Sustainable Materials; What to look for when buying clothes
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
I believe that the only truly sustainable materials are the ones that have been up-cycled. That way you use material which has already been made, you don't go through the process of recycling but rather repurpose what already exists. That being said that is of course not always possible which is why this article explores which materials may or may not be sustainable and good for the environment.
As many of you may know cotton is one of the most common fabrics used in clothes. The use of cotton has been heavily criticised the past few years, but still continue to be widely used. Some may argue that buying organic cotton is a good way to continue using the fibre whilst at the same time being sustainable. But here is why that's wrong. See the biggest issue with cotton is not the chemicals it uses (although that is obviously really bad as well) but the amount of water being used to farm it. According to British specialist Dr Richard Blackburn, growing cotton used for two to three pairs of jeans takes about as much water as a person would drink in their entire lifetime. And that is not even including the water used for producing the fabric, dyeing, washing, etc. And most people probably own even more jeans than that. Now organic cotton is better in the way that it does not use chemicals or pesticides. But that also means that the cotton needs a bigger surface area to grow, resulting in less land to grow food crops in. Now according to some sources growing organic cotton is being rain-fed to 80%. That might sound good to you but still means that 20% isn't. So that means that for your 2-3 pairs of jeans, 20% of your lifetime usage of water is being used to grow the cotton. Now say you live till you're 80, that is 25 years of water consumption. I think it is safe to say, that organic or not, cotton is definitely not the best option for sustainable materials.
Polyester is the most used fabric in the clothing industry as it is cheap to produce, but also extremely harmful for the environment. So I highly advise against buying clothes made of polyester. Unless it is recycled. Recycled polyester is made from PET from things like plastic bottles and then broken down into fibres. This process using half the amount of energy as producing virgin polyester does. because it uses old plastic bottles and likewise it could also be argued that making recycled polyester keeps the plastic out of landfills. One downside with the recycling though is that every time the fibre is being recycled it degrades little by little. So although it might be suitable for textiles the first time its been recycled it will become too weak to create longlasting clothes as it gets recycled over and over again.
Now a material that is good and sustainable (when being made right) is linen, made from flax seeds. The big perks of linen is that the crop can be grown without any fertilisers and planted in areas which would not be suitable for most crop. Another big benefit is that the fabric breathes well which means that it can both be made for being cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It is also bio-degradable (when having been made sustainable without harmful chemicals) which means that it does not harm the environment after the end of its lifecycle.
Hemp is a plant that has been grown and used for many different things for a very long time. Just like linen, hemp does not require any pesticides, can grow fast and ib places where other crops can, and it does not exhaust the soil. It is also a very durable material that does not irritate the skin, unlike man-made materials like polyester and acrylic can do. The fabric also has similar features to linen. It breathes well and wrinkles easily. A supposed downside to the fibre is that it does not dye very well and cant be made in vibrant colours unless using harsh chemicals. That being said the fabric does have beautiful, natural, down to earth tones and shades.
Lyocell or Tencel is a very sustainable material made from eucalyptus trees. The majority of the crops for this purpose are grown in South Africa but the big perk of this plant, unlike plants such as cotton, is that it can grow pretty much anywhere. Lyocell is made from converted wood pulp, whos initial process is very similar to how we make paper. The pulp is then dissolved and made into a fibre. Going back to cotton and what we said before about how much water it uses, Lyocell uses about 5% of the water cotton uses for the equivalent mass. Apart from the great perks of growing the crop, the fabric is soft, durable and resistant to wrinkles. It also dyes well.
Now there are many other fabrics which are sustainable, some more experimental than others. Such as vegan leather made from banana leaves and mushroom fibres which we might get into another time.
Stay tuned for more on WL Journal.