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What does it mean SUSTAINABLE fabric?

Published : 14/02/2020 08:00:00
Categories : Fabric Guide

What do we mean when we say a fabric is “sustainable”?

The first thing that comes to mind is that we’re talking about how fast a piece will wear down or tear, but that’s not right! The points that fall under sustainability are how eco-friendly a piece is, how ethically it was made, and how friendly to the environment its production is.

Consider any fabric:

  • First, we want to know if it was ethically produced. 

  • Where was it made? 

  • We might want to know the fuel expended in shipping – its carbon miles (or kilometers, but that’s a bit of a mouthful). 

  • Will the fabric stand the test of time? 

  • Can it be recycled? 

These are all great questions – but the first and foremost question any consumer should be asking is, “What is it made from?” 

All fibers are divided into natural and synthetic.

  • Natural fibers are those produced by plants or animals that can be spun into a fabric – such as silk, wool, hemp, bamboo or cotton.

  • Synthetic fibers are made from chemicals consisting of superior properties to natural fibers such as cotton or silk. Synthetic textiles are made from either inorganic products or a mixture of organic ones and chemicals.

It seems simple: Natural fabric is better. But natural does not always equal sustainable.

Often the production of natural fabrics causes just as much harm to the environment as the production of synthetic ones.

 So, let us look at some of the fabrics below and examine their eco-friendliness, their production process, and their uses, as well and pros and cons.


UNSUSTAINABLE FABRIC

SUSTAINABLE FABRIC

ALPACA

  • alpaca sheep don't require insecticides to be injected into their fleece

  • don't require antibiotic treatments

  • alpaca wool very long-lasting, wrinkle/frame-resistant, and extremely durable

  • warmer than wool

  • has no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic

BAMBOO

  • easy to grow without pesticides and quick to replenish itself

  • bamboo fabric processing is extremely toxic

  • manufacturing of bamboo does raise environmental and health concerns. 

  • about 50% of hazardous waste from rayon production (including the bamboo variety) cannot be recaptured and reused and goes directly into the environment

  • antibacterial properties of bamboo fabric are not scientifically proven yet

*** Bamboo fabric can be considered more sustainable if it is produced using a mechanical rather than a chemical process. The mechanical process is the same eco-friendly process used to make linen fabric from flax or hemp.

CASHMERE

  • cheap cashmere is produced with chemicals and carcinogenic dyes

  • cashmere may also be blended with other fibers, such as non-sustainable polyester

*** from an eco-perspective, cashmere is long-lasting and highly durable

COTTON 
Inorganic

  • uses more pesticides than any other crop in the world

  • pesticides can remain on garments long enough and irritate consumers' skin

  • requires more water than organic cotton from irrigation due to poor soil quality

  • low-yield crop

COTTON 
Organic

  • still use a lot of water but less than inorganic cotton

  • safer for farmers because it does not use toxic chemical treatments

  • promotes and enhances biodiversity and biological cycles by maintaining healthy soils

HEMP

  • harsh chemical herbicides aren’t necessary

  • hemp naturally reduces pests, so no pesticides are needed

  • returns 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil

  • requires very little water

  • fabric production can be done organically through a mechanical process that requires no chemicals

LINEN

*** cheap linen is treated with chemicals in fast-fashion retailers

  • requires very little pesticides

  • linen is in its most green form when it’s in a natural shade or dyed with natural dyes

  • linen is also a bit wrinkly and does not require ironing thus saving energy

MODAL 

*** some people question modal eco-friendliness

*** can be dyed with harsh chemicals (many containing heavy metals) 

  • modal is a high yield cellulose biodegradable fiber

  • absorbs 50% more moisture than cotton which keeps it odor-free and uses less energy from washing

  • machine washes and tumble dries without shrinking (durability fabric)


*** Lenzing Modal® is made from sustainably harvested beech trees and is bleached with an environmentally friendly method

NYLON

  • made from petrochemicals which are very polluting to the environment

  • nylon is non-biodegradable 

  • releases nitrous oxide when manufactured

POLLYCOTTON 

  • all “permanent press”, “easy care” or “crease-resistant” cotton fabrics are treated with the toxic chemical, formaldehyde

POLYESTER 

  • made from polluting petrochemicals as well

  • non-biodegradable and lasts a very long time in landfills

RAYON 

  • biodegradable fiber 

  • produced from renewable cellulosic plants (such as pine trees, bamboo and beech trees). 

  • non-environmentally friendly manufacturing process (uses chemicals and heavy metals)

RAMIE

  • natural plant fibers

  • requires less water than cotton

  • naturally resistant to bacteria and grows healthily without pesticides

  • one of the strongest natural fibers (8 times stronger than cotton)

  • stain resistant

SILK (Natural)

  • it takes thousands of grubs to create a small amount of silk

  • the silkworms die during the process of extracting the silk

  • the pupae are a rich source of protein, which makes them a popular snack across many Asian countries

  • the outer-cocoons are also used as fertilizer or to stuff pillows

  • many silks are also dyed with toxic chemicals

SILK VEGAN (Peace Silk)

  • this kind of silk is made from the worm casings gathered only after the moths have emerged and moved on

  • but this ethical option is not widely adopted as the end product is not as soft

SOY FABRIC

*** watch out for soy blends with polyester and inorganic cotton

  • made from byproducts of soy oil processing

  • good for bras and panties because its soft and silky

  • can be certified organic, sustainable, eco-friendly

TENCEL (Lyocell) 

*** not all Tencel fabric is made from sustainable wood, and can also be dyed with high-chemical dyes

  • non-chemical alternative to viscose

  • fiber made from the wood pulp of Eucalyptus trees (eucalyptus grows quickly without pesticides, fertilizers, genetic manipulation or irrigation)

  • extremely environmentally friendly process (uses less energy and water)

  • biodegradable and recyclable 

  • absorbs perspiration, doesn’t allow bacteria growth, remains odor-free which means fewer washes to save energy

WOOL 
Non-Organic

  • biodegradable and renewable fiber

  • scouring (washing) and processing wool use harmful chemicals that pollute the environment, and copious amounts of water

  • mass-producing wool often leads to the inhumane treatment of animals

  • sheep are often treated with dangerous insecticides to ward off ticks and lice

WOOL 
Organic 

  • biodegradable and renewable fiber

  • feed and forage used for the sheep from the last third of gestation must be certified organic

  • synthetic hormones and genetic engineering of the sheep aren't used

  • sheep being grazed in smaller paddocks for shorter periods of time, allowing the paddock to be in recovery for most of the time - better for soil

  • organic yarns are often left in their natural state or use non-toxic, organic dyes 

  • made according to Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS)

RECYCLED POLYESTER

  • it is usually made from recycled plastic bottles

  • buying recycled polyester means you’re minimising waste and cutting out the fossil fuel industry

RECYCLED
COTTON 

  • It is made using post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste

  • according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, it is a more sustainable alternative to both conventional and organic cotton

  • help keep cotton clothes out of landfill 

Of course if you look hard enough, no fabric is ever truly and fully sustainable. The production process of sustainable fabrics is more expensive, but clothes made from them will often have higher quality, and overall last longer.

In any case, this chart should help you make a more deliberate decision on what fabric to use for your next project))

Editor's note: 

Fabric information sourced from New Classic’s The Ethics of Fabrics and goodonyou.eco

Photo Gordon Williams/ unsplash.com

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