Now, there are of course several synthetic blends that can be mixed with cotton -- rayon, polyester, nylon -- but unfortunately, as the price of cotton continues to rise, so do these alternatives. "There's no substitute or alternative for cotton," Barker told me. "The man-made fibers just don't do the trick." Cotton, he also suggests, is not exactly CSR friendly -- it uses one third of the world's pesticides/herbicides and is technically the most destructive and unsustainable crop we, as humans, grow. Just in direct water consumption alone, one t-shirt's worth of cotton takes 700 gallons of water to grow, before any factory or other processes.
Is there a natural alternative? Well, it's in the works. CRAiLAR is a natural flax or hemp complement that can be woven directly into cotton (tests with Hanes are running 20% CRAiLAR/80% cotton, but prototypes have been produced with up to 55% CRAiLAR ratios). Also, because the growing process is so much easier than that of cotton (flax fibers require only rainwater and can be grown in northern climates -- and this process can even be achieved by using byproducts of food-grade flax), this material costs 33-35% less than cotton. It also enhances cotton's performance by wicking moisture, leading to a possible revenue channel in more cotton-based performance clothing.
Don't throw away your UnderArmor just yet, however. Though this seems like a miracle product, it's still in testing (some interesting testing, though -- Naturally Advanced Technologies recently entered into a research agreement with the USDA and Hanes). I just thought it would be interesting to highlight something along the lines of what's happening in the hybrid car industry -- we can't make an all-purpose practical, family car completely electric yet, but just as everyone is contemplating how to reduce their carbon footprint, Naturally Advanced Technologies and their introduction of CRAiLAR is introducing a new question: How do we reduce our cotton footprint and reliance? Material substitution practices such as this warrant close attention, especially in industries such as healthcare, which are about to see significant material price increases in certain areas thanks to rising raw material costs. Look for continued coverage of rising material prices and alternative cost reduction strategies in healthcare and beyond in the coming weeks.
- Sheena Moore