Find it!There are several options in the eco-towel closet: organic cotton, bamboo, and hemp are all great options. Textiles with natural dyes or dye-free are also environmentally aware choices.
Buying eco-friendly towels helps you go green because
- Towels made from organic or sustainably harvested natural fibers come from rapidly renewable resources grown using methods that do not pose environmental harm to ecosystems, wildlife, or humans.
- Organic farming uses few if any harmful chemicals and combats global warming through carbon sequestration.
Natural fibers are not without their eco-hazards either. Bath towels are made mostly from cotton. A study by Cotton Inc., an industry trade association, found that 66 percent of consumers believe cotton is safe for the environment. Yet cotton, which takes up only 2.4 percent of the world's cropland, accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide sales. The farming of conventional cotton is also water-intensive. Approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton undershirt. Organic cotton farming, which does not use insecticides, is not exempt from this reality either (though on the plus side, water supplies aren't contaminated with organic farming).
Towel makers, looking for ways to create soft, yet environmentally sensitive products, are exploring several eco-alternatives, including Certified Organic cotton and fibers such as bamboo, wood pulp, and hemp. The manufacturing and distribution processes are also being addressed through a variety of chemical alternatives and certification bodies.
Organically grown fibersTowels made from any organically grown fiber are not exposed to herbicides and insecticides. Instead, these fibers are grown with farming practices that nurture soil health and foster biologically diverse agriculture. To gain official organic certification in the US by a government-approved certifier, cotton must adhere to the same criteria established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for edible crops since cotton seeds and oil are commonly used in food products. Ninety-five percent of the ingredients must be grown in soil that has been free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years and the product cannot contain genetically modified organisms.
Organic farming may also be key in fighting global climate change. During a 23-season study of conventional versus organic farming methods, the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.
Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming. The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.
Other natural fibersIn an effort to find a fiber that can compete with cotton on the softness and absorbency scale, yet have fewer ecological impacts, manufacturers have turned to other natural fibers. Bamboo, hemp, and even wood pulp are now combined with cotton or used alone to make towels. Each has its own ecological attributes and challenges, and may or may not be organically grown.
BambooBamboo fiber is spun from the pulp of bamboo grass and it resembles cotton in its unspun state. However, that's where the similarities end as bamboo is considered a sustainable crop. Bamboo grass is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Some species grow 30 inches every day. A bamboo stand will release 35 percent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees and can sequester up to 12 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare.
In addition, bamboo plants contain a natural antifungal, antibacterial agent (called Bamboo kun) that acts as a sort of internal pesticide, which negates the use of pesticides. Bamboo kun is also present in the fabric and controls bacteria growth on the skin, as well as moisture levels.
The ecological challenge for bamboo comes in its processing. Because it is a stiff, tough fiber, harsh chemicals and large amounts of energy are used to transform the stalks into fibers that can be woven. Additionally, the popularity of bamboo products has been detrimental to the natural forests in countries where bamboo grows. In efforts to meet demand, bamboo stands can be "over-managed" with chemical weeding and periodic tilling of the land to clear undergrowth. These practices increase erosion and produce a single-species plantation over large areas, replacing natural, diverse forests. Although bamboo traditionally does not require pesticide and fertilizers, unless it is Certified Organic, you can't be sure. In some growing areas, the intensive use of pesticides, weed killers, and fertilizers also affects the environment by releasing toxins into soil and waterways.
HempHemp is more durable and resistant to mildew than pure cotton. It's also more absorbent: hemp fiber can absorb 150 percent of its weight in water (as opposed to cotton, which can absorb about 100 percent). Hemp is considered an earth-friendly alternative to conventional cotton, partly because it produces three times as much fiber per acre. Like cotton, hemp requires water and fertilizer (in moderate amounts) to grow but does not need to be treated with chemical pesticides or herbicides and can be grown in a wide range of climates and terrains. The farming of hemp also benefits overall soil conditions by adding nutrients, fostering microbial life, and eradicating weed growth.
Hemp, however, is not perfect. The conversion of hemp fiber to hemp fabric, like many textile processes, often involves the use of water and bleach. Additionally, hemp typically costs twice as much as cotton for two reasons: hemp cultivation is restricted so there is less supply, and processing of hemp fiber into yarn requires specialized equipment which adds to the cost.
Wood pulpThe wood pulp fiber, known as Legna (pronounced LANE-ya), is from Europe and is relatively new on the market. Toweling off with mashed trees may not sound particularly gentle on the skin but textiles made with this fiber are said to be luxuriously soft. The fiber manufacturer, Lenzing Lyocell, notes that wood pulp comes from sustainably harvested trees and is processed using a closed-loop process that recycles the bleach-free solvent and the water used to make it. The company received the European Union's Technology Award for Sustainable Development in 2000.
The manufacturing processThe manufacturing processes vary, but transforming rough fiber to soft, pliable yarn generally requires multiple steps, including spinning, dyeing, weaving, and bleaching.
Making stiff fibers softFor example, cotton threads are treated with starches or sizing to make the fiber easier to weave, and bleached to remove the fiber's natural color in preparation for dyeing. Every time the fiber is flushed with water, there is an opportunity for waste water contaminated, laced with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and bleach (which produces dioxin — a human carcinogen), to enter the environment. Some manufacturers minimize the contaminates by using low-impact dyes and not bleaching the fiber (or they use hydrogen peroxide instead).
Adding color to drab fibersThe textile industry generates and consumes an estimated 1.3 million tons of dyes and other synthetic coloring agents worth around $23 billion. These dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and cancer-causing heavy metals like chromium VI, arsenic, and cadmium. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes a number of dyes to be hazardous due to the threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants. Although the use of synthetic, petrochemical dyes is prevalent, alternatives do exist and are commonly classified as "low-impact" or "eco-friendly."
CertificationSome towel manufacturers go the extra mile and have their products certified to assure consumers that their eco-friendly marketing is not rife with greenwash. There are several certifications available, but here's the most common ones to look for:
USDA OrganicTowels manufactured in the US and labeled organic meet the USDA's National Organic Program rule for crop production. However, because of substances introduced in the manufacturing of a finished product, they are not guaranteed to be chemical-free. Other certifying organizations are working to address the fiber processing and manufacturing steps. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) has developed processing standards, entitled The Organic Trade Association's American Organic Standards — Fiber: Post Harvest Handling, Processing, Record Keeping, & Labeling that addresses all post-harvest processing, from storage of organic cotton or wool, to spinning, wet finishing, and labeling.
Instead of implementing these standards, the OTA has made them voluntary and recognizes a similar standard and certification program developed by the International Working Group on Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This standard covers the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation, and distribution of all natural fibers. Bath products that are produced in compliance with GOTS standards are labeled "Global Organic Textile Standard." At present, there are only four certifying agents (just one in North America) available and the certification does not appear to be widely implemented.
Oeko-TexA separate European certification by the International Oeko-Tex Association is given to chemically treated textiles. Known as Oeko-Tex Standard 100 or Confidence in Textiles, products that have received this certification have been tested to assess the environmental impact of various chemicals, such as carcinogenic dyes, formaldehyde, softeners, heavy metals, pentachlorophenol, and substances that are harmful to health but not yet regulated (pesticides, allergy-inducing dyestuffs or tin-organic compounds).
The organization's website includes the ability to do a brand name search for certification. Manufacturers that meet the standards are licensed to use the registered Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label on their products.
Skal Organic CertificationThe Skal organic certification, seen in European-produced bath products, includes the processing of agricultural products, as well as agricultural production. Therefore, towels bearing the Skal logo are made with chemical-free finishing, such as wheat starch as the sizing agent. Hydrogen peroxide is used to whiten cotton instead of chlorine bleach, and low-impact dyes are used.
ControversiesHemp and marijuana are both members of the plant species Cannabis sativa and have both been considered Schedule 1 controlled substances in the United States since the late 1950s. While it is a crime to grow all forms of cannabis in the US, it is not illegal to sell hemp products such as paper and bed sheets.
Cannabis grown for industrial purposes — hemp — and cannabis grown for recreational and medicinal uses — marijuana — have a different biological makeup. Both contain two distinct "cannabinoids": the psychoactive THC and the antipsychoactive CBD. Industrial hemp contains high levels of CBD and low levels — less than 1 percent — of THC, while the makeup of marijuana is the reverse. It is nearly impossible to achieve a narcotic high from smoking hemp.
There are movements in the US on both national and state levels to reintroduce industrial hemp as an agriculturally viable crop. Hemp advocates note the plant's potential as an alternative to tree-based paper, cotton-based clothing, and other items whose production poses environmental risks. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other opposing parties believe that if the ban on hemp farming is lifted it would become easier to grow marijuana alongside it. It is also often assumed that those who support industrial hemp farming are part of a marijuana legalization subculture.
- carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.
- genetically modified organism: GMOs result from merging the genetic makeup of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Using genetically modified seed is a common practice in conventional farming. Studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks and cause some insects which feed on GM crops to become resistant to pesticides.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air.VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
- Environmental Bamboo Foundation - Why Bamboo? Here's Why
- The Green Guide - Bath Towels and Washcloths
- Grist - Advice on natural fabrics vs. polyester
- Organic Trade Association - Organic Cotton
- US Energy Information Administration - Petroleum (Oil): A Fossil Fuel
- Cotton Inc. - Making the Eco Movement Matter
- WWF - Cotton Farming
- US Geological Survey - Water Facts
- Straus Communications - Organic Farming Sequesters Atmospheric Carbon and Nutrients in Soils: The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trialåš Findings
- The New Farm - Organic farming combats global warming big time
- Christian Science Monitor - Easy on the Eyes and the Environment
- Environmental Bamboo Foundation - Why Bamboo? Here's Why
- MetaEfficient - Efficient by Rare: Hemp Bath Towels
- Industrial Hemp - For A Better Tomorrow: Environmental Benefits of Industrial Hemp
- Fibre2fashion.com - Natural, "Green" Dyes for the Textile Industry