A Guide To Sustainable Fabric

The global fashion industry has a far-reaching impact on the natural environment, from the extraction of raw materials to the production, distribution, wear and disposal of clothes. As the world’s population increases to a projected 8.5 billion people by 2030, annual global apparel consumption is anticipated to rise by 63%, from 62 million tonnes today to 102 million tonnes; equivalent to more than 500 billion additional T-shirts.1

Currently the fashion industry is responsible for producing over 92 million tonnes of waste per year2 and consuming 79 trillion litres of water. The fashion industry is also considered the fourth-largest contributor to global warming, contributing approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions3. It is safe to say that with the current impacts being so detrimental, drastic change within the industry is required if we want to have any chance of moving toward the healthy planet that most of us hope for.

Most of the detrimental environmental impacts of the fashion industry occur during the textile and garment manufacturing stage. In 2015 textile production alone emitted 1.7 Billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses (GHG). Therefore, having a baseline understanding of which textiles are used in our clothing, and their impact on the environment, is fundamental to making informed and (hopefully) more sustainable choices. Next time you do your washing or embark on purchasing a new garment, check its care label to see where it fits in the fabric guide below.

Natural (Plant-based) Fibres

Conventional Cotton

Rating: Avoid

Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world. Its production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labour in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton. Although it is a natural fibre, conventional cotton is far from environmentally friendly.

Cotton is primarily produced in dry and warm regions, and therefore requires a lot of water to grow. In some places, like India, inefficient water use means that up to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of cotton – enough to produce one pair of denim jeans. To put the water consumption into perspective, if you were to drink the recommended 2 litres of water per day it would take you approximately 27 years to consume 20,000 litres.

Furthermore, 99.3% of cotton is grown using fertilisers and genetically modified seeds. Cotton represents 10% of the pesticides and 25% of the insecticides used globally. Additionally, since countries with large fabric and apparel making industries rely mainly on fossil fuels for energy production, McKinsey estimates that making 1 kilogram of this fabric generates an average of 23 kilograms of greenhouse gases.

Finally, 99% of the world’s cotton farmers are located in developing countries where labour, health and safety regulations are non-existent or not enforced. Child and forced labour are also common practice. For all these reasons it is best to avoid conventional cotton.

Organic Cotton

Rating: Good

Organic cotton has the same quality as conventional cotton without the negative impact on the environment. It is grown from non-GMO seeds and without the use of pesticide, insecticide or fertilizer – decreasing organic cotton farmers exposure to harmful substances. 

Unlike conventional cotton, organic farmers also use ancestral farming methods, including crop rotation, mixed farming or no-till farming to preserve the soil. Additionally, organic cotton uses up to 71% less water than conventional cotton. 

Several organizations have established certifications for organic cotton such as GOTS. Certification is the best proof (other than you vetting the process yourself) that a product is truly organic so be sure to keep an eye out.

Recycled Cotton

Rating: Great

Recycled or upcycled cotton is made using post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste. Recycled cotton has also been found to be a more sustainable alternative to both conventional and organic cotton according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index as it has the potential to help reduce water and energy consumption as it is reusing existing materials. It also helps to keep cotton clothes out of the landfill – winning!

Organic Hemp

Rating: Great

Marijuana’s ‘sober cousin’ is extremely versatile and hard-wearing. It has been cultivated for hundreds of years, all around the world, to produce fabric and has also been used as a building material, rope and in cosmetics.

What makes it more sustainable than fabrics such as conventional cotton is that it requires very little water, no pesticides, and naturally fertilises the soil it grows in making it much better for the environment than other crops.

Organic-Linen

Rating: Great

Linen is another natural fibre that stems from the flax plant. Linen requires considerably fewer resources than cotton or polyester such as energy, fertilisers, pesticides and water. It even grows in poor-quality soil and in some cases, it can even rehabilitate polluted soil. Flax plants also have a high rate of carbon absorption. 

When making linen every part of the plant is used, so nothing is wasted. Linen is strong, naturally moth resistant, and, when untreated (i.e. not dyed), fully biodegradable. In addition to being good for the planet, it is also light and can withstand high temperatures, absorbing moisture without holding bacteria. 

Bamboo

Rating: Good (depending on solvents used)

Bamboo is generally sold as an eco-friendly textile. This is partly true as the bamboo plant is potentially one of the world’s most sustainable resources as it grows very quickly without the need for pesticides or fertilisers, and it doesn’t need to be replanted after harvest because it grows new sprouts from the roots4. However, to turn bamboo into fibre for textiles, it is processed with strong chemical solvents that are potentially harmful to the health of manufacturing workers, consumers wearing the garment, and the environment. 

Man-made Fibres

Lyocell

Rating: Good

Lyocell is a manufacturing process of rayon that is much more eco-friendly than its cousins modal and viscose. Lyocell is made in a closed-loop system that recycles almost all of the chemicals used. “Lyocell” is the generic name of the manufacturing process and fibre. Tencel® is the brand name of the lyocell commercialised by the company Lenzing AG. Tencel® is made from eucalyptus from PEFC certified forests. Eucalyptus trees grow quickly without the use of pesticides, fertilisers or irrigation giving it the sustainability tick of approval. Finally, Lyocell is 100% biodegradable – what’s not to love.

Polyester

Rating: Avoid

Polyester is the most common fibre in our garments. 

Polyester is a synthetic fibre derived from petroleum, a non-renewable fossil fuel. The transformation of crude oil into petrochemicals, including petroleum, releases toxins into the atmosphere that are detrimental to the health of both humans and our ecosystems. The production of polyester is also highly energy-intensive.

As polyester is essentially plastic it takes up to 200 years for polyester to decompose. Furthermore, each time we wash a polyester garment, it releases plastic microfibres, ending up in rivers and oceans and then in our food chain.

Recycled Polyester

Rating: Good (if you use a Guppy Bag when washing)

Recycled polyester, often called rPet, is made from recycled plastic bottles. It is a great way to divert plastic from our landfills. The production of recycled polyester requires fewer resources than that of new fibres and generates fewer CO2 emissions.

There are two ways to recycle polyester: 

  1. Mechanical recycling – plastic is melted to make new yarn. This process can only be done a few times before the fibre loses its quality.
  2. Chemical recycling – this involves breaking down the plastic molecules and reforming them into yarn. This process maintains the quality of the original fibre and allows the material to be recycled infinitely, but it is more expensive.

Recycled polyester is a more sustainable alternative for our wardrobes when compared to conventional polyester, however, I will flag that although it is recycled, it is still isn’t biodegradable and takes hundreds of years to disappear once thrown away.

Econyl

Rating: Good if you use a guppy bag

Econyl is created by Italian firm Aquafil, which uses synthetic waste such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets from the ocean then recycles and regenerates them into a new nylon yarn that is the same quality as nylon.

This regeneration system forms a closed-loop, uses less water, and creates less waste than traditional nylon production methods. Waste is collected, then cleaned and shredded, depolymerised to extract nylon, polymerised, transformed into yarn, and then re-commercialised into textile products. Econyl is far more sustainable than nylon.

Again, the washing of Econyl can still shed microplastics that can end up in the ocean, therefore, try not to wash this product often and if you do, wash it in a Guppy Bag.


Sources

1https://www.nature.com/articles/s43017-020-0039-9

2https://unfccc.int/news/un-helps-fashion-industry-shift-to-low-carbon

3https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/style-thats-sustainable-a-new-fast-fashion-formula#

4http://www.internationalhempassociation.org/jiha/iha02109.html

5https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/polyester

6https://www.britishfashioncouncil.co.uk/uploads/files/1/NEW%20Fashion%20and%20Environment%20White%20Paper.pdf

7https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/environmental-cost-of-fast-fashion-is-not-sustainable/

8https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/fashion-industry-carbon-unsustainable-environment-pollution/#:~:text=Fashion%20production%20makes%20up%2010,of%20plastic%20into%20the%20ocean

9https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/en/bamboo

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