How can our favorite brands become more sustainable?

Your guide to materials with a more positive environmental footprint

in brief

For this first article in our sustainable series in collaboration with Lenzing, we’d like to open the subject with the current state of materials mostly used in fashion, and other material solutions that can help fashion brands address the issue by a first step: sourcing more responsible fabrics. Debate is fundamental for this subject to evolve; therefore, we welcome your views and comments as contributors to this crucial ongoing conversation.

The fashion industry is often called out as one of the most polluting industries. Though it is inaccurately reported as the second most polluting, it has long been time for the industry to clean up its act. This raises the question of what solutions are currently available and how our favorite brands can proactively engage in working towards a more sustainable future. But first, we need to understand how things are happening today.

How can fashion brands follow more eco-friendly guidelines, so that you can shop more responsibly? Starting with the basics, sourcing responsible eco-friendly materials.

Natural fibers-based fabrics

Cotton, a widely used and natural but very draining fiber

Cotton is the one of the most used fabrics, but while it is a naturally-occurring product, it unfortunately has some downsides.

As you may be aware, it takes a lot of water to produce your average cotton t-shirt. About 2,700 litres to be exact. Which is a lot! According to the UN, this represents about 3% of global water use. What’s more, most of the cotton being produced also uses a lot of pesticides, about 7% of all chemicals used for the agriculture in the US as well as approximately 2% of arable land.

Organic cotton can improve the chemical effect, but it tends to require more land, because crop yields decrease. And, what we also tend to ignore, is that “organic” cotton is not always as organic as it is claimed. Put simply, organic cotton fibers have a “raw” color, meaning that even the average white “organic” cotton t-shirt might just be full of chemicals used for the dying process. Having a sustainable material is the first step, but you also need to be aware of its dying process to be sure the final product in your hands is actually sustainable. [ Making sustainable fashion goods is no easy feat! ]

Linen, a chemical-free fabric?

Linen can be cultivated and processed without chemicals.

Depending on where it comes from, linen can be one of the most sustainable fibers.

Linen, made from flax plant fibers, is one of the oldest textiles in the world. Its fibers have a very low elasticity, and its uses have evolved through time, especially in the last 30 years. While about 5% of world linen production was used for fashion fabrics in the 1970s, about 70% was used in the 1990s.

It can be cultivated and processed without chemicals, depending on its origin. It can also be grown on rough terrain that is unsuitable for agriculture. In addition, non-treated linen (i.e. not dyed) is fully biodegradable. However, its sustainability depends on the process used to process it from raw flax crop to fiber. Indeed, some of it might end up severely polluting into waterways. Finally, its energy impact must be considered throughout the product’s life, as linen requires more ironing than cotton. But overall, its environmental impact is considered to be lower than that of a cotton shirt.

What about animal-based fabrics?

Animal-based materials, such as wool (from sheep), cashmere (from goats), alpaca or silk (from silk worms) require different processes which also have their own impact on our environment. They are naturally produced, biodegradable and renewable. However, their production can result in methane emission. For example, according to PETA methane emissions from enteric fermentation, coming mostly from sheep, make up more than 90% of New Zealand’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

To ensure a clean sourcing process, some brands such as Patagonia, have created their own standard for sourcing animal-based materials such as wool. Sourcing guides also exist, as for example the one issued twice a year by the Woolmark company.

Man-made fiber-based fabrics

Are synthetic fibers more sustainable than natural fibers?

What about man-made fibers? There are three kinds of fibers made artificially: from inorganic fibers (glass fiber, carbon fiber, stone wool…), synthetic polymers (polyester, polyurethane, nylon…) and natural polymers (rubber, regenerated protein fibers, cellulose derivates, alginate; or regenerated cellulose fibers – which makes viscose / rayon, polynosic, modal, cupro and lyocell).

Synthetic polymers: polyester & nylon

Polyester currently dominates the clothing industry, with about 60% of clothing containing it. Why? Because people like it! For its stretchiness, durability and comfort maybe :-).

Polyester is plastic manufactured from crude oil therefore it is an energy-intensive process. What researchers are starting to uncover is that even though some manufacturers are trying to reduce its impact by adding recycled polyester, from plastic bottles or other recycled plastic goods, these have the same environmental repercussions as new polyester! Worse, every wash releases plastic microfibers into waterways. This leads to contaminated lakes and oceans, ingestion by animals and ultimately, plastic microfibers entering the food chain.

What about nylon? It is another quite draining fiber, with large amounts of water being used for cooling them during manufacturing. It also produces nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas that is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And finally, it uses a lot of energy in its manufacturing process. But, there’s good news:  eco-friendly nylon does exist, Econyl has developed one made from recycled plastics in a closed loop system. And more interestingly, their technology has been embraced by brands such as Levi’s.

Natural polymers-made fibers: the example of modal & lyocell

Made from regenerated cellulose fibers, modal and lyocell cellulose respectively come from softwood trees and bamboo. While the raw crop is biodegradable, sometimes manufacturers destroy old-growth rainforests to make way for bamboo, which is planted specifically for textile manufacturing.

Thus, brands need to check whether their supplier respect Forest Protection Standards, that you can find here.

Lyocell and modal fibers in the market can sometimes have questionable origins. The trademarked Lenzing fibers are a good option, which are harvested from sustainably managed beech tree, eucalyptus, pine, birch and spruce plantations in Austria and surrounding European countries and other parts of the world. Known for its positive environmental footprint, Lenzing offers carbon-neutral Modal and lyocell. Because their fibers require less land per tonne than cotton fibers and their water consumption level is ten to twenty times less than that of cotton, these fibers are recognized for their positive environmental footprint.

In the case of lyocell, the solvents used to turn the wood pulp into fiber are made using petrochemicals. However, the closed loop production process means that the solvent is recycled time and time again to produce new fibers and minimize harmful waste.

What about the future?

Startups like Bolt Threads have developed a way to produce synthetic spider silk.

Progresses made in the biotechnology field give us high hopes for a more sustainable industry in the future. Indeed, materials like synthetic spider silk can be a good option. Developed by a few startups (for the moment), its process is said to be more environmentally friendly. But we still have to wait until it ends up in our wardrobes, as it is still in the research phase.

Biomimicry also has a brighter future, it is in the process of getting inspiration for innovation from nature. For example, researchers from PennState implemented a new way to produce self-healing fabric which acts as a barrier between the bearer and the outside world. It was inspired by squid ring teeth proteins. A great amount of research is currently being done so that we can hope for more sustainable yet still just as beautiful, comfortable and resistant fabrics to manufacture our garments.

In our next article, we will explore other impacts the industry can have on our environment, and try to get a clearer picture of where we currently stand and where we need to be heading to clean up fashion’s act.

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