Many of us tend to believe that natural fibres, being products of nature, are naturally better than their synthetic counterparts. However, this isn’t always the case.
The production of most natural fibres such as cotton, wool and silk have their fair share of environmental and ethical issues too – it’s just that ‘natural’ is often associated with ‘good’. Although the impact on the environment, workers and animals or plants involved in the production varies for each fibre, the impacts nevertheless exist.
The production process of non-organic cotton, for instance, is chemical-intense and this extensive use of toxic agents has been linked to severe health problems in farmers who grow it amongst a plethora of other environmental and social atrocities. Cotton is not alone here – every natural fibre has a background story that deserves attention for anyone who has concerns around human and environmental health.
Join me, as I go into the details of various environmental and ethical issues that are part of the very first stages of production of natural fibres like cotton, wool and silk.
Environmental issues associated with raw material production
Cotton farming involves large quantities of chemicals in the form of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fertilisers. Fertiliser factories are major sources of air, soil and water pollution. Furthermore, chemical nitrate fertilisers used in cotton fields transform into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Intensive cotton farming also involves huge quantities of water, that leads to soil salinisation and decreased soil fertility.
The cotton plant attracts many insects and pests, and hence farmers use large quantities of pesticides and insecticides to protect the crop. This high use of chemicals in cotton farms has resulted in the appearance of resistant pests and secondary infestation that farmers have to cope with over time.
Before cotton plants are harvested, they are subjected to chemical defoliation to remove the leaves. Here, the plants are sprayed with a chemical defoliant once 60% of the bolls open. Another chemical treatment accelerates the opening of bolls. Chemical desiccants may also be used to remove water from the plant and prepare it for harvest.
Heavy machines like spindle pickers and strippers are used for harvesting. Ginning, where the cotton fibre is separated from the cotton seed, is done using saw gins. Heavy physical pressure also compacts soil, removing air, which is absolutely vital to soil quality and its ability to support crops and ecosystems in the future.
Wool production has its concerns too
The wool industry also has a significant environmental footprint. Large herds of sheep are raised for obtaining fibres on a commercial-scale. This livestock is responsible for the rise in greenhouse gases, as the natural life processes of these animals, like enteric fermentation, result in methane emissions.
In the case of animals such as mink raised for their fur, their fecal content has high levels of phosphorus. These wastes are usually dumped into water bodies. This, as well as toxic gases like ammonia that such farms release into the air, contribute to environmental pollution.
Sheep husbandry within the wool industry, particularly in Australia with sheep imported from Europe, resulted from traditional farming methods being unable to cope with hotter, drier climates. The simple fact that intensive cross-breeding had to take place shows us how the unsuitability of certain farming practices will not defeat the need to capitalise on land and commercial expansion. This continuation of widespread sheep-farming, as with crops, has created monocultures which deplete soil and ecosystem biodiversity. This poses a threat to current and future food production as soils are less fertile. Of course with livestock rearing there is the need for fodder crops to be grown in bulk, which now take up 50% of the world’s farmland.
Social and ethical implications of raw material production.
The picture is just as dismal when we consider social and ethical aspects of raw material production of natural fibres. Farm workers on cotton farms are exposed to toxic chemicals used in crop production. Some small farmers have limited knowledge and inadequate equipment to handle such strong chemicals. Continued exposure to these poisonous substances leads to several health problems over time. The medical complications and associated expenses end up being an added burden for the farmers.
The chemicals are neurological disruptors and are blamed for causing brain tumours and cancer. It is no coincidence that there are numerous cancer treatment centres in the towns of the American South where commercial cotton has long been widespread.
Moving on to the wool industry, which is a hub of rampant animal welfare issues. Sheep on commercial wool farms are carelessly sheared in haste, often injuring the animals and causing severe pain. Instances where the skin, tail and ears are ripped off during the process are common. In Australia, Merino sheep are subjected to a terribly painful procedure called ‘mulesing’, where skin from the back is cut off to keep away flies. Imagine the torture these silent animals undergo, in the absence of painkillers or care after the procedure. A number of such disturbing scenarios can be viewed in this video, and further details are available on the PETA website. Sheep do officially in fact have rights too.
Examining silk farming also reveals ethical issues
The silk industry is also infamous for how fibres are extracted from the silkworm. Although silk has lesser environmental impact when compared to other natural fibres, the process is gruesome.
The domesticated silkworm has been bred in captivity for so long, that it evolved into a blind moth which cannot eat. The insect survives for four or five days, during which time it lays its eggs. Silk fibres are extracted from the cocoon that the larvae build around themselves. To avoid damage to the silk by the moth that emerges, cocoons are boiled during the larva stage itself to kill the insect inside it.
Fortunately, there is a cruelty-free option. Ahimsa or Peace silk is spun from cocoons after the pupa hatches and escapes as a moth.
Here at Offset Warehouse we are also fortunate enough to have found some wonderful Peace silk farms so that we can bring you the epitome of peaceful and beautiful luxury in fabric form!
We also stock a wide range of textiles made from organic cotton. Here are just a few of my favourites.
We should consider every stage, from production to use and disposal, when determining a fabric’s eco-credentials and social impact. In this regard, conventional fibres like virgin cotton have a higher environmental impact than synthetic fibres like recycled polyester. So, don’t be misguided into choosing a fabric just because it is natural. Instead, look for genuine Fair Trade and organic certifications, for these are the actual benchmarks of sustainability and ethics.