Dive in with me - behind the scenes in my studio- for part 2 of a series on how I minimise environmental impact in my products.
Did you know that cotton;
- uses a humongous amount of water to grow (whole inland seas have been drained to irrigate cotton farms)
- uses 26% of the world's pesticides
- 7 of the 8 biggest cotton producing countries have widespread use of child and forced labour?
As with all the materials I use, I've given a lot of thought to what fabrics I select to create my Ellume Life cushions, table linen and tea towels. They must be hard wearing, easy care, have the right weight and drape plus have an amazing texture & colour and be good to look at! Finding ethical & sustainable fabrics has proven to be one of my biggest challenges on my textiles journey as there are so many layers and issues to consider. It is definitely not an easy 'neat' choice to explain and I've learned a few challenging lessons along the way!
I knew when I started that fabric production is one of the biggest exploiters of people and our beautiful world and that one of my main goals was to offer people a transparent, thoughtful alternative. I believe we need to be the change we want to see in the world. I quickly discovered that making this choice was going to increase my costs, and that I would have to pass that on in my pricing to my lovely customers!
Lesson #1 in ethical small business: choosing to do the right thing is not always the most profitable.
It was easy to discard synthetic fabrics, full of chemicals, high in energy consumption and basically made from oil and go straight to plant based fibres like cotton and linen. Nice and natural- right? Hmmm… unfortunately- not so much! There are so many environmental and ethical factors and inputs to consider at each stage of any fabric production process, that is possible to fry your brain when trying to weigh them all up!
Lesson #2 in ethical small business: finding the best, most ethical solution is not simple.
Check out this flow chart for cotton clothing production (created by the very knowledgeable @mukakids) which I have found super helpful for summarising these factors. It features chemical & heavy metal (cancer causing) inputs, massive water and energy use, untreated waste & pollution, plastic packaging, child and forced labour, poor/no pay, hazardous work environments, no worker protections (discrimination, harassment, low pay, no contracts). Whew… its pretty bleak. You can see why I am not happy to use just any nice looking cotton or linen for my screen printing.
Enter GOTS Certification. The Global Organic Textile Standard is a worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. There are other certifications for fabric that are helpful (like OECO- TEX 100 which tests for harmful substances in the fabric) but as far as I can discover the GOTS certification is the most thorough in covering environmental and social issues.
To gain an 'Organic' GOTS certification, the fabric must be:
- made with 95% organic fibres
- be completely free of all heavy metals
- Labour practices must meet International Labour Organisation standards (no child slave labour, safe working conditions, minimum wage etc)
- all wastewater is treated
- environmentally sound packaging
- planned & unannounced inspections & testing
So I researched more and discovered the source of Hemp/GOTS certified Organic Cotton fabric I currently use. Whilst hemp has yet to have its own certification, it is by default much more sustainable than cotton.
From a farming perspective hemp;
- takes up to 50% less water
- zero pesticides to grow
- grows more quickly
- It has a much higher yield than cotton or linen
- puts nutrient back into the soil
- other parts of the plant can be used for food & health products, the huge beauty product industry, building materials and thus could be a fantastic way to prevent deforestation.
From an end use perspective hemp:
- is 8 times stronger than cotton
- hold its shape
- it washes well, shedding a microscopic layer and releasing any soiling while retaining its sleek sheen and becoming softer
- has superior absorbency and is also breathable
- it doesn’t fade as quickly
- is resistant to mildew and mould
- stores carbon, is fully biodegradable and therefore completely recyclable
So Hemp is a fantastic fabric with which to make durable, no fuss, high quality & luxurious home wares like my tea towels, table linen and cushions. Unfortunately, until it becomes more mainstream, it comes with a 'niche market' price tag.
Linen, which I absolutely love, has some of the fantastic properties of hemp, but if made conventionally (ie without certification) has many of the same problems as cotton. I have tried different linens but have struggled to find any with traceability. It is particularly hard to find fabric in wider widths which I need for my tablecloths and table linen.
Lesson #3: being in ethical small business is an (imperfect) journey…
So... I’d love to hear from you if you know of a GOTS certified linen?! :)
I hope you’ve found this summary of my fabric finding journey helpful and that it is useful to you as you make choices about what products you purchase, fabrics you wear and use in your home. Look past brands who bandy around terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ because apparently 'organic is the new black', and, appearing to be socially conscious will appeal to their demographic. Instead, purchase from companies and local small business who are actually transparent with their sourcing, acknowledge their weaknesses, are making meaningful improvements, who know how, where and by whom their products were made, and, can happily speak to you about it all.
Lesson #4: it is up to each of us to ask questions like ‘where is this from’, ‘who made this’ and ‘how was it made’?
Drop me a line below if you’d like to know more/ask further questions. Is there anything you want to know about fabric that I haven’t covered here?
Here are some of the excellent sources I have found in my own research of this complex industry and from which I have drawn information for this post:
Certification of fabrics
Who really pays the price for our clothing?
Interactive online doco exploring the production of clothes in Bangladesh
O Eco Textiles- Excellent research on pros & cons of fabrics, certifications and discussion of issues with toxins in fabrics and other products we have in our homes