The fabrics with the best and worst environmental impact. The fashion industry thrives on providing consumers with the latest trends and so, each year, we consumer approximately 80bn pieces of clothing – a volume that is putting strain on the planet.
Alice Wilby, a sustainable fashion consultant and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion – a campaign group which demands government take urgent action on climate change – told The Independent that this results in ‘wasting perfectly usable textiles, slowly leaking toxins into the earth and microfibres into the waterways’ and contributes to methane emissions.
So what can we, as consumers, do to change this?
Well, choosing fabrics that are sustainable is a start.
But, given that all conventional fibers have different environmental impacts associated to them, it can be a bit complicated to know which fabrics to buy.
To make an informed decision, Fashion For Good – a global platform for sustainable fashion innovation – recommends using the ‘Five Goods Cradle-to-Cradle’ concept which looks at how sustainability is integrated across the whole supply chain of a good or product.
Good Materials – safe, healthy and designed for reuse or recycling.
Good Economy – growing, circular, shared and benefitting everyone.
Good Energy – renewable and clean. Reduction in MW/h of energy consumption. Associated reductions in CO2 emissions.
Good Water – clean and available for all. Reduction in H2O consumption.
Good Lives – living and working conditions that are safe, just and dignified. Fair jobs created, workers paid living wages and empowered training conducted.
There are specific brands out there that are passionate about making the fashion industry a more sustainable place, such as Reformation, Eileen Fisher and Stella McCartney.
The worst fabrics for the environment are: Cotton, synthetics and animal-derived materials.
While cotton is a natural fiber that can biodegrade at the end of its life, it’s one of the most environmentally damaging crops.
Cotton farming uses high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals that seep into the earth and water supplies. Conventional cotton farming accounts for one sixth of all pesticides used globally, impacting farmers and local communities with harmful chemicals.
Synthetics (Polyester, Nylon and Acrylic)
Synthetic fibers are usually made from oil and while they do not require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they still negatively impact the planet. Not only are they not biodegradable, they rely on petrochemical industries for their raw materials, meaning this fiber is dependent on fossil fuel extraction. Wilby says: “the use of fossil fuels brings with it other detrimental issues including oil spills, methane emissions and wildlife disruption and biodiversity loss.”
Everytime you wash a polyester garment, it released microfibers into our water causing immense damage to marine life.
Animal derived products (wool, leather and fur)
Materials like leather are responsible for huge methane outputs. Methane is at least 20 times as strong a greenhouse gas as CO2. Extinction Rebellion states that one billion animals are killed for leather every year, while 85% of the world’s leather is tanned with chromium, an extremely toxic substance that can leave tannery workers with cancer and skin conditions.
Toxic chemicals used to preserve wool and fur can, if poorly managed, pollute the waterways, affecting the health of communities living along the banks.
The best fabrics for the environment: Recycled, man-made cellulose and bast fibers.
To be truly environmentally friendly, Extinction Rebellion believes the fashion industry needs to stop using virgin resources to create new materials and instead ‘reuse and repurpose what we already have’.
Man-made cellulose fibers
Cellulose fibers are those obtained from plant-based materials. It can either be extracted directly from plants or treated chemically to extract and produce cellulose. Some brands use Tencel – a fiber that originates from a renewable raw material wood and is created using photosynthesis.
Bast fibers are those which are sourced from a plant with a stem, consisting of a woody core and fibrous bark, such as hemp flax or nettle.
Extinction Rebellion claims hemp is one of the best alternatives to cotton as it ‘uses a lot less water, can be grown in lots of different environments all over the world, thrives without the need for pesticides and contributes about half the carbon footprint”.
The fabrics with the best and worst environmental impact