic and absorbs moisture well.
j) The best advantage of bamboo fiber clothes is that they are biodegradable.
k) Bamboo fabric is eco-friendlier and can absorb more moisture than pure cotton.
l) It also gives an aesthetic look hence the various variety of bamboo wallpapers and handicrafts are available in market
Downside of Bamboo:
a) Health hazards are manifested among the workers due to the production of carbon disulfide gas during the processing of Viscose rayon.
b) The antibacterial properties of bamboo are debatable, and there’s no substantial evidence to support the claim.
c) There can be dire confusion between fabric derived purely from bamboo through the process of crushing and retting and rayon (also called Viscose rayon) which is made from cellulose derived from bamboo (Rayon can be made from other cellulose sources too). While the natural bamboo fabric is eco-friendly, Viscose rayon has damaging effects on health.
d) Most of the clothing advertised in markets as the bamboo fabric is Viscose rayon. Hence, picking up pure bamboo fabric can be tricky.
Marijuana Plant/ Hemp Plant
It is the “Marijuana” plant. Hemp was one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by humans. It was used for making clothes, ropes etc. for thousands of years. Hemp is also the most-eco-friendly material for making fabrics.
Upside of Hemp:
Hemp is similar to bamboo in its hypoallergenic, hydrophilic properties, cultivation and eco-friendliness.
a) Hemp is also known to enrich the soil that it grows in.
b) It is used to remove contaminants from water.
c) The fibers of hemp are strong and durable.
d) The clothes made of hemp become softer with increased wear.
e) It is completely biodegradable.
f) It is known to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the environment as compared to most other plants.
g) Growing hemp is cost-effective. It grows quickly and is better than timber in all aspects of sourcing, processing and usage.
h) Hemp is stronger, more absorbent and more insulating than cotton.
i) Pesticides and herbicides are not required to cultivate hemp. It naturally suppresses weeds.
j) Apart from the furniture, hemp is also used to make concrete which called hempcrete. Hempcrete as a Building Material: Pros & Cons | Properties | Applications
Wool is the hair of certain animals like sheep. The raw wool is sheared from the sheep and processed to form woolen attire.
Upside of Wool:
a) The material is durable and non-toxic.
b) It lasts for years and is warm and cozy to wear.
c) Wool is completely biodegradable.
Downside of Wool:
a) Animal cruelty: The living conditions of sheep, even in the most sustainable farms, aren’t favorable. The animals are abused and tortured while shearing and many have endured cuts and wounds. The harsh handling of sheep has resulted in their deaths too.
b) Pollution: The clearing of forests for making provision for grazing and rearing sheep has contributed to the degradation of soil, air and water.
c) Carbon footprint: Sheep release methane gas and their manure also cause an increase in the Greenhouse Gases. These gases are one of the main reasons for global warming.
Polyester fabric for Upholstery furniture
It is a man-made fabric used widely in making clothing, upholstery, jackets, mats, cushioning etc.
Upside of Polyester:
a) The manufacturing process is simple, and the materials used in this process are less toxic.
b) Polyester is recyclable. The byproducts produced during the manufacturing process are not much harmful.
Downside of Polyester:
a) It is a petroleum-based product. Hence, it involves the burning of fossil fuels and is responsible for releasing harmful carbon dioxide gas.
b) Polyester is non-renewable and it takes around 200 years to decompose. Natural polyesters and some synthetic ones are prone to decomposition, but most synthetic ones stay in the environment indefinitely.
c) The fibers get loosened from the fabric during every wash and contributes to the upsurge of micro plastic (VOC) pollution.
How the Fabrics Affect the Indoor Air Quality?
As mentioned before, the air-borne chemicals released from the fabrics exert adverse effects on our health. The increase in population coupled with scarcity in living spaces and scarcity of resources has led to people dwelling in cramped spaces with poor ventilation and zero greenery around. Nowadays, we’ve so many diseases and random infliction of cancerous diseases for which we’ve no etiology that is, we don’t know what is causing it. Perhaps, most of us don’t know the fact that the things which we use daily can be harmful. Let us check out a few of them-
01. Perfluorinated compounds (PFC)
02. Volatile organic compounds
03. Flame retardants
01. Perfluorinated Compounds
These are man-made chemicals found in firefighting foams, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, carpet cleaning solutions, polishes, paints, fast food packaging etc.
PFCs are used in furniture fabrics and clothing to enhance their cleaning efficiency. These compounds are hydrophobic; that is, they resist water. They are also grease and stain-resistant.
The Perfluorinated compounds enter the human body through food, indoor air inhaling, dust, drinking water and due to contact with PFC containing products.
Effects on Health:
a) Perfluorinated compounds are very stable and not biodegradable. They accumulate in the bodies of animals and human beings, leading to toxicity.
b) Most of the current day population have these compounds in their bodies in varying concentrations due to their extensive use in daily life.
c) They’ve shown to cause thyroid diseases, testicular cancer, liver and kidney problems in animals.
d) Studies have documented increased congenital disabilities, changes in thyroid hormone levels in human bodies.
e) People working with materials involving PFCs have been seen facing the increased occurrence/incidence of bladder and prostate cancer.[vc_row gap=”5″][vc_row gap=”5″]
02. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)
Volatile organic compounds causing air pollution
Volatile organic compounds are the chemicals used in the manufacturing of fabrics, cleaning solutions, interior furnishings etc.
Examples of VOCs are acetaldehyde, benzene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride etc. These toxic substances get vaporized and are released into the indoor air, causing air pollution.
The other sources of volatile organic compounds include aerosol sprays, air fresheners, dry cleaned clothing, printers, copiers, paint and solvents, correction pens, glues, plywood, laminates, sealants, etc.
Effects on Health:
a) Headaches, eye irritation, nose and throat discomfort, skin allergies, vomiting sensation tiredness, dizziness are seen in people coming in contact of VOC materials.
b) Damage to liver and kidneys are seen.
c) Methylene chloride and benzene are known as cancer-causing agents.
Steps to Minimize VOC Exposure:
a) Read the labels on the products carefully. Now, how do you know if your fabric releases volatile compounds or not? Look for the ‘Greenguard certification’. It will provide a guide for a consumer to select a fabric with low emission for upholstery, carpeting, drapes or bedrooms.
b) A non-green guard certified product can emit Volatile organic compounds that can reach an indoor air concentration of a thousand times higher than that which is present in the outside air. These chemicals drastically worsen the indoor air quality and are known to cause eye, nose, throat irritations and cancer on long term exposure. High concentrations of these compounds are very toxic to human health.
c) There are two types of certification. They’re Green guard certification and Green guard Gold certification. The former one is sufficient for office furnishings, while the latter includes health-based criteria for additional chemicals. Green guard Gold certified fabrics and furnishings are recommended for use in healthcare facilities and schools.
d) Adequate ventilation is essential to decrease the indoor air concentration of volatile organic compounds.
e) The chemicals used in dry cleaning of clothes are known to cause cancer in animals. Hence, keep your dry-cleaning needs to a minimum. You tend to breathe in the VOC when you wear those clothes as well as when they are in storage.
03. Flame Retardants
Rendering a fabric flame resistant involves the use of flame-retardant fibers and surface treatments with chemicals, coatings and functional finishes. The indoor air pollution is caused by particulate matter suspended due to the wear of fabric and vaporized chemicals. The health effects are a consequence of inhalation and in children, through sucking on the fabric — the sucking results in wetting and dissolution of flame retardants in saliva.
The concentration of particulate matter in the indoor air depends on the amount of upholstery in the room, the area of the room, and the air exchange rate in the room. The flame retardants may contain bromine, tetra-bromo bisphenol A, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, organophosphates etc. The increase in safety standards has led to a rise in the use of flame retardants.
Effects on Health:
a) The flame retardants are not biodegradable, and they accumulate in the bodies of humans and animals.
b) Create endocrine and thyroid problems.
c) They affect the reproductive system.
d) Flame retardants can cause cancer.
e) These products may weaken immune system in general.
f) The close proximity with this product may induce Neurological problems as well as can induce harmful effect on child development for a pregnant mother.
g) Association has been found between flame-retardant exposure and skin and respiratory allergies.
Steps to Reduce Flame Retardant Exposure:
a) Use of high-quality vacuum cleaner and wet mopping to reduce particle suspension in the air.
b) Constructing houses with adequate ventilation.
c) Keeping the doors and windows open as much as possible.
d) Cleaning the hands of children often. Dust is transferred from the fabric to the human body through hand to mouth contact.
e) Polychlorinated biphenyls and Polybrominated diphenyl ethers have been banned in few countries.
These are chemicals, which are incorporated into the fibers or applied on the surface of the fabric to kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms. The large surface area provides a comfortable niche for the bacteria to grow and proliferate. The usage of antimicrobials prevents contamination, odor, and prolongs the life of the fabric. They are beneficial in cases of medical bedding, bandages etc. where they fight off disease, causing organisms and provide an extra level of protection for patients.
Effects on Health:
a) Quaternary ammonium compounds and the other synthetic antimicrobials are toxic, and they leach out of the fabric with every wash and cause water pollution affecting aquatic life even.
b) The organic solvents used in coating the textiles are harmful to the skin, especially open wounds may get affected.
Steps Undertaken to Reduce Damage Caused by Antimicrobials:
a) Safer options like silver is being used to replace the older antimicrobial agents.
b) Use of nanotechnology in coating the textiles is preferred now. Nanotechnology is still in its infancy and requires further research, however, research is ongoing.
c) Studies are underway in determining the possible antimicrobial activity of naturally available products such as neem, tea tree extract, chitosan and natural dyes.
d) The antimicrobial textile products are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It ensures the use of antimicrobials in necessary fields only.
e) For example, a sock treated with triclosan is considered as a medical device if it is used in the treatment of athlete’s foot and is regulated by the FDA. If the antimicrobial is used only for odour control for the sock, then it is governed by the EPA.
How Can We Make Our Fabrics Eco-Friendly?
Some remedies which can make our fabrics eco friendlier are:
01. The blending of two or more fibers can help in harnessing the desirable properties of the component fibers while eliminating the need for complex processing that poses a threat to our ecosystem. It improves the quality of the fabric and reduces the cost.
02. Cultivating and using organic variants of natural fibers invalidates the use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
03. Adopting sustainable fashion that is, using the least harmful fabrics for everyday use and re-using them.
04. Minimizing waste from raw material sourcing to the consumer.
05. With the increase in awareness regarding the environmental impact, popular brands of clothing have been adapting Eco-design elements in their production and are using recycled materials. Eco-design covers a variety of design aspects that relate to a product’s environmental impact. The fashion industry has been striving to produce materials that have the least effect on the environment.
06. Constructing houses with adequate ventilation is a highly recommended solution. The rules for construction and designing need to be stringently followed to prevent cramping up of living areas, especially in the urban areas.
07. Judicious use of flame retardants, antimicrobials in the fabrics will reduce their accumulation in the environment.
08. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which works toward developing and promoting eco-friendly textiles has released the improvised version of its Higgs index called the Higgs MSI (Higgs Material Sustainability Index). It is a cradle-to-gate material scoring tool. Fabrics with lower scores are considered higher eco-friendly. Companies can calculate and compare the impact of their products using this assessment tool. The index helps people in choosing eco-friendly materials and guides companies in developing sustainable apparel.
Few fabrics, though natural, can be bad for the environment in terms of cultivation, processing, and consumption. But the use of organic variants of these fibers decreases the damage done to the environment. Some of the environment-friendly options for fabrics are soybean fabric, tencel, linen, hemp, coconut by-products, bamboo etc. Some of these products like Nullarbor fabric (a coconut byproduct), Woocoa (made of coconut and hemp) are new in the fashion market and require further research and development for random use.
Perhaps, there aren’t any completely high-performance and eco-friendly fabrics yet that we can boast about. Ultimately, fashion and the use of textiles go hand in hand. Thus, while choosing fabrics for upholstery, more important is to consume less and buy better quality – ideally ones that are made of natural fibers like hemp, linen, and organic cotton. These fabrics are biodegradable at the end of their service life. Use of ecofriendly fabrics for upholstery is one of the sure shot ways to live green and to breathe green, which is good for us as well as for mother earth.