Sustainable fashion has come a long way in the last five decades, and it is ever-evolving. How did it all begin? The 1962 publication of the book Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson brought attention to the widespread pollution associated with the use of agricultural chemicals and inspired the sustainable fashion movement. And whilst a boom in fast fashion continued through the 80s, 90s, noughties and today, a more mindful counter-culture emerged that included western hippies as well as forward-thinking brands like Patagonia who sourced better practices and materials.
The current wave of fast fashion brings accessible fashion to the masses but leaves much to be desired when looking at the environmental impact. Low-cost, trend-led clothing offers the allure of looking expensive on a budget, aided by the replication of designer catwalk pieces. And clever marketing keeps us motivated to continue buying from these fast fashion machines.
Why is fast fashion so detrimental?
A huge problem with fast fashion is the type of fabrics typically used. Popular synthetic fabrics such as polyester offer durability and high resistance to stains, convenient for the modern lifestyle, however apart from their inability to biodegrade, whenever they’re washed, pieces of microplastics find their way into our oceans. Scientists have discovered that if you eat fish, there’s a high probability you are ingesting plastic yourself. To top it all off, plastic-based textiles are made from crude oil, a non-renewable fossil fuel. Grim thought?
Mindless clothing waste
According to Fashion Revolution, just 6% of major fashion brands disclose the quantity of clothing they destroy annually. Burberry, H&M and Nike had scandals that linked them to the burning of their clothes. “Items may be destroyed by luxury brands as a way to retain exclusivity and value or simply because they have too many unsold goods, production samples they cannot sell or goods that don’t meet safety standards.”
Luckily, with the increasing awareness of the harm fast fashion has on the environment, more people are opting for clothes made from sustainable materials. Below I’ll touch on what makes a fabric sustainable as well as the top 5 sustainable fabrics to look out for when making fashion purchases.
What factors make a fabric sustainable?
- Biodegradable – Natural fibres that will decompose and assimilate into the environment
- Organic – No harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing process
- Vegan – Intensive farming for leather and wool is responsible for the degradation of natural waterways and land habitats, and for the emission of greenhouse gasses. Vegan clothing exclude these processes.
What certifications should I look out for?
There are many organisations setting the standards for sustainable textiles. Here are some of the certifications widely trusted in the fashion industry:
- Certified Organic
- GOTS Organic
- PETA Approved Vegan
Let’s move forward to the top 7 sustainable fabrics to look for in fashion…
1: Reclaimed (Deadstock)
Deadstock fabric is essentially leftover or unused rolls of fabric from manufacturers, that would have been destined for incineration or landfill. Instead of being discarded or destroyed, the fabric is reclaimed and utilised for new clothing. Fferal Clothing’s deadstock fabric neck gaiters are made from surplus sample cotton rolls from high street retailers.
With fashion trends often coming back in a 20-year cycle, some previously forgotten fabrics are having a resurgence today, helping to minimize waste and pollution. Path To Paisley design and manufacture one-off men’s suits in the heart of East London, using only upcycled vintage fabric. Some of the pieces from their latest boldly coloured collection have been created from a 1970s wall hanging.
There are some conflicting opinions as to the ethical nature of deadstock fabrics, usually arising from whether they are from a genuine deadstock source, but companies like Ambio-N are working towards more transparency in the supply of these textiles.
Cotton is one of the most popular fabrics utilised in fashion, more than 60% of clothes made have cotton as part of the product make-up. As it is a biodegradable, renewable, natural resource, pure cotton is a more sustainable option than it’s plastic-based counterparts such as nylon and polyester. Since the impact of microplastics has become widely known, more and more brands such as Fferal Clothing are centreing their clothing collections around cotton. Cotton by nature requires more water in the production process than hemp or bamboo, and often includes the use of pesticides in production. However unlike hemp and bamboo, cotton doesn’t require chemicals when processing it into fabric, and it is thought to be the most durable and moisture absorbent material in fashion.
Organic cotton makes up 1% of global cotton production. Unlike regular cotton, it is grown without the use of pesticides and has no GMO implications, making it sustainably grown and sourced.
Bamboo isn’t just panda food! The pulp of the bamboo plant is one of the most sustainable fabrics available to us. It is an incredibly renewable resource because it can grow up to 35 inches a day and does not require fertilisers to aid its growth. When used in clothing it helps keep the wearer fresh due to its moisture-wicking property; making it ideal for athletic clothing. The fabric is soft, breathable, hypoallergenic and possesses natural UV protecting properties.
The hemp plant is famous for its many holistic benefits, but it has also found its place in sustainable fashion. Like the bamboo plant, hemp is one of the fastest growing organic plants on earth. As a result, it does not need to be sprayed with harmful chemicals. Although pricier than other popular fashion fabrics, clothing made from hemp is non-irritating, highly durable and breathable. It’s also great for keeping the wearer cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It’s thermoregulating properties result from the hollow structure of the fibre.
Linen, another natural fabric to consider, is derived from the flax plant. It’s considered sustainable not only because of its biodegradable nature, but because every part of the plant is made use of. A truly zero waste resource. In addition, linen requires less water to grow than it’s sustainable friends, no chemical sprays, and get this, it even thrives in poor quality soil! (Why aren’t more clothes made of linen (emoji). It isn’t cheap, which seems to be it’s only drawback, but used in clothing it is durable and lasts for years. Other advantages include; good moisture absorption and the ability to withstand high temperatures. We love Luciee’s linen collections. Dresses, playsuits, trousers and blouses, ethically made by local artisans in Bali.
6: Peace Silk
A brilliant sustainable alternative to silk is peace silk; alternatively known as Ahimsa (meaning non-violent), which was introduced in 1990. The usual process of obtaining silk involves boiling the cocoons of the silkworm, essentially killing them. Ahimsa refers to how the silk is harvested; the silkworms are allowed to emerge from their cocoons before the silk threads are harvested.
Making use of peace silk not only helps avoid use of pesticides typically used in silk harvesting, but also aids in curbing the negative social impact. There are issues of child trafficking in relation to the production of certain types of silk, especially in India. Stella Mccartney use peace silk in some of their collections – the brand states that their sustainably produced silk is sourced from Italy. They also have a reputation for taking care of the people employed in their manufacturing, and have committed to the social sustainable standards set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
One of the newer fabrics amongst the sustainable offerings; Tencel consists of cellulose fibre made from dissolving tree pulp and then reconstituting it using a drying process. It is considered to be a form of rayon but unlike rayon it doesn’t use the viscose process which is toxic to the people involved in the manufacturing process, as well as the environment. Instead, Tencel is produced using an organic solution and no chemical bi-products are formed. Lyocell is the original name of this wonder fabric but the trademarked manufacturers, Tencel, are the primary source. They boast of their circular fashion credentials; they produce the pulp from a regenerative tree source, they recycle their water, and the fibres are compostable and biodegradable. It is said to be more durable than cotton and linen, resists shrinking and is strong even when wet. Tencel is as soft as cotton in texture so has become popular for sustainable underwear.
What are your experiences of sustainable fabrics? Let us know in the comments below…
Author: Denise Sarfo