Let’s talk about our clothes. Sustainability is becoming part of the discussion more and more in regards to fashion. I think many of us find it important, but applying it to our wardrobes isn’t always as easy as it seems. It can be challenging to know what materials incorporate sustainable practices and materials, especially with mixed material blends that might not be able to be recycled. Below I’ve included a few material options that are great choices and some you might want to reconsider! Being smart consumers will allow us to make better shopping choices and feel good about our purchases!
Polyester and Nylon
Nylon was first sold in 1938 as a toothbrush and mainly used in the military during World War II, this plastic material was an instant success. In clothing, its stretchy and easy to care for. However, the material is fragile, nonabsorbent, color can fade and bleach will harm the blend of both polyester and nylon. Nylon dropped in popularity soon after the war as new technology appeal wore off and consumers became concerned about environmental costs throughout the production cycle. Obtaining the raw materials (oil), energy use during production, waste produced during creation of the fiber, and eventual waste disposal of materials that were not biodegradable. (The fabric sheds microfibers as it decomposes.)
As of 2008, it represented 12% of the worlds synthetic materials. It has been noted that Nylon has about the same carbon footprint of wool and because of it durability, has a lower overall impact. It is better to look for a recycled option. Many fabrics are now being made from recycled soft drink bottles, which would cut down significantly on use of fossil fuels and diminishes solid waste sent to landfills.
The United States, China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Australia provide the world with 70% of its cotton. It’s crazy that this natural fiber, has become a bit of an issue. This fan favorite material can be tricky because typical cotton usually is drenched in chemicals and pesticides; and can be a genetically modified (GMO) product. Because it needs a lot of irrigation, it uses a large amount, lots and lots, of water.
You’ll want to look for organic cotton, it is a safer choice for you and the environment.
Organic cotton means 80% of it is rain-fed and grown in crop rotation, so it naturally breaks the cycle of the pest. By growing cotton for one season, the pest that lives on the cotton plant doesn’t have a host anymore, so it will die. If season after season, you plant the same crop in the same location and have a monoculture, the pests will continue, so you’d eventually need pesticides. The soil becomes exhausted and then fertilizers and heavier irrigation systems become a requirement. Organic cotton is a great cash crop for smaller farms, because it can be sold among the food crop rotations. Cotton bolls are ready to harvest at 25 weeks.
Some of the most renowned clothing and textile companies have committed to the 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, which is a campaign designed to move the textile industry closer to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As the name suggests, participants have committed to using 100% sustainable cotton by the year 2025. Look for or ask in the store if a company is involved with Organic Cotton, Fairtrade Cotton, Cotton made in Africa or the Better Cotton Initiative.
As many companies have vowed not to use fur based products, sadly, the alternative of faux fur isn’t great either. The synthetic material isn’t biodegradable. One of the main issues with it is consumption. The plastic based product can come in funky colors that are more likely to run their course in fashion quickly, operating as more of a fad than a staple. Think about it, if you buy a shearling coat every 20 years, that is far more environmentally friendly than the synthetic option. Remember, plastic takes at least 400+ years to decompose! It seems to currently be a moral question over a sustainable one. Hopefully in the near future, we will be able to see a recycled material or better option to enjoy the look of a fur, knowing it is not causing any harm to animals or our planet!
Linen is becoming a very popular material lately, I see it more and more often when I’m shopping. I’ve been using it in my own sewing projects! Its one of the best sustainable options because of its super low impact. It doesn’t grow on fertile soil. It doesn’t need pesticides because it’s a hardy crop. It also doesn’t need to be irrigated, and it can be blended. Linen was even used as currency in ancient Egypt! It has high conductivity, making it cool to the touch. It absorbs water quickly, is lint free, and gets softer the more you wash it. This material has continued to rise in popularity, where it was only used about 5% of the time in the 1970’s, it skyrocketed to 70% in the 1990’s.
Linen wrinkles easily and should not be dried too much by tumble drying. It is much easier to iron when damp. Nevertheless, the tendency to wrinkle is often considered part of linen’s particular “charm”, and many modern linen garments are designed to be air-dried on a good clothes hanger and worn without the necessity of ironing.
Lyocell is made from wood pulp and recently, powdered seaweed has been considered in the production process. It is soft and makes good wearable garments, so it can be found frequently in anything from everyday wear and active wear.
One thing to look out for on clothing labels is the Tencel-branded Lyocell fibre, a more sustainable alternative to material like viscose. You can find it in lots of clothing brands and it could provide a template for potential improvement of production methods for other fibers! It is made from the pulp of trees, according to the Tencel website, which explains how it’s produced: “The fibres originate from the renewable raw material wood created by photosynthesis. The certified bio-based fibers are manufactured using an environmentally responsible production process. The fibers are certified as compost-able and biodegradable, and thus can fully revert back to nature.”
Wool is a great material choice! It’s biodegradable, strong, odor resistant and has insulating properties. New Zealand, Australia and China lead in providing the bulk of the world’s wool. Australia alone has over 72 million sheep! New Zealand is known to have very high animal welfare. Buying sourced wool can be important to the economy as well, as wool that comes from the Scottish Highlands is contributing to the whole area and the livelihoods of the people. Wool can come from many different animals, including camels, rabbits, goats and Llamas. They are shorn of their fleece (or coat) in a safe process to the animals. Depending on the time it takes for them to grow a fluffy fleece, they can be sheared between a few time a year to once every three years.
You might know wool to be itchy, but that actually just means it probably wasn’t made properly. When manufactured with care, wool should make for very comfortable clothing. Wool can be easily damaged by heat and chemicals. Exposure to hot water can weaken the fibers and ruin the garment. Always check the care label, but a rinse in cool water with mild detergent should do the trick. Let wool garments air dry on a flat surface, as hanging them will stretch fibers! Also keep in mind, pests like moths love to burrow in wool, but keeping an herb sachet of Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender and Mint will keep them at bay; however, air them out regularly because that will not stifle eggs. Larvae like dark places, not light and air.
Silk is made from silkworms and dates back to 1200 BC. China, India, Uzbekistan and Thailand are world leaders in silk production. Silk is a sustainable material because you are simply taking a waste product from an animal and silkworms need minimal space. A humane or ethical silk is where the silk is harvested when the worm has gone through metamorphosis and has left the silk ball behind. If you are looking for this specific type of silk, it is commonly called “peace silk.” Ask if a company doesn’t highlight it. A regular silk is still a great choice as well, as it is biodegradable, hypoallergenic and drapes well. The downside is that silk tends to be one of the more expensive materials on the market.
While moth caterpillars are most commonly used to produce bales of silk, there are other insects that produce silk like crickets, beetles and spiders. Who knew! There is currently ongoing research into the quality of silk that is produced by them.
While these are just a few options, there are plenty of other sustainable options from more creative methods available on the market. Fibers have been made from coffee grounds and sour milk, hard to believe right? It’s great to know we have plenty of environmentally friendly options!
Information gathered from Huffington Post, Ebatotes and CBC
Image courtesy of Contrado