Capsule wardrobe: sustainable fashion
Ok so you’ve watched all of the recent documentaries on fast fashion, you’ve been suitably horrified and are now determined to make a change in your lifestyle and only buy clothes that don’t destroy the planet. You go shopping for your next item and find yourself with the following problem: what exactly is a “bad” material and a “good” material?
This is the conundrum that I faced when I decided to change my habits: I knew that a lot of materials caused damage to the environment but I had no idea which ones they were, what exactly it was about them that was so bad (e.g. cotton vs organic cotton: why is one better than the other?) and what made a good alternative (am I going to just have to wear a hemp sack?!). So, I did some research and thought I’d share with you what I found out.
Cotton is a fibre grown on a plant (of the Gossypium genus) which is harvested, cleaned and then spun into fabric. The plant needs sunshine, a large supply of water and good temperatures to grow so it’s most commonly grown in places like Australia, Argentina, China, India, Uzbekistan and the United States. Traditional cotton growing makes use of a lot of insecticides for pest control and herbicides for weed control. The farmers then end up exposed to these chemicals and the chemicals also end up in the environment, in the soil and in the water chain. Large amounts of synthetic fertilisers are used to help the cotton grow which again end up in the soil system and in the water chain causing huge amounts of damage to aquatic ecosystems. The production of synthetic fertilisers also results in greenhouse gases being added to the environment. In places where rainfall is insufficient, irrigation is used to supply the water that is needed to grow the cotton. The water is being taken from wells, rivers and aquifers faster than they can replenish from rainfall and so water levels in these places are dropping. You can see in Stacey Dooley’s documentary on fast fashion what the effects on the Aral Sea from cotton growing and irrigation have been. Heavy irrigation (where fields are repeatedly flooded with irrigated water) causes salt to become concentrated near the surface of the soil. This prevents plants from growing in the fields and so they have to be abandoned.
Polyester and acrylic - petrochemical synthetics
Polyester and acrylic are synthetic materials (i.e. man made). You need oil, a non-renewable resource, to make them meaning that production is non-sustainable. This material isn’t biodegradable so it can end up in land fill for a very very long time. Clothing made of these materials also shed thousands of plastic fibres each time they are washed and these tiny bits of plastic can end up in the water supply and the ocean. The BBC reported in 2017 that an average UK washing load (6kg of fabric) can release 140,000 fibres from polyester-cotton blend, nearly half a million fibres from polyester and more than 700,000 fibres from acrylic (see the article here).
Perfluorinated chemicals - these are the chemicals that are used to treat jackets to make them waterproof and can also be applied to other materials to make them resistant to stains and grease. These are persistent and potentially toxic chemicals but they can be washed off the clothing and enter into the water supplies and environment (streams, rivers, lakes, oceans). They don’t degrade either so over time they build up in the water environment.
Organic cotton is grown without chemical pesticides or harmful fertilisers in so in this respect, it is better for the environment. Note however that organic cotton can still be grown with natural and synthetic pesticides in moderate quantities which also still have an environmental impact. Some argue that as organic cotton produces a lower yield than the genetically modified cotton that non-organic farmers use, it can cause more environmental damage as farmers will need to grow more of it to meet the same levels of demand and so use more water supplies. Either way, it looks to me like organic cotton is still going to be using up a lot of water. Be aware as well that whilst you can grow cotton organically, it doesn’t mean that the organic cotton is then processed and dyed in an organic way. Look for recognised organic certifications on cotton to make sure you’re buying a proper organic product - one is the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS).
Linen is made from Flax which is one of the oldest continuously cultivated plants in the world. It can absorb water and conduct heat which makes it ideal for wearing in hot weather. Countries within the European Union have some of the best conditions for growing flax and currently the EU grows 70% of all flax. When grown in ideal geographical zones, the cultivation of flax produces no waster. All parts of the plant are used, after the plants have been harvested the remnants of the root fertilise and clean the soil and can improve soil productivity for 6 to 7 years. Growing the flax plant does not require irrigation, fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides and so there is no water pollution. It also retains 3.7 tons of CO2 per hectare per year. I am loving this plant and will definitely be looking for clothing made from it for the future.
Hemp fabric is made from fibres in the herbaceous plant of the species cannabis sativa. It’s high yield and produces more fibres per acre than cotton or flax whilst also helping to control erosion of the topsoil. It grows well in areas with temperate climates like Canada and like flax, does not require pesticides or herbicides. It’s another breathable fabric and so is good for summer heat.
Tencel, also known as Lyocell, is a man made fibre made with wood pulp from sustainable tree farms and “created through the use of nanotechnology in an award-winning closed-loop process that recover or decomposes all solvents and emissions” (see here). It can hold colour well, is naturally breathable and has a soft, lightweight feel. TENCEL® is a brand, the trademark of which is owned by Lenzing Fibers.
Bamboo fabric is made from the pulp of bamboo grass (note it’s not the same type of bamboo that pandas eat). The plant grows quickly and doesn’t require fertilisers, pesticides or irrigation. You can blend bamboo with rayon which creates a fabric that can last longer than fabric made solely from bamboo. The fibres produced from bamboo can achieve an Oeko-Tex 100 Certification (this is a certification of a product against required criteria which takes account of legal regulations, the use of harmful chemicals, European chemicals regulations, US legislation and other environmentally relevant substance classes; see here for more info).
Wool is completely natural and renewable being the fibre that is grown on sheep. Sheep consume the organic carbon that is stored in plants and converts it into wool. Wool textiles can last a long time and as they tend to be washed less frequently and at lower temperatures they have a lower impact on the environment. As a bonus, it’s biodegradable. You can read more about the wool industry at The International Wool Textile Organisation website here.