Are soy and eucalyptus fabrics truly eco-friendly?

When you're addicted to the planet

Q: Are soy and eucalyptus fabrics truly eco-friendly?

A: When mainstream fashionistas roll their eyes at the idea of green threads, I tell them they clearly haven’t seen the freshest cuts being rolled out by indie Canadian designers, all crafted with a slew of eco textiles.

Are all the fabrics without flaws? Well, no. No new products created on this earth are without an impact. The greenest textiles will always be those repurposed from salvaged clothes, followed by hemp, linen and organic cotton (which is water-intensive but thankfully pesticide-free).

The ones you’re asking about I call plant-based synthetics. Why? Well, you’d never see a traditional weaver spinning creamy-soft fabrics out of little soybeans. Ditto for eucalyptus fibres. They need some heavy-duty processing to get the silky drape we’ve learned to love in synthetic naturals.

The whole class of textiles made from tree pulp, cornstarch, soy, bamboo, seaweed, crab shells – you name it – can be lumped together as “regenerated fibres.” Some are made of plant cellulose (tree pulps like eucalyptus and bamboo) others, like soy, are made from plant proteins.

Now, I’ve already written about bamboo’s fading star in the green scene, thanks to the chemical-intensive viscose processing it takes to refine bamboo stalks into super-soft fabrics. That’s why Canada’s Competition Bureau a couple of years back told all bamboo clothing vendors to change their terminology to “viscose from bamboo.” Rayon or viscose is made from a woody pulp (be it pine, spruce, bamboo or beech) dissolved in a caustic soda and then spun in a chemical solution of carbon disulfide (a reproductive toxin).

So how does, say, soy compare? While soy processing is very similar to making viscose/rayon from bamboo, some say it uses less polluting chemicals, but there’s not a lot of third-party material on all this.

What I prefer about soy protein fabrics is that they’re a by-product of soy oil extraction, and most of the extruded protein’s supposedly used for cattle feed. That means, unlike bamboo or corn (for Ingeo fibres) or tree pulp for rayons, soy isn’t grown mainly for the clothing biz. It’s a waste product, and that gives soy rayons a leg up.

The outstanding issue is that soybeans are largely genetically modified. China, which makes most of the world soy fabrics, imports 70 per cent of its soybeans from GMO-happy countries like the U.S. (where 91 per cent of soy is GMO). Too bad organic soy clothing is hard to come by, though I expect this may change. (You can now find some certified organic bamboo clothing.)

So what’s eucalyptus fabric all about? Well, its proper name is lyocell, and, good news, it’s definitely a greener version of rayon, processed with gentler solvents in a 99.6 per cent closed-loop system. The Tencel brand of lyocell is the greenest of all, made with Euro Forest Stewardship Council-certified pulp, so the eucalyptus sourced has a pretty sound rep.

Some lyocell factories do use a formaldehyde treatment to avoid pilling, but it’s certainly not necessary, and the Tencel brand (used by Patagonia and Modrobes) says it’s formaldehyde-free. Lyocell can also be made out of bamboo (even BCBG carries a little), seaweed (aka seacell) and more.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Competition Bureau ordered companies claiming their clothes are made of straight eucalyptus, (you know who you are, Modrobes) were ordered to change their tags to say “lyocell or Tencel from eucalyptus” for accuracy. Ditto for fabrics labelled as soy, which some forward-thinking designers are already labelling “rayon from soy.”

By the way, the Modal fabric found in lingerie stores is similar to lyocell but made of beech pulp viscose. One of its makers, Lenzing (which makes Tencel), tells me 90 per cent of the carbon disulfide involved in the process is recycled – at least at its factory.

And its by-products go into the tooth-friendly sweetener xylitol. Can’t guarantee that other Modal is produced to the same standard.

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