3 Best Natural Sustainable Fabrics for Clothing - Hemp vs Bamboo vs Cotton
Updated: Nov 21
If you want to live more sustainably, you will soon discover that cotton is one of the least sustainable fabrics. So you start looking for an alternative to cotton. Of course, you have synthetic materials such as polyester, polyamide (nylon), acrylic, and elastane (made from petroleum), but you would like a natural alternative from a renewable source. Then the choice is much more limited. Nowadays, sustainable alternative fabrics for cotton are emerging such as nettle, coffee, seaweed, or lotus fabrics, but this is still in the developmental stage and it will take some time before these crops are widely produced for fiber production. This leaves 2 alternatives; bamboo and hemp. Below I would like to give you the advantages and disadvantages of each of the 3 sustainable fabrics so that you can make a good choice yourself which fabric suits you best.
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Pros of Cotton
The big advantage of cotton is that it quickly produces a very strong fiber. Regular cotton does this even faster and with an even higher yield compared to organic cotton. Cotton is also very soft, which makes it nice to wear directly against the skin. Because it can be produced quickly and cheaply, clothing and other items made of cotton are very budget-friendly.
Cons of Cotton
The major disadvantage of cotton is that it is a crop that is very susceptible to insects and diseases, which means that a lot of pesticides have to be used to prevent crop loss. Even when the genetically modified version (Bt cotton) is used that makes cotton resistant to insect pests, pesticides are still liberally used.
Cotton can withstand high temperatures reasonably well and is therefore often grown in places where there is little rainfall. Because cotton still needs water, these fields often have to be irrigated to achieve the highest possible yield.
Because so many pesticides and water have to be used for the production of cotton, the soil suffers a lot and the soil quality is deteriorating. The naturally present nutrients are washed out of the soil and the biodiversity in the soil is slowly disappearing.
We as consumers want everything cheap. Including our clothes. Unfortunately, this does not benefit the people who make our clothes. They are often not protected against the many pesticides they have to use and they have to work long days for poor pay.
Pros of Bamboo
Bamboo grows very fast which allows it to be harvested several times a year. Some varieties can be harvested up to 4 times a year. Also, a bamboo plant is not very picky about where it grows. It can withstand both hot and cold climates pretty well, making it a very flexible crop.
Bamboo is not very susceptible to diseases and pests, so hardly any pesticides are used on this crop.
What makes bamboo very special is that it can absorb much more carbon dioxide and can produce up to 35% more oxygen than many tree species.
Like cotton, bamboo is a very soft fiber but compared to cotton, it absorbs much more moisture. Which makes bamboo a great fabric for cloth diapers and reusable menstrual products.
Cons of Bamboo
Where cotton is strong, bamboo produces a more fragile fiber. Because bamboo is so fragile, it is often made in combination with cotton. This is because 100% bamboo fabrics are often so weak that they fall apart after a few washes.
Bamboo also needs a lot of chemicals to be processed into fibers. Although the amount differs per type of bamboo fiber. Tencel lyocell and bamboo linen can be produced a lot more sustainably than bamboo viscose. Bamboo viscose needs a lot of chemicals to remove the cellulose from the plant so that it can be spun into fibers.
Pros of Hemp
In addition to recreational purposes, hemp can also be processed into fabric. Compared to cotton and bamboo, hemp is a lot more efficient in water use. It, therefore, needs less water to achieve a decent harvest. Hemp grows very quickly, up to 2.5 times as much fiber can be produced as cotton on the same land area.
Like bamboo, hemp is not very susceptible to insects and pests and thus does not require many chemicals to produce the crop.
Hemp is a very strong fiber, it was used in the past to make ropes and sails.
Hemp fabric absorbs even more moisture compared to bamboo, making it a good choice for cloth diapers and reusable menstrual products.
Cons of Hemp
Hemp is a very strong but also a very rough fiber. As a result, a fabric made from 100% hemp is not nice to wear directly against your skin and is therefore always combined with cotton to increase wearability.
Whether you want to use hemp, bamboo or cotton depends on various factors. Although fabric made from hemp is the most durable, it is not suitable for every purpose. For example, it is less suitable for clothing because it is a very stiff fiber. It is therefore not comfortable to wear. Because hemp has a high absorbent capacity, it is extremely suitable for, for example, an extra absorbent layer of cloth diapers, reusable nursing pads, and reusable sanitary products.
Bamboo ranks second here. This fabric is also a lot more sustainable than cotton, but a lot softer than hemp. A fabric made of only bamboo is unfortunately also not suitable for clothing because it is a very fragile/weak fiber. Although clothing made of 100% bamboo has a high wearing comfort, it will tear after a few washes so a combination of bamboo and cotton is widely used.
Cotton scores lowest here when it comes to sustainability, but scores highest on budget-friendliness. Although cotton does not sound very sustainable, compared to disposable items such as wipes, handkerchiefs, and cotton pads, it is still a better alternative.
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