Cotton’s climate flaws and the need for a sustainable solution

Yes, you look fabulous in that – but when it comes to clothing, bedding and other textile products, style and comfort come at a big price for the planet. Consumers never see the inputs that go into their jeans, shoes and bedsheets; over decades, they’ve become accustomed to the chemicals and synthetic fibers in the closet. Even products made with natural fibers, such as cotton, require troubling amounts of water to grow and process, and the manufacturing techniques leave a heavy carbon footprint.

There’s been more awareness in recent years about the environmental impacts in the textile industry, and top-brand fashion designers are embracing the concept of “circularity.” That’s an improvement and boosts the degree to which textiles are recycled and reused, but as a recent Fast Company article noted, the industry isn’t moving anywhere near fast enough – not if it’s going to meet critical climate targets.

With clothing and shoes, the average global citizen consumes 11.4 kilograms in products each year, and according to a 2018 study from Quantis, that generates the CO2 of an average car driving 1,500 miles. Article author Michael Shank, who teaches sustainable development at New York University and is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, points out the additional impacts of plastic microfibers from our clothes and home furnishings on water resources and wildlife. He notes the problem posed by synthetics replacing cotton, but cotton has its own problems that need solutions too.

Greenpeace took a look at some “fast fashion” industry practices back in 2016, and here’s what they found: Just one T-shirt requires as much water to produce as the average person will drink in 900 days. That’s 2,700 liters, but it’s nowhere near the 7,000 liters needed to produce a pair of jeans – and there are about 2 billion pairs of jeans made on the planet each year. Not to mention 1.7 million tons of chemicals used in the dyeing process, the agricultural pesticides, and impacts to poorly managed soils.

“That’s enough to keep you tossing and turning at night, isn’t it?” asks Colin McIntosh, the CEO and founder of Sheets & Giggles. Always the punster, McIntosh and his fun-focused team in Colorado have built a fast-growing startup around the idea that bedsheets can be done better. That’s true whether customers aim to avoid synthetics for that soft pillow-y experience or have turned to high-quality Egyptian cotton – which often requires pesticides, has been tied to child labor, and may not even be Egyptian, as was the case in a 2016 scandal – but still find loose threads on the climate commitment.

That’s why McIntosh says his Sheets & Giggles products are really no laughing matter (well, not entirely). They’re made from natural eucalyptus fibers rather than cotton, without the use of pesticides or insecticides, and create a better alternative to the synthetics that many people hope to avoid when seeking natural fibers. The natural dyes are nontoxic, and their eucalyptus sheets require 95 percent less water than cotton per sheet – less than 200 liters, versus over 4,000 liters for traditional cotton.

They perform better in several key areas, too. “S&G’s  sheets breathe better than cotton, have a higher smoothness rating and lower surface friction, and are less prone to fade even after repeated washing,” says McIntosh, whose company recently tapped into more than USD$56,000 in venture capital. The sheets are sustainably grown and knit from pulp made from eucalyptus bark, resulting in fabric that manages moisture better than cotton, which helps promote an antimicrobial environment that keeps sheets clean and fresh.

The company also embraces other forms of sustainability, beginning with the packaging. There’s no plastic, because the sheets ordered online are rolled up and shipped in a eucalyptus knapsack perfect for a yoga mat or laptop. Customers with new eucalyptus sheets also have the option to send their old ones back to the company in an included, prepaid return mailer, and those sheets are then donated to partnered homeless shelters via their “Give 2 Sheets” program. That helps keep sheets out of the landfill, where some 10 million tons of textiles end up each year.

“So you can feel good about the crop choice, the water and other environmental impacts, the plastic-free packaging, and the commitment to reuse where resources are needed most,” McIntosh said. “When you go to bed at night, the sheets feel amazing, but sleeping guilt-free also helps you rest easy.”

Finally, eucalyptus fibers are durable and will last longer, which is one reason why customers in the hospitality industry have turned to them across the past decade. The fibers are short – typically less than 0.03 inches – so even though they’re made from a wood source, there’s nothing scratchy or hard about them to interfere with your sweet dreams. They have enough substance so they don’t flatten out, which helps to keep them soft across their lifespan too. Because of the health and well-being benefits from a good night’s sleep, users may find they’re much more than just a solution to climate challenges.

Image: Sheets & Giggles

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