and Their Impact on the Environment
Looking to make your wardrobe a more sustainable place? Understanding all the different types of fabric and how they’re made makes it a lot easier to choose clothing that’s more gentle on the environment. Sustainable fabrics are not as easy to come by as you’d assume.
While the care label on each garment lists what fabric it’s made from, it can be hard to understand what they are really are and how much impact their production has on the environment.
For conscious consumers, knowing the eco impact of fashion fabrics is important. So how can we find the best fabrics to buy without harming our earth? Read on for a full breakdown of fabrics most commonly used to make your clothes. There’s lots to consider when looking for sustainable fabrics.
WHICH FABRICS? PLANT, ANIMAL, SEMI-SYNTHETIC, SYNTHETIC?
Aren’t all fabrics the same? Fabrics generally fall into a few categories: plant based fabrics, animal based fabrics, synthetic and semi-synthetic. Each of these have their own unique pros and cons. While there is no ‘ideal’ fabric for our garments, there are some that have a smaller environmental footprint.
PLANT BASED FABRICS
These are the fabrics that are made from plants. Cotton, Linen and Hemp are all plant-based and vegan friendly.
These are usually your best friends for a sustainable wardrobe but there are a few issues to watch out for. Natural fabrics can use a lot of resources during their lifetime. Water use, pesticide use and land use are all factors in growing our favourite fibres. Additional resources like electricity and labour are needed to turn fibres into the clothing we wear.
The main ingredient in your favourite jeans is cotton. Typically a thirsty fabric, it can take 2,700 litres of water to produce one single t-shirt. In comparison, Organic cotton uses 91% less water.
Pesticide use, soil erosion and forced labour are also big issues when it comes to cotton production. Cotton Australia is working to make the industry more earth-friendly.
Sustainable fabrics guide: Look for recycled cotton or certifications such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to help green up your wardrobe further.
One of the ethical fashion industry’s favourite fabrics, and for good reason too. Linen has the ability to grow in poor quality soils with minimal water and no pesticides. It’s strong, breathable and fully biodegradable (when not coloured with harmful dyes).
While linen may sound like a fashion superhero, but it’s not all good news. Linen fibre can be time-consuming to process, meaning it may cost extra for designers or shoppers.
Undyed linen comes in natural colours like ivory, ecru, tan, and grey. But for other colours, linen must be bleached or dyed with chemicals.
Sustainable fabrics guide: Again, stick with GOTS or OEKO-TEX certification guides to help you buy better.
Another wonder fabric for your wardrobe is hemp. No longer tied to baggy-style clothing or alternative life-style communities, hemp is now used for breezy summer dresses and bed sheets. Fast growing and requiring very little water to grow, it’s considered to be gentle on the earth. While hemp can be transformed using a slower, mechanical process called “retting”, many companies now produce hemp chemically. This faster and cheaper way of creating hemp fabric is much more invasive on the environment.
Sustainable fabrics guide: The best hemp to buy is that of the organic, undyed variety.
ANIMAL BASED FABRICS
While silk, leather and wool are classified as natural, they still have a larger environmental impact than plant-based fabrics. Because these fabrics originate from an animal-based source, they are a no-go for most vegans.
Silky smooth and associated with luxury, silk is one fine fabric. It’s spun from the long thin fibres that make up the cocoon of a silkworm. To keep these long fibres intact, the cocoon must be boiled whole, killing the silkworm. Once the strands are extracted, they’re reeled into a yarn for fabric production. There are more worm friendly ways of gathering silk, such as ‘Ahimsa’ or ‘Peace’ silk. These methods allow the worm to leave the cocoon before they are harvested.
Newer technologies are creating vegan friendly alternatives to silk. Using yeast, water and sugar, Bolt Threads has created a thread that replicates the strength of spider silk without the spider.
Sustainable fabrics guide: If you are wanting to buy silk, look for OTEX or GOTS certifications. Another option is to buy preloved.
Without going into too much graphic detail, leather is no longer a “by-product” of the meat industry. The leather industry turns over a staggering $100 billion a year in products such as belts, bags and shoes.
One of the main issues with leather is that it takes a toxic sludge of chemicals to transform it from a hide into a glossy jacket. The chemicals used in this transformation, chromium, arsenic and formaldehyde, are all considered harmful to humans and are known to cause cancer. Typically, many toxic tanneries are located on the outskirts Bangladesh, China and India, where environmental and worker protection laws are much weaker than in western countries, because the smell is said to be unbearable.
One of the biggest myths of the leather industry is that leather will break down naturally into the earth. It’s not the case, however, as the extensive use of chemicals to produce the final product act are also preservatives that do not break down.
Sustainable fabrics guide: So what can you do as conscious consumer? Buy second hand. Op shops are filled to the brim with quality leather goods including designer labels.
Wool is biodegradable, a renewable fibre and great at keeping us warm in winter, but how sustainable is it?
First up, wool is shorn off sheep before being carded and spun into yarn for our fluffy jumpers. Shearing involves workers removing the wool with fast moving blades from live sheep. PETA has recorded many instances of mistreatment during shearing. These include neglecting to stitch gaping wounds, blows to the head and throwing sheep out of sheds.
Industrial scale livestock farming requires large swatches of land to keep our woolly friends. This leads to extensive land clearing and degradation. To keep fly strike at bay, sheep are mulesed. This painful practice involves snipping the skin from around a sheep’s buttock region, usually performed without pain relief. New Zealand has now banned this practice. Not so Australia.
Sustainable fabrics guide: Since wool is such a long lasting fibre, its best to get your wool fix preloved or recycled. Certifications such as the Responsible Wool Standard and the ZQ Merion Standard are there to guide you.
Half natural, half man-made, semi-synthetic’s are like the Frankensteins of the fashion world. To create the fabrics such as Rayon, Viscose, Cupro, Modal and Bamboo, plants like bamboo, beech and eucalyptus trees must be dissolved in a chemical solution then spun into the yarn. This highly pollutive process not only seeps chemicals into waterways, it also releases toxic carbon disulphide into the air. Endangered and ancient forests also run the risk of being logged for semi-synthetic production.
Sustainable fabrics guide: Luckily there are some better options when it comes to semi-synthetics. Look for LENZING or TENCEL on the care label. This means the fabric has gone through a closed-loop process that releases fewer chemicals. The forests used for pulp are also sustainably managed. You can also place your trust in the ‘Hot Button’ report by Canopy.
Bamboo (aka Bamboo Viscose)
Fast growing and naturally regenerating, bamboo has many claims to fame. But is bamboo really an earth friendly fabric?
While bamboo is a fast-growing crop that requires no pesticides and hardly any water, it does require a chemical laden process to turn it into a stretchy wonder fabric. But, it’s not all doom and gloom for our favourite bamboo undies.
Sustainable fabrics guide: Seek out brands that are more transparent about their processes and use Tencel Lyocell. Lyocell uses a closed loop program to recapture and reuse 99% of the chemical solution.
Silky smooth and often used in place of silk, Cupro has earned the name ‘vegan silk’. Tiny cast off cotton fibres known as ‘linter’ are used to create cupro. They are dissolved in a copper and ammonium solution, dropped into caustic soda and then spun into silky yarn.
On the plus side, cupro uses up left overs from the cotton industry and is cruelty free. Sadly the process used to create cupro is toxic and harmful to the workers. Its manufacture has even been banned in the US as it doesn’t meet air and water quality requirements.
Polyester, Nylon, Lycra, PVC and PU are just a few of the well know fabrics in the synthetics gang. Sure, these fibres have their benefits: stretchy, stain and wrinkle-resistant, versatile and lightweight. But the dark side of synthetic fabrics is that they are derived from petroleum, just like plastic. This means these synthetic baddies are directly linked to one of the worlds most polluting industries, the oil industry.
The problem doesn’t end there. When a polyester garment is washed, they release millions of tiny micro fibres into the oceans. These fibres contain harmful chemicals and are eaten by marine life. In a landfill, a synthetic fabric will never biodegrade.
Is there a better solution? Unfortunately not, even recycled plastic (aka Econyl) will have the same downsides of polyester. If you must purchase a synthetic garment, try to make it one that won’t be washed as often. Belts, bags, shoes, puffer jackets are all good examples.
Sustainable fabrics guide: Do your best to buy synthetic items second hand for extra earth bonus points.
Often seen on the legs of gym goers and office workers, nylon is tough and stretchy. Its favourite fashion uses are swimwear, sportswear and leggings. Nylon must still undergo a chemical intensive process to get that stretch we all love. Even the beloved 80’s favourite, Lycra (aka spandex) is formed from a nylon base.
Sustainable fabrics guide: While nylons bad image has been slightly cleaned up by companies using recycled nylon, its still best to purchase preloved if possible.
What do the pipes under your sink and fashion have in common? PVC (or polyvinyl chloride). The ability to bend PVC into any shape and its water-resistant nature is what makes it so irresistible to the fashion crew. Raincoats, artificial leathers, shoes and even skiing equipment are all common uses of oil derived PVC.
PVC is far from a planet friendly synthetic. Dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride and lead are just a few of the chemicals this fashion bad boy leaks throughout its lifecycle.
If you are looking for a vegan alternative to leather, steer clear of PVC.
Sustainable fabrics guide: Try fabrics like Pinatex (from pineapple waste), Desserto (from cacti) or even canvas.
As you can see, choosing the right fabric can be a tricky topic to navigate. While vegans may prefer to steer clear of animal fabrics, the alternatives can sometimes cause their own environmental damage. Fans of wool and leather value them for their longevity and sturdiness, something that’s hard to replace with leather alternatives.
Whatever your values, it’s always a sustainable option to use resources that already exist. Head to op shops, consignment stores or vintage sellers to get your new-to-you fix.
If there is something that has evaded your second-hand searches or pre-loved just isn’t for you, seek out certifications such as OEKO-TEX, GOTS or recycled versions of cotton, wool and plastic.
Featured Image is of handpainted wearable art on silk by Lyn-Al Young
Jenna is a Slow Fashion Stylist Known as the Ironic Minimalist.
Jenna earned a Masters of Styling at the Australian Style Institute and along with Cocktail Revolution has been published in the websites of ASI, Ethical Clothing Australia, and has had her styling work shown in Flanelle and Moss Magazines.
See more about sustainability in fashion in these posts:
5 sustainable Fashion Aps You Need to be Using
Meet the Sustainable Fashion Stylist
Your Guide to Sustainable Australian Active Wear
Heidi Middleton’s Sustainable Fashion Label ART CLUB
Top 5 Podcasts on Sustainable Fashion
The True Cost of Fast Fashion
Here’s How You Can do Your Part Against Fast Fashion
Is Upcycling the New Normal?
Fashion Bags that Help Reduce Carbon Emissions
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