The clothing we wear and the sheets we sleep on could be making us sick. Toxic chemicals are used to make these everyday products and they have drastic impacts on the environment and on human health. In fact, 43 million tons of chemicals used in a given year of textile production are harmful to our bodies.1
Prioritize Organic Fibers:
Synthetic fabrics require the addition of chemicals. Organically grown textiles such as wool, hemp, linen and jute do not. Organic fibers also have properties that support the health of people and the planet.
Nature’s original wicking material does not require toxic additives due to its strong interlocking fiber structure, and because it is naturally coated in lanolin oil, a wax that makes it resistant to moisture and dirt. Wool is also naturally flame retardant so it does not require added toxic chemicals to prevent fire spread.
Cotton is the most commonly used natural fiber in the world, but currently most cotton is grown using toxic agricultural practices. Conventionally grown cotton is dependent on pesticides, fertilizers, and bleaching chemicals, all of which harm our land, and the health of both workers and the wider public. It is critical to return to regenerative, organic cotton farming.
Linen is derived from the highly resilient stalks of flax plants that require no fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. It is a naturally durable fabric with dirt and dust resistance.
Hemp’s extremely strong fiber structure naturally deters moisture, pilling and dirt without need for treatments. In the field, hemp sequesters carbon with little water input to keep our soil healthy and our textiles healthier.
Seek Healthier Treatments:
Commonly used dyes, finishes, coatings, and textile treatments can contain chemicals of concern that are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. By identifying these chemicals, we can divert our exposure, and seek healthier alternatives.
Shift to Natural Dyes
Plant, bacteria, or other bio-based dyes require less water input, and unlike traditional processes, do not dump toxic waste into our waterways. Natural pigments such as indigo and turmeric have historically been used for their antibacterial health properties, showcasing the benefit of natural textile treatments.
Activewear and outdoor wear use water repelling perfluorinated compounds that are found to bioaccumulate in the liver and kidneys and act as endocrine disruptors. Instead opt for naturally water repellent fibers like wool, or bio-based solutions like beeswax-coated cotton.
Carpets are often treated with coatings of harmful antimicrobials containing triclosan and tributyltin in order to prevent bacterial growth. These antimicrobials are endocrine disrupting and extremely toxic to aquatic life and our water systems. Prioritize naturally bacteria repellent fibers like wool.
Look for the TB117-2013 label to confirm no flame retardants are added. Flame retardant chemicals are linked to birth defects, hormonal changes and cancer. If a label can’t be found, reach out to the manufacturer's representative to learn about their practices. Fibers like wool, used in firefighters uniforms, naturally limit the spread of flames due to its tightly crimped fiber.
Consumers can consider health effects when purchasing products by looking for textile manufacturers with transparency practices such as disclosure ingredient labeling or specialized garment care. If the chemical content is not disclosed, the textile should not be used.
Understanding ingredients is the first step to finding healthier textiles. Look out for potentially harmful ingredients by using Red List Free, Declare labels or OEKO-TEX® to ensure disclosed product additives are not harmful to your health.
Know Your Maker/Manufacturer
80% of a product’s health and ecological impacts are decided at the design phase. When design teams are producing on a smaller scale they can work with local makers to advocate for transparency.
What Labels Can Tell Us
Transparency does not always mean healthier products, but public disclosure invites consumers to advocate for healthier alternatives. Projects like Share Label create entry points for open communication between consumers and the supply chain.
The Time is Now
The dire need for up-to-date transparency is clear and critical to understand health effects. The Fashion Transparency Index is an annually updated tool that tracks transparency in the fashion industry. It provides access to vital health research which enables designers and consumers to make informed decisions.
"If we are going to live so intimately with chemicals, eating and drinking them, we had better know something about their nature and their power" - Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Key Product Considerations:
- Agricultural Practices: Were toxic chemicals used in the production or processing of fibers?
- Ingredient Transparency: Are any of the ingredients of the textile disclosed known to be toxic to health?
- Treatment & Additives: Have toxic chemicals been used in dyes, treatments, or finishes?
Following are a few selected products that exemplify healthier practices.
FabriFELT™ is made entirely from sheep’s wool and is suitable for walls and ceilings for sound absorption. FabriFELT is disclosed through its DECLARE label. The product is Red List Free, suitable for LEED v4 projects. Since it is a natural material it can be recycled. The manufacturer will take it back for recycling or via general textile recycling pathways.
Wood pulp fibers make up the compostable fiber Naia™. It is certified by Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) & Oeko-Tex® standards.
Biological Cycles Collection by Wolford
Sometimes bio-based textiles like modal–which is made from tree pulp–are presented as a healthier textile, however they often undergo chemical processing in order to become a fiber. This modal collection is Cradle to Cradle Gold certified with Material Health scoring Platinum, ensuring it has been screened for hazardous chemicals and potential health impacts.
Organic Belgian Linen by Libeco
Libeco is a Belgian Company whose natural fibers meet standards of the Global Organic Textile Standard, which certifies that the textile did not require the addition of fertilizers, pesticides or other processing chemicals that harm the health of workers or wearers.
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