Sustainable materials

5 fashion materials you didn't realise were bad for wildlife

By Lucy Jones

The fashion industry has a dark side, a lot darker than many of us realise.

Mongolian woman shearing a goat
Mongolian woman shearing a goat. © Loonger | Getty
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It is one of the worst polluters and wreaks havoc on our environment in countries across the world, affecting human health and wildlife with dire consequences. Many fibres that are sold in well-known shops on the high street cause harm to species - and we’re not talking about the direct impact of the fur trade. Here’s five common fashion materials you might not have realised damage wildlife and ecosystems.

How a cheap cashmere jumper affects the Mongolian steppe

The grasslands of Mongolia and the herders and wildlife that live in them - species include the snow leopard, corsac fox and bobak marmot - are currently under serious threat. The steppes were already degraded due to climate change, resultant soil erosion and the drying up of lakes and rivers. Now overgrazing by a three-fold increase of animals since the 1990s is causing significant decline. Studies suggest that 80 percent of the 70 per cent degradation of the grasslands is due to overgrazing, according to this journal of Environmental challenges in Mongolia's dryland pastoral landscape. The major factor driving this activity? Global market demand for cheaper cashmere. Goats, whose soft, downy undercoat is used to make cashmere jumpers, are more destructive than other livestock, such as sheep, and Mongolia is the second-largest cashmere producer in the world.

How washing your fleece can stunt the growth of crabs

We know that the volume of plastic, from microbeads to plastic bottles, that enters oceans and waterways is already at catastrophic levels for the wildlife that live in them. But less known is that one of the routes is through our washing machines. When clothes made from synthetic fibres (polyester, nylon, acrylic) are washed in a machine, millions of tiny microfibres are released via water treatment plants into the sea, rivers and lakes. The fibres contain toxic chemicals, which are innate to the material or through soaking up detergent and other toxins, which adversely affect aquatic ecosystems, transferring pollutants to animal tissue. The study of plastic microfibre ingestion by deep-sea organisms show microfibre ingestion in a wide variety of species, including crabs, lobsters, fish, turtles, penguins, seals, manatees and sea otters. Microfibres have even been found in the food we eat. This situation is bad news for wildlife: the fibres can block the digestion tract and damage stomach lining leading to reduced feeding and starvation.

clothing label
Dissolving pulp, or bleached wood pulp, is the base material for viscose and rayon. © Beeldbewerking | Getty

Viscose, Rayon and Deforestation

Dissolving pulp, or bleached wood pulp, is the base material for viscose and rayon, fibres which are used in many garments by the fashion industry. What you might not know is that the pulp is often taken from trees in endangered or ancient forests. This means that the clothes we buy and wear are contributing directly to deforestation and habitat destruction. Currently, more than 150 million trees are logged to be made into clothes. Despite a few big-name brands gathering viscose from sustainably certified forests, the number of trees logged for viscose is rising in forests in Indonesia, Canada and the Amazon.

Deforestation also has an impact on climate change, as carbon is stored in trees. These fashion habits are extremely damaging: forest habitats are home to biodiverse populations of thousands of species, with many already rare and endangered.

cotton plant
Cotton has become one of the most unsustainable crops on the planet. © Andrea Anderegg | EyeEm | Getty

How much water?

Just because cotton isn’t a man-made fibre, doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. In fact, cotton has become one of the most unsustainable crops on the planet. For a start, it uses so much water to produce which contributes to the freshwater shortage across the globe. It can take 2,700 litres of water to make just one cotton t-shirt. In Kazakhstan, this has led to the destruction of the Aral Sea and its inhabitant species. Additionally, manufacturing cotton requires high levels of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals, which leach into waterways and soil. Cotton production is responsible for 22.5 percent of insecticide use globally. In light of recent predictions about insect decline, this makes a more sustainable process even more urgent.

women clothes shopping
A dress might cost a few pounds for the consumer, but there is a hidden cost to the wider environment © Triocean | Getty

Fast Fashion

In recent years, retailers have increased the number of fashion collections they release each season. Some high-street shops rotate new garments multiple times a week. It is part of the cheap, throwaway culture known as ‘fast fashion’. Every year, 100 billion new garments made from new fibres are produced many of which soon end up in landfill. This results in an enormous carbon footprint. Polyester and nylon, for example, are made using fossil fuels. Cotton production, too, requires a significant amount of carbon dioxide. Fast fashion also leads to pollution with a dangerously high level of chemicals leaching into our environment. A dress might cost a few pounds for the consumer, but there is a hidden cost to the wider environment, both for the low-paid workers in poor conditions, and for ecosystems and other species.

So, what can you do?

There are a few materials available which are better for nature such as sustainable viscose a material made from trees, and sustainable wool. But to really have an impact, we can simply buy less and love what we buy.

  • Swap clothes with friends and family when you no longer want them

  • Repair worn out clothing and shoes rather than throwing them away

  • Search for sustainable brands and look into the journey products have been on

  • Buy quality items that will last longer

Featured image © Mitshu | Getty