An introspective take on notable materials used in the fashion industry
Your Guide To Sustainability: Explore Fashion
26 september '22
Reading time: 8 minutes
As an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste is created each year, the conversation around the makeup of materials becomes just as relevant as that of mitigating waste. Are you aware of the materials most used in the fashion industry and those ones we should need to switch to instead?
Words by Kathya García
For years, the public has become ever-more familiar with the shocking impact of the fashion industry on the environment. Pictures of neon-coloured rivers and mountains of clothes piling up in developing regions have caused an uproar. Water pollution, unsustainable resource-depletion, unfair labour practices: all of these issues warrant a reimagined supply chain. The best place to start may be with the best selection of materials.
The fashion industry has mainly relied on polyester, wool, cotton and leather for the production of garments, shoes and accessories. As entire supply-chain and production plans are built around these materials, it makes sense that major sustainability issues are addressed when the industry prioritises better materials. Thinking of improving materials in the industry requires inspecting which are the most prevalent, which are the best for the environment, and how circularity can be re-imagined.
Toxic obsession: synthetics
Polyester reigns in most people’s wardrobes. The material is made of a synthetic fibre and is widely used in fashion because of its many redeeming qualities. For instance, polyester absorbs dye better than cotton, meaning less colour is lost to washing. It generally does not wrinkle nor lose its shape, it is durable, and absorbs sweat well. However, polyester is technically made with fossil fuels, meaning it is particularly polluting. There is also the problem that garments made of polyester release microplastics into water when they are washed or discarded. When polyester makes up approximately 52% of global fibre production, we can assume we are all drinking plastic by now.
Natural rules: organic, natural & other innovations
The best alternative to polyester is natural materials that are trying to emulate in the first place. Natural fibres are better for the environment in various ways. Cotton is the second most prevalent material in the fashion industry and can be fairly and sustainably processed. The Global Organic Textile Standard label denotes that the organic cotton’s manufacturing process doesn’t use toxic fertilisers or pesticides which are harmful for our environment and the labourers.
Linen is another popular fabric that is renowned for its durability and texture. This material has been used by ancient civilisations like the Egyptians for its durability and freshness. However, Europe is a more important location for linen today because close to three-quarters of the raw material is grown here. Organic linen is a good material for soil health when grown in appropriate areas, because it is derived from the fibres of the flax plant. It requires way less water than cotton and does not require pesticides or fertilisers.
Organic hemp is another natural fibre with a low environmental impact for comparable reasons to linen. Moreover, it can grow in a variety of climates and is beneficial to the soil. Hemp can extract harmful substances from the soil, like mercury, and its roots can minimise erosion.
Going back to the issue of waste and toxicity, what is perhaps most outstanding of this sample of materials is that they are easier to recycle, biodegrade or compost. In this sense, Lyocell is a smaller player with a lot to offer. This raw material is made of cellulose from wood pulp. Lyocell is also known by its trade name, TencelTM, which is also the brand’s name. Owned by the Austria-based company Lenzing, Tencel is set apart by its luxurious surface and sustainable properties.
Good intentions & placebos: recycling
Polyester’s redemption has been pursued through recycling, but there are many arguments against this scheme. For one, it is argued that recycled polyester, or rPET, is less durable than virgin polyester because it is composed of shorter fibres, meaning that aside from its shorter lifespan, even more microplastics are expected to be released. Another damning argument is that the PET bottles from which it is commonly made can be endlessly recycled into other bottles, while it is harder to recycle the garments made from rPET. Currently, it is possible to recycle PET via mechanical or chemical processes. The latter being costlier and less prevalent. As to the toxicity of polyester, it is certainly the least favourable due to the emissions generated, whether recycled or not.
Post-consumer recycled cotton is a better recycled material for the environment because it addresses the problem of clothes-waste. Unfortunately, it is not a popular material because it is labour intensive. Companies that create PCR cotton have to sort through waste in order to produce the recycled cotton. It is common for them to use bedsheets and towels instead of clothes because of how difficult it truly is to recycle clothes that are not made with pure materials. PCR cotton can be fully circular, but its use is only made by well-intended brands due to its complexity. Garments mostly contain only a percentage (usually below 40%) of PCR cotton as it is difficult to source and does not provide better performance compared to normal cotton. Still, PCR will continue to improve and vastly expand so less jeans end up in the landfill.
Boundless opportunities: upcycling
If only everything was upcycled, there would be no waste at all. Upcycling is the far more sustainable cousin of recycling. This process is fully circular because it entails creating something out of waste or materials that would otherwise be discarded. This process requires some imagination. Still, some creative minds, like Filippo Fanini from EDMOS, saw an opportunity in the waste left by the leather industry. Where disposing of the scraps of leather would usually cost the companies and the environment, Fanini realised that the scraps had the potential to create a beautiful material. Today, EDMOS offers brands a solution to bridge the circularity gap through an innovative patented process. The end result is a luxurious leather, with a unique finish, which is already being implemented in designs by luxury brands.
Another animal-based material that has had great upcycling results is wool. The emerging Italian brand Rifò makes upcycled wool through a straight-forward process that uses discarded clothes and rags. Once the brand has collected the old clothes, the wearable garments are donated to humanitarian causes while the remaining are sorted by type and colour in preparation for the upcycling process. The pieces are cleared of tags, buttons, and other accessories. Then they are frayed, so that the wool fibres can be refined and weaved until ready. This process reduces the impact of wool production, resulting in a product with the same good qualities of virgin wool, which is in itself biodegradable, renewable, durable, water and flame resistant.
Wear your values: vegan materials
For those who are not content with wearing animal-based materials, whether upcycled or second-hand, there are vegan alternatives. There are already better alternatives out there than vinyl. Peta is eager for consumers to switch to alternative leather products made from innovative and sustainable materials such as pineapple leaves, cork, apple peels, other fruit waste, and recycled plastic.
One of the most championed vegan leather alternatives is Piñatex®. According to circularity expert and designer Clare Brass, piñatex is a material “that is completely cradle to cradle, it substitutes leather that has a very heavy environmental and welfare impact, and it brings new income streams to subsistence farmers, allowing them to fully utilise their crops”. The same cannot be said of other vegan leather materials, for many contain plastic that not only releases harmful toxins into the environment, but also makes them non-biodegradable.
Nature is the best teacher: biomimicry
For inspiration, look to nature. And for solutions, apply the learnings from nature. As in many other fields and industries, textile manufacturers and designers are finding ways of mimicking natural processes that result in improved and innovative materials. The concept of biomimicry aims to reconnect people to nature through the application of biological processes to the materials we use. It also offers regenerative solutions to sustainability issues. According to the Biomimicry Institute, is “the concept of translating nature’s strategies into design is also proving to be integral to our self-expression through our choices in clothing”. It is a promising hot topic right now that has many potential applications. For instance, it has been discovered that a protein in the suckers of squids’ tentacles can be engineered in a lab. One of its uses can be directed at extending the life of garments since coating a fibre in the protein makes it much more durable.
Although it would be fair to say that natural fibres are more sustainable, it would be fairer to say that it depends. Yes, the processes are cleaner, the toxicity eliminated, and the impact altogether reduced—but only to the extent of transparency and balance. With the present supply of materials, at least the most prevalent, it would be deceitful to declare that everyone should use organic cotton, or organic linen, etc. Variety is necessary for its applications, but more importantly because the renewability of resources depends on it. The way raw materials are harvested has, of course, various implications with respect to water use and optimal plantation sites.
With the current offer of materials, it is important to bear in mind the intended use. Although polyester is a polluting material, it can have good uses that can reduce the pressure made on the environment by the thirsty cotton. Better alternatives will take over, but for now, selecting polyester products for its optimised use and that are seldom washed are a safer bet, such as backpacks or shoes. As for organic materials, there may be varying degrees of purity that warrant a look at the labels and sustainability reports.
Conscious and informed consumption can extend the life of garments and lead to better choices. Awareness may champion sustainable solutions, as better alternative materials gain popularity. Continuous innovation in materials is already creating more sustainable and circular supply chains, where waste reduction and improved durability are priorities.