Fabric feature: What makes a fabric sustainable?
One of many sobering facts in life, it’s almost painful to hear that there’s no such thing as a 100% sustainable fabric in existence.
But that isn’t to say that no fabrics are sustainable, and we’ll take you through some really good ones!
So what do we talk about when we talk about sustainable fabric?
Obviously, it’s fabric that comes from eco-friendly resources: sustainably grown fiber crops or recycled materials. But that’s not all! How a fabric is manufactured, how it’s farmed and how it’s brought together equally determines how sustainable it is.
Let’s look at an example:
I ordered a 100% cotton t-shirt on Amazon recently, thinking I was doing something right by the environment. It arrived, by itself, in one large box wrapped in three layers of plastic and a rubber band.
Afterwards, I took a look online at the t-shirt: materials from ??? and made in China, most likely mass-produced in some big factory.
Now obviously this is a really clear example, and it can really be that easy. But today I want to go into fabrics that fit this mold of sustainable, because slow fashion or fast fashion – everything starts with the fabric.
As we all know by now, the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors of pollution in the world. In 2018 alone, the US generated 17 million tons of textile waste. On top of that, a shocking 84% of unwanted clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators, rather than donated, sold to thrift stores, or reused.
And that alone doesn’t account for the making of fabric. So – back to the question at hand. What do we talk about when we talk about sustainable fabric?
Linen goes back thousands of years in history (there’s evidence that woven linen fabrics were used 36,000 years ago in Georgia) and was in use long before almost any other material. It was so common that we still refer to things like bedsheets and pillows as “linens” although they’re more than likely to be made of cotton or polyester nowadays.
Linen is made from flax plant fibers, which makes it fully biodegradable, when it’s left untreated. It can withstand high temperatures and absorbs moistures in a very natural way that keeps out bacteria. Linen will keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It’s also ridiculously strong and yet pliable. And, the more you wash it, the softer it gets!
The flax plant is also quite sustainable: every part of it can be used: linseed oil comes from flax, as does flaxseed oil (shocker, that one). You can grind it too and make food products. It’s an almost magical plant, too: each year, European flax fiber retains 250,000 tons of CO2.
The main downside to flax–and therefore linen–is that it’s labor-intensive, so it really depends on who is growing it and how they set their labor conditions. Look for the GOTS certification for this one. At the very least it means that workers are not exposed to chemicals in the process.
As we all know, cotton is an all-natural fiber that grows in a lot of different climates, and it’s been around for a long time. The oldest cotton fabric was found in Huaca Prieta in Peru, dating back to around 6000 BC. Since then, it has had both positive and quite negative impacts on history.
Cotton is easily harvestable, and has the potential to be an entirely sustainable, renewable and biodegradable resource. The potential.
A lot of sustainability issues stem from the energy it takes to transport the material to factories, the water it takes to make even the simplest products, and the environmental impact of simply growing too much cotton.
A shocking figure that you might have seen before, but it takes 2700 liters of water to make a single cotton t-shirt. Cotton farmers also tend to use a lot of pesticides and chemicals in its production to keep out the bugs, of course. This can really easily pollute whole ecosystems.
So, woah, woah, woah. This is still sustainable?
100% organic cotton skips these steps.
> Cotton doesn’t require a lot of pesticides to grow: in fact, organic cotton creates 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional cotton because it uses non-nitrous dioxide fertilizers and pesticides and at a smaller amount.
> Organic cotton can use approximately 243 liters of water to produce a single t-shirt, in comparison.
> PLUS, it can create healthy soil that stores carbon and helps combat climate change.
Unfortunately, less than 1% of all cotton produced is currently organic, meaning we can definitely improve on this!
Econyl is something you may or may not have heard about – it was certainly new to me before I saw it on WILD FABRIK!
It’s a form of regenerated nylon made out of the waste that would otherwise pollute the Earth, and it was first produced in Italy. It’s made from things like fishing nets, carpets, and rigid textiles. It’s a green product that mimics the original nylon, basically.
Waste like this is sorted and shredded into tiny little pieces, which are then put into chemical reactors that break down everything and process it into a yarn. Now, this doesn’t sound the most eco-friendly, showing us that even recycling in an environmentally friendly way is still in its infancy.
Still, because it is recycled, econyl is great for creating a circular textile economy and can show us just how to give items that we never even expected can be reused in clothing.
I’m sure we’ve all heard of vegan leather. What is vegan leather made from, though? It’s made from a variety of non-animal materials, from the not-so-sustainable PVC/vinyl or polyurethane (basically plastic) vegan leather, to the more sustainable made polyurethane (PU) vegan leather.
The European Union specifically enforces strict environmental hand ethical standards on businesses that create PU vegan leather. These regulations require close control and regulation of the chemical process, so that only a small amount of chemical is released into the environment.
But vegan leather is not always made from plastic. It can also be made from pineapple leaves (check out our pineapple leather blog here for more details), cork, apple peels, fruit waste… or even cactus!
So definitely read up about the type of vegan leather you buy – and where it’s from!
Hemp, in layman’s terms, is the cannabis (or weed) plant. Specifically, it’s the fiber of the cannabis plant. These fibers are extracted from the stem and used to make strong fabrics.
Hemp is one of the most durable textile sources there can be, and we humans have been using it for clothing and other materials for over 10,000 years. Archaeologists have found evidence of its use in Iraq around 8000BC. Sailors have relied on it to hold their ships and sails for centuries: canvas, sailcloth, sacks, rope, and even paper. The Vedas refers to it as one of five sacred plants in India, and the Chinese often used it to weave clothing.
Durable, lightweight, moisture-wicking, and resistant to a wide variety of things like mold and mildew, hemp is a great material for clothing. Plus, it doesn’t shrink!
Is it sustainable? – is the question.
The quick answer is yes.
It’s certainly simpler and more efficient to produce than cotton. It also has a smaller environment impact than cotton. You don’t need any chemical herbicides for hemp and it takes 50% less water to grow than commercial cotton. The plant even helps restore damaged soil by returning nutrients.
It’s in the processing that things can get a little funky. There are two different ways to manufacture hemp: mechanical or chemical. Mechanical processing has been used for centuries and is still in use in some countries like Romania and Hungary in Eastern Europe. This method is remarkably sustainable, as it uses machinery instead of chemicals.
Unfortunately, China produces 70% of all hemp and relies on chemical processing, as it’s faster, cheaper, and less labor-intensive. The flipside of which is the pollution it causes.
So, the short answer for the question “Is hemp sustainable?” is yes, but there is an asterisk and some fine print.
So far in this world there is no such thing as a 100% sustainable fabric, but scientists continue to search for ways to create this. And there are so many innovative fabrics using things like cacti and pineapple leaves around the world. We’ve even made it to fishing nets and other plastics that we can reuse.
But these fabrics: linen, organic cotton, econyl, vegan leather, and hemp, are a great place to start if you’re looking to make your closet a little more green – not necessarily the color!
Green doesn’t always have to be a color!