Sustainable fashion is both environmentally and socially responsible throughout its entire lifecycle – from the cultivation of raw materials, through manufacturing, to you as the consumer, to its disposal. The sustainable fashion movement has been growing rapidly, and is particularly in the spotlight this month, appearing on runways around the world from companies like John Patrick Organic, Suno, and Edun showing in New York, Estethica in London, WHITE in Milan and the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris.
As more and more fabulous sustainable companies continue to pop up, the options available to us are more varied than ever before. But just because there are more options, it doesn’t mean it's always easy to make the right choices. It requires homework, and one major difficulty is knowing which fabrics to buy. This post is meant to be a guide to help you begin to understand the fibers used in clothes – so you can understand the environmental impact when you read "50% organic cotton 50% polyester" on a clothing tag.
The Better Fibers
Fabric is made of fiber. There are many different types of fibers, which can be divided into two groups: natural and manufactured fibers. Natural fibers can come from plants, such as cotton, hemp, and flax, or from animals, like wool and silk. When purchasing natural fibers, it is important to look for organic items, cultivated in a way that do not use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators, and defoliants. Manufactured fibers can be derived from plants, like lyocell, as well as those made from synthetics like recycled polyester.
Hemp is an extremely eco friendly fiber. It grows so quickly that it naturally smothers weeds and controls pests, thus requiring no pesticides to grow. Hemp yields more fiber per acre than any other crop (twice as much as cotton and six times as much as flax on the same amount of land!) and actually makes the land better for other crops by improving the health of the soil. Due to its association with marijuana, growing hemp is illegal in many countries including the US even though new varieties of hemp grown for fiber have less than 1% of THC, the psychoactive constituent of the cannabis plant.
Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic chemicals that are used in the production of conventional cotton. It also maintains biodiversity and reduces soil erosion. If a garment is made from organic cotton, it will have "organic cotton" written on the tag inside the garment. Unfortunately, only roughly 1% of all cotton is certified organic, a result of the fact that it can be cost-prohibitive to grow. Organic cotton also does not reduce the high water use required for it to grow. (Alternatives to organic cotton include Cleaner Cotton, which is produced without the most harmful chemicals and is not genetically modified, though these aren't labeled on clothing).
Flax is one of the oldest fibers used in textiles and was the most common fiber until cotton advanced with the invention of power spinning in the 18th century. It has a smaller impact on the environment than cotton, requiring fewer agrochemicals, pesticides, and water to grow. Flax can also be referred to as linen, though the term linen can be inaccurately used to refer to fabric with a certain texture. Check your fabric content tag!
Silk is both a natural fiber and renewable resource. It comes from silk worms, which spin cocoons out of the filament from which silk is made. Organic silk as well as wild or tussah silk can be good options. The downside of silk is that production can use large amounts of water and chemicals to clean the raw fiber. These resources are often disposed of with little regard to the environment. Silk often requires dry cleaning, which can be detrimental to the environment, so clean with care. Most moths are killed in the process, but Peace Silk is available as a cruelty-free version where moths are allowed to live.
Wool has been around forever and is common. Benefits of wool include its durability, longevity and the fact that it doesn't get dirty as easily s other fibers so it requires less washing. It’s best to buy organic. Organic wool comes from sheep that are raised hormone- and pesticide-free on a diet of organic feed. No harmful bleaching or chemical processing of the fiber, yarn or textile occurs. Unfortunately, certified organic wool is not widely available. Depending on which company you buy from, you may be able to determine whether or not their wool is environmentally friendly.
Lyocell is made from wood pulp, usually eucalyptus which is a renewable resource. The fiber was developed partly in response to the negative environmental impact of rayon (a common fiber derived from wood that uses a range of polluting chemicals and heavy metals) and is a very clean fiber, requiring no bleaching and reduced water use. The chemicals used in lyocell production are less hazardous than those used for producing rayon and the solvents used to make the fiber are recycled in a closed-loop system. Lyocell is not recyclable, but can biodegrade in a compost pile within six weeks. It cannot biodegrade in a landfill. Production can be energy intensive, but manufacturers are working to minimize this.
Recycled polyester can be made from post-consumer recycled bottles as well as old polyester fabric. The benefits of using recycled polyester include reduced dependence on oil, less waste in landfills, and less environmental pollution than new polyester production. Compared to new polyester, the process of manufacturing recycled polyester can reduce both energy consumption and CO2 emission by about 80%.
On the fence…
Bamboo is advertised as a green product. It grows quickly without the use of pesticides or fertilizer and doesn't require much irrigation. Unfortunately, whether or not it is as sustainable as advertised depends on the production process. While the growing and harvesting of bamboo is environmentally friendly, the chemical manufacturing process to break down the fiber into a form usable for clothing is far from less than sustainable and can be compared in negative impact to the chemical process used to create rayon. There is an alternative method of processing bamboo without the harsh chemicals, but it is rarely used because it is more costly and labor intensive than the chemical process. So while bamboo is better than some fabrics, I wouldn't give it a full "green light" due to the current processing methods.
Fibers to Avoid
A “monstrous hybrid” fiber combines both manufactured and organic nutrients (for example polyester and organic cotton) in such a way that they cannot be separated easily. This makes them impossible to recycle or biodegrade. Most monstrous hybrids can only go into the trash and cannot be reused. The term was coined by Cradle to Cradle authors Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Try to buy items that are pure, either 100% recyclable or 100% biodegradable. (Fibers derived from natural plants or animals tend to be biodegradable and/or recyclable, while synthetics can just be recyclable.)
As we've discussed alternatives and mentioned at the start of this article, top fibers to be avoided include polyester, nylon, rayon, and conventional cotton which either non renewable resources and harmful production processes. The two most common fibers today are conventional cotton and polyester, which make up about 80% of the market. People tend to assume natural fibers are better, but this isn't necessarily true. The production of Conventional cotton, for example, is extremely chemical and water intensive. Worldwide more than 10% of all chemical pesticides and 22% of all insecticides are sprayed on cotton, more than any other single crop. It takes over 1,800 gallons of water to grow the cotton needed for the average pair of jeans and over 400 gallons for one t-shirt. Polyester, which is made from petroleum, is the single most popular textile material. Petrochemicals are obviously a non-renewable resource that have vast social, political and environmental impact.
A Few Things To Remember
Read the tag
Where does your clothing come from? What is it made of? Who made it? Try to answer these questions when you shop. Look for certification labels like “Fair Trade” and “organic”, and if possible try to buy local. (Often times Fair Trade or good labor practices go hand in hand with better environmental practices since is the producers who suffer most from exposure to bad chemicals and polluting production processes.) Know that the tag only offers you limited information, for example "made in Italy" means the last stage of production happened there, which might be only finishing touches after production spanning many countries.
The best option, of course, is to buy used clothing, which requires no new raw materials and prevents more clothes from entering landfills (and you don't have to worry about the fiber content so much, your goal has become less waste).
Wash in cold water with eco-friendly detergent and hang dry Two thirds of a garment’s carbon footprint will occur after it is purchased. Wash responsibly!
Love your clothes!
The most important thing is to buy less stuff of higher quality that you love and will keep for a long time. It’s better to buy one high quality shirt that you’ll love, and will last you a long time, than 10 shirts that will fall apart and probably wont fit as well. Don't buy into current trends of cheap, disposable fashion.