Nice Threads

If green is your color, then cotton may be your cloth. A new effort to rank commonly-used textiles by their environmental impact has found that organic cotton tops the list of the least damaging threads, while synthetic acrylic finished last.

“Surprisingly, very little research has been carried out to assess the currently available fibers in terms of their ecological sustainability,” a research team from the The Hong Kong Polytechnic University in China notes in the journal Ecological Indicators. To patch that hole, the researchers developed a model that evaluated ten kinds of textiles, including conventional and organic cotton, wool, flax, polyester, nylon 6, nylon 66, polypropylene, acrylic and viscose (which is similar to rayon). Then, they looked a wide-range of factors that affect sustainability, including: how much energy, water, land and chemicals were used in production; whether the fiber was recyclable or biodegradable; and even the amount of oxygen and greenhouse gases fiber production created or consumed. Finally, they developed a scoring system that ranked the fibers in terms of their ecological sustainability.

“Organic cotton seems to have the least environmental impact and is a more sustainable fiber,” the authors conclude. Flax is next, with conventional cotton and viscose – which is made from wood pulp — close behind. The “least preferred fiber in terms of environmental impact and ecological sustainability?” Acrylic, an early synthetic invented in 1941 by DuPont, and now produced mostly in Asia. David Malakoff | June 7, 2011

Source: Muthu, S.S., et al., Quantification of environmental impact and ecological sustainability for textile fibres. Ecol. Indicat. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2011.05.008

Image © Dimasobko |



  • Matty Wilson June 15, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Insightful and much needed/long overdue study. Presumably the flax refers to what is more commonly known as linen? Would have also liked to seen hemp included in the study – I suspect it would have topped cotton…but maybe that would ruffle too many feathers.


  • Doug Reagan June 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Does this evaluation include the loss of ecosystem services on the areas of land used to grow cotton? A sentence or two describing why cotton ranked highest and acrylic lowest would be helpful.


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