5 ways to help you choose a more sustainable fabric
Do you ever check the label to see what your clothes are made from? I never used to. Why would I if I looked good in them? My interest in sustainable fabric developed only a few years ago after I started to balance my interest in fashion with conscious consuming.
It’s estimated that the world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. As new clothing comes into our lives, we also discard it at a shocking pace. Clothes are made of materials. Producing this volume of materials year after year strains the planet, both in terms of the natural resources use and environmental impacts like pollution and waste.
Here is the summery of 3 categories of materials: natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic, and a few environmental issues involved with each. I think if we have a better understanding of what goes into our clothes we’ll be able to make a more educated decision when choosing the next outfit.
Wearing a woolen dress for a business brunch
Natural materials come from… well, nature. Like our food, natural materials come from plants or animals. The plant-based materials are: linen, cotton, hemp and raffia. The animal-based materials are: wool, silk, leather, cashmere and alpaca. Same as with the food we eat, they can be organic or grown with fertilizers and pesticides; free range or pumped with hormones. Sustainable fabric can be ecologically produced or recycled.
Resources used: land, water, fossil-fuels (because many agricultural chemicals are petroleum-based).
Environmental issues: chemical pesticides and fertilizers pollute soil, water systems and air. Farm animals (including sheep and goats) release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.
Category offenders: cashmere and cotton (discussed below).
Wearing an outfit made out synthetic fibers (Synthetic leather & polyester)
Synthetics are created through an industrial manufacturing process in which petroleum, a fossil fuel, is extracted from the earth and mechanically transformed into fibers for clothing. The resulting fiber, although soft and even silky, is actually a plastic. In fact, polyester is made of the same exact material used to make plastic bottles: polyethylene terephthalate. In this category recycled fabric considered to be a sustainable fabric.
Resources used: fossil-fuels.
Environmental issues: firstly, the production of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, which is the leading cause of climate change. Secondly, it has been recently proven that washing synthetic fibers releases micro-plastics into the water supply and ultimately into our food chain. Synthetics don’t decompose in landfills so if not recycled and reused they stay with us for about 40 years.
Category offenders: polyester (because of its volume – it is the most common material in our clothes); nylon (because its production releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2).
Wearing a 100% viscose dress (Photography by Nooria Shafqat)
Semi-synthetic materials come from a natural source, but require processing to transform them into a fiber that can be used for clothing. These include viscose, modal, lyocell and bamboo.
Resources used: mostly wood.
Environmental issues: deforestation, which has climate change implications; heavy chemicals needed to transform the hard wood into a soft fiber release pollutants into the air and water.
Category offenders: viscose, modal and bamboo (deforestation).
If we have a better understanding of what goes into our clothes we’ll be able to make a more educated decision when choosing the next outfit.
How do we translate this into practice? Here are 5 ways to choose a more sustainable fabric:
1) For summer clothes, skip cotton and choose linen, hemp, and organic cotton instead.
Here’s why: Cotton, although a natural fiber, is one of the most environmentally intensive materials in our closets, for a few reasons. First, cotton needs a lot of pesticides and fertilizer to grow. It’s one of the world’s most pesticide-intensive crops. Second, cotton consumes a lot of water. It takes around 700 gallons of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s roughly equivalent to 40 showers-worth. Third, most cotton is grown using genetically modified seeds. We tend to think of genetic modification as a food issue, but cotton is one of the world’s major genetically modified crops. GM crops present a host of environmental issues, including soil and water pollution and threats to biodiversity. Because cotton is the second-most common material in our clothes after polyester, these environmental issues are significant due to the scale at which we cultivate cotton. Organic cotton is a more sustainable option as well because it is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and using non-GM seeds.
Linen, hemp, and organic cotton are significantly less polluting. Linen/hemp, in particular, is a highly sustainable fabric that doesn’t need pesticides or fertilizers to grow and requires little water. Organic cotton is a more sustainable fabric option as well because it is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and using non-GM seeds.
2) For your winter wardrobe, pass on cashmere in favor of alpaca.
Here’s why: When goats graze (cashmere, is a fiber obtained from cashmere goats and other types of goat), they pull grasses from the root, whereas sheep and alpaca only eat the grass at the surface, preserving the root system.
When land is overgrazed, the soil can’t store water or nutrients so it becomes unhealthy, which slowly transforms previously fertile land into a desert. Due in large part to overgrazing for cashmere production, 90% of the land in Mongolia is experiencing some form of this transition to desert land. To be clear, it’s not that cashmere is unsustainable, it’s that these unprecedented volumes of cashmere production are. So, until cashmere can be produced more sustainably, choose alpaca instead. Alpaca have a really light environmental footprint. They eat and drink very little and tread softly on the ground. If you choose alpaca that’s fair trade or from a cooperative, you also support development in Peru’s remote alpaca growing communities.
3) For athletic wear, swimwear, outerwear, and any clothing in general where you need the properties of synthetic materials, skip polyester and choose recycled post-consumer PET instead.
Here’s why: The plastic waste we generate can be recycled to form polyester fibers that can be used to make new clothing. There is a dual benefit here: we reduce plastic waste and simultaneously decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, which in turn reduces GHG emissions. There are a growing number of companies, including Ecoalf, Odina Surf, Teeki, Patagonia and Nike making clothing and accessories using recycled plastics. This doesn’t address all of the problems associated with synthetic materials, like microplastic shedding, but it does take a step in the right direction. Due to microplastic shedding issue the most sustainable solution right now is not buying fleece and other synthetic fabrics, although eliminating synthetic clothing from society’s wardrobe would be nearly impossible now, when you consider that most people live in their ‘leisure wear.’ Want to choose a more sustainable fabric? Opt for natural fibers whenever possible.
Not buying more than you absolutely need and wearing it to the end of its life cycle, as well as investing in a front-loading washing machine and hang-drying clothes, are other helpful steps to take. Wash as little as possible; spot-wash as much as you can.
4) For evening wear, choose silk.
Here’s why: Silk is a natural, durable, yet biodegradable material that has a very low environmental impact. As the technology to spin polyester fibers improves, polyester is making its way more and more into our evening wear – but we don’t need plastic in our evening gowns. Choose pieces made of 100% silk instead, even if that means buying vintage or second-hand.
5) Steer away from blended fibers when you can.
Here’s why: Blended fibers are those made by mixing two or more different materials together. For example, jeans are very often comprised of a blend of cotton and elastane, which makes the jeans a bit stretchier (and it’s appreciated). What is less appreciated is that clothing made of blended fibers cannot be recycled, because the technology doesn’t exist to separate the fibers yet. Because we are producing, consuming and turning over such a high volume of clothing, recycling fibers is an important way to reduce our use of virgin raw materials. So whenever possible, for the sustainable fabric option, favor clothes made exclusively from a single material.