An In-depth Look at Sustainable Fabrics
What’s behind the organic cotton curtain?
An In-depth Look at
The fast fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest sources of pollution. Obviously, that needs to stop, but there are different opinions on the best way to do that.
One piece of the puzzle is switching to more sustainable fabrics, but even that is a complex issue in and of itself. There are many more sustainable options on the market these days, but no “perfect” choice.
Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of today’s most popular sustainable fabrics.
Once you know the benefits and drawbacks of each one, you’ll be better equipped to decide which to buy.
Before we get started, I’ll warn you that things are about to get really in-depth and technical. If you don’t find that kind of thing interesting, feel free to bail out now. I won’t be offended, I promise.
After all, DoneGood exists so that you don’t HAVE to spend an entire Saturday researching the merits and drawbacks of various production processes and source materials if you don’t want to.
You can rest assured that the clothes you buy from DoneGood approved brands are made from sustainable fabrics that are leaps and bounds better than traditional fabrics. Ok? Ok. Disclaimer over.
For those of you who have stuck around, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
What Makes a Fabric Sustainable?
In order to quantify how sustainable a fabric is, we first need to recognize the various points in a typical fabric’s lifecycle that may introduce environmental harm.
The first is how the raw material is grown- “raw material” meaning cotton, bamboo, eucalyptus, etc. This part has the potential to cause harm through the amount of water that’s used and also the potential introduction of pesticides and fertilizers which are big waterway polluters. The type of land the crop is grown on is a factor as well- does it take up arable land that can be used for food crops, or does it grow well on marginal lands?
The second factor is the extraction or harvesting of the raw material, which uses energy and may or may not be done in a sustainable way that protects the fertility of the soil.
The third is the textile production process, wherein raw material actually gets turned into fabric. This process, of course, uses a considerable amount of energy, and some processes also involve a lot of water or chemical solutions.
Fourth, we have the dyeing and finishing process. This is the step that rockets the textile industry up to the top of the pollution charts. Harsh chemical dyes that are not disposed of properly can easily turn into pollution in the land and water surrounding traditional textile manufacturers.
Finally, the end of a textile’s useful life can be a source of environmental harm. While at this point it’s largely out of the original textile manufacturer’s hands, fabrics that aren’t biodegradable or recyclable leave consumers few options for responsible disposal.
So, those are all the bad things that can happen during the typical textile manufacturing process. Let’s take a look now at how sustainable fabric makers are subverting some or all of those things and reducing the environmental harm of the textile industry overall.
Organic cotton is an increasingly popular choice for those looking for sustainable fabric options.
It does have a lot going for it, like being grown with significantly less water than traditional cotton and without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. That helps a lot with the first stage. It’s also completely biodegradable, which helps with the final stage.
Organic farmers also adhere to a strict crop rotation process that protects the fertility of the soil and ensures sustainable harvesting practices. In order to be GOTS Certified, no harmful chemicals may be used in the production or finishing processes of organic cotton. To this end, most manufacturers use vegetable dyes that are gentler on the earth.
Like everything, though, organic cotton has its pros and cons. While organically farmed cotton uses far less water than the traditionally farmed variety, it is still a thirstier crop than many of the others on this list.
Linen is an ancient fabric that has been woven from flax for thousands of years. It is luxurious, long-lasting, and completely biodegradable when it does eventually wear out.
Flax can also be grown on marginal land that isn’t suitable for growing food, which keeps those arable lands open for other purposes. It does not need as much water to grow as cotton does. It is also quite naturally pest-resistant.
As far as processing is concerned, there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” when it comes to sustainability. Water-retting, where the flax fibers are submerged in local rivers, can release a lot of pollutants into waterways. On the other hand, dew-retting, where the flax is laid down in the field to be broken down by dew and rain, is a much less harmful option.
If you want to be sure that your linen is causing the least environmental harm possible, it’s important to buy from a trustworthy brand that values sustainability.
Bamboo has a lot of potential as a sustainable source of raw material for textile making. It’s highly renewable, pest-resistant, fast growing, easily regrows after harvesting without the need to replant and needs very little water.
All of these factors impressed eco-conscious buyers, and it quickly became hailed as the sustainable material that could supply all our needs from fabric to flooring with little environmental harm.
The backlash to that was swift. In the public eye of those who were watching, bamboo fell from grace as an environmental friendly darling to the harbinger of doom.
So which is it?
Well, the truth is somewhere in between.
As I said before, bamboo does have a lot of potential as a sustainable material. But for that to be the case, the growers and manufacturers have to be committed to sustainability every step of the way. Since the majority of bamboo is grown in China, it’s outside the scope of the oversight organizations we’re used to seeing. That makes it difficult to be sure whether or not it’s being grown and processed sustainably.
The production and finishing phases introduce their own set of potential issues.
The most common method for turning hard, woody bamboo into the soft, silky fabric we know involves chemicals that can be harmful to the environment and the health of those who work around them. Those using this practice are FTC mandated to label their product as “bamboo-based rayon.”
Bamboo linen, on the other hand, is mechanically produced from bamboo fibers, without the use of a chemical solution. This fabric maintains its biodegradability and is much more environmentally friendly, but unfortunately far less common than the bamboo-based rayon variety.
Tencel is a specific brand of the generic fabric lyocell, which is a form of rayon. Got that?
What makes Tencel unique is that the company that makes it, Lenzing AG, has developed a closed-loop process that uses non-toxic chemicals to process the raw materials into fabric. Even better, the chemical solution can be reused, which eliminates 98% of waste involved in traditional processes.
This process can be used on a variety of materials, but the most common is eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus is a good choice because the trees are hardy and pest-resistant, needing very little water and no pesticides. They can also grow on marginal land, and the processed fabric readily absorbs dye, so less is needed. The wood pulp that Lenzing AG uses to make their fabrics is all Forest Stewardship Council-certified.
Tencel is available in a variety of blends, all with different properties, so clothing manufacturers can use it to make many different types of garments. For now, Lenzing AG is the only company using this incredibly efficient, environmentally friendly production method, so brands that want to use it for their garments have to go straight to the source.
Wool is a renewable resource that is long lasting, easy to dye, and naturally fire resistant (so there’s no need for added chemical fire retardants.) There are organic and certified humane wool fabrics becoming available, and sheep are usually raised on non-arable land.
However, this is one instance where the raw material actually has a greater effect on the overall carbon footprint than the manufacturing process itself. Sheep produce methane. Over 50% of wool’s carbon footprint comes from the sheep themselves!
Of course, wool is not a vegan material. But, if you’re not opposed to animal products, sustainably-sourced wool is a responsible fabric choice for those who want to reduce environmental harm.
Recycled and upcycled fabrics are becoming more and more popular as the technology to make them advances. Where previously we could only recycle natural fabrics, we now have the ability to recycle synthetic fabrics, and even turn things like water bottles or reclaimed ocean plastic into clothing.
However, the recycling process still requires resources and has its limitations. For example, we’re not yet able to recycle fabric blends of any kind. That being said, recycled polyester has a carbon footprint that is 75% lower than virgin polyester, and it’s infinitely recyclable.
However, there’s also the issue of microplastics. Whenever we wear or wash synthetic fabrics, microplastics are released that our current water treatment infrastructure is not prepared to deal with. These plastic particles end up polluting our rivers and oceans and harming wildlife- eventually even making their way up the food chain and back to us.
So, Are Sustainable Fabrics Worth It?
You may have noticed a common theme with all these fabrics.
Many are good, some are even great, but none are completely perfect.
And until we perfect the technology for making things while using no resources or energy, none of them really can be perfect.
But I’ll tell you what, all of these sustainable fabrics are better than the traditional options they replace. They cause less pollution, use less water, and harm the environment less than anything on the traditional market.
Reducing our impact by seeking out sustainably-made materials is worth it.
The only way to get where we need to be is to keep taking steps forward!