Are your clothes made of sustainable fabric? We think about a lot of things before buying an item of clothing. We think about the colour, cut, and the fit. But what about the textiles it’s made from? One of the main contributors to the environmental cost of the fashion industry is the use of unsustainable textiles. These include natural fibres such as conventional cotton and synthetic plastic-based materials like polyester. The production of these textiles contributes to water waste, CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss.
We know that the Sustainable Fashion industry offers several sustainable alternatives, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester. But we can’t help wondering, how much of a difference are these sustainable alternatives actually making? How much do we save by buying an organic cotton t-shirt rather than a conventional cotton t-shirt? Is it really worth opting for sustainable fabrics? To answer these questions, we’ve rounded up some statistics. Because when it comes to the fabrics you’re putting on your body, we think you should have the facts.
Here are some of our favourite sustainable fabric options
Cotton production is a massive industry. It accounts for nearly half of all clothes and textiles worldwide (around 20 million tonnes). It’s also an incredibly unsustainable industry. The production of conventional cotton relies on genetically-modified plants and pesticides. In fact, according to the Pesticide Action Network UK, “cotton crops cover 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but use 6% of the world’s pesticides, more than any other single major crop.” How harmful actually are these pesticides? Well, conventional cotton production uses 7 out of the 15 most carcinogenic chemicals known to man. Organic cotton is a sustainable fabric that poses a solution to several of these problems.
But what actually is organic cotton? We can refer to cotton as organic if it meets 3 pieces of criteria: 1. It’s grown from non-genetically-modified plants, 2. It doesn’t use synthetic chemicals or pesticides and 3. It uses low-impact farming methods. This means that switching to organic cotton production could reduce the global warming impact of cotton production overall by 46%. In fact, the Textile Exchange was so interested in the benefits of organic cotton, it conducted a full Life Cycle Assessment on organic vs. conventional cotton. We think the LCA findings speak for themselves: they state that with organic cotton, there is:
46% reduced global warming potential
70% less acidification potential
26% reduced eutrophication (soil erosion) potential
91% reduced blue (ground and surface) water consumption
62% reduced primary energy demand.
You can read the full report here. So what does this mean for your own shopping? Opting for one organic cotton t-shirt rather than a conventional cotton one saves 2,457 litres of blue water and 1.4 kg of CO2 emissions.
Like cotton, polyester is one of the most common textiles for clothing production. Unlike cotton, which is a natural fibre, polyester, or PET, is a synthetic fibre. Both natural and synthetic fibres carry their own set of environmental concerns. While cotton uses lots of water and energy during production, PET produces almost double the CO2 emissions. In fact, polyester production in the USA produces 9.52 kg of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fibre. These polyester garments, which have a huge environmental cost, then often end up in landfills.
The solution to polyester is recycled PET (rPET). rPET is a sustainable fabric made of plastic waste from items such as old plastic bottles. During production, it requires 59% less energy than virgin PET. That means rPET reduces CO2 emissions by 32%. But the main benefit is how much plastic it keeps out of the ocean. According to the Ocean Conservancy NGO, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year. The more rPET we use and buy, the more we can work on reducing that number. Opting for one rPET t shirt (instead of regular a PET one) keeps an average of 5 plastic bottles out of the ocean and saves 1.76 kg CO2.
ECONYL is another alternative to PET. It’s essentially a form of nylon made entirely from waste products such as old fishing nets. For every 10,000 tons of raw materials we recycle into ECONYL, we save 70,000 barrels of crude oil and avoid 57,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Relying on ECONYL instead of nylon also means we discard fewer fishing nets into the ocean. But the best part of ECONYL is that it's infinitely recyclable. Looking into the future, it can save infinite amounts of waste. While we still have to be mindful of microplastics released from these materials, (check out this guppybag to do the job!), we are definitely convinced of the benefits of recycled fabrics. If everybody in the UK switched to ECONYL instead of nylon swimsuits next year, we'd save 3.5 million litres of crude oil and 209 million kg of CO2.
Upcycled fabrics are also an important step toward a sustainable future. Opting for Upcycled fabrics would eliminate all the CO2 generated by traditional textile production methods. So what actually is Upcycling? Much like recycling, Upcycling involves reusing discarded materials. However, Upcycling specifically turns those materials into products of higher value than the originals.
Upcycling happens everywhere from small businesses to artsy individuals DIYing their own belongings. For that reason, it's hard to statistically quantify the benefits. What we can say is that Upcycling has the potential to be monumental in waste reduction. In the face of a global waste crisis and a climate change emergency, Upcycling means two things. The first is that fewer items end up joining the landfills; instead, they get a second life. The second is that there’s less of a demand for producing new items, reducing the environmental cost of production.
Innovative Fibres: Piñatex and Bamboo
Innovative fibres are another key alternative to conventional textiles. These fibres are eco-friendly, often plant-based and committed to reducing waste. One example is Piñatex. This pineapple-based fibre is the perfect alternative to traditional leather. How harmful is the leather industry? In addition to the obvious non-vegan element, the tanning process for leather is incredibly wasteful. It involves approximately 20 stages and 250 chemicals (including toxins and heavy metals which are damaging to humans and the environment). Piñatex, on the other hand, is made out of pineapple leaves that would otherwise be discarded. At the end of its lifecycle, Piñatex is also completely biodegradable. It operates in a completely circular model, therefore eliminating any product waste. Piñatex is definitely an amazing sustainable fabric.
Bamboo also forms the base for another sustainable fabric. Compared to cotton, bamboo is also incredibly sustainable to grow. It requires significantly less water, no fertiliser, and it regenerates from its own roots. In addition to that, bamboo grows incredibly fast and even rebuilds eroded soil. Admittedly, the sustainability of bamboo textiles has become a topic of controversy lately. Turning bamboo wood chips into a rayon fabric requires an intense chemical process, which is often carried out without environmental concerns. Now it’s important to keep an eye on bamboo rayon production companies and to keep them accountable. Bamboo is such a great sustainable crop. If we opt for bamboo fabrics generated without the chemical process (such as bamboo linen), we’ll be doing our part for the earth.