Making the switch to more sustainable fashion can be overwhelming. This article helps you navigate the world of fabric.
Leather jackets and breezy cotton dresses may be mainstays in many of our wardrobes, but do we really know how much our purchase habits are affecting the environment?
From natural fibres to organic cottons to future plastics, when it comes to choosing clothing made from ‘sustainable and ethical fabrics’ and the complexities and nuances that come with the clothing tags, we understand it’s a bit of a complex one to navigate.
Ultimately there are three main stages where a garment can prove harmful to the environment.
The first is the impact of sourcing the raw material. The second is the process of manufacturing the garment (looking at water and energy consumption as well as the working conditions and opportunities for workers). Finally, the third is the consideration of what happens to the garment after it’s been used (can it be reused or recycled, returned to the biosphere in the form of other nutrients from which new materials can be created).
In an effort to inform our shopping habits while making environmentally conscious decisions, we’ve put together a simple list of some of the fabrics that are best for the environment as well as the materials to avoid.
FABRICS BEST TO AVOID
Synthetics (including Polyester, Nylon & Acrylic)
Laura Balmond, project manager of Make Fashion Circular, sites that synthetic fabrics are usually produced from oil and account for 63 per cent of the material input for textiles production. The most common materials in this sector are polyester (55 %), followed by nylon (5%), and acrylic (2%).
While plastic-based fibres don’t require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they do negatively impact the environment in many other significant ways. Not only are synthetics not biodegradable, they all rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning this fashion industry staple is dependent on fossil fuel extraction.
Aside from the environmental impact incurred during extraction, manufacturing and shipping of synthetic clothing and material, “the use of fossil fuels brings with it other detrimental issues including oil spills, methane emissions and wildlife disruption and biodiversity loss”, Wilby says.
Conventional Cotton (NOT Organic Cotton)
While cotton is a natural fibre that can biodegrade at the end of its life, it is also one of the most environmentally demanding crops simply because it needs a lot of irrigation and uses huge amounts of water to cultivate and process. It takes approximately 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make one t-shirt.
Another problem of conventional cotton is the amount of pesticides it uses (accounting for one sixth of all pesticides used globally, impacting farmers and the local community with harmful chemicals). Cotton gets attacked by lots of pests, therefore the need for a lot of fertilizers - all of which ends up in the waterways and pollutes the water.
The good thing about cotton however is you can have organic cotton (80% of it is rain-fed and is grown in crop rotation, so it naturally breaks the cycle of the pest). "A natural, organic system always grows in rotation, so you break up the pest cycle in a natural way. The soil also gets replenished every time and recovers automatically—whereas, with conventional cotton, the soil is totally exhausted so you have to use a lot of fertilizers and that pollutes the waterways. Organic cotton is also a cash crop for smaller farms, as they can sell it for cash among the food crop rotations.
"The whole supply chain of organic cotton has a lower environmental impact, from how it's grown to how it's processed and dyed (and the finishing agents that are applied). It's all regulated, so it can decompose easily.
If it says organic cotton, you know it's reliable. There are a lot of different varieties, but you have to question that because they aren't the same. Organic cotton is the best you can do. If it's Soil Association–certified or adheres to the Global Organic Textile Standard, it's fully traceable."
Animal derived materials (including Wool, Leather & Fur)
Many protein-based fibres like wool account for less than two per cent of all fibres used and, if produced without using or retaining any substances of concern, they can be safely biodegraded. However, materials like leather are responsible for huge methane outputs which Wilby says is rarely noted in conversations about sustainable fabric manufacturing.
Methane is at least 20 times as strong a greenhouse gas as CO2 and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that livestock are responsible for about 14.5 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
As well as the carbon footprint associated with raising cattle and transporting the material, the impact on livestock and workers in the leather industry is huge.
Extinction Rebellion sites that one billion animals are killed for leather every year while 85 percent of the world’s leather is tanned with chromium, an extremely toxic substance that often leaves tannery workers with cancer and skin conditions.
Balmond adds that toxic chemicals are often used to preserve wool and fur which, if poorly managed or simply discharged, can pollute the waterways, causing devastating pollution and further affecting the health of communities living along the banks.
FABRICS BEST FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
The most effective way we can work to be truly environmentally friendly is to purchase garments that have been made from recycled or reduced materials. Garments that have not been made with virgin or raw materials, instead buying pieces that have been created with resources that are recycled.
Fortunately there is already a growing movement utilising recycled wool, cotton and synthetic fabrics for design. For example, recycled polyester – a more sustainable alternative to virgin polyester – uses up to half as much energy to make and saves plastic from landfill.
However, it is worth noting recycled polyester still does contribute to microfiber pollution (because even recycled polyester still sheds microfibers into the ocean, meaning the fish are eating it and then we're eating it, so it's a health hazard for everyone), so Wilby suggests using a special microfiber washing bag (Guppy Bag) which reduces fibre shedding and filters the few fibres that do break through.
Synthetics Bast Fibres (Eg Linen, Flax, Hemp, Nettle & Jute)
Bast fibres are those which are sourced from plants with a stem consisting of a woody core and fibrous bark, such as linen, hemp, nettle, jute and rame.
These materials are of great interest because of their small footprint compared to other natural fibres, their low water consumption and hardiness against pests and diseases.
Extinction Rebellion claims that hemp is one of the best alternatives to conventional cotton because it “uses a lot less water, can be grown in lots of different environments all over the world, thrives without the need for pesticides, can be blended with other fibres and contributes about half the carbon footprint”.
Man made cellulose-based fibres (MMCF)
One final thing to look out for on clothes labels is the Tencel-branded Lyocell fibre, a sustainable alternative to fibres like viscos. Also in the MMCF family are fibres like Acetate and Modal - referring to materials that can either directly originate and be extracted from plants, or treated chemically to extract and process cellulose. If produced without using or retaining any substances of concern, cellulose-based fibres can be safely biodegraded.
Tencel for example, is a fibre that originates from the renewable raw material wood and is created by photosynthesis.
The fibre is made from the pulp of trees, according to the Tencel website, which explains how it's produced: "The fibres originate from the renewable raw material wood created by photosynthesis. The certified biobased fibers are manufactured using an environmentally responsible production process. The fibers are certified as compostable and biodegradable, and thus can fully revert back to nature."