September 03 2020 – Gergana Damyanova
If you are a fashion junkie, or maybe even just remotely interested in fashion, you probably have heard plenty about the sustainability issues in the industry. Fashion is in competition for the lead for the most polluting, most water-consuming and most waste-generating industry. Crazy, isn't it?
The sustainability issues in fashion start right from the beginning - from the process of creating the fabrics of our clothes. More and more information is emerging about how bad cotton and polyester are – the two most common fabrics. But what are the alternatives?
In this article, we explore what are the sustainable alternatives to the unsustainable mainstream fabrics. We have evaluated over 30 fabrics to give you the best recommendation about what materials to look for and what materials to avoid when shopping sustainable fashion.
The Evaluation Criteria
When evaluating the fabrics, we used a combination of the below criteria.
Plant-sourced & vegan
All fabrics on our recommended list are crop-based. No synthetic, no animal-sourced fabrics.
Some fibre crops require a lot of artificial irrigation to grow. This has two negative effects. Obviously, the first one is that a vast amount of water is being consumed to grow these crops. The second is that building artificial irrigation systems damages the environment and disturbs wildlife habitats. Rain-fed fibre plants are a great alternative to look for.
Chemicals used in growing the plant
Growing crops often requires the usage of artificial fertilisers and chemicals to help the plant grow faster and protect it from pests and weeds. The less vulnerable the plant is to attacks from other organisms, the less harmful chemicals are needed. This makes the crop better for the environment as well as for the workers in the field who can often suffer from acute poisoning if they are not wearing the appropriate protective gear.
Chemicals used during processing
Some plants require chemical treatment for the fibres to be separated from the rest of the plant. For others this separation can be achieved through natural processes or mechanical processing. As these chemicals often end up in waterways polluting drinking water and killing river- and sea-life, we are rooting for fibres than don't require chemicals in their processing.
All fabrics are biodegradable, eventually. The question is how long it takes and what substances are released in the environment when they biodegrade. In our evaluation we have given extra points to fabrics that biodegrade quickly. For example, linen takes only 2 weeks to biodegrade in its pure form; cotton takes 1-5 months. Polyester, on the other side, can take up to 200 years!
When thinking about sustainable fabrics, it’s really important to evaluate how quickly the source used for the fabric can regenerate. This impacts how much land is used to grow the crop. It’s vital to use as little land as possible as then the land can be used for raising food crops, hence limiting deforestation (in many parts of the world, forests are eradicated to open up farming land).
#1 Up-cycled/deadstock Fabrics
At blonde gone rogue, we are big fans of up-cycling deadstock fabrics and see it as one of the most sustainable (if not the most sustainable!) way to create new clothes.
What are deadstock fabrics?
Deadstock fabrics are materials left at factories from large-scale productions. They are usually not off-cuts, but rather incomplete rolls of fabric. Every company leaves a certain percentage of slack in the amount of materials it sends to the factory. When this slack is not used, the leftover materials are either stored in a warehouse to collect dust or thrown away. If that’s the case, all the resources – the land, the water, the labour, the chemicals that have been used to make this brand-new fabric are going straight to the landfill – to decompose for years to come. That’s why these fabrics are called deadstock.
How much deadstock is out there?
Queen of Raw, a leading marketplace in reselling deadstock, estimates that over £100 billion of excess raw materials become deadstock every year. This is crazy! So, so much material. There is enough deadstock materials for many brands to make massive collections. At blonde gone rogue, we purchase these materials from factories and make new clothes from what is practically waste. The process is not straightforward as it requires a lot of scouting and having a network of factories that are willing to supply these fabrics – we are lucky to have such a network nearby our factories in Bulgaria.
We highly encourage you to shop from brands that up-cycle materials. These brands are giving a second life to materials that are about to be thrown away and it is worth it to support such a sustainable approach!
#2 Recycled Fabrics
Recycled fabrics are the second most sustainable option when it comes to making new clothes. Their only disadvantage to up-cycled fabrics is that transforming old fabrics into new ones requires machinery, energy and a little bit of other resources.
How are fabrics recycled?
During the recycling process, the fabric of the garment is broken down to its original fibres. After that, these fibres are put back together to form a new roll of fabric that can be used for new clothes. This process is largely mechanical, hence using little resources.
The important thing to know about recycling clothes is that only clothes that are 100% uniform in their composition can be recycled. If a piece of clothing is made from a blend, e.g. 50% cotton, 50% polyester, it cannot be recycled.
Every sustainability enthusiast knows that recycling is great and so are brands that create new products from recycled materials. Highly recommended!
What is Piñatex™?
Piñatex™ is a rising star in the fabric innovation field. Derived directly from pineapple leaves that are a by-product of pineapple production, Piñatex™ is a sustainable, vegan alternative to leather. It is breathable and soft, light and flexible, mouldable and easy to dye. It can be printed on and laser cut. All this makes it perfect for all kinds of 'leather' goods - from cardholders to shoes!
Not only is Piñatex™ a by-product from growing pineapples but its own by-product is a biomass that can be further converted in organic fertilisers or biogas. This can bring additional income to the pineapple farming communities.
As Piñatex™ is a by-product of the pineapple harvest, it requires no additional land, water, fertilisers or pesticides. So it's highly recommended! It is as well becoming more and more popular and common, making it easier to find nice Piñatex™ accessories, shoes and handbags!
What is Jute?
Although not particularly well-known, jute is an extremely popular fibre plant. It is very inexpensive to produce and is second only to cotton for the amount produced and variety of uses. It does very well on the sustainability front, too.
Studies have shown that the CO2 assimilation of jute is several times higher than that of trees. Not only it helps us clean the air but jute is very easy to grow – it is rain-fed and for the most part, traditionally farmed – in a similar way like organic produce.
We highly recommend jute due to its sustainable qualities.
What is hemp?
Hemp is a tall, sturdy plant grown for many different of purposes - from skin care oils all the way to textiles. What is great about it is that it is a rapidly renewable – in just 3 months it can grow up to 4 meters high with minimal maintenance. It adapts quickly to new environments and once established it is naturally resistant to pests and diseases, hence requiring no chemicals.
It is as well good for the soil - its leaves and the outer stalks are left in the field after harvest releasing nitrogen that absorbs into the soil allowing for food crops to be grown immediately, without leaving the land idle for any time.
Once the hemp fibre is extracted from the plant, processing it into yarn is largely mechanical with minimal environmental impact.
Hemp is one of the most durable natural fibres and is extremely suitable for jeans, jackets, workwear and sportswear. Really - look for jeans and jackets made out of hemp, they'll last longer and are so much more sustainable than cotton alternatives!
Linen can be made from two plants – either from the flax plant or from bamboo. Both of them are rain-fed and while the flax plant requires a certain amount of chemicals to be grown, bamboo requires little to no additional resources. Both of the plants grow quickly, are highly renewable and can be harvested at least once a year.
On top of this, linen is a very unique fabric. It provides extremely good insulation both in summer and in winter. It is claimed that a person wearing linen is summer would feel 2-3 degrees cooler than someone wearing cotton. At the same time, during winter linen retains temperature.
Linen is a very popular, wide-spread fabric and we recommend it, especially in summer. It is much better to get a dress from linen rather than cotton – both for you and for the environment.
#7 TENCEL™ Lyocell
What is TENCEL™ Lyocell?
The TENCEL™ Lyocell fibre is made from cellulose originating primarily from eucalyptus wood. Like rayon/viscose, the manufacturing process starts with a wood pulp but the next steps are different and more sustainable. The production process is a closed-loop process in which 99.8% of the chemicals used for processing the fibre are recovered, filtered and reused, wow! This feature makes it a desirable sustainable alternative to cotton, viscose and other synthetics.
Although chemicals are used in this process, the fact that they are not released in the environment but rather filtered and reused makes us recommend TENCEL™ Lyocell. Just make sure it has the right certifications when buying such clothes - regular lyocell could be quite damaging as chemicals might get released in the environment!
The offenders: the popular but not sustainable fabrics
There are a few really popular fabrics that we haven't mentioned yet in this article. And there's a reason for it. Let's start with cotton. Yes, cotton is nice, soft and natural. But as well, it uses a large amount of land, tons of water, pesticides, herbicides and it's very often genetically modified. Not sustainable at all. If you're a fan of cotton, it's best to look for up-cycled, recycled or organic cotton.
Next comes polyester. Polyester is the most common fibre today, accounting for 60% of global textile demand. It is a synthetic fibre made from petroleum. In the production process nitrous oxide - a gas 300 times more damaging than CO2, is released in the atmosphere. Polyester is as well one of the fabrics that take the longest to decompose in a landfill - around 200 years! That's a lot compared to linen that takes just 2 weeks, don't you think? One cannot be reducing their impact without eliminating polyester from their shopping habits. At best, look to up-cycled or recycled polyester and dispose of it responsibly.
If you are ever in doubt how sustainable the fabric of the garment you're about the purchase is, just google it. There are a lot of resources out there. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to use our expertise to help you on your sustainability journey.
Discover our sustainable fashion collection here.