Spending on "ethical" clothing rose by more than 26% to £29 million in 2005, according to the latest Co-operative Bank figures. The trend follows rising awareness about the social and environmental impacts of growing, cultivating and processing textile fibres.
According to a University of Cambridge report, cotton production accounts for a quarter of global insecticide usage and significant volumes of herbicides, fungicides, defoliants and fertilisers.1 It also consumes large amounts of water.
While the ethical trend has yet to become more than an interesting niche in the UK’s £38.4 billion fashion market, it is nonetheless boosting business for some fibre growers and processors.
The comparative attractions of different fibres were debated at a recent green textiles conference in Leeds attended by both high street and niche retail buyers.
The conference was told that organic cotton farmers were the first to benefit from the trend - production of the fibre has been rising by 22% annually. However, some experts believe that although the market will grow, organic cotton will struggle to be more than a niche fibre. Lower yields and variable quality affect its guarantee of supply. It is also expensive. In the UK prices can be up to 20% higher than for conventional cotton.
"Organic cotton is better than non-organic cotton, but it is a niche material," according to Dr Richard Blackburn, of the University of Leeds Centre for Technical Textiles. "Please do not let us think organic cotton is the answer [to demand for greener fibres]. We’ve got to find replacements for cotton."
Most interest is in lyocell fibres made from wood pulp-derived cellulose for which Austrian firm Lenzing Fibers is the leading producer. The company has won an EU eco-label for its Tencell lyocell and Lenzing Modal fibre brands. Current annual production capacity stands at 160,000 tonnes compared with 31,000 tonnes for organic cotton.
According to Geoff Collins, head of business development at Lenzing, "organic cotton can only go so far, we need a broader base of sustainable materials." He claims: "There is significant potential for increasing the production of our fibres: bringing one plant on line [for these alternative fibres] instantly exceeds current global organic cotton production."
Tencell lyocell is made from eucalyptus wood certified by the Soil Association and the Forest Stewardship Scheme, while Lenzing Modal is made from beech wood certified by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.
The fibres offer environmental and performance benefits. They are absorbent, strong when wet or dry, and can be easily blended with cotton and other fibres to produce fabrics that are wrinkle resistant, soft and with good drape.
Lyocell cellulose yields are up to 20 times higher than for cotton and its cultivation uses significantly less water. Eucalyptus trees can also be grown on land not suited to other crops, whereas cotton requires high-grade agricultural land.
Lenzing also claims its fibres, particularly Tencel, remain "fresher for longer" due to their ability to absorb more moisture, which leads to less bacterial growth and odour, reducing the need for laundering - the sector’s key contribution to climate change.
To further improve the fibres’ environmental profile, Lenzing has striven to improve the efficiency of its plant through initiatives such as closed-loop solvent recycling, water purification and energy efficiency.
Despite such efforts, the company has only just started to trumpet its fibres’ environmental credentials. According to Dr Collins, the market simply was not ready: "In the initial stage of our fibre and product development it was all about aesthetics and performance, but now there is a receptive audience to this type of message."
Major retail chains have been using lyocell fibres for some time, among them Marks & Spencer, Next and IKEA. Levi’s recently launched an organic range of jeans based on an organic cotton-Tencel blend. Such firms are planning to boost their use of alternative fibres, with others also showing increasing interest including Wal-Mart.
Another focus of interest for textiles firms and retailers is the group of "bast" fibres including flax, hemp and jute. These are easy to grow organically and produce higher yields than cotton. They also can be used in cotton manufacturing plants, avoiding the need for further investment in equipment.
The Bioregional Development Group - the environmental research and development body behind the BedZed eco-village development in south-east England - is leading work to get these fibres to the quality needed for mainstream spinning and weaving. It aims to provide locally grown sources of low-impact crops.
It recently completed a trial to produce the first UK grown hemp fabric and is now working with farmers and textiles firms to establish commercial-scale hemp production.