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When you choose eco-friendly fiber T-shirts—made of hemp, bamboo, and soy fibers—you get the same look and feel as traditional cotton tees, but without the intensive chemical and water use.

Find it! Eco-friendly fiber T-shirt designers

The choice to buy clothing made from natural, eco-friendly fibers (like soy) is often preceded by thoughts along the lines of "I ate tofu for dinner last night—how can it be available in a slim-fitting V-neck?" The designers and e-merchants we've selected respond to queries like this and offer T-shirts made with hemp, bamboo, and soy—sustainable surrogates for cotton that don't skimp on style or comfort. All offer tees for both men and women unless otherwise noted.

Before you buy

Costly alternatives?: The farming of industrial hemp in the United States has been virtually banned by the federal government for decades because of its similarity to marijuana and must be imported from countries such as England, Germany, and Canada. Bamboo is primarily grown in China's Zhejiang Province although it is grown domestically for commercial purposes on a much smaller scale in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. For these reasons, the environmental costs of transporting bamboo and hemp long distances should be considered and higher retail prices (in comparison to conventional cotton clothing) should be expected. In the case of soy, using the fiber for clothing isn't exactly a new idea—soy-supporter Henry Ford sported a suit and tie made from the legume in the 1940s—but its arrival on the current fashion scene is new.

Expect limited availability and higher prices than other natural fibers, like organic cotton and hemp, which are more accessible and thus lower priced. A quick cost comparison: American Apparel's conventional cotton Unisex Fine Jersey Short Sleeve T-shirt retails for $15. The hemp/cotton blend Conscious Tee by Natural High Lifestyle cost $30, while Of the Earth's soy/organic cotton blend Supersoya V-Neck is $35.

T-shirt blend considerations: A T-shirt made from hemp, bamboo, or soy may or may not be exclusively made from that fabric. Often, designers use fabric blends, typically incorporating cotton. Although organic cotton is usually used to make the garment 100 percent "natural" this isn't a steadfast rule.

Choosing eco-friendly fiber T-shirts helps you go green because…

  • Cotton, particularly conventional cotton, is grown using unsustainable farming methods, calling for large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, as well as water. Fabrics made from hemp, bamboo, and soy fibers do not compromise human health or the environment in their production.

The detrimental environmental impact of the T-shirt is rooted in the farming of conventional cotton, considered the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. In the United States, an estimated one-third pound of agricultural chemicals is used to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Thus, a 100 percent cotton tee is actually comprised of 73 percent cotton—the remaining 27 percent is made up of chemicals and chemical residues.[1][2]

The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock.[3] Additionally, up to 70 percent genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are used in conventional cotton farming in the United States.[4]

The farming of cotton is also water-intensive. Approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton T-shirt.[5] Organic cotton farming is not exempt from this reality either. Organic cotton may be chemical-free, but its production still requires significant amounts of irrigated water[6] (though on the plus side, water supplies aren't at risk of being contaminated).

Eco-friendly alternatives

There are, however, alternatives to conventional cotton, including hemp, bamboo, and soy.

Hemp


Despite the controversy surrounding hemp's status as a legal crop—especially in the United States where it is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance like marijuana—it is an earth-friendly alternative to conventional cotton. Hemp produces three times as much fiber per acre as cotton.[7] Like cotton, hemp requires water and fertilizer to grow but it doesn't need to be treated with pesticides or herbicides.[8] The farming of hemp benefits overall soil conditions by adding nutrients, fostering microbial life, and eradicating weed growth.

In contrast to the dearth of industrial hemp farming in the United States, the European Union initiated a program in the 1990s that provides hemp farmers with subsidies to encourage hemp fiber production. Over the last several years, the leading exporters of processed hemp fiber to the United States have been Romania, Poland, China, India, Canada, and the Philippines.[9]

Bamboo


Bamboo fiber, a natural fiber spun from the pulp of bamboo grass, resembles cotton in its unspun state.[10] However, that's where the similarities end as bamboo is considered a sustainable crop. It doesn't require the use of pesticides or fertilizers, needs little water, and is a self-renewing plant, meaning that new shoots grow on an uninterrupted basis. Bamboo also releases a great deal of oxygen into the air—even more than trees—helping to lower levels of carbon dioxide and curb soil erosion.[11]

The same natural antifungal, antibacterial agent found in bamboo plants that acts as a sort of internal pesticide (called "Bamboo kun") is also useful in bamboo clothing, controlling bacteria growth on the skin, as well as moisture levels.[12] This is especially beneficial for those prone to night sweats and for athletes. Bamboo fabric is a natural insulator and can be worn in both the summer to keep cool and the winter to keep warm.[10]

Soy


Soybean-derived fiber—dubbed "vegetable cashmere"—begins as a waste byproduct from the manufacturing of edible soy products such as tofu, soy milk, and soybean oil, making it a completely natural and renewable resource.[13] The resulting fabric is silk-like in texture, retains heat well, and is both easy to care for and durable. On the downside, like cotton, a large percentage of soybean crops—around 80 percent—are GMO.[14] Soy fiber has been used in the past as a textile, but made a reemergence on the fashion scene only recently with new production advancements from China.[15]

Controversies

Hemp and marijuana

Hemp and marijuana are both members of the plant species Cannabis sativa and have both been considered Schedule 1 controlled substances in the United States since the late 1950s.[7] While it is a crime to grow all forms of cannabis in the United States, it's not illegal to sell hemp products such as paper and clothing. Cannabis grown for industrial purposes—hemp—and cannabis grown for recreational and medicinal uses—marijuana—have a different biological makeup. Both contain two distinct "cannabinoids:" the psychoactive THC and the antipsychoactive CBD. Industrial hemp contains high levels of CBD and low levels—less than 1 percent—of THC, while the makeup of marijuana is the reverse. It is nearly impossible to achieve a narcotic high from smoking hemp.[16]

There are movements in the United States on both national and state levels to reintroduce industrial hemp as an agriculturally viable crop. Hemp advocates note the plant's potential as an alternative to tree-based paper, cotton-based clothing, and other items whose production poses environmental risks. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other opposing parties believe that if the ban on hemp farming is lifted it would become easier to grow marijuana alongside it. It is also often assumed that those who support industrial hemp farming are part of a marijuana legalization subculture.[17]

Bamboo

There are several challenges facing bamboo's reputation as an eco-fiber. The growth in popularity of bamboo products has been detrimental to the natural forests in countries where bamboo grows. Existing forests are often cut down and replaced with bamboo plantations, negatively impacting biodiversity. Bamboo can be "over-managed" with chemical weeding and periodic tilling of the land to clear undergrowth. These practices increase erosion and produce a single-species plantation over large areas.

Although bamboo traditionally does not require pesticide and fertilizers, unless it is certified organic, you can’t be sure. In some growing areas, the intensive use of pesticides, weed killers, and fertilizers also affects the environment by releasing toxins into soil and waterways. For textiles, there are no guidelines comparable to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, which insures that a forest has been harvested in a sustainable fashion. However, FSC has begun limited certification of bamboo for wood products.

Glossary

  • genetically modified organism: A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.

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