From fast fashion to cotton, the list of ways we consume fashion that have an adverse effect on our environment and other species is a long one. But is there hope?
From fast fashion to cotton, the list of ways we consume fashion that have an adverse effect on our environment and other species is a long one. But is there hope? Apart from consuming less, recycling and repairing, can we find clothes and textiles which are more sustainable? And if you have to buy new clothes, which fabrics should you look out for? Here are six materials or innovations which could help in the drive for a more sustainable way of life.
Plant or fruit “leathers”, made from waste materials, are starting to gain traction. Piñatex, for example, is a material made from the leaves of pineapples grown in the Philippines. Its production is much more sustainable than traditional leather and is completely animal-free. It requires less water and no harmful chemicals that are ecologically toxic to wildlife. The leftover leaf waste is recycled and used for fertiliser or biomass. Currently the material is being used for upholstery in the first vegan hotel suite in London.
Although not all wool farms have adequate welfare standards, and many activist organisations, such as PETA, argue that it isn’t ethical, wool is a sustainable fabric: renewable, durable and biodegradable. Additionally, some sheep farmers produce wool using techniques which sequester carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the environmental impact. The strength and resilience of the fabric - it is both flame-resistant and water-repellent - means that it lasts for a long time, reducing the need for fast fashion replacements.
Biomimicry - looking to the natural world for direct inspiration - is on the rise in many different fields such as engineering, architecture and medicine. Now textile manufacturers and fashion designers are finding ways to incorporate or mimic natural processes in their own work. Processes in nature often need less energy to achieve results, for example, there are only about five polymers, or long chains of molecules, commonly used in the natural world, whereas in our commercial world we have manufactured more than 350. Most recently, scientists at Pennsylvania State University have discovered that a protein in squid ring teeth - in the suckers in their tentacles - can be engineered in a lab to be of wider use. For example, coating a fibre in the protein makes it much more durable. The protein also has self-healing properties. It could be used to create garments which are recyclable, biodegradable and last longer.
Cotton farming requires intensive use of pesticides and chemicals as well as gallons of water to produce just one item of cleaning. However, there are more sustainable ways of producing the fabric, which take into account the wider environment and habitats of the rest of nature. The Better Cotton Initiative, for example, supports farmers across the world to care for water, soil health and natural habitats with certain specifications. It covers 12.5 per cent of the market. Another way of knowing what impact your T-shirt has already had is by looking out for retailers that are certified organic cotton with the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) label. This means that the manufacturing process doesn’t use toxic fertilisers or pesticides which are harmful for our environment, including the workers.
Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant. It was used by cultures as far back as the ancient Egyptians because of its durability and ability to keep people cool and absorb water. These days, when it is grown in geographically suitable areas, such as Europe (almost three-quarters of flax is grown in the EU), there is no need for pesticides or fertilisers and it requires much less water than cotton and is good for soil health. The material itself is hard-wearing so doesn’t need to be replaced for years and dries quicker than cotton and other fabrics.
Lyocell and other natural fibres
There is an increasing awareness that when we wash clothes made from man-made fibres they release microfibres into waterways via our washing machines. As these microfibres are harmful to other species, the drive to find natural, environmentally sustainable fibres is at an all-time high. One such material is Lyocell. The raw material is cellulose from wood pulp. It is produced under the trade name Tencel owned by a company in Austria. The fibres are biodegradable and compostable and the production process has a low environmental footprint. Wastewater is recycled, for example, and no toxic chemicals are used. Hemp, of course, is another natural fibre with a low environmental impact. Conscious designers also use cork, bamboo and even seaweed to make ethical, vegan clothes.
Tencel fibres © Lenzing AG/Markus Renner/Electric Arts
Featured image by Victoria Bee Photography/Getty