The fashion industry is one of the largest polluting industries in the world. The average t-shirt travels over 35,000 kms before landing on your back. And it also takes more than seven full bathtubs of water to make one cotton t-shirt.
Shocking right? It’s hard to believe but it’s true.
And what many don’t know is that two-thirds of the environmental footprint of our garments happen after the garment has been purchased, and not actually during its production like most people think.
This is just some of the things I’ve learned from one of my role models, mentors and inspiring change makers Kelly Drennan, founder of Canadian non-profit fashion industry organisation Fashion Takes Action.
Now last year when I created an online event called Wear The Change Movement, I had the opportunity to interview over 20 experts in fashion, health, sustainability and wellness. Kelly was one of the incredible experts I felt honoured to chat with and learn from. Even though, I currently work with Fashion Takes Action as a facilitator and educator and have been in close connection with Kelly for a few years, I always learn something from chatting with her.
One of the things I’d been curious about is sustainable fabrics and textiles. While I’m pretty adept at looking for information on clothing labels (which is the first step to take when you are searching for clues about a garment’s environmental impact), it’s been harder to determine the impact of the fibres in clothing.
Natural Fabrics versus Synthetic Fibres
The two main types of fibres used in garment production are natural and synthetic.
Natural fabrics are as its name suggests are fabrics that are naturally-derived; made of animal or plant-based fibres. The most common natural fabrics are: cotton, wool, silk, hemp and linen. These fibres break down easily and are therefore compostable.
Synthetic fabrics are man-made and produced synthetically – the resulting form does not exist naturally anywhere on the planet. The most common synthetic fabrics are: polyester, nylon, spandex and acrylic.
Natural fibres are widely regarded as more sustainable than synthetic fabrics given its ability to degrade easily. However not all natural fabrics are created equal.
It’s at this point we should discuss cotton.
Let’s Break Down Cotton
Cotton may be natural but it’s relatively high environmental and social impact is shockingly unnatural. It’s one of the worst crops for synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use; second only to coffee. Not only is high usage of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers linked to a multitude of health problems in farmers, but it also impacts biodiversity and soil fertility.
So, what is the alternative? Organic cotton of course.
But shopping isn’t always as straightforward as this. Sometimes brands will make greenwashing claims of using organic cotton when in fact, it’s only a percentage of the fibres used in its garments. When shopping, make sure to check out the label and determine whether the garment is made from 100 percent organic cotton or whether the organic claims are just fluff and it’s more like five percent. If a brand uses “50% cotton, 50% organic cotton” this shouldn’t be a complete deal breaker. While 100% organic is the ideal, this level of transparency is to be commended.
If you love the brand and want them to fully embrace organic cotton, write them an email letter and let them know.
Synthetic Fabrics Made From Natural Fibres
There are two fibres that I purposefully did not list as natural, but I wouldn’t exactly classify them as synthetic either.
These fibres are bamboo and rayon.
These are synthetic fabrics derived from natural fibres like tree wood pulp and bamboo which makes their environmental impact harder to quantify.
In addition, bamboo has become well known in the sustainable realm. This phenomenal plant is renewable, requires very little water to grow, and zero pesticides. Bamboo fabrics are easy to handle and garments made from bamboo fabric (the most widely used is bamboo viscose) hangs well, and is incredibly soft and comfortable to wear. Which is why it’s been so loved in the sustainable fashion community.
However, there is one downside to bamboo.
Once the plant is broken down, the bamboo pulp is essentially put into a huge vat with tons of chemicals, becoming one large chemical soup. So, the processing of turning this natural fibre into a garment is what makes it extremely toxic, and unsustainable. Especially when these chemicals, most often times are dumped right back into the environment.
So in the case of bamboo, we either want to:
1. Look for fibres like modal and tencel, which are similar to rayon and bamboo, but without the use of toxic chemicals, or
2. Look for garments made in closed loop production facilities. This means that instead of dumping the toxic waste, the company is actually keeping it inside the factory, treating and reusing it.
Synthetic Fibres and Sustainability
The main problem with synthetic fibres is that they don’t break down in landfill at the end of the garment’s life. On average, Americans throw away about 70 pounds of clothing (roughly 32 kilograms) and other textiles each year, equivalent in weight to more than 200 men’s t-shirts.
But synthetic fabrics now exist, and some of our clothes are already made out of it. So the best we can do is to avoid purchasing new clothes made from synthetic fabrics and make the clothes we have last (avoid sending to landfill unless absolutely necessary).
We have immense power as consumers to make a difference by how we care for our clothes and what we do with them.” – Kelly Drennan, founder of Fashion Takes Action.
To sum up:
1. Read your labels: Armed with this new information, make sure to read clothing labels to understand what a garment is made out of so you can make better decisions on purchasing and disposal. You should also seek out other information like where the garment is made, whether it’s Fair-Trade or ethically produced.
2. Production matters: If your garment is made with bamboo or rayon, try to see if you can find out more information on whether the company is producing in a closed loop system.
3. Mindful disposal: When you’re done wearing the item, be conscious of how you part way with your clothes. Throwing in the trash is always the last resort. Before you do, you may want to give away to friends and family, donate to charity by putting EVERYTHING in the donation bin (this is specifically in Canada where I am based to push government to use technology for upcycling) and lastly, try clothing swaps. If the garment is completely unsellable or unusable, try cutting up and using as rags or upcycling into something else. Do all that you can to avoid the item from ending up in landfill.
Over to you: Anything in this piece surprise you? Would love to hear your feedback, thoughts or other ideas for how to be more conscious with what we wear!