I signed up a week ago to post for Blog Action Day. That means that, on the fifteenth, I ought to have posted about something green. Leave it to me to think it was on the nineteenth instead! So, here we go.
Needlework is a pretty environmentally friendly activity in the first place. Doing it requires no electricity and very little equipment. None of the equipment should contain any heavy metals or other toxins (unlike computers and other electronics). Of course making something yourself is also socially responsible, since, if you made it, you know for certain that no slave or child labor was involved. But going green can go further.
Over the past few years, the textile industry (which includes yarn companies and manufacturers) have developed a wide array of natural fibers from renewable resources. Of course, organic wool and cotton are a nice start, but both depend on large preexisting industries developed around hybridization. The sheep breeds that today are used for wool are not necessarily well treated, and many sheep today would die under the weight of the wool they produce if left unshorn. The breeds of cotton farmed today require vast quantities of water and are extremely vulnerable to insects and other pests, making organic farming both expensive and intensive. While I do not know about the care involved in raising the following fibers, they were developed specifically as renewable sources of fiber.
Bamboo. Bamboo is an Asian grass that most think of as a tree. Because it is a grass, each sprout is connected to the same root system as all the other sprouts in the area. This means that cutting down one sprout of many can not kill the entire organism. It is fast growing. Some species can grow up to a foot a day! And anyone who has had bamboo growing on their property knows that controlling the growth of the stuff is nearly impossible. Bamboo fiber is like rayon in that it is the viscose of the bamboo (made from its insides), so converting it from grass to yarn is intensive. Unlike rayon, their is no danger of driving bamboo to the brink of extinction, and unlike modern rayon, it is not a petroleum biproduct. Bamboo, when processed and spun, makes a fiber that is very soft, but heavy (kind of like cotton is heavy).
Soy. Soy silk is a truly green material. It is extruded from the liquid waste left from the tofu making process. In my experience soy silk can range in texture from feeling like cotton to feeling almost like bamboo.
Recycled silk and rayon. These yarns are produced by a company which hires poor women in Nepal (many of whom are trying to get out of prostitution) to weave saris. When the fabric is cut from the loom, the thread and fabric remnants fall to the floor. Rather than waste this material, they are swept up and spun into this yarn. Each skein is unique. I personally, do not like this yarn very much because it is difficult to work with and has a fairly harsh texture. It is beautiful, though.
Palm. This fiber is still fairly difficult to find. It is made from fiber contained in the leaves of a certain species of palm after they fall to the ground and dry. It has been used as a fiber by people native to the same area as that palm for many years, so production of this fiber uses, not only a natural waste product, but brings funding to an otherwise poor group of people. I bought a skein of it from Habu, and I think it feels kind of like linen.
Corn. I'm not exactly sure where the corn for this yarn comes from. It feels like cotton.
Milk fiber. This is a fiber extruded from milk. I think it is a little wasteful, considering the number of hungry people on the planet who could benefit from the milk (or from corn for that matter), but it is a truly renewable fiber. It feels like a cross between cotton and rayon.
Buying locally is also green, because less fuel is required to deliver it to your local yarn store. And there are lots of small mills around the country (the US, in my case, but this is true of many countries). So whether you decide to buy local yarns and help your local farmer or buy something exotic and help groups of underprivileged people in poor countries, knitting green is increasingly possible and economical. There are also yarn companies that specialize in carrying the exotic and green, South West Trading Co. and Habu, for example.
But really, anything that moves you away from synthetic fibers is a move towards green knitting. If it is synthetic, it is a petroleum biproduct (read plastic). If it is plastic, it isn't renewable, it isn't Earth friendly, it won't allow your skin to breath, and it took a lot of energy in the factory to turn it into something you would want to touch.
By the same token, though, it was once noted at a CGOA conference that there are too many people on the Earth to go without synthetics. If all we had were natural fibers, no single person on the face of the Earth could have more than one garment. In the end, it is probably not realistic to avoid all synthetic fibers, but buying green yarns sends a message to the industry that we want more of it. It can't replace synthetics, but it can decrease our use of them, and it can lead to new sources of natural fibers. Let's keep them researching.