Organic Eucalyptus - an alternative material to cotton?

Rozie Apps
Wednesday, 31st December 2014

Eucalyptus is a fast-growing tree with the potential to be an ethical and eco-friendly material for the fashion industry, but only if it is planted in the right place.

Working towards a sustainable, ethical and ecological lifestyle is important to the health of our planet and ourselves.

We question where our food comes from, how has it been grown, or where our electricity and energy comes from. Are they renewable? Ethical? Sustainable?

But what about our clothing?

The clothing industry hasn't reached the same level of sustainability as food and energy. Cheap clothes are everywhere and are too easy to avoid.

But there are alternatives.

Here we explore how eucalyptus can be turned into a sustainable fabric for good quality and ethical clothing. 

Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus is a woody flowering tree or shrub. There are around 700 different species, mostly found in Australia and southeast Asia but several varieties grow in Europe, America and Africa. It is a fast growing plant that has attracted attention for producing an oil that can be used for cleaning and as a natural insecticide. When it is harvested, it is cut rather than uprooted, and so grows back, and with speed, making it a renewable material. An essential oil extracted from eucalyptus leaves contains compounds that are powerful natural disinfectants, which makes it a popular fragrance for soap makers. Unlike organic cotton plants, eucalyptus is woody and therefore needs energy input to convert it into a soft fibre before it can be used for clothing.

Eucalyptus as a material

Eucalyptus as a material is known as Tencel Lyocell. It is made from the pulp of eucalyptus trees.

Eucalyptus Tencel is produced using a lyocell process exclusively from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), and the fibre carries the Pan-European Forest Council (PEFC) quality seal.

The eucalyptus goes through a similar process as other semi-synthetic natural fibres, such as Viscous bamboo fabric, but the Lyocell process used to make eucalyptus is more benign and eco-friendly.

To make Tencel Lyocell Eucalyptus garments, the eucalyptus wood is pulped, reduced down into a cellulose viscous solution that is forced through spinnerets. These stringy fibres that come out of the nozzle are spun into a soft, lightweight and breathable fabric called Tencel.

The only chemical used in the Tencel manufacturing process is the non-toxic solvent, amine oxide, that allows closed loop processing where up to 99% of the chemical is perpetually re-used, minimising the impact on the environment and conserving energy and water.

The MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for lyocell rates the amine oxide solvent used to digest the wood pulp as being non-toxic. About 99% is recovered and recycled during the manufacturing process. Also, waste products in the air and water from the manufacturing process are minimal and considered harmless.

Lyocell fiber is eco-friendly since products made from it can be recycled and Lyocell is biodegradable because it is a cellulosic fiber. Products made from Lyocell can be recycled or digested in sewage. The fibre will usually degrade completely in just eight days in waste treatment plants.

The European Union (EU) awarded this process the Environmental Award 2000 in the category 'technology for sustainable development'.

The downfall 

Although the process of creating eucalyptus material can be considered semi-sustainable, and the plant itself can be coppiced to grow again, the planting and growing of it is considered environmentally destructive.

Huge expanses of native forests have been destroyed to make way for eucalyptus plantations. One area hugely affected is the Iberian Peninsula across Spain and Portugal. Portugal has the second largest eucalyptus plantation (300,000 hectares), which has meant severe degradation of the environment, draining marshland and destroying vital woodland. 

The Iberian Peninsula is home to diverse ecosystems of trees, plants and wildlife. These include the critically endangered Iberian lynx, Spanish imperial eagle and great buzzard. Also found here are native cork oaks (Quercus suber) and holm oaks (Quercus ilex), most of which have been felled.

If eucalyptus can be grown without clearing great swathes of native ecosystems, it could have a great chance in leading sustainable fashion.

Permaculture clothing

Permaculture magazine have teamed up with Rapanui, an ethical UK based clothing company, to launch its very own permaculture clothing range (alongside other select items). Rapanui produce beautiful t-shirts and sweaters that a comfortable as well as artistic, using organic cotton, bamboo and eucalyptus. Rapanui also use safe dyes, sustainable materials and source their products from factories that follow the Fair Wear principles. Their UK factory is also wind powered. We feel strongly about sustainable fashion and know our readers do too… It's great to have companies like Rapanui out there already designing and making the changes needed available. See https://permaculture.teemill.co.uk

Rozie Apps is assistant editor of Permaculture magazine.

Further resources

Sustainable fashion: organic cotton

How to have a green wedding

Maddy Harland visits Rapanui

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Wendy |
Sat, 03/01/2015 - 22:54
Unfortunately your statement of the area planted to Eucalyptus in Portugal massively underestimates the reality. Registered plantations occupied 739,515 hectares in 2010, fully 8% of the land area of the country, and it's now well over 800,000 hectares. This doesn't account for plantations which are not registered.
anasousa |
Mon, 27/11/2017 - 00:44
Sadly it's true. The native Portuguese forest is mostly destroyed to Eucalyptus plantations. These are eroding the soil and having a negative impact on the biodiversity. Also, pose a danger, by being highly flammable, in a country prone to forest fires.
anasousa |
Mon, 27/11/2017 - 00:48
Its easy to see it as an environmental solution, except if you happen to live in Portugal.

FSC

Beatrice Miehlun |
Fri, 30/03/2018 - 12:13
How can this fabric be getting the FSC and the other European certificate mentioned in the article if those forests have been planted on cut native forests? I thought the whole idea about this FSC was that it is not causing harm to native forests.. Smoke and mirrors and the consumers think they are buying an eco friendly product while they are supporting extinction in Portugal.

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