The fashion industry is notoriously bad for the environment - but why is this and what can we do about it?

AdDRESSing the Climate Crisis - It’s Fashionable to Care is our newly launched mini four part series breaking the issues down and empowering more sustainable fashion choices.

Let's talk fabrics...

Did you know that over half of new clothes are made from non-biodegradable synthetic material and will take up to 200 years to breakdown in landfill.

As mentioned in AdDRESSing the Climate Crisis - it's Fashionable to Care Course - part one - Waste, the fashion industry is responsible for high levels of greenhouse gases, uses a lot of water and results in 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide, not to mention that as much as 20% to 35% of microplastics found in the ocean are fibres from synthetic clothing - the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles!

How do we know which fabrics are better for the environment?

The fashion industry doesn’t appear to be the most obvious of greenhouse gas polluters but it is…the whole model is based on over production and is incredibly wasteful and synthetic materials are essentially plastics and rely heavily on petrochemical products (oil and gas).

Sadly there is no such thing as a 100% sustainable fabric but there is a huge spectrum between the best and the worst. When looking at the sustainability of fabrics we look at the resources needed to produce the material, the life cycle of the product and the environmental impact it creates during this.

Polyester has taken over from cotton as the most common fabric used in making new clothing - over 50% of all new clothing is now made of Polyester, yet it is one of the worst materials for the environment.

Most polyesters are non-biodegradable, meaning that it takes between 20-200 years to break down if dumped. Polyester is made from oil and uses large quantities of water during production. The oil usage creates CO2 emissions and the excess water is all too often left full of chemicals and dyes which are harmful when entering the food supply of plants, animals and people.

Furthermore during its life cycle polyester (and other synthetic materials) release microplastic through use and especially during washing. It’s estimated that each washing can release as much as 700,000 mini plastic fibres into the environment. These microplastics are deadly when ingested by marine life and microplastics have even been found in human organs indicating that they must also be getting into our own food chains.

Acrylic is another synthetic man made material and as such it's also harmful to the environment. Known for its warmth, acrylic is most commonly used in winter clothing. Again like polyester, acrylic is non biodegradable taking up to 200 years to break down in landfill. But worse than its environmental impact is that the harmful chemicals used in its production are dangerous for the health of garment workers and even those wearing acrylic clothing. The ingredient acrylonitrile can enter the wearer's body through skin contact and inhalation.

Conventional cotton is also incredibly popular as its a breathable fabric, most commonly used in denim. But just because it's breathable to wear doesn’t make it environmentally friendly. It takes almost 8,000 litres of water to make one cotton t-shirt and one pair of jeans. Conventional cotton accounts for 16% of the world's insecticide sales and nearly 6% of global pesticides. These chemicals harm water supplies, soil and the lives of those living on and nearby both animal and human.

There is another option Sustainable Cotton (organic, BCI cotton etc)

This cotton is grown more sustainably - improving soil health, water management, greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilience.

Viscose (Rayon)
Made from plants - viscose is bio-degradable and non-toxic. An incredibly soft, breathable and durable fabric it was actually first created at the start of the 20th century, to be a cheaper alternative to silk - whereas now its most commonly used in activewear.

Viscose is one of the most tricky fabrics to environmentally label. It’s made of wood bark creates less greenhouse gas emissions and uses less water. But on the flip side it uses a chemical called carbon disulfide which pollutes local communities and is harmful to garment workers unless closed loop manufacturing processes are followed.

There are many varieties of viscose and these range from those that cause deforestation and release harmful chemicals to those that are regarded as sustainable.

The more sustainable versions to look out for are;
Modal - uses the closed loop process thus doesn’t release the harmful chemicals.
EcoVero - a modified version of viscose with a low environmental impact that uses less water and avoids deforestation and is a semi synthetic material.
Tencel/Lyocell uses only 1/3rd of the water required in the production of standard viscose and the waste water is able to be recycled safely as it doesn’t contain harmful chemicals. Sadly Tencel is still one of the more expensive materials on the market.

Also produced from plant flax - organic linen is made with little water and again avoids any harmful chemicals and pesticides and if left undyed is totally biodegradable. Flax plants are readily available thus producing linen doesn’t threaten their existence.


What can I do?

Well now that we know not all fabrics are created equally and that sustainable fabrics are still way more expensive that non sustainable options what can we do?

We need to balance our choices as cost is obviously a significant factor in our purchasing decisions. The good news is that even the least environmentally focussed brands have to label what their clothes are made of so now using your materials expertise you can opt for the more sustainable fabrics. We also all need to encourage retailers to focus on using sustainable fabrics as the more shoppers want sustainable fabrics the cheaper and more readily available these will become.

We are very much on our own sustainability journey and are committed to using the most sustainable fabrics we can - as we scale more options will become available as increasing volumes will make more expensive fabric options possible - find out more here.

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