We think fabric is the elephant in the room. Such a soft, almost insubstantial product actually gobbles up resources and makes a much larger environmental impact than most people think. It's one of those counterintuitive facts, like Reno being further west than Los Angeles. Although the production of textiles is carbon intensive, there are certainly best choices you can make if you want to minimize your carbon contribution.
First, any natural fiber is much preferable to any synthetic fiber - and among natural fibers, any organic fiber1 is preferable to any conventional (that is, not organic) fiber.
Let's look at how much energy it takes to make a few products to demonstrate what we mean. Energy needed to make each product is measured in mega joules (MJ). You see below that it takes more than three times the energy to create one kilogram (KG) of virgin steel than one KG of linen2. This makes sense, intuitively, because steel seems so substantial compared to linen:
What about those decorative, soft, supple, lightweight fabrics made of polyester? The energy needed to produce one kilogram of steel pales in comparison to the energy needed to produce 1 KG of polyester fabric:
Acrylic is worse, and nylon worse still:
You would have to keep nylon fabric 62.5 times longer than linen fabric if you wanted to neutralize the carbon footprint choice of the nylon over time. And these calculations are for conventional linen. Organic linen has a lighter carbon footprint than conventional linen.
Everyone seems to think that upholstered sofas carry all their embodied energy in the wood frame and the foam cushioning. But this is wrong. If you choose synthetic fabric for your sofa, then the carbon footprint of the fabric alone exceeds the carbon footprint of both the foam and the wood frame combined. This is true even if you use soy foam. (Please contact us for information about this product, soy based foam, which we feel is not an improvement over polyurethane.)3 Please refer to the graph below. What this graph shows is that the wood and foam combined has a carbon footprint that is less than the carbon footprint of the fabric alone if you use synthetic fabric. This holds true even if you use soy foam as opposed to polyurethane (all plastic) foam.
Another concern regarding the production of synthetics, beyond the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) created in production, are the kinds of gasses produced. Nylon, for example, creates emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), which is 300 times more damaging than CO24 and which, because of its long life (120 years) can reach the upper atmosphere and deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone, which is an important filter of UV radiation. In fact, during the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK's entire CO2 emissions.5
What about organic fibers? From the table below, you can see the total amount of CO2 emitted in the creation of one ton of spun fiber (in KG)6 is lower by far if your choice is organic fiber:
Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have additional benefits:
- Because they are able to be degraded by microorganisms and composted, they improve soil structure; in this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed. Synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants – in the case of high-density polyethylene, 3 tons of CO2 emissions are produced for every single ton of material burnt.7
- They sequester carbon – sequestering is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in the plant's leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.
Substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers is not just a little better – but lots better. In fact, according to Paul Hepperly, Research Director of the Rodale Institute, organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming.8 Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs and the reduction of CO2 emissions, organic agriculture also:
- Conserves water, making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better, lessening irrigation requirements and erosion.
- Ensures sustained biodiversity.
- And compared to forests, scientists are finding that the microorganisms in the soil are a more secure carbon sink than what grows on it; forests, for example, are vulnerable to logging and wildfires.
1As in third party certified to an organic standard. "Organic" can be used loosely to refer to any molecule containing carbon. That is not what we mean by organic.
2Information on common building materials is from GreenSpec; fiber information from "Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester", Stockholm Environmental Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group, 2005
3Click here to see how we arrived at these calculations.
4"Tesco carbon footprint study confirms organic farming is energy efficient, but excludes key climate benefit of organic farming, soil carbon", Prism Webcast News, April 30, 2008, http://prismwebcastnews.com/2008/04/30/tesco-carbon-footprint-study-confirms-organic-farming%E2%80%99s-energy-efficiency-but-excludes-key-climate-benefit-of-organic-farming-%E2%80%93-soil-carbon/
5Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, Earthscan, 2008, Page 13
6"Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester", Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group, 2005
7"Why Natural Fibers", FAO, 2009: http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/iynf/sustainable.html
8The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers more than 30 years) provides convincing evidence that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/