Because of so much buzz in the collective consciousness around sustainability and ecological awareness, our culture is expanding and growing, evolving in many ways. We are becoming aware of our faults and making steps to ameliorate our actions. Organic foods are becoming a mainstay in grocery stores and farmer’s markets across the world. The organic food movement has exploded to the point where Walmart has become the largest distributor of organic produce, exposing their 200 million annual customers to something that 15 years ago was fringe.
So organic food is in, that is a start. Also, Natural Building has gotten some more attention within the past few years- straw bale homes gracing the covers of magazines and Earthships entering the mainstream consciousness. We still have a long way to go, but this is a start. The way we meet our basic needs is shifting, but still a glaring fact hasn’t gotten widespread attention: we are wearing plastic clothes.
The garment industry must be the one of the oldest in human history. We’ve always needed clothes. Being the modern and frail hairless apes that we are, we rely on products from our environment. For millennia these have come from the plant and animal kingdoms; leather, fibers from sheep and other creatures, bast fibers (outer husk) from plants like nettle, hemp and flax and from the fluff that makes up the protective coating surrounding cotton seeds. We have co-evolved with these products, and it was truly only within the past 100 years or so that we have started to use synthesized materials to clothe ourselves.
We have always needed protection from the elements, seeking first hides to meet our primary needs. Later as human cultures took part in the great process of domestication, we chose specific fibers as more accessible and desirable. Since Paleolithic times, humans have been harvesting the long stalks of nettle, hemp and flax, to name a few, in order to spin this resource into thread, which is then woven into textiles.
Sheep are among the oldest domestic animals, dating back around 10,500 years ago- first for meat, and later developed for their wool. The diversity of fiber produced from the offspring of the wild sheep (Ovis Gmelini) is testament to the importance that fiber plays in our life. Yet if these played such a popular role in humanity’s past, why are we now wearing so many synthetic fibers?
The first synthetic fiber was discovered by Sir Joseph Swan in the early 1880s in experiments for light bulb filaments. Soon after in 1894, in response to a French silk worm epidemic, a successful substitute for silk was created by Charles Frederick Cross and his collaborators, Edward John Bevan and Clayton Beadle. Later on a process was developed, and by chemically treating cellulose (from trees) a fiber was created that could be spun and woven. This semi-sythetic fiber is know as rayon or viscose (from the viscous liquid from which it is spun), and was used in clothing and to meet other needs.
Nylon was the major fiber to be discovered in 1935 by Wallace Currothers, a scientist working for the Dupont Corporation. It was first used commercially as bristles for a toothbrush in 1938 and later for women’s stockings. During a time of scarcity during WWII, it was employed as parachute and rope material. Polyester, the next important synthetic fiber of the 20th century, would later replace nylon as tougher and longer lasting.
All of these synthetic fibers were major advancements because they afforded us more consistency, durability, and control in production and quality than was found in natural fibers. For example, polyester ropes outlasted hemp, nylon parachutes could be made in North America without expensive and scarce imported silk from abroad. The processing of natural fibers into useable thread was cut out as standardized synthetic fibers were made ready-to-use. But at what cost to us and the health of our ecosystems?
While synthetic fibers facilitate more consistent processing within the textile industry, the side effects must also be factored into the equation. Let’s take a look at some of the side effects of these synthetic materials which have created a huge divide from the life-giving abundance of the Earth. What will happen to these products when they are no longer of use to us? Natural return to the earth is nearly impossible for in the synthetic process, toxic byproducts are created, and we can no longer rely on short-cycle decomposition to get rid of our fibers. Polyester, for example, is made of the same material that plastic water bottles are, polyethylene terephthalate, and it is not biodegradable, not to mention toxic. These products, therefore, remain on the earth in our landfills. Oftentimes, toxins and heavy metals from the process leach into groundwater when disposed of in a landfill. For example, petrochemicals, produced from the sun’s energy millions of years ago, are meeting our present needs and ending up in landfills. In short, we are manipulating materials to suit our industries with a blatant disregard for the natural cycles, and the consequences of these actions are far reaching and long lasting.
The over-abundance and use of synthetic fibers is analogous to the severing of our connection to Mother Earth. In favor of expediting the process and cutting out the labor of natural fibers, we are no longer trusting in the merits of what is not human-made and are truly creating a mess future generations will have to deal with. Rather short sighted, especially when you consider the innumerable hours of sunlight that were the catalyst for photosynthesis that grew the biomass, that was under pressure and became the petroleum that was worn as a piece of polyester clothing for such a short time. Corners are cut to make production more efficient, but the effects last longer than any fancy windbreaker.
Along with half life of the fibers being dramatically increased, comes also the issue of performance. Natural fibers are unparalleled in their ability to work with human biology. For example, wool can absorb 35% of its weight in water, as so keeps you cool when overheating. But, it also insulates even when wet due to the capacity to trap air. A fiber like hemp, (the strongest of “soft” plant fibers) is not only exceptionally strong, but offers an annual production of a highly absorbent and antibacterial nature. Animal fibers such as sheep’s wool, cashmere (undercoat of Asian goat) and alpaca (Andean camelid) offers insulation, anti bacterial qualities and are also flame resistance. The breathability of natural fibers make the wearer more comfortable as they are still acting on their biological imperitive: the fibers do what they do because they are created that way. In opposition, human made fibers are forced to exist in a laboratory, and don’t abide by the biological guidelines of living things.
The benefits of natural fibers are exceptional when you compare that it takes 10% of the energy to grow jute (spent mostly in human labour on diversified plantings) than it does to produce the same amount of polyethylene/polyester. This doesn’t even factor in the 3 to 4 tons of carbon emitted for every ton of synthetic fiber produced. It seems like a no brainer right, then why are we still hooked on petroleum? The answer may be as simple as its cheaper and more homogenized and controllable.
The power is fueled in to fewer and fewer hands, and the fiber industry is based on the backs of the many who don’t own the means of production. Synthesizing fibers allowed the means of production to be owned and controlled by an elite, the modern bourgeois, the almighty multinational corporation. This means less and less of the choices and power is held by the people, less and less is based on the hands and lands and more is based on machines. Synthetic fibers are created with advanced machinery and patented processes, not something that honors the beauty and diversity in the natural world. Ghandi was on to something big when we refused to support the exploitive cotton industry in India and make his own clothes.
What to do about all this though? Stop buying petroleum based clothing (buy used if you need that rain jacket ), wear wool, up-cycle (more on the meaning of this in a future article) clothes and repurpose them, raise a fiber flock, speak out against the petroleum industry and about how great natural fibers are, support local producers, write your politician if hemp cultivation isn’t legal where you’re from, educate yourself and others. These are just a few possibilities. What are the ways the textile industry touches your life and how can you shift?
Organic foods are known as nearly mainstream, what if fair trade organic clothing would have such widespread distribution? Every drop in the bucket fills it up, and it all ads up to a healthier a more sustainable world based on love and respect. It may seem like a small task, but changing how you think about fiber could make a dramatic shift in your life. Taking the time to more carefully consider choices can make the small shifts that have big effects. Everything we do has an effect, and by making a transition to a life more based on natural rhythms, our human culture has the potential to live a happier, healthier and more connected life. It may start with pondering what you’re wearing.