Whether you’re a clothes maker, or a fashion lover who doesn’t love fashion’s impact on the planet, choosing sustainable fabrics is one of the first things we can do to make our wardrobes more eco-friendly
We all know the #onesmallchange we can make in order to fight against climate change, whether it's buying a reusable water bottle, embracing a vegan diet or using metal straws instead of plastic. However, when it comes to fashion, dressing sustainably can seem a little more complicated.
Along with cutting out plastics, we can start dressing sustainably by being conscious about what we're consuming and taking steps (however small) as individuals. One thing I was asked after writing a piece on sustainable fashion was which fabrics are the worst for the environment. And believe it or not, it's not an easy question to answer.
A common misconception with sustainable fabric is the belief that all natural fabrics are automatically deemed as good and that synthetic equals bad. But the truth is that you often can't simply label fibres as "goodies" or "baddies".
There are three stages in which an item can prove harmful: First there's the impact of the raw material, then there's the process of creating the garment, and finally, you need to consider what happens after you've used it.
Confused? Me too.
To help you (and the planet) out, we've compiled a list of sustainable fabrics broken into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Summer’s fabric of the season often has ethical kudos, to boot: it is harder than cotton, requires less water to grow than most fabrics, is naturally moth resistant and gets stronger with every wash. However, be sure to avoid pure white linen as it has to go through intense bleaching to reach that colour. Instead, opt for linen in its natural colours of ivory, ecru, tan and grey. See it...all over the high street.
Piñatex is a viable leather alternative which is made from pineapple leaves. Made through a process called decortication, Piñatex not only uses the fruit to create the leather-like fabric but to reduce waste as pineapple leaves are notorious for becoming scraps. See it in H&M's Conscious Collection.
Tencel is a light cellulose fabric, which means it is created by dissolving wood pulp. The fibre is produced by Austrian company; Lenzing AG. It’s been growing in popularity recently, as is said to be 50% more absorbent than cotton, and requires less energy and water to produce. Plus, the chemicals used to produce the fibre are managed in a closed-loop system meaning the solvent is recycled which reduces dangerous waste. Find it in Zara's Join Life range.
Cotton farming, in general, requires massive inputs of water and pesticides and in conventional cotton farming, the environmental impact is staggering. It takes between 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. That is the equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans. Cotton is also an extremely volatile plant, which means that farmers often use fertilizers and pesticides to ensure their crop grows successfully. When not managed properly, these chemicals leach into the soil and local water systems. However, it does have one redeeming quality: organic cotton.
Fleece is a soft napped insulating fabric made from a type of polyester called polyethene terephthalate (PET) or other synthetic fibres. These tiny plastic polyester fibres that make up the fleece fabric are synthetic in nature which are now making their way into waterways and marine ecosystems. In a recent study, researchers took sand from 18 beaches over six continents which found that 80 per cent of the samples collected were polyester or acrylic.
The main issue with cashmere relates to the over-farming of goats and the impact that this has on the local environment. When goats eat grass they don’t just bite into it, they pull the grass out by the roots. This stops the grass from growing back and when carried out at a large scale, this can lead to severe degradation of the land and eventual deforestation. It takes four goats to produce enough wool to make just one jumper, thus it’s not hard to see why both the farmers and the land are struggling to maintain the current market demands – or at least, to do so sustainably.
No news here, fur is bad. For many of us, wearing fur is simply cruel, and to be avoided at all costs. Campaign groups such as PETA have long highlighted the inhumane practices of fur farms. Shocking videos showing distressed animals have laid bare the conditions they are kept in to feed the fur trend. Fur farms dominate the modern fur trade, and production has more than doubled since the 1990s, to about a hundred million skins in 2015. No longer an expensive luxury, these days cheap fur trims can be found on high street shoes and accessories. Cruelty aside, fur production destroys the environment. The amount of energy needed to produce a real fur coat from ranch-raised animal skins is approximately 20 times that needed to produce a fake fur garment. Nor is fur biodegradable, thanks to the chemical treatment applied to stop the fur from rotting. The process of using these chemicals is also dangerous because it can cause water contamination.
Polyester, nylon, spandex and acrylic are all synthetic fibres derived from petroleum. They make up about 65 per cent of our clothes and are favoured by manufacturers because they provide a cheap and fast alternative to natural fibres. The production of synthetic fibres is energy-intensive and uses large amounts of fossil fuels (each year more than 70 billion barrels of oil are used to make polyester). Synthetic, petroleum-based fabrics are strictly non-biodegradable. This means that unless incinerated, every pair of nylon tights or spandex leggings you own will still be on this planet for the next 1000 years.
Leather & PVC
From the get-go, there is the obvious fact that leather is made from animals, which means that it is not animal-friendly and carries a significant carbon footprint. However, there is a lot more wrong with the production of leather than just its association with animals. This largely comes down to the chromium used in the production of most leather, which poses significant dangers to both the environment and those who live and work in the local communities. That said, PVC (a leather alternative) is no better either. PVC is made up of plastic, synthetic fibres that have a similar environmental impact as polyester and nylon.
Whatever you buy, always check the label.
Main image by Jazmin Quaynor