Green Interiors

Green fabrics come in many colors
by Pamela Portwood

Fabrics are everywhere in your home - upholstery, window coverings, sheets and towels, not to mention the clothes in your closet. Chances are good that most of those fabrics are not healthy for you or the environment, and it's not just a question of buying "natural" fabrics.

The best example is cotton, which has a reputation for being a healthy product because it's natural instead of synthetic. Standard cotton is anything but healthy for people or the environment. Cotton production uses 25 percent of the insecticides and 11 percent of the pesticides used worldwide.

Sleeping under permanent press or standard cotton sheets - even the famed Egyptian cotton ones - means that you are breathing formaldehyde, a carcinogen, every night. Formaldehyde is used as a finish for all sheets, except organic cotton and flannel sheets. Multiple washings will not remove formaldehyde because it persists for years. You don't have to make your bed, but do change your sheets.

Hemp, bamboo and linen (which is made from flax) are natural fabrics that typically are grown with fewer pesticides than cotton. Some growers use more pesticides than are needed to grow these plants, so the best way to know what you're getting is to buy certified organic products or to get a fabric that has an eco-label.

Unfortunately, there isn't one eco-label or green standard for fabrics or textiles, as they're called in the industry. The best certifications are the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Oeko-Tex, which measure the levels of toxins in textiles. Greenguard certifies the level of indoor pollutants emitted by fabrics.

The World Bank estimates that almost 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from treating and dyeing textiles. One T-shirt made from conventional cotton can use over 700 gallons of water and a third of a pound of chemicals to produce.

AZO colorants, antimony, arsenic and heavy metals are some of the chemicals that cause health problems, including cancer, and that are used in standard textile dying. Buying textiles that use "low-impact" dyes and have been certified is the best way to avoid these toxins. Also, avoid toxic fire retardants that contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE).

Recycling is a big movement in eco-friendly fabric production. Recycled fabrics typically are polyesters made from recycled water and soda bottles as well as from pre- and post- consumer polyester fabrics. Some of them use low-impact dyes. Some carry a MBDC Cradle to Cradle certification, which is a four-level system that assesses toxins, material reuse, corporate social responsibility, and energy and water use.

Despite the health and environmental issues with textiles, there are now many beautiful, green fabrics in materials, weights and patterns that can meet any textile need. Organic cottons are available in everything from a heavy weight for upholstery to brightly colored lightweight fabrics for curtains in kids' rooms.

Interesting textiles made of rapidly renewable materials like nettles, soy and corn also are available. One virtue of natural fabrics is that they take less energy to produce than petroleum-based textiles.

I'll let you in on an interior designer's trick. If the sofa you've fallen in love with doesn't have green fabric alternatives, ask the seller if you can provide your own upholstery fabric. Not every store or manufacturer will use COM (customer's own material), but you won't know until you ask.

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Article is reprinted courtesy of The New Southwest (formerly Tucson Green Times).


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