Everyday Ethical: What is the most sustainable material for clothing?

Mar 10, 2020

Season Two of Everyday Ethical is here and today I’m asking “What is the most sustainable material for clothing?” This episode will teach you what to look out for on labels whilst shopping, to help kick-start your sustainable fashion journey.

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What materials is most sustainable for clothing?

 

 

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8 Questions to Ask Before you Buy Clothes

Episode Transcript:

Hello and welcome to Everyday Ethical, a podcast about all of the small ways that you can be more sustainable, without the pressure to be perfect. I’m your host, Bethany Austin, and I’m an ethical lifestyle blogger who talks about everything from slow styling to cruelty-free cleaning. 

Today we’re going to talk about one of those things that I most people don’t think about: Plastic in clothing. I’m going to walk you through why your choice in clothing material really does matter and how you can make a more informed choice the next time you go shopping. 

So, let’s dive in. 

[Intro Music] 

300,000 tonnes of textiles ended up in landfill in 2017. That really is the price of “throwaway fashion”. 

So, is it more important than you might think to consider the fabrics that your clothes are made of. It’s not just about whether they cling to you on the central line and leave you with sweat patches (although that’s definitely something to consider!), it’s also about what will happen to that piece of clothing when you’re done with it? Will it biodegrade, or will it stick around longer than even you? 

And, on top of that, it’s important to look at the production process of clothing, too. For example, it’s worth considering how much water and electricity is used in the production process, too. 

I know, that’s a bit overwhelming isn’t it? 

One minute you thought you were just buying a new t-shirt for summer and suddenly you’re thinking about global warming, water depletion and plastic pollution. 

But, don’t worry, as always, I’m going to walk you through it and help you to know exactly what to look out for on the labels of clothes to know whether they’re a “yay” or a “nay”. 

Firstly, let’s talk about the fabrics that are worth avoiding. 

Did you know that a lot of fabrics actually contain plastic? They may not feel like you’re wearing a 5p bag, but trust me, it’s hidden in the clothes as small strands. This is the case for 60% of the fabrics that make up our clothes worldwide, including polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibres. 

Now, if you take a look in your wardrobe, especially if you shop from fast fashion retailers or have in the past, I can almost guarantee that a lot of your clothes will have those fabrics written on the labels. 

There’s a reason for it, though. I’m not going to pretend that these fabrics aren’t good at their jobs. Polyester, for example, is used because it retains it shape well and is cheaper to produce than it is to grow natural materials. 

However, there’s no doubt that it also has its huge downsides. 

Having plastic in your clothes is negative for multiple reason. The first reason is related to when you wash an item. If it has plastic fibres in it, these are likely to shed in the washing machine, thereby also entering into our water systems. Whilst these nano-plastics are truly tiny, they’re causing havoc to our oceans. In fact, it’s because they’re so small that they can have such an impact, with sealife swallowing the pieces. They then either die, or the plastic enters our food chain when we eat fish. 

Either way, it’s a pretty awful side effect of the popularisation of unnatural fibres in the clothing industry.

Now, there is the option to buy yourself something like the GuppyFriend bag which I’ll link in the show notes of this episode. I was kindly gifted one by Organic Basics, and they are bags that you put your clothes in before they go into the machine, that catch all of the microplastics. Obviously it’s better to buy the clothes that don’t have synthetic fibres in the first place, but this is a great option if that’s not possible for you, or for the clothes you already own. 

On top of the issue of nano plastics, as I mentioned, plastic in clothes also means that they won’t biodegrade. Instead, they sit in landfill and add to our ever-growing land pollution issue. And, with fashion becoming more and more “fast” and with people buying more and more clothes, this becomes even more of a problem. 

Okay, so now you know what fabrics you should probably try your best to avoid where possible: polyester, nylon, acrylic and other synthetic fibres. But now let’s cover the fabrics that you might want to keep an eye out for since they’re WAY more sustainable than most.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have some guidance on what I can do, than rules on what I shouldn’t be doing! So, let’s focus on that. 

The first fabric that I want to cover is the one that I think will come to mind for most people: Cotton. Or, more specifically, organic cotton. Now, I am a big fan of organic cotton. Since trying to make the shift towards natural fibres, I have bought and been gifted a few cotton items that I absolutely love. It’s one of those fabrics that looks classic and timeless and, most importantly for me, doesn’t turn me into a sweaty mess. 

Obviously, since it’s a natural fibre, cotton is also biodegradable, which is a massive win. Plus, opting for organic cotton is an even better step in the right direction. 

Conventional cotton uses approximately 16 percent of the world’s insecticides and 7 percent of pesticides. This is a issue as it can cause problems with biodiversity in terms of insects, as well as potentially killing animals like bats and birds that go onto eat the bugs with the chemicals in their system. From an ethical point of view, organic is also better. Pesticides are potentially very harmful to the health of farmers that grow the crop. And, providing for companies that require the use of pesticides, also means that the farmers have to invest huge amounts of money into buying them, which can actually leave them making no profit, or even in debt. There have been many reports of suicides by cotton farmers who couldn’t afford to repay they loans they look out to cover the cost of these chemicals. 

It’s just another example of the way that fast fashion values profit -this time in terms of greater crop yield – over people. 

So, in terms of ethical living and eco-friendly living, organic cotton is way better than average cotton. 

However, that’s not to say that cotton doesn’t have its downfalls. The crop actually uses a huge amount of water. In fact, the global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres. That is SO much. And, often, these crops are grown in countries where scarcity of water may already be an issue. 

For me, that’s why it’s so important to make clothes last. Whilst I do own organic cotton and think it’s a great material, it’s only eco-friendly if you really look after the item and make it last. 

And it definitely isn’t THE most eco option out there, even if it is the most readily available and often the cheaper (although by no means “cheap”) option in terms of sustainable fabrics. 

Another, eco-friendly choice is linen. Now, linen has seen a bit of a rise in popularity recently, especially in terms of bed sheets on instagram which is great to see. It is a power fabric! 

Linen is actually made from flax (yep, that thing that people sprinkle on their smoothie bowls on Instagram). It’s a plant that doesn’t require much water to grow and, often, requires no more than just rainwater in order to be able to thrive. On top of that, the whole plant is used in the production process, meaning no waste, and very little energy is required to process it. 

As well as that, flax linen is far far stronger than most fabrics, including cotton. That means that it will last longer before it does end up getting thrown away. Yay for lowered consumption. 

And that’s on top of the fact that the fabric is biodegradable. 

Yep, like I said, total power fabric…

Another fabric to consider using is hemp. This is the one that will definitely make you sound like a massive hippie, but trust me, it’s worth it! 

Like linen, hemp requires very little water to grow. It also grows like a weed, meaning it’s massively resilient and therefore doesn’t require any pesticides or herbicides. As I touched upon earlier, that’s massively important in terms of being more ethical and eco-conscious. 

It also only takes 11 weeks for the crop to mature. The quicker something grows, the more sustainable it is, as using the material doesn’t mean that you’re completely ridding an area of it for a long period of time. 

A lot of people actually see growing hemp as hugely beneficial, too. Apparently, it helps to regenerate soil through transforming contaminating  metals. I’m not scienc-y, but that sounds like good stuff to me. Plus, it’s also it’s a great crop for rotation, especially for soybean and corn. 

And, again, that’s all on top of the fact that it’s biodegradable!

Similarly to hemp, bamboo also grows really quickly and with no need for chemical fertilisers or pesticides making it a very sustainable material in that sense. In fact, it’s the fastest growing plant in the whole world, with a much higher yield per acre than cotton for example. So, it is definitely a resource that we can afford to be using! 

It also requires 4 times less water than cotton and, get this (!), absorbs 35% more CO2 than any other type of forest. Those are some pretty impressive facts, right. 

However, there are also some issues with bamboo production that mean it’s not perfect. 

Unfortunately, in order to transform bamboo the plant into bamboo rayon for clothes, potentially hazardous chemicals are required. These chemicals, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid and carbon disulfide, are certainly not known for being great for the environment. 

On top of that, whilst bamboo itself may be better than cotton, it is often also mixed with cotton in order to have a better texture against the skin. This is still a step in the right direction, but means that it does share some of the same issues as cotton, just on a smaller scale. 

Finally, bamboo is most often produced as far away as China, meaning that its carbon footprint is added to when it’s brought to the UK. 

One fabric that I want to talk about which you might not of heard of yet is Tencel or lyocell, which are basically the same thing. It’s a really sustainable fabric that is regenerated from wood cellulose from eucalyptus tree. However, no old growth forests are used (meaning that they grow the plants specifically for the fabric and don’t cause deforestation). They also don’t use pesticides – yay! 

Tencel is also great in terms of chemical processing. Unlike rayon manufacturing used in bamboo, as I mentioned, and is very polluting, tencel is treated in a closed-loop cycle. To put it simply, that means that 99.5% of the emissions are recycled into the process again. 

How cool is that?

This method actually landed the creators the “European Award for the Environment” by the European Union. So, all pretty impressive stuff! 

Finally, I think it’s worth touching upon the use of recycled polyimides for fabric, also known as rPET. This isn’t a fabric that is massively widely available, but it is used by sustainable companies like Stay Wild Swim and TALA. 

Essentially, rPET is made of old pits of plastic, often plastic bottles, whcih are then turned into polyester. Of course, this is hugely exciting! It means that less waste is going to lanfill but that people can get hold of a fabric that a lot of us know and love. 

Plus, the process of creating rPET from plastic is less environmentally demanding than creating polyester from scratch. Recycled polyester requires 59% less energy, it reduces CO2 emissions by 32% and it can also reduce the extraction of crude oil and natural gas used to make new plastics. 

Of course, it’s not biodegradable. But that piece of plastic already existed, so I don’t see it as a major issue. Perhaps the only downside is the nano plastic it can release whilst washing, in the same way that polyester does. 

That is all of the fabrics that I want to talk about today, but I did want to quickly mention OEKO-TEX, STeP certification. It’s probably a bit of certification that you’ve seen before and I’ll leave the logo in the show notes for this episode. But basically what it means is, is that a brand have made big achievements in terms of how sustainable their fabrics are. They’re tested on use of chemicals, environmental performance, environmental management, occupational health and safety, social responsibility and quality management. So, if you see that label, it’s a pretty safe bet that the fabric is sustainable, though it doesn’t necessarily meant that the shop itself is! 

Before I head off, I do want to say that the best thing that you can do in terms of being more sustainable with your clothes is to buy less and to look after what you have. I totally get that a lot of these fabrics are simply not affordable for a lot of people, so don’t beat yourself up if you have to get something that contains nylon, polyester or acrylic. Just try your best to keep the item out of landfills for as long as possible through proper care and through buying items that you truly love. And then, wherever possible for you, invest in those more sustainable fabrics: Hemp, bamboo, organic cotton, tencel, rPET and linen. 

Just do what is possible for you, because that’s all anyone can ask!

WOW. That was a lot of talk about fabrics. But I actually really enjoyed learning more about sustainability in terms of materials for this episode, because there was plenty of this that I totally wasn’t aware of before.

What about you? Did you learn anything new in this episode? If you did, please do leave me a review on iTunes. It’s a great way to show your support for all of the time and effort I put into this podcast and all the completely free information that I provide. 

Another way to show this podcast some lovin’ is to share a screenshot of you listening on your Instagram stories. You can tag me @bethanypaigeaustin which I’ll link in the show notes and you can also use #everydayethical to make sure that everyone in our community finds you! 

If you want to learn more about sustainable fashion, I’m going to leave a link in the show notes to a blog post I wrote all about the questions that you should ask before buying a piece of clothing, including what fabric it’s made of and much more. So, keep on learning as soon as you’ve finished with this by checking that out! 

I hope you all have a lovely rest of your day and I’ll speak to you soon. 

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