Funerals, Fiber, and Fabric

Much of our discourse on green and natural burial is focused on the biodegradability and toxicity of casketed remains in a cemetery burial.  The five standards published by the Green Burial Council in 2011 for shrouds, urns, and burial containers extend our thinking on green burial to also include local-sourcing of organic or sustainable materials.  Let us explore the fibers and fabrics that are used in caskets and burial shrouds and how they measure up to our talking points on green and natural burial.

Organic cotton has a lower carbon footprint.

Organic cotton has a lower carbon footprint.

In previous installments of this column we've used five key talking points to measuring how green a funeral product or service might be.  The five talking points include biodegradability, toxicity, local-sourcing, sustainability, and carbon life cycle assessment.  Each of these talking points is evident in the Green Burial Council standards for burial containers, but not all five of these are necessarily in alignment all the time.  There are compromises to be made.  If we view each of these points through a lens of a harmonious and healthy environment for all living things, the compromises are easier to discuss.

The textile industry is the 5th largest contributor of carbon emissions in the United States followed by primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum, and chemicals according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

World-wide fabric production consumes 1,074 billion kWh of electricity or 140 million tons of coal and 2 trillion gallons of water annually.  Here in the United States the textile industry accounts for 1 ton, or 5%, of every individual's annual carbon footprint.  So when it comes to maintaining a healthy environment for living things, fiber and fabric matter.

The impact of fabric production can be broken into two components.  First, there is the production of fiber to make thread and second, there is the energy required to weave thread or yarn into fabric.  The energy required to operate a fabric mill to weave threads into fabric is about the same for both synthetic and natural fibers.  The differentiation is on the production side.  Natural fibers like hemp and cotton are cultivated and harvested.  Animal fibers like wool also require land and water resources to raise and harvest.  The good news is that agri-fibers are renewable and sustainable. While synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon do not have an agricultural impact, synthetics are produced from petroleum or other chemicals which have significant toxicity and carbon emissions.

Overall, the heaviest polluters and carbon producers are synthetic fabrics.  Polyester generates 21 lbs of CO2 emissions per ton of fabric produced.  Acrylics produce more than 25 lbs of CO2 and nylon is worse yet.  Domestic cotton by comparison, emits 13 lbs of CO2 per ton of fabric.  Organic cotton does not use nitrogen fertilizer.  Just 1 ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits more than 7 tons of CO2!  Domestic organic cotton weighs in at just over 5 lbs CO2 per ton of fabric produced.  

Organic cotton emits less than 1/4th of the CO2 that is emitted by the same amount of polyester.  In short, synthetics are bad, natural fibers are good, and organic fibers are better yet.

Descriptions for conventional casket interiors include words like taffeta, velvet, crepe, pebble, chalet, and chiffon, but nearly all conventional casket interiors are made from polyester.  Polyester fabric is available in various different weave patterns and textures that are durable, wrinkle-resistant, and easy to work with for making casket interiors.  Polyester is less than half the cost of cotton and far less than the cost of organic cotton.  So from a manufacturer's perspective, polyester is a logical choice for making casket interiors.

Lyocell is a low impact fabric alternative.

Lyocell is a low impact fabric alternative.

If we revisit the talking points on greening the funeral industry, any natural fiber-based fabric is biodegradable and organic fabrics have a smaller carbon footprint. Local-sourcing, however, limits our choices in the U.S.  The Green Burial Council standards limit material sourcing to within 3000 miles making domestic organic cotton a good choice.  While some Egyptian, Indian, and Romanian organic fabrics may have a smaller carbon footprint than even domestic organic cotton, these materials compromise on the local-sourcing standard.

On a side note, there is a growing variety of green burial caskets made from natural fiber plants including wicker, willow, cane, seagrass, bamboo, and banana leaves.  While all of these are 100% biodegradable, few meet the local-sourcing guideline for distribution in the United States.  European willow caskets and Indonesian seagrass caskets must be imported racking up carbon emissions from transportation.  Some of these natural fiber materials also fall under scrutiny in their production practices.  For example, the bamboo industry, while touting the sustainability of bamboo as a renewable resource has become subject of criticism for cultivating in marginal waters, displacing local fishing industries, polluting waters, and unfair labor practices.  Seagrass production in Indonesia has been subject to similar criticisms.

Recently the clothing and fashion industry has been subject to scrutiny on fair trade, safe working conditions, pollution, sustainability, and carbon life cycle assessment of textile production.  There is a bright side to all of this scrutiny.  The textile industry has organized the new Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to address the many issues in world textile production.  This new standard is a tool for an international common understanding of environmentally friendly production systems and social accountability in the textile sector.  The new standard covers the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fibers.  The standard is promoting the use of certified organic fibers, prohibition of all GMOs and their derivatives; and prohibition of a long list of synthetic chemicals (for example: formaldehyde and aromatic solvents are prohibited; dyestuffs must meet strict requirements such as threshold limits for heavy metals, no AZO colorants or aromatic amines and PVC cannot be used for packaging).  So there's a lot going on in the textile industry to change the way the fabrics are made to make for a healthier and safer environment for all living things.

Natural cotton monk's cloth casket liner.

Natural cotton monk's cloth casket liner.

So what is the Green Verdict for fabrics in caskets and burial shrouds?  We should look for fabrics made from natural fibers for their biodegradability. Organic fibers are slightly better in terms of carbon life cycle assessment.  On local-sourcing, domestic cotton is widely available.  Organic cotton is better from a toxicity perspective.  Cultivated fibers are renewable and sustainable materials.  Interesting alternatives not as easily available as cotton include lyocell, a wood-pulp fabric produced with low energy, fewer emissions, less water, and no bleach.  There are also eco-friendly fabrics

made from plants including hemp, soy, and linen (from flax).  These, too, are great green alternatives to the conventional polyester, but not as readily available as cotton.  Animal-based fabrics including cashmere (from goat hair) and alpaca wool would be green alternatives, but are expensive and long-lasting and thus may be better suited to clothing than casket interiors.  Domestic organic cotton might be the greenest and most readily available option for natural burial caskets and shrouds distributed in the U.S.