We often receive questions about the difference between "natural clothing" and "organic clothing". In some people’s opinion, natural fiber clothing is the same as organic clothing. In conversations, “natural clothing” is sometimes used to refer to organic clothing because the clothing is completely natural and was grown and manufactured without toxic chemicals. But natural fiber clothing simply refers to clothing made from fibers found in nature, such as cotton, wool or hemp, which may not be grown or manufactured under conditions which would allow them to be certified as organic.
Natural fibers fall into three main groups:
- Vegetable fibers which come from plants such as cotton, hemp, and flax;
- Protein fibers such as wool, alpaca, and cashmere which come from the wool and hair of animals;
- Strong elastic fibrous secretion of silkworm larvae in cocoons which is used to create silk.
The main ingredient in all vegetable fibers is cellulose, a carbohydrate found in all plant life. The most common natural fibers used to make clothing are: cotton, hemp, ramie, linen, wool, and silk. The use of natural fibers extends back beyond recorded history with archaeological evidence indicating that wool and flax were being woven into fabrics by the sixth century BC. Man-made fibers, however, which are fibers chemically and structurally altered to an appreciable extent during their production, were not developed until after the Industrial Revolution. The earliest of these fibers, including rayon and acetate, were comprised of the same cellulose polymers found in many natural fibers, though in a drastically modified form. Later man-made fibers, such as nylon and polypropylene, were created through purely artificial means and came to be classed in a separate category of fibers known as synthetics.
Technology marches forward and has given up a new category of fibers called “natural man-made fibers”, which does sound like an oxymoron. The most common and best known of these new natural man-made fibers is lyocell, also known by its brand name Tencel. Lyocell is made from the cellulose in wood pulp so it is “natural”, but the wood pulp has been dissolved with a solvent and the wood pulp solutions is then squirted into fibers so it is actually man-made from reconstituted wood pulp. Lyocell has been given a reputation as being eco-friendly because it is made from trees, which are a renewable resource, and the solvent used to dissolve the wood pulp is reclaimed and recycled to be used again. There is very little air or waste water pollution created by the manufacturing processes to create the lyocell fiber.
Natural Fibers vs. Organic Fabric
Most garments that are produced from natural fibers such as cotton are not organic. Conventionally grown cotton is the most chemically treated crop in the world. One fourth of all toxic chemical pesticides produced each year are used on cotton crops. The damage and destruction to the ecology and wildlife and to the health of farm workers and residents living near cotton fields is enormous. When evaluating the eco-friendly properties of any clothing garment, you must look at how the fiber was grown and produced and also at how the fiber was processed to create fabric and ultimately the clothing garment. Both the fiber growing and the fabric manufacturing must be free of harsh, toxic chemicals to quality the garment as being organic and healthy for the consumer and the environment in which it was produced and manufactured.
Conventionally manufactured fabrics rely heavily upon chemicals to clean and bleach the fibers and to prepare the fibers to be spun into yarns for weaving or knitting. Conventional dyes are often high in dangerous heavy metals and use large amounts of water to flush and clean the fabrics resulting in heavily polluted waste waters. The final stage of the garment manufacturing process is the finishing step. Finishing is often one of the most chemically intensive steps, especially if the garment is chemically treated to be stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, odor-resistant, or any of the other treatments that are being called “smart fabrics” to make life easy. All of these labor-saving treatments come at the expense of chemical treatments. And we wonder why chemical sensitivities are a growing problem.
Although most people tend to assume that most of what they wear is natural fiber clothing, this is far from the truth. Even if the label on a shirt states that it is 100 percent cotton or wool, it never mentions the amount of chemicals the fabric may have been in contact with up until that point. In fact, the only way to be certain that you are wearing natural fiber clothing is if they are certified to have been created using organically grown elements.