Materials we love
GOTS Certified Organic Cotton
Unlike regular cotton, organic cotton is GMO free and uses no chemicals, toxic bleach, or formaldehyde to grow, harvest or process. All dyestuffs used are low impact fibre reactive or natural dyes. The benefit of GOTS certification is that it includes strict requirements around fair wages and treatment of workers and is much more traceable. Due to crop rotation, organic cotton is better on the soil and allows farmers to grow organic foods in the counter-season which can help feed them as well as provide additional income. Some people have claimed organic cotton uses more water than conventional, this might be true for the first 2-3 harvests, however after this the soil is much better equipped to retain water and sequester carbon than conventional cotton. Around 70% of organic cotton farms rely on rainwater alone to water their crops, where as larger, drier organic farms may still need to use irrigation. The end product (like this popular skivvy) is a traceable, biodegradable product of equal or higher quality than conventional cotton and, best of all, it’s gentle on your skin.
How could it be better?
Organic Cotton still uses a lot of water- albeit a LOT less than its conventional counterpart. A great alternative from a water saving perspective is Lenzing Certified Tencel.
GOTS Certified Organic Linen
This amazing fabric is nature’s secret weapon. Linen comes from the flax crop, a non-land monopolizing plant, which uses little water and encourages all sorts of bio-diversity. We source our linen from organic farms where it’s cultivated and grown. It’s pulled from the earth with care and left to sit outside for just the right amount of time where a process called retting occurs. This natural decomposition process allows for the fibre to be easily separated from the bark. While many others achieve this with a chemical process, our flax growers use traditional, non-chemical reliant techniques. During the scutching phase, the plants are rolled through fluted rollers. Once the fibres have emerged, they’re separated into long and short fibres. The longest ones are reserved for the finest linen garments, and the short ones are used for making sturdier goods.
Due to the low tensile nature of flax, threads can often break in the spinning and weaving process. If this occurs, the mill's technicians perform a “weaver’s knot” which is so tiny it’s undetected in the final product. Linen making is a preserved, ancient and artisanal skill. Check out this fan favourite shirt and experience organic linen for yourself. It's biodegradable, breathable and just cool. We love organic linen!
How could it be better?
We’d love to see more certified organic linen on the market. Although non-organic linen is pretty sustainable, it’s common for manufacturers to use chemicals during the retting process. Also CO2 outputs of a mill can be high. We work with a CO2 neutral mill that doesn’t use a chemical retting process.
Hemp has been around for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that this industrial strength fabric became comfortably wearable, thanks to the discovery of an enzymatic process that removed the lignin from the fibre without compromising its strength.
Hemp is super durable, comfortable and holds its shape. It’s resistant to mould and UV light, plus it’s extremely water absorbent, which means it holds colour better than any other natural fibre. It has environmental advantages, too. It grows super fast, producing more fibre yield per acre than any other crop: 250% more than cotton fibre yield, 600% more than flax.
We think hemp is pretty special for all its wonderful qualities, you can see it in action in our lush scarves and limited edition pieces. We are constantly looking for more ways to incorporate hemp that meets our high standards of traceability.
How could it be better?
Hemp is notoriously expensive. It’s also very hard to find suppliers who are willing to offer traceability. Certified organic hemp is even rarer. There's also some dodgy math going on, with WAY more "hemp" sold globally than is produced. So we are treading carefully.
Australia is renowned for producing merino wool (thought to be the softest) and remains one of the world’s biggest wool exporters. Unfortunately, the Australian wool industry also deals with a condition called flystrike. It’s when flies lay eggs in the moist wrinkles and fold of the lamb's skin around the tail and breech. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed off the flesh of the sheep and can be fatal if left untreated. Pretty nasty, right? Sadly, it gets worse. Farmers have a way to avoid flystrike by cutting the skin around the tail and breech to allow taught scar tissue to remain, and viola, flies don’t like to lay their eggs there. This “cutting” is called mulesing and on a pain level is similar to castration for the sheep. Mulesing has been outlawed in most places, including New Zealand, but Australia simply hasn’t got with the program, despite promising to do so by 2010.
There are several solutions for farmers to start making the change to cruelty free wool, like breeding out the genetic traits in sheep that flies are attracted to. Merino that is non-mulesed, is considered a much more ethical choice, however we need a lot more clarity around the treatment of the animal for us to begin using this wonderful fibre in our garments. Until we can work directly with aligned farmers and keep the entire supply chain local, A.BCH has committed to ONLY working with recycled wool or in rare cases, surplus stock. We have some pretty exciting ideas and projects to develop in the space of recycled wool which is repurposed from either pre or post consumer waste, so stay tuned.
How could it be better?
Non-mulsed wool is a good start, but it doesn’t guarantee the fair treatment of wool-farmed animals. There’s not an easy way to track how the animals are treated during the shearing process, for example, as well as the quality of their living conditions. We think the answer is to move away from industrial wool farms and towards small-scale local producers that treat their animals with dignity and respect, and have a lower environmental impact overall. Until we are able to work with such farmers, we are only working with recycled or rescued wool.
At A.BCH we would only ever purchase silk that is ethically extracted. 90% of the world’s silk production is obtained by gassing or boiling the silk worm alive in order to obtain its cocoon, which ensures an unbroken silk fibre. We’re not massive fans of that idea. Peace silk allows the silk worm to exit the cocoon before the silk is harvested.
We think that silk is a pretty special fabric, so it’s worth waiting for the stuff that’s kind to every living creature.
How could it be better?
The risk of child and forced labour remains high in silk production, especially in countries such as India. Not all silk is created equal and it’s important to us to thoroughly vet supply chains before purchasing even peace silk, however the industry is notoriously opaque. So we're holding tight for now.
Tencel is a cellulose-based fibre also known as Lyocell. The reason we use Tencel specifically is because it’s a registered trademark and certified fibre of Lenzing, an Austrian textile innovator with high sustainability standards. We cannot speak for lyocell fibres in general, but there is a lot of information out there about Lenzing Tencel. You can see Tencel in garment-form in these much loved, summery shorts.
Tencel is one of those part natural, part man-made fibres, made from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees and processed using a closed loop non-toxic chemical system. Lenzing produces around 50% of its wood pulp from European forests that are continually expanding in land mass. Most of their wood is grown in Austria, Germany and Czech Republic with a few other neighbouring European countries contributing. The other half is outsourced from long-standing partners around the world, which support conservation solutions and have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Eucalyptus trees are an evergreen species that are fast growing, can be planted on marginal lands and require no water or pesticide use. The fibre yield is ten times higher than cotton and uses 100 times less water than cotton in its processing. The wood is pulped before water and a natural solvent are added to break down the fibres. The solvent is 99.9% reclaimed and reused in a closed loop process. The cellulose is then pushed through a spinneret that produce long strands of fibre, which is later spun into yarns and finally knitted or woven into a textile. Lenzing’s fibre production takes place in their C02 neutral factory. The end result is incredibly soft, hypo-allergenic and biodegradable and if you want to know more, we wrote a whole blog post on Tencel here.
How could it be better?
While Tencel is much less thirsty than cotton, it still requires wood pulp to create it. Lenzing’s forests are supposed to be managed sustainably but currently, with only 6.4% of the world’s fibre production coming from wood-based cellulose, we need to utilise a balanced mix of textiles. There is no “perfect fibre” and the world couldn’t suddenly switch all its clothing production to Tencel without seeing significant de-forestation. Read more on these kinds of fibres here.
Recycled Polyester (PET)
When we started A.BCH in 2017, we were only able to produce our branded labels in synthetic materials. The best we could do at the time was to use recycled PET, an alternative to virgin polyester (which globally requires over 70 million barrels of oil per year to produce). The rPET manufacturing process uses about half the energy of virgin polyester at about half the carbon emissions. That said, it ain’t no natural fibre, and it was always a temporary solution for us. Excitingly, in late 2019, we developed a way to manufacture these labels in organic cotton and will be transitioning over to the new material from A.31 garments onwards.
How could it be better?
A common misunderstanding is that plastic can be recycled back into the same quality it was in its virgin state (known as a “closed loop”), but this isn’t the case. Each time polyester is melted down, it loses strength and quality and must be used for a lower quality purpose than was originally intended. This means plastic once used in a drink bottle can never be made into a drink bottle again. There are a few exceptions now, with increasingly advanced recycling techniques, like that of Tintex and Unifi who have developed closed loop models, where the quality is maintained in regeneration. Sadly, this is still incredibly expensive and virtually inaccessible to the wider industry. Recycled PET is also more energy and emission intensive than hemp, linen, wool and even conventional cotton.
Materials we don't love
Cotton is a natural fibre that in 2015 accounted for around 25.2% of the world’s fibre production. 20 million tons of cotton are produced each year in around 90 countries. What’s unnatural is the state of the cotton industry in the 21st century and how cotton is now considered the world’s “dirtiest” crop. This is due to the intense amount of chemicals and water used to grow and process cotton. Only 2.4% of the world’s cropland is cotton, however cotton consumes 24% of global sales for pesticides and 11% of global sales for insecticides. According to the World Health organisation, up to 20,000 deaths each year are caused by pesticide poisoning in developing countries. More bad news, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that 67 million birds are unintentionally killed every year by pesticides in the USA.
Beyond that, cotton is incredibly thirsty. It can take over 20,000L to produce 1kg of cotton. To put it into perspective, that’s enough cotton to create one t-shirt and one pair of jeans. Unsustainable farming has already had a severe impact on large-scale ecosystems and river basin conservation around the world, including the Murray Darling River in Australia.
Organic cotton is a much better choice for bio-diversity, human health, farmer welfare and for our water sources, as it uses far less water and no chemicals to produce. When we can’t source organic cotton, (for example in our interlining), we opt for cotton over polyester as it is still a “cleaner” alternative to virgin AND recycled polyester and allows us to maintain a biologically circular product.
Viscose & Rayon
Rayon is the oldest cellulose fibre and was developed as a cheap alternative to silk in the 1880s. There are several techniques used to make rayon, the viscose process being the most common. Essentially, viscose processing begins with wood pulp (similar to Tencel), which is treated with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide, converting it to a honey-coloured, highly viscous liquid (hence the name). The fluid is eventually pushed through a spinneret and put into a chemical bath of Sulfuric Acid, where it hardens.
Exposure to carbon disulphide can cause damage to our nervous system, while disposal of sodium hydroxide and sulphuric acid can be damaging to waterways and harmful to plants and animals. Any industry that uses sulphuric acid runs the risk of accidental leaks and many industrial plants do not dispose of it correctly. There’s simply not enough transparency in viscose manufacturing. Even if chemicals are reclaimed, they pose a serious risk when unregulated. Read more on that here.
While the bamboo plant is fantastic, it grows insanely fast and needs very little water, the viscose chemical process used to make bamboo fabric is seriously bad for the environment. We go into that in more detail in the viscose section above.
In the USA, marketers aren’t even allowed to label bamboo viscose products as bamboo anymore, because after the chemical process, there’s virtually no trace of bamboo left in the fibre. It would be like us marketing Tencel as 100% eucalyptus.
Bamboo Viscose is the allowed terminology, but many people in the industry are still bamboozled, and there are no such restrictions for labelling in Australia. Beware when bamboo fabric is marketed as eco-friendly and hypoallergenic among other things. Sadly, it just isn’t the case. The source is fantastic, the process not so.
The only two kinds of bamboo fabric we’d consider good guys include “Bamboo linen”, which is produced using natural enzymes to break down fibres. On the downside, it’s apparently extremely labour intensive, and near impossible to find. "Bamboo lyocell" is also ok with us, which uses the same process as Tencel or in general terms, lyocell (a closed loop, cellulose fibre). However, regardless of the source (bamboo, eucalyptus, beech) the end product is correctly termed "lyocell" and contains no more bamboo than viscose bamboo, which is none, by the way.
Oil derived synthetic fibres, including polyester, along with other synthetics now make up over 62.1% of the world’s fibre production. Yikes. It takes around 70 million barrels of oil every year just to feed humanity's addiction to polyester clothing. Besides the greenhouse gases and heavy use of crude oil, once polyester is made, it will most likely never break down, which contributes to mass landfill and, yup…more greenhouse gasses.
Polyester is cheap to make and has a lot of useful technical properties, but is it really worth it? With so much plastic in the world already and production expected to quadruple by 2050 you'd think we'd have at least figured this whole recycling thing out by now. Unfortunately only 5% of the world's plastics are recycled effectively and at least 8 million tonnes of plastic are "leaked" into our oceans annually. That's like dumping a full garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. Yikes. It seems even laundering our polyester clothes is bad, as micro-filaments are shed each wash and end up in our waterways, posing a real threat to fish, birds and other sea life.
Many people have allergies or skin reactions to synthetic fabrics, which is another reason to steer clear of it. Sometimes you can’t avoid using polyester, so get on board with recycled polyester instead and give the environment a mini-break.
Nylon, Acrylic and other synthetics
The global apparel industry manufactures over 400 billion square metres of fabric per year, and the figure keeps on growing. Imagine enough material to cover the state of California each year. Unlike natural fibres, synthetic fibres begin their life as a petroleum or natural gas. They are man-made fibres, created via chemical reaction between petroleum by-products and various chemical substances. The fluid that is manufactured is pushed through spinnerets to make fibres. Each chemical process is slightly different, however, all involve the use of oil, gas or coal and output tonnes of energy and greenhouse gases.
Some examples of synthetic fibres include Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic, Spandex, Acetate and Elastane. Chemical “residue” such as formaldehyde is often left in these fabrics. The dyeing process is also more bad news. As natural and low-impact dyes cannot be used in synthetic fibres, petrochemical dyes and dye fixatives are used for colour which are extremely difficult to dispose of sustainably. The result is often dumped, untreated petrochemical dyestuffs and heavy metals that runoff into community waterways.
When it comes to synthetic fabrics, it’s a “No Thank You” from us.