Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Global Warming Wednesday: “Natural” vs. “synthetic”

This post isn’t quite what I’d hoped, because:
  1. I haven’t been able to devote the amount of time I’d like to the research aspect.
  2. Most of the information I’ve been able to find is provided by the industry in question—not exactly unbiased.

Nonetheless, I will give you an idea of what I have found and what I find myself thinking.

First off, let me expose my incredible ignorance. This is very embarrassing, but, hey, at least I learned something from my research! For whatever reason, I had always pictured cotton being picked off of trees. Not incredibly tall trees or anything, but definitely trees. When I found out the Modal is made from beech trees that have been cut down, I told myself that was one advantage for cotton; if the cotton trees were left standing, that would mean they would continue to put oxygen into the air outside of the growing season and the earth around them would be less likely to suffer from erosion and nutrient exhaustion. Except...

Cotton is grown on shrub-like plants. The cotton is picked each year and then the stalks are completely cut down. Turns out that there are cotton trees, but they’re totally different.

Now there is still the issue with Modal in that it requires trees to be cut down for its manufacturing. So I was all ready to get down on that. But Lenzing swears that they use sustainable-growth trees and, moreover, many of their trees are the ones that are cut down to thin out stands (to help the other trees grow) and are not acceptable for most other purposes. They also say that all of the by-products of the process are made useful—the wood sugar is made into sweetener (xylitol, I’m guessing, not the worst of the artificial sweeteners, but not something I’m crazy about). General unhappiness with cutting down trees—my gut reaction—but it is true that some trees need to be cut down for the greater health of the forest. So not quite ready to dismiss Modal.

Then I decided to check out the EU’s Eco-Label so that I could evaluate Lenzing’s pride about earning it for Modal and Tencel. A company’s right to the Eco-Label is determined by an external, and seemingly unbiased, commission. And though it takes a little digging (and reading through some technical specifications) to determine if it’s anything more than an empty show, they do appear to have rigorous environmental standards. I did not read closely enough or do further searches to see if those particular standards are enough (see #1 above), but it is something.

Going back to cotton, the facts I quoted last week about pesticides and water remain. But there is an increasing amount of organic cotton being grown, which takes care of complaints about pesticides and chlorine bleach. It also addresses the problem of cotton’s high water-demand since many of the practices encouraged help decrease the amount of water required by the crop. A number of cotton-based products in the EU have received the Eco-Label, and there’s an organization based in California that encourages cotton growers to adopt sustainable methods. So it is possible to make cotton a greener product—and there are people working towards that.

Finally I decided to take a look at how much transportation is required to get these materials moved around. I was pretty sure Modal would lose out here. Lenzing is an Austrian company, but much of their thread finds its way into fabric in Asia. Turns out that they’ve considered this, however, and have multiple factories around the world, situated to maximize local resources and minimize transportation costs. Cotton too does pretty well as it is grown in a number of places around the world. Hmm...

So in the end, I don’t have a real answer here. I don’t think this is a clear-cut case of “natural” vs. “synthetic” since so much cotton uses a ton of chemicals in its production and Modal has a natural basis and doesn’t appear to use or produce chemicals and other pollutants that get released back into the environment. I will continue to buy Modal, though I’ll be checking labels and trying to avoid the stuff that is made in China. And I will continue to buy cotton, in part because it’s almost impossible not to—but I will definitely be on the lookout for products that are organic or sustainable-growth. It’s a lot of label-reading, but I try to tell myself it does make a difference.


Lisa b said...

Wow. Thanks for the thorough update.
I had all the same ideas as you regarding the growing, transport etc so it is very interesting to find out not all the factories are in China!

cinnamon gurl said...

I will keep my eye out for this modal thing.

Cotton... I've been trying to keep my head in the sand about the chemicals and bleaches and stuff. Plus the organic unbleached stuff is SO expensive.

Mouse said...

Also, the organic unbleached cotton isn't as soft! Which I hate saying out loud.

Apparently modal is being used in the softest items produced by Victoria's Secret--something I came across in my research. And I can definitely attest to its softness.

I still wish I knew more specifics about its manufacturing process, but I'm sure that's a trade secret.

Mad Hatter said...

Thanks for going the extra mile to do all this research, Mouse. I really do apperciate it.