Sustainability of Fabrics

Written by nana@lovehatechange 
Published 15 Mar 2020

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

The overall impact of a garment arises from: 

      • Raw material production
      • Fabric production
      • Garment production
      • Use of the garment
      • Disposal of the garment

What can be a surprise is that “natural” does not necessarily mean good for the environment. Research shows that production of conventional silk, cotton and wool have a very high negative impact. Below table gives a summary of most widely used fabrics:

    • Organic cotton. Conventional cotton  needs a lot of irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides. However, 80% of organic cotton is rain fed and grown on crop rotation, so it uses much less water and doesn’t use fertilisers. If it is Soil Assiciation certified and adheres to the Global Organic Textile Standard, it’s fully traceable.
    • TencelTM Lyocell and Modal:  These fibers originate from the renewable raw material wood. The certified biobased fibers are manufactured using an environmentally responsible production process. The fibers are certified as compostable and biodegradable.
    • EcoveroTM LenzingTM viscose is derived from certified renewable wood sources using an eco-responsible production process.
    • Recycled polyester. Recycled polyester is produced from recycled plastic (e.g. plastic bottles). This reduces landfill and thus soil contamination, and air and water pollution. Garments from recycled PET can be recycled again and again. It still contributes to microfibre shedding though.
    • Linen and hemp are inherently more sustainable because they need less fertilisers,  pesticides and irrigation than conventional cotton. However, look for hemp that has been certified to not use chemicals or dyes at the processing stage.
    • Eco leather refers to leather that has been made using wet white tanning processesThis is leather is so clean, that leftover leather can be recycled and used in fertilizer, unlike chromium-tanned leather. There isn’t a global certificate or standard at the moment, and it seems that there is quite limited amount of these products available. 

    • Conventional cotton uses a lot of water, pesticides and fertilisers. For more information, see e.g. Good on You material guide.
    • Conventional viscose and nylon. The open-loop process used in production releases chemicals to the environment.
    • Silk has possibly highest greenhouse gas emissions than any other fabric; it depletes natural resources faster than they replenish and has highest eutrophication impact of the all fabrics included in the 2017 Pulse report (p. 42)
    • Wool has lots of good qualities which makes it a popular fabric. However, its processing and manufacturing creates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions according to Global Fashion Agenda data – see the graph below.
    • Non-recycled polyester is a fast fashion industry favourite, and it is these garments that are piling up in the landfills. Other environmental issues include the fact that it is non-renewable and toxic dyes are used during the process. 
    • Cow leather is has the highest impact per kg of material according to the Global Fashion Agenda data. The conventional tanning process involves chromium, heavy metals, formaldehyde, short-chain chlorinated paraffin, volatile organic compounds, and alkyl phenol ethoxylates.
Source: Global Fashion Agenda Pulse Report 2017