How pure are natural fibres? We put cotton, hemp and bamboo to the test.

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Did you know, two-thirds of the clothes and textiles purchased by Australians are made of synthetic fibres derived from petroleum? These fabrics will never biodegrade and instead shed tiny plastic particles that pollute our waterways and enter food-streams (see our article here). Etiko writer, Nicole Lutze looks into just how pure natural fibres really are.

Obviously, Etiko wants to create clothing with the least environmental impact, so we choose to avoid synthetic textiles and use natural fibres instead. But what are natural fibres, which is better and why?

Where do natural fibres come from?

Natural fibres, as applied to the world of fashion, are derived from natural sources: think plants and animals.

Because Etiko has always been, and always will be vegan, we don’t use animal fibres at all. Instead, we choose to utilise what’s available within the plant kingdom. The three main crops available are cotton, hemp and bamboo.

Cotton:

The cotton plant is a perennial bush related to the hibiscus, and like the hibiscus, it usually grows in tropical and subtropical regions across the world. The plant produces flowers which, once pollinated, drop off and are replaced by bolls - a pod-like fruit filled with fibres. Those fibres can then be separated from the seeds and used to create cotton threads which are then woven into textiles.

Approximately 50% of the world’s cotton is grown within China and India, though Australia has a sizeable cotton industry and is the seventh-largest producer in the world. Australia, however, does not produce organic cotton on any large scale.

At Etiko, we choose to use certified organic cotton. This cotton is grown without the use of harmful pesticides and is grown from cotton seeds that are not genetically modified. Why is this important? Check out our in-depth cotton article here, but essentially, genetically modified seeds contribute to financial debt for already impoverished farmers, and that is something we definitely don’t support. What's more, organic cotton uses about 88% less water to produce! Winner.

Hemp:

Etiko has created some great sneakers using hemp, because hemp is an organic farmer’s dream crop, and as we’ve said, we choose to support organic farming techniques for environmental and social reasons. Hemp is fast-growing, adds vital nutrients to the soil instead of depleting them, and it uses about half the amount of water as cotton. It also has a nifty ability to create its own natural pesticide, meaning there’s no need for chemical-laden sprays, and it crowds-out weeds which might grow in the soil around it, meaning, there’s also no need for herbicides.

To extract fibres from this plant, the hemp stalk is utilised. No chemicals are needed during the processing and compared to cotton, it’s also less water-intensive to process. Hemp is a no-brainer when it comes to utilising ethical and environmentally responsible natural materials.

Bamboo:

Compared to synthetic materials, bamboo-derived textiles are a good choice. It’s a natural-fibre which means it will eventually decompose, the plant itself grows very quickly, and not much water is required to grow it. However, that’s where the benefits stop. 

Almost all bamboo textiles are actually a form of rayon. And the process of creating the rayon fibres involves lots of extremely nasty chemicals which are harmful to the people working with them as well as the environment. The reason bamboo is such a popular choice for many “ethical” brands, lies in economics. Bamboo rayon is much cheaper to produce than organic cotton. At Etiko, we don’t believe in compromising our ethics or the environment for the sake of a dollar, so we refuse to use bamboo. Period. Want to know more about bamboo textiles? Check out this article from the folks at Good On You.

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Comment


  • Hi Etiko,
    I have bought a pair of hemp shoes from you, that are very comfortable and I love. I congratulate you on sourcing organic cotton and working to ensure farmers get a fair price.
    My question is about the use of elastane in your undies. I try to avoid elastane, primarily as it is not biodegradable and secondly because I dislike the dreadful way it eventually stretches fabrics out of shape.
    Is there any chance you could be persuaded to make 100% cotton underwear?
    Thanks for your great work.
    Yours sincerely, Natalie

    Natalie Lauritsen on

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