Home Energy Management Exploring Greener Alternatives to the Conventional Cotton Bathroom Towel

Exploring Greener Alternatives to the Conventional Cotton Bathroom Towel


NATIONAL REPORT—Alternatives to the traditional 100 percent cotton or cotton/polyester blend towels are becoming more common in the lodging industry—especially at luxury and boutique properties. In fact, many suppliers now offer organic cotton towels, organic cotton towels with a blend of bamboo fibers, or 100 percent bamboo towels. One can also find 100 percent cotton towels with super-fine, Extra-Long Staple (ELS) cotton. Each of these new towel styles are more environmentally friendly in their own way when compared to the towels the lodging industry has been using for so long.

There is a cost premium to buying “green” alternatives—sometimes a very significant cost premium—but in some cases that cost can be recovered over time through longer product life and lower detergent, water and energy costs. There certainly can be a perceived added value in the mind of a guest when learning that a property has taken an extra step to reduce its environmental impact. And, some “green” towels also feel softer—a real value.

“Manufacturers currently cannot afford to produce a towel for the low end of the market,” says Alan Lipsitz, senior merchant-textiles for HD Supply Facilities Maintenance.

What is the problem with the cotton towels or cotton/polyester blend towels that most properties use? According to Coyuchi, Inc., a supplier of organic cotton towels, cotton as a crop is sprayed heavily with insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers. Twenty-five percent of all pesticides applied on the planet are applied to cotton crops. And polyester? While it helps a towel dry faster, its starting materials come from crude oil.

Organic Cotton Production Increasing

Organic cotton is grown without all of the harmful chemicals mentioned above. It must be grown on land that has been free of chemicals for three years to be considered organic. Organic cotton can be more prone to damage from insects and other natural elements. This, plus the fact that organic cotton is not as widely available as its conventional cousin, impacts its price. That said, organic cotton is becoming more available. According to the Organic Exchange, which tracks the production of organic cotton, the world’s cotton farmers expanded their output of the organic material by 152 percent in the 2007 to 2008 growing season.

Bamboo is a highly sustainable plant that takes in five times the volume of greenhouse gases as an equivalent stand of timber trees and releases 35 percent more oxygen. It needs no replanting and its roots retain water in the watershed, sustaining riverbanks and reducing water pollution. The bamboo plant does not usually require the use of pesticides and herbicides to thrive. Bamboo, which can grow as much as two feet in one day, is naturally hypoallergenic, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. It is much more absorbent than cotton and dries in less time, reducing energy costs.

“Bamboo is less expensive than organic cotton,” says Sabrina Shi, vice president of Midori Linen.

In addition to organic cotton, bamboo, and cotton/bamboo blends, MicroCotton is also making inroads in the lodging industry. It is manufactured by India-based Sharadha Terry Products and is available through companies such as Georgia Cotton Goods Co. and Cypress Luxury Bed & Bath Amenities. MicroCotton towels—sold as Green Earth Towels—are made from ELS cotton. These towels, according to Rafiq Lodhia, director of marketing for Georgia Cotton Goods, are made from zero-twist yarn. MicroCotton towels absorb more water than conventional terry towels and also dry faster because of the zero-twist yarn in the pile which “blooms” with each laundering. This keeps the towels softer after each wash and also keeps them highly absorbent. MicroCotton towels, which are not made from organic cotton, last longer and retain their whiteness after multiple washings.

Measurable Cost Savings

“Green Earth towels are 160 percent bulkier than traditional combed cotton towels of the same weight, with significantly less mass than traditional combed towels,” says Gene Faul, CEO of Cypress Luxury Bed & Bath Amenities. “Due to the higher ratio of surface area to towel weight they absorb more water, and due to their lower mass they cost significantly less to launder. These features result in a savings of up to 30 percent in water consumption, less detergent use and 10 to 20 percent less drying time, reducing both operational costs and environmental impact.”

“After a MicroCotton towel is washed 100 times, it is still soft,” says Pat Sullivan, CEO of Rustic Ridge Pillow and Hospitality Supply Co., whose company sells the MicroCotton towel to members of the Rustic Ridge Hospitality Buying Group.

According to Faul, it was when pricing became an issue that towel manufacturing mostly left the United States. At first it went to Turkey and Pakistan and then China. Turkey, says Barton Brass, president of The Turkish Towel Co., is the largest grower of organic cotton in the world. China, he says, produces the most bamboo for towels and linens.

“The movement now [for towels] is toward India,” Faul adds. “They have some very good mills and pay a lot of attention to quality.”

Certifications to Consider

Brass says there is no single certification in the United States to look for when purchasing environmentally friendly towels. There are numerous certifications around the world to consider, however. Some of these include: the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic, ECOCERT International, FLO-CERT, Control Union Certifications, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), and Oeko-Tex. When purchasing Fairtrade cotton, one supports farms where child labor is forbidden and where workers are guaranteed a fair wage.

When considering any type of “green” towel, be sure to ask your supplier for proper laundering instructions. Organic towels, for example, should be washed separate from other towels. Fabric softeners, bleach and most detergents can quickly wash away any environmental benefit. Natural dyes can also be impacted. Washing or drying at too high a temperature can reduce the life of a towel. If towels are sent out for laundering, maintaining the “green” nature of a towel will be even be more challenging, as employees at that company will also need to be educated about proper laundering procedures.

“Towels last longer the more gentle you are with them,” says Meryl Bacon, public relations representative for DreamSacks, Inc. “Drying with low heat will help them maintain their look and feel.”

As with any type of product, quality of manufacture is important. Ask your supplier to provide test data and also request product samples to test on your own.

The following is a list of suppliers to check out when considering organic cotton, bamboo, bamboo/cotton blend, and MicroCotton towels: 1888 Mills, A-1 Textiles & Hospitality Products,