If you’re trying to live a more sustainable life, you’ve probably already started reducing your single use plastic consumption; carrying your own cutlery, using a reusable bottle and using your own shopping bags but what can you do when it comes to fashion and clothes shopping?
The most sustainable method is to buy second hand, swap clothes or rent but if that isn’t an option and you find yourself needing to buy a new item, it’s worth understanding more about the fabrics that have been used to make the clothes that you buy, even if you are buying from a sustainable brand.
Nylon was the first fabric made entirely in a laboratory and became widely used around the time of World War II. Due to its strength and durability, nylon was extensively use in military products (parachutes, tents, rope) and replaced a number of products that were once made from silk such as silk stockings. A large part of your wardrobe will be made up of nylon fabrics. Traditional nylon is a type of plastic derived from crude oil, which is then put through an intensive chemical process to create the strong, stretchy fibers used to make fabric. Nylon is not biodegradable, creates greenhouse gases, uses lots of water and a lot of energy, however technological advances have been made in recent years to create recycled nylon fibers (see below).
ECONYL® has developed a more eco-friendly form of nylon made from recycled plastics in a closed loop system. This type of nylon is used to create the fabric that is used in our Aurora range. We posted about this a little while ago but to summarise, the raw materials come from fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpets and industrial plastic from landfill and our oceans. The polymer material is extracted before being repurposed into yarn which is then used to create the fabric we use. One of the huge benefits of ECONYL® nylon is that it can be recycled infinitely, without ever losing its quality.
Polyester is derived from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, air, and water. In other words it’s another form of synthetic (plastic) fabric. Polyester is strong, durable, resistant to most chemicals/ stretching and shrinking, is quick drying and retains its shape. You’ll often find polyester blended with other fibers such as cotton as it improves the shrinkage, durability and wrinkling profile of other more natural fibers. Whilst this may improve the longevity/ usability of a product the production process uses fossil fuels which are limited resources and releases various toxins into the environment. Polyester also does not biodegrade.
Cotton is one of the worlds most popular fabrics. To keep up with demand non organic cotton growers often resort to excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers to protect their cotton crops from pests and to make them grow quicker. These chemicals impact the quality and health of the soil, damaging natural resources and disturbing the ecological balance. As pests become resistant, more chemicals are used and as the soil degrades with each new crop, more and more water is required. The chemicals used in farming are also toxic to those picking the crops and can cause allergic reactions to our skin when wearing garments.
No pesticides or harmful chemicals are used when farming organic cotton meaning safer working conditions for workers and safer products for us. Pests are controlled through the use of insects that kill them and organic cotton crops are often rotated from one soil to another meaning that the soils nutrients aren’t over farmed and as a result crops require less water.
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth and doesn’t need pesticides or harsh chemicals to protect it or help it grow, it requires no irrigation and essentially self regenerates. It’s basically a self sufficient crop and some species can grow up to 4 feet a day. When turned into fabric it’s stronger than cotton, retains shape and durability, is soft and hypoallergenic. Bamboo is more absorbent, wicking moisture away from the skin much quicker than cotton.
However, whilst the cultivation process may sound promising, the same can’t be said for the manufacturing process. There are various ways to turn bamboo into fabric. The most popular involves a highly intensive chemical process, with the end product falling into a category that is somewhere between natural and synthetic, called Bamboo Rayon or Rayon. Most of the bamboo that you find on the high street is actually Rayon. The chemicals used in this process are highly toxic and often end up going directly into the environment. Check for Oeko-tex certification to ensure adherence to people and planet friendly manufacturing processes.
Tencel is actually a brand name for a set of fibers called lyocell or modal (e.g. think Kleenex to tissues). Tencel is made from eucalyptus trees. Just like Bamboo, these trees do not need any pesticides or fertilisers. Wood pulp from the trees is dissolved in a chemical solvent and the mixture is then pushed through small holes to form fibers. The fibers are then chemically treated and spun into yarn which manufacturers can then use to create fabrics.
The manufacturing process makes Tencel somewhat similar to Rayon however the biggest difference is that Tencel uses chemicals that are less-toxic and get recycled back into the process so there’s minimal waste. It also uses wood from trees in sustainably harvested forests and uses less water than an equivalent amount of cotton.
Pinatex is made from Pineapple leaf fibre and is hailed the cruelty free replacement for leather. The pineapple leaves that are used in production are a byproduct of the fruit’s harvest so no extra land, water or pesticides are required. Pinatex is relatively new and innovative and to date appears to have a positive environmental impact given that the biomass left over from the production process can also be converted into organic fertilizer or biogas.
Pinatex fibers are natural and therefore biodegradable, however the resins used for coating the fibers are not currently biodegradable. The company is said to be working on a solution for this.
Linen is made from flax plant fibers. The flax plant is hardy and strong and can be grown in harsh conditions and poor soil, it needs few chemical fertilisers and less pesticides than cotton and doesn’t need to be irrigated. Linen can withstand high temperatures making it perfect for warmer climates as it absorbs moisture without holding bacteria. The Flax plant is extremely versatile, with every part of the plant being used in production, meaning there is very little waste during the production process.
Hemp is incredibly versatile. It’s used as a building material, in cosmetics and fabric. Hemp can be grown all around the world and needs very little water, no pesticides and it naturally fertilises the soils it grows in. The fabric is strong and durable, keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer.
These are just some examples of the fabrics used in your clothes. There is no perfectly sustainable solution in today’s world but some fabrics are better than others. Ultimately buying less is the way forward but if you do need to buy something new, choose well and choose something well made, that will last.
Thank you for reading x