The end of an era… er, decade

Wow.  2009 is winding up quickly, therefore I’m feeling the pressure to write some sort of really profound post, you know, summing up the last 10 years or so in some magically concise and meaningful way.

Hah!  It’s Tuesday and I’ve done almost no work on my thesis in the past 5 days (graduation, Christmas, weekend…  yesterday I worked at my job.  Shame shame).  The fact that I’m posting at all means I’m seriously procrastinating here.

So the other day I came across this article.  A reader wrote into slate asking whether wool or cotton was more environmentally friendly.  It was a nice wee article, except that it was totally wrong.  So I decided to email slate and point out the error of their ways.  I’ve posted it below.  Enjoy!
Dear sir,

My apologies as I am commenting on a post from almost 2 years ago but I must point out many inaccurate points which you’ve made.  I love slate but this is the first article I’ve ever been disappointed in (possibly because I am currently undertaking my PhD in clothing and textile sciences, and am thus fairly knowledgeable in this area).

There is no “green” apparel product.  The companies out there marketing their products as eco-friendly are doing just that – marketing.  All apparel products have a significant effect on the environment (producing fibres, dying, the energy required to produce fabrics and then garments, the transportation of products around the globe, and the laundering of which, as you correctly mention in your article as being very significant, etc.).  Synthetic fibres are toted as detrimental due to their non-renewable base – petroleum.  However, they typically require significantly less resources during processing than their natural counterparts.  Cotton uses a large amount of water in growing.  While sheep require not only water, but are often treated with pesticides (in addition to the issue of animal welfare, particularly mulesing, castration, tail docking, etc.).  Additionally, wool must be scoured (the lanolin, grease and impurities removed) which requires a large amount of water.  And although wool products used to be dry cleanable, many are now machine washable.  This didn’t occur by magic.  The wool must first be treated with Chlorine bleach, and then covered in a polymer to prevent felting.  This process is known commonly as “superwash” or Chlorine/Hercosett.

As you also mentioned, the laundering of products has a huge environmental effect.  Natural fibre products are far superior here, as they typically resist odour better than synthetic fibres, and need laundering less often (aka, garments can be worn many times before cleaning is needed).

Although synthetic garments cannot be composted at the end of their life cycle, their extreme durability often allows for more wears, therefore reducing the (hypothetical) number of raw materials required to produce new products.

New Zealand is considered one of the major exporters of wool, but once again this is note entirely true.  The world’s largest wool producer is Australia.  China is close behind.  Also, most of the wool exported from New Zealand is carpet grade wool.  Only a very small amount is used in apparel products.  Globally, wool accounts for only 2% of fibre consumed.

Truely, the most eco-friendly advice is to consume less in the first place.  Buying high quality (i.e. durable, long lasting) 2nd hand natural fibre (requiring less laundering) garments, thereby reducing the number of new garments produced.

Please let me know if you have any questions.



So think about that the next time you are about to make a purchase.  Oh, and if you have any textile/fabric/clothing/apparel/fiber related questions – Please feel free to ask!!!


One thought on “The end of an era… er, decade

  1. Good to know! Companies are so quick to stick a “green” stamp on their products it’s impossible to tell whether they really are or not. I suppose it’s a good rule that second-hand items are always better for the earth than something new. What is that slogan – “Why buy new when slightly used will do!” – I think it’s for gym equipment or something.

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