Sustainable Fabrics: What’s the truth?


We’ve previously discussed greenwashing as a tool to convince the customers about the alleged “benefits” of environmentally harmful products through misleading branding. Most of the times, certain fabrics are presented to us as ‘sustainable’ while they cause more harm to the environment. This blog aims to clarify some of the facts related to these “sustainable” fabrics and provide our consumers with better options. 

There are two prominent types of fabrics available: natural and synthetic. It is commonly believed that natural fabrics are more sustainable as most of them are biodegradable and harvested from plant sources. On the other hand, synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, spandex, etc. can need up to 342 million barrels of oil and are heavily responsible for high energy consumption, carbon emissions, and water pollution. Washing these fabrics also releases 5 lakh tons of microplastics per year, which is approximately equal to 50 billion plastic bottles and makes up 31% of plastic pollution in oceans. And to resolve such issues, companies have come up with their “sustainable” options like recycled polyester, which is made from recycled plastic bottles and has the same quality as virgin polyester while consuming lesser energy and resources. Even though energy consumption is comparatively lesser, sustainable synthetic fabrics need much more resources than natural fabrics.

Moreover, recycling and circular fashion practices do not apply to most synthetic fabrics. For example, recycled polyester cannot be recycled repeatedly as its quality degrades over time. Even tho it can be made from existing polyester waste as well, but many polyester-based fabrics are in the form of blends, which makes it harder to break the bonds and recycle the products and releases the same amount of microplastics as virgin polyester. A catalyst used during the processing, antimony, is even carcinogenic. Similarly, nylon is difficult to recycle due to the minimal supply of post-consumer waste such as fishing nets, carpets, fabric scraps, etc. This makes the process complicated and expensive and isn’t feasible for most companies. Many companies market by-products of virgin nylon as recycled sustainable nylon. 

“Switching in a bit of recycled polyester doesn’t equate to saving the planet – not at single use prices anyways.” – Clare Press, presenter of Wardrobe Crisis Podcast

Synthetic methods are also used to provide better alternatives for animal-derived materials like fur and leather. Production of fur and leather is done by skinning the animals after killing them and at times skinning them alive. Faux fur and leather are great alternatives to avoid animal brutality. Producing a fur coat can consume 20 times more energy than a fake fur product. Since fur and leather are treated with many chemicals, they become non-biodegradable despite being naturally obtained fabrics. On the contrary though, faux leather can be equally harmful to natural resources. For example, Piñatex, leather made of waste pineapple leaves, requires waste from 16 pineapples per sq. metre and uses petroleum-based agents and plastics. Thus one needs to think about the actual energy and resource consumption of vegan and natural fabrics as well. The “better” products might not always be 100% sustainable.

People usually assume that all natural fabrics are sustainable. As we all know, wool is derived from shearing sheep, and while the fabric is highly sustainable in terms of manufacturing and post-consumer processing, the method of extraction is often not ethical. To get the wool, animals suffer unlawful killing, mistreatment, cruel handling etc. which often lead to fatal injuries. However, industrial tools like Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) that ensures the welfare of sheep is addressed as well as that of the land they graze on.

In 2017, Pulse of the Fashion industry (an annual assessment published by Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition) reported that bast fibres produced from the stem of plants are the second most sustainable fabrics after wool. Some of the most common bast fibres are linen and hemp. Both of these fabrics have a very low environmental impact and uses minimal amounts of pesticides, fertilizers or chemicals during cultivation. They consume 1/4th of the water required for the production of cotton fabric and are comparatively stronger. However, many companies still do not produce these fabrics sustainably; linen requires heavy bleaching, hemp and bamboo fabrics are often manufactured chemically instead of being processed organically. 

“Unless it(bamboo) comes from a organic source, it is incredibly polluting.” – Orsola de Castro, founder of campaign group Fashion Revolution

A lot of cellulosic fibre options are considered sustainable but usually produce more waste by-products than useful material. To produce viscose (rayon), 70% of the wood pulp goes to waste while only the remaining 30% is suitable to make the fabric. About 33% of viscose in our clothes is made from ancient or threatened forest reserves. Rayon also requires extremely water immense manufacturing process and the wood pulp is treated with caustic soda, ammonia, sulphuric acid and acetone.

“Viscose is responsible for deforestation, unless it comes from a certified source.” – Orsola de Castro, founder of campaign group Fashion Revolution

Finally, one of the most widely available fabrics that are sourced naturally, organic cotton is majorly categorized as a sustainable fabric. Cotton has many good qualities, like absorbancy, breathability, etc. and thus its sustainable alternative, i.e. organic cotton seems worthwhile as it allegedly negates the unsustainable factors of production. However, even though organic cotton doesn’t require chemical fertilisers, the pesticides used are extremely harmful. The land produces a lesser yield of organic cotton as compared to conventional cotton, thus increasing labour work and energy resources. The amount of water required to produce one t-shirt can take up to approximately 2500 litres of water during cultivation.

Certificates like GOTS(Global Organic Textile Standard) and OCS(Organic Content Standards) helps identify if the fabric comes from an organic source or not. However, due to marketing and irregularity in reports, it’s hard to understand which fabrics create a larger impact than others.

To summarise :

Most fabric production processes include one or more unsustainable or unethical practices. In such a case, we should focus on using the most sustainable options available. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Try to find out how the fabric is processed, raw materials involved and their sources. Educating yourself through scientific reports is always more reliable than accepting what the company says.
  2. Vegan does not always mean sustainable. Most of the vegan fabrics are animal-cruelty free, but still use up a majority of the energy resources.
  3. Natural fabrics may or may not be truly sustainable, and can equally harm our natural resources. 
  4. The fabric production can be fully sustainable, however, if the final product is treated with chemicals during dyeing, it barely makes any difference.
  5. Always try to buy clothes which are not made of blended fabrics since they are almost impossible to recycle.

In the end, sustainability is a vastly varied term and does not have a specified definition. Thus the best advice to follow is to buy only what you need and use it longer than you normally would. 

Cover photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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