May 18, 2021 8 min read
The textile industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Textile manufacturers generate up to one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution and use 20,000 chemicals, many of them carcinogenic, to make their products.
The production of the most common and popular textile, cotton, is highly water-intensive, taking between 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans. According to the World Health Organization, the high number of chemicals sprayed in conventional cotton farms have been linked to 20,000 cases of cancer and miscarriages each year.
Our bedding is in our bedrooms in which we spend at least a third of our lives. It most certainly is not where we want our sheets to off-gas nasty chemicals or wrap ourselves with sheets full of toxins. Our sleep is supposed to promote health, not diminish it!
Enter organic bedding. There are a myriad of choices to pick from, the most common organic materials being bamboo, linen, organic cotton, eucalyptus and silk. We did an extensive study on all organic materials and found eucalyptus and silk to be the two of the softest, most “wrap yourself up in a cocoon” comfortable bedding on the planet.
Eucalyptus and silk are both natural fibres, hypoallergenic and breathable fabrics. We had a hard time deciding what was better for us, and the environment, so we decided to do an in-depth investigative research of both!
The eucalyptus plant has 700 variants, and is native to Australia and the neighbouring island of Tasmania. About three quarters of the Australian wild forests are eucalypt forests, with a small number of trees found outside of the continent.
Fast growing and easy to maintain without pesticides or insecticides, eucalypts are increasingly grown in plantations in many other countries in southern Europe, South America and South East Asia for pulpwood, honey production, textiles and essential oils.
It is fast-growing and evergreen, and readily available throughout the year. This extremely hardy and durable plant can survive high temperatures, periods of drought and even the Australian wildfires. The fire-resistant seeds are able to quickly sprout and regrow even after exposure to wildfire.
The most common and popular type of eucalyptus variant is the eucalyptus globulus, used to make eucalyptus oil.
The dried leaves and oil from the plants have a multitude of uses and are believed to have medicinal properties.
We all know eucalyptus trees have many uses and of course, is where we find koalas. But did you know that the pulp of the eucalyptus tree makes Tencel Lyocell? Tencel is a type of rayon, a cellulose fibre that is made by dissolving the wood pulp of trees, usually eucalyptus. It is dried in a process called spinning.
Before drying, wood chips are mixed with a solvent called amine oxide to produce a wet mixture, which is then pushed through small holes to form threads. The threads are then cut and loaded into spools, which are used to weave the fibres into the fabric Tencel.
Tencel is a fabric produced by Lenzing Fibers, a company headquartered in Austria. It requires 10 to 20 times less water to produce than cotton, and requires no pesticides or insecticides.
It is also made in a closed-loop system, as opposed to linear. This means more than 99% of the solvent amine oxide, water and natural additives to make a single batch of product is stored and reused for future batches. Amine oxide is non-toxic and can easily be metabolized or excreted if ingested. This minimizes the ecological footprint and reduces waste and impact from the manufacturing process.
The production process starts with harvesting wood from the upper part of the eucalyptus tree, not cutting down or uprooting them. Eucalyptus trees are used because they have a high growth rate and can be grown and maintained without chemicals, pesticides or insecticides.
Lenzing sustainably harvests trees from forests monitored and maintained by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an organization that promotes environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.
The wood is treated with a non-toxic and reusable solvent called amine oxide that softens the fibres into pulp. After the pulp is treated and dried, it is spun through spinnerets, a machine that whirls the pulp to create individual threads which are then woven into fabrics.
When you try Tencel, it is so unbelievably soft that it’s hard to imagine it was made from wood. It has the ability to mimic the feel of cotton, silk, suede and even leather. Extremely durable, Tencel is still as strong when wet unlike silk.
Hypoallergenic - Being a natural fibre, Tencel is great for people with sensitive skin.
Breathable - Tencel’s ability to wick moisture away makes it perfect for bedding and clothes. Less moisture on bedding means less susceptibility to a buildup of mold and mildew.
Highly absorbent - Your skin will feel dry and cool, and as your temperature is regulated, you’ll stay cool on hot nights and warm on cold.
Antibacterial - Tencel limits exposure to pathogens and germs. Its antibacterial properties have led to its increased use in medical dressings.
Durable - Incredibly durable both when wet and dry, it is resistant to shrinkage and withstands multiple washes without weakening or losing its shape.
Silk is a luxurious, ancient fabric first produced in China at the tail end of the Stone Age. Coming from silk worms, silk used to be a sought-after source of income for Chinese farmers, and as weaving techniques improved, the reputation of Chinese silk spread across the empires of the ancient world.
The Silk Road was an ancient network of merchant trade routes established during the Han Dynasty which linked East Asia, Europe, India and Africa, enabling a great trading network and leading to Chinese silk spreading across the world.
The Chinese closely guarded silk’s secrets for 2,000 years before the rest of the world caught on. The demand for silk spread across the world for use in clothing, upholstery and bedding. Humans had to domesticate the silkworm, or the Bombyx Mori larva, which now cannot survive independently.
1. China produces 150,000 metric tons of silk annually, making it the world's largest silk producer, with a market share of 78% of the world's silk.
2. Silk was discovered in a cup of tea! According to Confucius, Lei Zu, the wife of the Emperor, discovered silk in 2,700 BC after a cocoon dropped into her tea and she unraveled the silk thread as she pulled it out. To this day, Lei Zu is renowned as the Goddess of Silkworms.
3. During their 3 to 8 day pupation period, the silkworm secretes a filament for the cocoon that can stretch one kilometer in length.
4. Silk was used as a currency in ancient China. Even though they had copper coins, silk was the medium of exchange in Central Asia for centuries as it was the most popular commodity along the length of the Silk Road.
5. The silk trade helped the adoption and spread of Buddhism throughout China. The Silk Road went through the deserts of northern China and became one of the natural land routes for Buddhist teachers, scriptures and monks to enter China from other Buddhist regions.
6. Silk worms are eaten after the process of making silk! The leftover silkworms are packaged, seasoned, boiled, stir-fried or stewed.
So how do they measure up against each other in terms of comfort, sustainability and price?
Hypoallergenic - Both are hypoallergenic and will repel bugs and dust mites, making it great for people with allergies or sensitive skin.
Temperature Control - Eucalyptus sheets are a godsend to hot sleepers and more breathable than silk. The fabric is naturally cooling, helps regulate body temperature and wicks away moisture. Say goodbye to the night sweats!
Price - One of the downsides to silk is its high price tag. Silk sheets can cost over £1,000 for a luxurious set with a high momme. The momme (or mm) is a Japanese form of weight measurement: the higher the momme, the pricer the tag.
This is similar to the thread count of other materials: the higher the thread count, the higher the price. In comparison, a set of eucalyptus sheets with an average 300 thread count costs from £150-£300.
Comfort - The term “soft as silk” comes from somewhere! Silk is incredibly soft and comfortable that allows your skin and hair to slide across your bedding with very little friction. People who use eucalyptus sheets swear by their comfort and have likened it to sleeping on silk or rayon.
Ease of Use - Silk sheets like to slide around the bed and fitted sheets sometimes have problems staying in their corners. This can be fixed by buying clips or sheet suspenders. They don’t call it “silky smooth” for nothing!
Eucalyptus sheets in contrast, have no problems staying on, even sheets with a high thread count and being as soft as silk.
Eucalyptus bed sheets win this hands down.
The trees are felled rather than uprooted, growing quickly back. They don’t need pesticides, consume much less water in the production, and can grow in relatively poor, dry and rocky soil that is not suited for agriculture.
Eucalyptus bed sheets are manufactured in a closed-loop system that reuses 99% of the solvent called amine oxide,which is considered non-toxic for air and water. This minimizes the environmental impact and protects local communities from toxic chemicals and pollution.
It is a vegan fabric as long as it is 100% pure eucalyptus and not blended with wool, silk or any other fibres from animals.
Look for only FSC-certified products. This certification means the forests where the trees are from are managed and monitored by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), ensuring minimal impact on the habitat of the animals and environmental impact of harvesting.
In comparison, silk is one of the worst textiles for the environment, as much of a villain as the demonized cotton. According to the Higg Index, silk uses more water than cotton, causes more water pollution and emits more greenhouse gases, leading to a higher carbon footprint.
The most environmental damage comes from the high energy consumption of silk production. Silk farms have to be kept at a certain humidity and temperature and because most silk production is done in the hot and humid climates of Asia, a large amount of energy is needed for air-conditioning and humidity control.
Silk is definitely not a vegan product, far from it. Some 6,600 silkworms are used to make 1 kg of silk, and about 10 billion silkworms are killed each year in the silk industry.
A silkworm is a domesticated insect who goes through the stages of metamorphosis that moths do - egg, larva, pupa and adult. Silk is derived from the cocoons of larvae, so the insects raised by the silk industry do not live past the pupa stage, they are boiled or gassed while they are alive in their cocoons.
Dropping silkworms into boiling water kills them, potentially causing suffering. While the insect central nervous system differs from that of mammals, insects do transmit signals from stimuli. Experts are constantly disagreeing on whether an insect can suffer or feel pain, but the jury’s still out on that.
In India, some silkworms are allowed to mature into moths. After they have laid their eggs, female moths are crushed and their bodies checked under a microscope for diseases. The eggs will be destroyed if any disease is found. Male moths are discarded after mating.
There have also been reports of the use of child labour in the industry. According to Human Rights Watch, an investigation on India’s silk trade found children as young as 5 years old working inside factories and workshops that produce silk.
Some immerse their hands in vats of hot water to palpate the cocoons, causing their skin to be burned raw and blistered. Children that wind the silk into strands often suffer cuts that become infected.
Go Tencel! Not only is it better for the planet, millions of silkworms will be happier!