Fabric: The Soft Spot of Hotel Sustainability

When you walk into one of your hotel rooms what do you notice?  Well, you might notice that each room contains an immense amount of textiles. The bedding, the drapes, the furniture upholstery, right on down to the carpet you’re walking on is likely composed of some type of fabric. Clearly these items make up a large portion of your hotel and that means they have a corresponding effect on your sustainability level. So, just how green are your hotel’s fabrics – and I’m not talking about their color.

Natural Doesn’t Mean Sustainable

There are several fabric materials that are inherently not eco-friendly.  Any fabric that utilizes petrochemicals in their manufacturing, such as nylon and polyester, are not sustainable.  After all, they require fossil fuels and aren’t exactly biodegradable.  Oh, but your hotel uses only natural fibers for your fabric needs and those must certainly be sustainable, right?  Well, unfortunately, this just isn’t the case.  Many so called “natural fibers” rely on a bevy of unsustainable practices throughout their cultivation and manufacturing:

Cotton:

 
King Cotton sure isn’t the king of sustainability, at least not when it’s grown using traditional farming methods.  Though cotton is only cultivated on less than 3% of the world’s farmland, it accounts for nearly a quarter of insecticide use and a tenth of herbicide use.  And boy does it guzzle the water.  It can take nearly 2400 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of cotton!  On top of that, traditional cotton usually requires dying or bleaching which can release harmful toxins and chemicals into the atmosphere.

Wool:

When it comes to sustainability, wool can be the wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Sheep are often treated with pesticides, which can contaminate the surrounding environment.  And flocks have been known to cause soil erosion, which contributes to a host of environmental issues.  Wool is also often times treated with harsh chemicals or dyes as it is processed, further detracting from its sustainability.

Bamboo:

 
Though usually a very sustainable material, bamboo – when used to create fabric – can be detrimental to the environment.  In order to turn bamboo into fabric, it usually must be turned into a type of rayon or viscose, which are only semi-natural fibers.  The process to create these materials can also require the use of toxic chemicals, such as sodium hydroxide, which can pollute the atmosphere when disposed.  On top of this, not all bamboo comes from well-managed forests, meaning its harvest can harm the habitats of endangered species.

So what is a Sustainable Fabric?

Now, with so many commonplace fabrics having sustainability concerns, you might be scratching your head as to what fabrics are truly environmentally friendly.  However, you can relax. There are a variety of materials available to meet your textile needs without placing too much strain on the environment.

Hemp:

Yes hemp.  It’s more than just a prelude to the munchies.  It’s a high yield plant that doesn’t need pesticides or insecticides, helps aerate the soil, and uses far less water than cotton.  And it can be combined with other organic fibers, such as organic cotton or linen, to make more durable products.

Linen:

Developed from the flax plant, linen has many characteristics similar to hemp. It grows well without the assistance of environmentally harmful chemicals and is less reliant on water than traditional cotton.  Linen is a very durable material and is often ideal for bedding materials.  One must be careful though because linen is often times bleached with chlorine or treated with toxic dyes, which unfortunately then turns it into an unsustainable material.

Recycled Material:

 
Using fabrics created from recycled materials might not be the most sustainable option.  After all, the recycled components of these materials often times were created in an unsustainable manner.  However using these materials for productive purposes is better than throwing them away into our oversaturated landfills and it does reduce the need for virgin materials.  Everything from polyester and nylon to cotton and plastic bottles made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) can be recycled and turned into fabric items that can be used in your hotel.  Duralee Contract offers upholstery fabrics that are created from 50% to 100% recyclable material that can be recycled themselves, and are Gold-certified Cradle to Cradle by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).

Organic Alternatives:

Of course your hotel can always opt to use materials developed organically, including cotton. Organic cotton is grown without the use of any chemicals and products made from organic cotton must adhere to the Global Organic Textile Standard. This standard ensures that the cotton was manufactured using environmentally friendly practices at every step of the process.  Organic cotton can even be grown in a variety of colors reducing the need for toxic dyes.  O Ecotextiles provides upholstery fabric that is completely organic, composed of hemp, linen, ramie, a flowering plant, and organic cotton.

Tips for Ensuring Your Hotel’s Fabrics are Eco-Friendly

At this point you might feel overwhelmed with all this information and probably content to just maintain the status quo; after all, you’ve already got a lot to think about.  But rest assured, incorporating sustainability into your fabric choices is really quite easy.  It simply comes down to asking whether a particular fabric will help you meet your sustainability goals before utilizing it.  You wouldn’t purchase anything without knowing its cost and how it affects your bottom line, right? So if you’re sustainably inclined, why would you purchase something without considering its impact on your eco-footprint?  With this in mind, here are some things to consider as you search for sustainable fabrics for your hotel:

  • Hotels looking into LEED certification should check to see if a fabric product will help you earn LEED points.  Some fabrics, such as those provided by O Ecotextiles, can help earn Materials and Resources or Indoor Environmental Quality credits. Fabrics that are developed from renewable materials, recycled content or that can be recycled are especially adept at earning these points.
  • For curtains or drapes, really consider materials made of linen or hemp. These materials are obviously sustainable, but are also great at blocking UV light, which can help prevent fading and damage to the rooms contents.
  • If you’re looking for fire-retardant material, consider silk or wool materials. They are naturally fire resistant, where as other materials may require harsh chemical based treatments that can degrade the environment and harm indoor air quality.
  • Always look to recycle fabric items at the end of their useful life.  Even if the material is not considered “renewable.”  Around 3 million tons of post-consumer textiles are sent to landfills each year in the U.S. and much of this could be recycled into new textiles, reducing our need for virgin materials, especially non-renewable ones, and easing the strain being placed on our landfills.

It can also be helpful to look into the background of any potential fabric product you might purchase.  Is it organic or recycled?  Does it have the certifications to prove it?  Is the whole manufacturing process certified as sustainable, or just the material?  And don’t just take a manufacturers word.  Look for third party verification whenever possible.

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David Thurnau

Community Relations at Community Green Energy
David Thurnau has a background in political science, municipal government, and agriculture with an emphasis in environmental issues.

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