Why is it important to choose sustainable textiles?
When we look in the cupboard at our lovely clothes, it may be hard to fathom why they are so bad for the environment. However, the fashion industry could be responsible for up to 8% of global greenhouse emissions. We buy 50% more clothes than we did in 2000  and they are being worn less often. The industry, as a whole, produces more CO2 emissions than the aviation industry. The use of sustainable material for clothing is important!
When we think about our personal carbon footprint, we tend to think about the miles we drive or the holidays we go on. Perhaps the number of clothes we buy, and how sustainable they are, should also be at the front of our minds.
What is a sustainable fabric?
In another article, I asked the question, what is sustainable fashion? It’ll be a shock to no one, that a big chunk of a garment’s sustainability is down to the materials that it is made from.
But what is a suitable sustainable material for clothing? When we assess a fabric, we have to look at the following aspects:
- The raw materials it’s made from.
- The chemicals used to create the yarns and dye the fabrics.
- The processes and energy consumed from the field onwards.
For the above points we need to satisfy:
- Can this fabric be made indefinitely, or will resources be depleted? In other words, are all the materials, the processes and the energy used to make it, renewable?
- Will the process of making it adversely affect the environment or the people involved in its manufacture?
- Can the materials in the fabric as well as the materials/chemicals used to make it, be safely returned to the environment?
- Can the fabric be recycled?
- Is the social wellbeing of the workforce, at all stages, being cared for?
It’s worth noting that currently, recycling fabrics into new fabrics almost never happens. When you “recycle” your clothes at the local recycle bins, they will either be resold, repurposed into something else (home insulation or similar) or end up in landfill – or possibly on West African beaches. Until fabrics become truly recyclable, it is important that they can, in some way, be safely returned to the environment… in whatever form that takes, but at the very least, be biodegradable.
You might start to see why being able to tell if a fabric is sustainable is difficult, particularly as the same type of fabric may be more or less sustainable when made in different factories. It will depend on the processes and chemicals used, and whether the factory is powered by renewables or not.
Why is it hard to workout what are suitable sustainable materials for clothing?
I’d love to be able to give you an objective list that compares sustainable fabrics based on measurable parameters, but this isn’t easy to do. There isn’t a hard and fast threshold above which a fabric is considered to be sustainable. How sustainable a fabric is depends on what factors you consider, and how important you consider each of those factors to be. For example, you may regard the amount of CO2 production during manufacture as being more important than the volume of water consumed. Or, you may consider how a fabric is dealt with at the end of its life as more important than the type of chemicals used to dye it. Whilst it is possible to measure the CO2 produced and water consumed, there are other factors that rely on non-measurable subjective assessments.
The range of factors that can be considered as contributing to the “sustainability” of a fabric are diverse and difficult to compare. That being said, there are a number of learned organisations that are trying to do exactly that, such as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index or various Life Cycle Assessments that have been published. All attempts are laudable, but currently all struggle with the vast array of factors and a lack of available data in many areas.
Before you give up though, there are plenty of resource that will list what they consider are sustainable fabrics, and in general, they tend to agree. So, how is this possible? Well, really, with a good understanding of the industry and a healthy dose of common sense. I would advise that the best lists give the reasons they have included any given fabric.
With that in mind, I have put my own list together, based on my own factors and it’s below.
Whilst it may be problematic to accurately quantify what a sustainable material for clothing is, I personally think it’s less of a problem to state the fabrics that are not sustainable. My choice below, will not be contentious with the vast majority of people. There are just a few that may disagree though, so I’ll state my reasons.
Unsustainable: Any plastic-based fabric derived from petrochemicals.
This includes, but is not limited to: Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic, Lycra, etc, etc
These are fabrics that are derived from the oil that we suck out of the ground.
Why have I drawn a line in the sand, stuck my neck out and definitively said “they’re not a sustainable material for clothing”? Well, at the most basic level, the definition of “sustainable” is something that can be maintained indefinitely. Oil will, eventually, run out. Long before that, it will become commercially unviable – as we reduce our dependency on oil derived energy and alternatives to plastic become more common, the volume of oil we use will go down. As that happens, the price per barrel will quickly increase to a level that makes it too expensive to make our clothes out of.
There are many other factors that make these types of fabric unsustainable, in my humble opinion:
- Polyester is responsible for around 2.5 times the amount of CO2 emissions than cotton.
- When washed, large quantities of microplastics are released into the environment.
- Plastic based fibres are not biodegradable
- They can be recycled, but almost never are.
- When mixed in a blend with other fibres, they can’t be recycled
Top 5 List of Sustainable Materials for Clothing
So, which fabrics do I consider to be the most sustainable fabrics? In no particular order…
I don’t think this will be a surprise to anyone. Organic cotton has all the benefits of conventional cotton and few of its downsides. [for more details, take a look at “How Does Cotton and Organic Cotton Differ from an Environmental Perspective?“]
The only thing that lets it down is the crop yield. If you want as much fibre as you’d get from conventional cotton, you’re going to need a field that’s about 30% bigger. This isn’t particularly a problem at the moment – organic cotton is about 1% of the total cotton crop. However, if organic cotton were to completely replace conventional cotton, then there would be a significant strain put on the world’s productive agricultural land.
Fortunately, I think that that is unlikely to ever happen. As less sustainable fabrics give way to more sustainable fabrics, then I suspect a significant chunk of the cotton market would be replaced with crops such as hemp and linen. They produce much more fibre than cotton, per acre, and could more than make up for organic cotton.
|Doesn’t release microplastics||Around 30% more land is required to produce the same amount of conventional cotton|
|Use much less water than conventional cotton|
|Doesn’t use pesticides and insecticides|
There are so many reasons why hemp is the wonder fabric we need! Its main drawback is that it’s hardly been used for clothes since 1950. Developments in the technology and machinery used to process the crop haven’t happened. As a result, converting the crop into a fabric is more expensive than for other fabrics. As demand for sustainable fabrics rise, I expect that the volume of hemp to increase which, in turn, will drive developments to reduce the cost of processing the fabric.
|Doesn’t release microplastics||It’s expensive compared with cotton|
|2.5 times more fibre per acre can be produced than conventional cotton|
|Doesn’t require pesticides and insecticides|
|Good for soil quality|
|Very durable fabric|
Linen is similar to hemp in many ways. It is, however, much more in the consciousness of the consumer and hence, sales are much higher… those creases though!
|Requires a lot less water than Cotton||Heavy amounts of bleaching is often used (go for more natural colours, if you buy) – this can reduce how easily it biodegrades.|
|Few pesticides required (or none, if organic)||Creases easily|
|Very durable fabric|
|Almost all parts of the crop are used (Linseed oil, etc)|
Mechanically Recycled Polyester
Really?? Well, yes. Even though it’s far from our favourite, it has to be acknowledged that it has quite a few good sustainability characteristics. At Of The Oceans, we don’t sell any plastic based fabrics, but that’s because we’re desperate not to put any more microplastics into the oceans. It can be argued that its fine to buy products that contain recycled polyester as long as they don’t require laundering. There is, however, still that issue of where it goes at the end of its life. It’s not biodegradable and there’s little sign yet that polyester clothes are going to get recycled into new polyester clothes – bottles into clothes maybe, but clothes into clothes?
|Contributes only a small amount of CO2 to the environment when compared with virgin polyester||Microplastics released into the environment with each wash|
|Creates demand for recycling items such as plastic bottles||It can only be recycled a limited number of times|
|Doesn’t take up valuable farmland|
So, here’s one you may not be too familiar with. Tencel is a cellulose based fibre that is regenerated from wood. As such, this is a non-petrochemical based synthetic fibre. Tencel is actually the brand name for the Austrian company Lenzing AG and it is a type of rayon. However, the chemicals used in the process are less harmful than those typically used for other types of rayon and Lenzing also use a closed-loop system that recovers almost all the chemicals.
|Uses less energy than Rayon||Heavily reliant on chemicals to break down the wood into cellulose fibres|
|Uses less toxic chemicals than rayon|
|Uses around 20% less water than cotton|
There is no doubt that the adverse impact of the fashion industry on the environment is very large and I am in no way intending to say any different. However, it’s difficult to have confidence in some of the widely published statistics. Values for a given statistic can vary quite wildly depending on the source. For the sake of simplicity and readability, most articles will state a headline figure – usually some average value, often found from another article. This isn’t a problem in itself, as long as the article references where it got the figures from (and many don’t). Unfortunately, the single headline figure masks how much variance there may be from the average case. As with any topic, I would advise checking several sources. Be aware though, that even with this, the answers you get may be wrong, particularly if all the articles reference one source!
If you are as concerned about the impact of fashion on the environment as I am, then there are ways to reduce that impact. The best way, of course, is to buy second hand, but given that you’ll need to buy some new clothes at some point, look for the clothes being sold by (truly) sustainable fashion brands. And, one thing that is often overlooked is how much impact your clothes have on the environment after you’ve bought them. Look out for upcoming blogs where I talk about this in a little more detail.
Have you seen facts quoted about the fashion industry that you’re not sure about? If so, let me know in the comments and I’ll look into it!
Of The Oceans Clothes
At Of The Oceans, we only sell clothes that are made with natural fibres. All our suppliers are accredited by the Fair Wear foundation. Other environmental credentials are listed with the individual items, allowing our customers to decide whether they meet their sustainable requirements.
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 “Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report 2021”, Textile Exchange, 2021
 “The Water Footprint of Cotton Consumption”, A.K. Chapagain, et al.,Sept. 2005