Sustainable fabrics: your best bets for the long run
If you’re after a wardrobe that lasts more than just one season, forget the trends and focus on sustainability.
Thinking about the fabrics of the clothes you buy is a great way to start making “green” choices. While textiles are the backbone of the fashion industry, they are also a major source of pollution due to the chemicals involved in their production and the amount of clothes that end up in British landfills every year.
So, if you’ve found an item that you really want to buy and plan to wear it more than once or twice, make sure that the fabric reciprocates your “green” conscious pledge for a happy and long lasting relationship where you can keep it as years go by.
Labelling a textile as sustainable is a rather complex operation. It involves considering not only the textile production itself, but also the raw material extraction and the added chemistry. And because clothes, unlike diamonds, do not last forever, companies wanting to promote sustainability must also think about textile biodegradability and the efforts needed to transform the old and unwanted into new material or to simply dispose of it - here the options can go from landfills to composting or incineration and recycling.
Let’s take it from the top: The amount of land and water required is a key factor when we’re talking about natural fibres. In the case of synthetics like polyester or nylon, it’s the fossil fuels that represent the major worry. Since they’re made from natural gas or oil, these textiles are immensely toxic and pollutive to the environment - besides representing a heavy burden also in terms of the significant amounts of water, energy and chemicals required for their production.
Also, fabrics that can be classified as sustainable must come from a company that is concerned about the health and living conditions of its employees and takes full responsibility for the impact that the production may have on surrounding communities. This means that the companies have to think about people - whether they’re working on the factory that produces the clothing or the end consumer- and protect them from the added chemistries that go into dyes, finishes and coatings. And, as a consumer, you want clothes that will last in your closet and not in an open-air dumpster, right?
Here are some fabrics that make achieving a more sustainable sartorial lifestyle easier.
Cotton is one of the most common textile fibres. Its soft feel and versatility make it a very popular fabric, especially among those with sensitive skin. But it’s not all good news for the cotton lovers. It takes a lot of water to grow cotton – according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the cotton in one pair of jeans needs more than 8,000 litres of water to grow. Plus, the amount of pesticides and fertilisers used by farmers in its production makes cotton Public Enemy N.º1.
The scenario changes completely if we’re talking about organic cotton. Besides avoiding the use of chemicals to grow the plants, organic cotton garments are free from chlorine bleaches and synthetic dyes. That’s positive for the environment and your health. More and more fashion designers and brands choose to use organic cotton. If you’re prepared to spend a bit more on a T-shirt go to Marks&Spencer or C&A, retailers that have signed the organic cotton pledge and in this way publicly support it.
It's been around for thousands of years, but has not been used to its full potential by the textile industry. The plant grows almost anywhere and needs absolutely no fertilizers or pesticides. Instead, it acts as a natural fertiliser on the soil where it grows, doesn’t need much water and gives more fibre per square metre than other plants, including cotton.
So why has it been overlooked by the textile industry? Well, being a variety of the Cannabis plant (whose other varieties include Marijuana), it was associated with drug use and scorned by mainstream factories. Nowadays, the modest hemp fabric industry is becoming popular thanks to the efforts of high street brand H&M, among other examples, that are using it as a resource to create their clothing.
Surprised? Bamboo is the new natural fibre in eco-friendly fabric town. Consumers love it because of its alleged hypoallergenic and antibacterial properties. It is also more hydrophilic -read more absorbent - than cotton. This property of bamboo has boosted its use in everything from socks to nappies and towels because it is also fast drying.
Although it is a very fast-growing plant, many producers still use pesticides and fertilizers in its farming. However, the quantity of chemicals involved in bamboo production are still lower when compared to other fabrics such as cotton. It’s easy to wear, but hard to find because of it’s novelty and low availability. Online, many small companies like United Bamboo or BAM specialize in this material.
Made from linseed (also called flax), its fibres are taken from the stem of the plant and are two to three times as strong as those of cotton - but less elastic in comparison. Being a natural fibre, linen is extra sustainable because it doesn’t need the amount of chemical fertilisers and pesticides - or water- used for cotton.
In the flax world map, the big contenders are Canada, China and Russia, who grow over 50 per cent of the total amount of linen available in the world. Linen is known for having very absorbent fibres that are valued for their exceptional coolness in hot weather- also, it lasts. It’s been used for centuries as a textile for everything from tablecloths to trousers and therefore is pretty easy to find.
Like polyamide, polyester is an artificial fibre that is widely used around the world. This popular oil-based fibre (yes, it is in fact made from oil) is very unsustainable due to the fossil fuels involved in its production.
In the last few years, its recycled versions are becoming popular due to the efforts of denim companies like Levi’s and G-Star that massively advertise their jeans made of recycled PET plastic bottles – polyester is in the category of polymers, the basic component of all things we usually consider to be ‘plastic’. Using recycled polyester fibres means having less waste in landfills and a more sustainable usage of available resources.