How switching materials can lower your business' impact
by Isabelle Drury | Sep 29, 2022
The production and processing of materials plays a central role in the fashion industry’s environmental impact. In fact, it’s where up to 80% of a brand’s emissions are produced. While clearly a problem, materials can also be part of the solution. A key part of any fashion brand’s sustainable transformation is choosing more sustainable materials, but choosing from an ever growing catalogue of options can be daunting. From exciting material innovations that aren’t actually commercially available to much-hyped fabrics that promise unfounded sustainability claims, it’s a minefield for brands to navigate. Read on to discover the case for switching to more sustainable materials and our picks for the best (and readily available) options on the market.
But first, what impact do fashion materials have on the environment? Well, carbon emissions from the textile industry total 2.93 billion metric tonnes per year. The lifecycle of textiles, from manufacturing to production, laundering, and disposal produces 6.7% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions — the equivalent of every person on earth flying 2,500 miles a year.
The vast majority of fabrics used in Europe and the U.S. today are imported, and as a result, clothing plays a big part in "carbon leakage," in which the advantage of emissions reductions in one country is countered by another country's increase in burning hydrocarbons. According to research from Carbon Trust, 72% of the emissions created by China’s clothing manufacturing industry is produced by clothing exported to other countries. Similarly, 44% of India's cotton-related emissions come from supplying the global textile market, according to a report by Global Efficiency Intelligence.
It’s not just the volume of textile production that is a concern — the material clothing is commonly made from is important, too. Since the year 2000, the amount of polyester used to make clothing has more than doubled, and petroleum now accounts for more than half of the world's total textile output. In fact, fibre made from plastic uses a staggering 342 million barrels a year of oil, according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation. Even more pollution is created when the clothes are washed or thrown away: between 16 and 35% of marine microplastics are caused by the breakdown of synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon, and acrylic.
Thankfully, there is now a range of materials that are commercially available to help reduce the impact of fashion. Before we get into your options, it’s worth setting parameters around how we define sustainable materials.
Defining sustainable fabrics
Sustainable fabric can be defined in a number of different ways. Generally, carbon emissions, water and chemical usage, as well as pollution and waste creation are considered the main indicators of whether a material can be considered sustainable.
It’s essential to look into the life cycle of a fashion item to understand if the material used in it is sustainable — this can be done by conducting a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) through a third-party expert like Green Story. Typically an LCA starts at the beginning — fibre production. This includes the extraction and processing of fibres, and its subprocesses, such as the cultivation of crops. It’s in this stage where hazardous chemicals, like herbicides and pesticides, often come into play, as well as water-intensive production occurs.
Once the fibre is ready, it moves into the manufacturing stage, which covers the knitting and weaving of yarn into fabrics and then dyeing and finishing, which also usually includes high carbon emissions as well as the use of toxic dyes and chemicals.
We also need to consider the fabric's end-of-life prospects — where will it end up, and will it harm people or the environment? When you add zips, tags, buttons and trims to fabric, it makes separating and recycling the individual parts a logistical nightmare. Globally, textile recycling infrastructure is in its infancy, with very few textiles being recycled back into new fibres. Unfortunately, the majority of textile waste is downcycled into things like mattress stuffing or insulation, if recovered at all.
When choosing fabrics for your next collection, it’s important to consider how long they will last and whether they can be recycled or composted once they are no longer used. If a fabric is produced and handled responsibly, and has potential use beyond its life as a garment, it passes the test and can be deemed a more sustainable option.
Read on to learn more about a few leading sustainable materials to consider incorporating into your material catalogue.
Hemp. Natural fibres, such as hemp, are everywhere at the moment, and for good reason. In addition to being a food and building resource, hemp can also be used in cosmetics and has been used for centuries as a fabric. Because hemp can be produced all over the world, it's a much better option for the environment than other crops because it uses little water, zero pesticides, and naturally fertilises the land it grows in.
Hemp can be worn all year round because it is one of the world's oldest fibres, and it gets softer with each wash. It is one of the most environmentally friendly textiles available on the market, partly because it doesn't require harsh chemical herbicides as it is technically a weed. It’s a great alternative to cotton, which uses 50% more water per season than hemp. Cultivating hemp also requires a relatively small amount of land, which means it can produce double the amount of fibre compared to cotton.
Ethical American fashion pioneer Eileen Fisher has an entire range of organic hemp clothing, which is mixed with organic cotton for stretch, while Patagonia and Levi’s have also increased the amount of hemp used in their clothing to normalise the use of this sustainable textile.
TENCEL. Because it's made from wood pulp, TENCEL® can be described as a "light cellulose fabric." The fibre is made by Lenzing AG in Austria. It's been increasingly popular recently due to its claims of being 50% more absorbent than cotton while using 50% less energy and water in production. In addition, a closed-loop system is used to manage the chemicals used in the production of the fibre. This means that the solvent can be reused, resulting in less hazardous waste being generated. The moisture-wicking and anti-bacterial characteristics of Tencel also make it an excellent fabric for athletic wear.
Tencel has become a widely used material in the fashion industry, with brands such as Allbirds, Organic Basics, Nudie Jeans, People Tree, and many others adopting this versatile material to lower their impact.
Recycled Polyester. This material is usually created from plastic bottles that have been thrown away. It’s a booming material, making up 33% of the European PET market as of February 2022, according to Zero Waste Europe. Recycled polyester is promoted by Textile Exchange as a preferred alternative to virgin polyester. It can be either mechanically or chemically recycled, with feedstock consisting of either pre- or post-consumer waste that can no longer be used for its intended purpose.
However, it’s not a perfect solution by any means. On top of the fact that it's non-biodegradable, recycled polyester take anywhere between 20 to 200 years to decompose after at the end-of-life stage. Recycled polyester sheds just as many plastic microfibres into the environment as its virgin polyester counterpart. On top of this, to manufacture recycled polyester from bottles breaks the recycling loop that a bottle would otherwise go through. Currently, polyester is incredibly hard to recycle, so transforming bottles into non-recyclable polyester clothing presents a problem of its own.
While it’s not a perfect alternative, there are ways to use recycled polyester in your clothing in a more sustainable way. For example, selling a microfibre washing bag like the Guppyfriend bag with your recycled polyester product to help customers limit the amount of microplastics shed from the garment when it’s being washed. It’s also important to communicate the reality of this material to your customers by acknowledging the downsides as well as the benefits of recycled polyester. Honest, transparent communication is always important to build trust throughout the consumer journey.
Sustainable wool. Wool is a unique fabric. It’s one of the only 100% natural, renewable, and biodegradable fibres on the market, using 18% less energy than polyester, and almost 70% less water than cotton in its production. Further down the lifecycle, wool presents benefits as clothing and at the end of its life too. Wool clothes tend to need less washing than clothes made of other fibres, which saves consumers water, energy, and detergent. When it has reached the end of its use, wool biodegrades quickly in the right environment.
Wool's sustainability is often criticised since land must be cleared and trees felled to make way for grazing sheep, which increases soil salinity, causes erosion and reduces biodiversity. Additionally, more than 80% of New Zealand's methane emissions come from animals – mostly sheep. However, there are positive improvements within the wool industry, like the increase in regenerative farming practices embraced by sheep farmers around the world. Footwear brand Allbirds, for example, held a Regenerative Wool Summit in New Zealand in 2020, and is aiming to source 100% of its wool from regenerative farms by 2025. The impact reduction of wool, when sourced ethically and sustainably, can make a huge impact on your environmental footprint.
The world of sustainable materials is vast and more options become commercially available regularly, presenting a great opportunity for fashion businesses to make positive swaps while maintaining quality, comfort, and design. It can be challenging to understand and gain accurate and reliable oversight into the impact of the materials your brand is using. Download our free Green Fabric Guide today and explore the world of sustainable fabrics.
About Isabelle Drury
Isabelle Drury is a sustainable copywriter based in Birmingham who works with ethical brands to create long-form content. She has worked for a range of businesses, from the large public sector to tight-knit private firms, covering everything sustainability from GreenTech to eco-home, lifestyle and fashion.