By Kate Checkley
CERES Outreach ResourceSmart Eastern Metro Coordinator
If you are willing to take the time and make the commitment, it’s not difficult to find sustainable options when it comes to purchasing most products. You can find locally grown produce at your local green grocer or farmers market, avoid plastic packaging by shopping at a wholefoods store, or bring your own reusable items when shopping.
But what about when it comes to fashion, is there a sustainable option?
At the beginning of this year I decided that I wanted to make more sustainable clothing choices when buying new items for my wardrobe. Little did I realise the deep internet rabbit warren I would find myself in and I began to question, is there even such thing as sustainable fashion? After trawling through article after article I learned the fashion industry is one of the most resource intensive industries globally. From sourcing the raw materials to the finished garment appearing in your wardrobe, the supply chain for the clothing industry is a long and complex system where any number of ethical and sustainable policies can be completely ignored. And then don’t get me started on the end life and disposal of all these unwanted garments and its environmental impact, but that’s an article for another time.
There are so many steps in the supply chain and so many things to be aware of, one cannot expect buyers to conduct a Google search every time they want to purchase a garment. So, I want to look at something very easy to find on any garment tag and that everyone can be mindful of when purchasing an item and that’s what our clothes are made of.
Our clothes are made from materials that we can group into two main categories; natural fibres, made from either plant or animal matter or synthetic fibres which is a man-made product and…*drumroll*…a form of plastic! Let’s take a look at some of the more common and controversial fibres on the market.
Let’s start with Polyester. It is one of the most common materials clothes are made of purely based on its incredible versatility and cheap price tag. Polyester is also one of the most commonly used forms of plastic. The production of polyester like all plastics requires the extraction of crude oil from the Earth which has massive environmental implications. Polyester manufacturing requires large quantities of water for cooling as production requires intensive heating. The dyes used to colour polyester and give it its ‘stain resistant quality’ are highly toxic to plant and animal life, as well as us humans. On a positive note however, some companies are starting to produce garments made from recycled polyester sourced from used plastic bottles, which greatly reduces the environmental impact of producing polyester and helps minimise plastic waste. However, whether the garment is made from recycled polyester or not, small microfibres of plastic are polluting our waterways and oceans every time you wash those clothes. In fact, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation more than 4,500 fibres of plastic can be released per gram of clothing per wash and the wash doesn’t discriminate.
Bamboo is becoming a more commonly used material, but there is a lot of controversary surrounding it. The plant itself is a very sustainable crop, it is fast growing, does not require large amounts of water or fertiliser and is naturally pest resistant (that’s not to say pesticides are not being used). The problem with bamboo is it is a hardy, fibrous plant, so how is it turned into soft comfortable clothing? There are two main ways this can be done. The first method is extremely labor intensive and expensive and you are left with a material that is quite rough known as ‘bamboo linen’. The other method is a highly intensive chemical process, to the point that it can no longer be classed as a natural fibre, it is a semi-synthetic fibre. This chemical process is extremely toxic and you are left with a product called ‘bamboo rayon’ or ‘bamboo viscose’. If you are willing to pay, bamboo linen is a much better option but steer clear of those soft bamboo garments.
Cotton also known as white gold is the most commonly produced natural fibre in the world. It’s not just used for clothing, but countless other day to day products are made of this material, it is everywhere! And like polyester, cotton has a huge environmental (and ethical) impact. You only need to Google ‘cotton production in Uzbekistan’ in order to be inundated with devastating articles about cotton’s environmental and ethical implications. In terms of its environmental impact, cotton is the most water dependent crop. It requires 2,700 liters of water to produce enough cotton to make just one t-shirt. Huge amounts of pesticides and herbicides are also required, that are not only poisonous to the people growing the crops, but have been detected in cotton clothing for use. However, its saving grace, unlike synthetic and semi-synthetic fibres like bamboo, cotton does not require an intensive chemical process to produce fibre from the crop. Dying the material on the other hand, is another story altogether. But if you stick to organic cotton, at least you’ll avoid those nasty pesticides being used and ending up in your wardrobe, so I guess that’s a positive… if any.
Hemp is the holy grail of natural fibres. It is a fantastic crop in terms of its minimal environmental impact. It is incredibly fast growing and I mean four-months-from-planting-the-seed-to-harvesting fast. It requires much less land to grow, as plants can be packed in tightly, and requires much less water than almost all other crops. Hemp is a close cousin of marijuana and is also a type of ‘weed’. Now we all know how hard it is to stop weeds, therefore, no pesticides or herbicides are required for this crop. Amazingly, hemp also returns the majority of the nutrients it takes from the soil. However, like bamboo, hemp too is a relatively hardy and fibrous plant when compared to the likes of cotton. It is commonly turned into fibre through mechanical means. Yet, with increasing popularity and use of the crop, more companies are opting for chemical production, which is cheaper but much more environmentally intensive.
MADE-BY is a not-for-profit organisation launched to improve environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry. The Environmental Benchmark for Fibres was developed by MADE-BY in conjunction with the environmental research company Brown & Wilmanns Environmental LLC. The benchmark ranks common natural and man-made fibres based on their environmental impact from the conversion of the raw material to fibres ready to be spun. Each fibres environmental impact was measured using several parameters including carbon dioxide emissions produced, toxicity to humans, toxicity to ecosystems, energy required, water required, and land use required to produce per kg of fibre. The most environmentally sustainable fibres to produce were found to be recycled fibres, organic hemp and organic linen. The least environmentally sustainable is Bamboo viscose or rayon and non-recycled synthetic fibres.
As technology improves and more buyers are becoming conscious of the environmental impact of the fashion industry, new innovative methods for sustainably producing fibres are starting to emerge and you will start to see more types of materials on the market.