Natural Fibers Aren’t Always Green!

Just because the two most popular natural fibers, cotton and wool, come from plants (cotton) and animals (wool) doesn’t mean they’re green. Like food, natural fibers are best when they come from an organic farming process, whether it’s from a cotton field or from a sheep’s back.

  • Cotton: Cotton is one of the most natural fibers on earth but is also a crop that uses the most pesticides in order to protect the vulnerable plant from insects and fungus. Pesticides can create health problems for those who work on cotton farms, contaminate ground and surface water, and aren’t good for the long-term health of the soil. The Pesticide Action Network North America also suggests that pesticide residue stays in the cotton fabric after is has been manufactured.

    Water is also an issue in the cotton manufacturing process: It takes hundreds of gallons of water to make a cotton T-shirt, and if you add in the dyes used and the amount of energy required to process raw cotton, it doesn’t add up to a very green fabric. The manufacturing of most clothing materials involves the use of huge quantities of water, which can lead to problems for human populations in dry regions where water is in short supply.

  • Wool: Wool obviously comes from sheep, which you may not associate with pesticides, but sheep dip, the chemical concoction sheep are dipped in to kill parasites, contains organophosphates, which scientists have connected to excessive tiredness, headaches, poor concentration, and mood changes in humans exposed to it. Some scientists also believe that organophosphates may be linked to respiratory disease and possibly neurological issues in children. (And that’s not to mention the effect on the sheep themselves.)

    With regard to wool production, the animal welfare agency People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is also concerned about sheep being mistreated; sometimes the animals are herded together in a factory farm–type situation in order to produce as much wool as possible in the shortest time possible.

Synthetic and chemical products are sometimes added to both cotton and wool clothing products, including color dyes, bleach, and agents to prevent wrinkles.

Buy clothes made from organic cotton and wool, which are grown and processed without the use of toxic chemicals. To find them, check out the Organic Consumers Association and the Organic Trade Association. You can also look for a label that says “Global Organic Textile Standard,” which is an international standard for organic textiles.

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