The good, the bad, and the ugly fashion fabrics
I’m going slightly off topic with this post (and it’s quite a long post, so bear with me!), but I think it’s an important issue to address.
Last week I started a conversation on Instagram stories about synthetic fabrics, and how I’m going to try to avoid them when buying clothes in the future. I was blown away by how many of you responded, and the general consensus was that as consumers, we are all really confused. Cotton production wastes water, so is organic cotton something to embrace? Should we avoid synthetics altogether, or celebrate those made from recycled plastic? And what even is viscose?!
(I am talking specifically about clothing – not shoes – in this post. Shoes are a rather more complicated issue, but if you want to make your shoe shopping more sustainable you can read my Responsible Footwear Guide here for some pointers and brands which are doing it well.)
Some people commented that not everyone can afford to shop sustainably, but many budget brands have a decent offering – H&M’s Conscious range, Monki’s Care edit and Zara’s Join Life range for instance – so while there may be less choice, it is possible. There’s also a brilliant app called Good On You that you can use to check the ethical credentials of a brand before you shop there. The key is not where you shop, but how you shop. That said, shopping sustainably is still hard work.
Zara Join Life recycled polyester parka
It’s easy to get caught up with the joy of shopping and forget the environmental issues that you are passionate about elsewhere in your life – I’ll hold my hands up and say I am guilty of this – but we’re not always given very clear information from brands about what our clothes are made from. If you want to be a sustainable shopper, the onus is still very much on you to check labels and to do this, you need a certain amount of basic knowledge on how fabrics are made. It’s rare to find a brand that uses sustainable fabrics across the board, so it is this knowledge that I’m hoping to arm you with today so that you have the power to make your own sustainable choices as a consumer.
1. Why is manmade so bad?
I am making an effort to buy less, but occasionally I like a quick fashion fix as much as anyone, and it was a cheap Topshop polyester skirt that started this conversation on Instagram, so this is the issue I’m going to tackle first.
Polyester is the most used fabric in the world. It is manmade and, like plastic, is derived from oil, so it’s very polluting to produce and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade when sent to landfill. Once you own an item of polyester or synthetic clothing, you will release plastic microfibres into the water system every time you put it through a cycle in the washing machine – something I hadn’t given any consideration to until a few months ago.
On the upside, recycled polyester does exist. It is usually made from recycled plastic (PET) bottles, which is a much better option than virgin polyester because it doesn’t use any additional oil to produce. In addition, many brands that use recycled polyester harvest the bottles from ocean plastic, which is obviously a brilliant thing, and they often plough a percentage of their profits back into protecting the environment (see Parley For The Oceans, which works with global brands like adidas and Nike).
Monki 95% organic leopard top; Arket organic cords; Good News London organic cotton and recycled rubber sneakers
2. What’s in your jeans?
Of course cotton is a natural fibre, so it scores well when it comes to biodegrading, but there are many environmental and social issues in terms of its production. Growing it uses a lot of fertilisers and pesticides, and is often produced in areas of the world which are naturally very dry, so it uses a huge amount water.
Over its lifetime, for example, a single pair of jeans will use an average of 10,850 litres of water, and will cause around 32.5kg of CO2 emissions, from its initial production right through to its life with you.
Cotton also has a terrible track record when it comes to workers’ rights, so if that is your main worry, look out for Fairtrade Cotton as an alternative, which will mean that the farmers involved got a fair wage and were treated well. If the environment is your priority, organic cotton might be for you; it uses on average a whopping 70% less water than non-organic (it also uses far less energy and no pesticides). Happily, Fairtrade and organic cotton often go hand-in-hand.
3. Is “natural” always natural?
Viscose, or rayon, is the earliest example of a manmade fibre, and was originally called artificial silk. Since it is made from wood pulp, you might imagine that it’s a pretty sustainable fabric, being a “natural” fibre. Unfortunately, many of the 70 million trees logged for this purpose each year do not come from sustainable sources.
Added to this, to make the wood pulp into cloth fibres, it is mixed with caustic soda, carbon disulphide and sulphuric acid, which can be toxic for the workers who are producing the viscose. The manufacture of viscose fibres contributes to more greenhouse gases than cotton production, and many producers in China, Indonesia and India are guilty of contaminating local waterways and lakes with untreated waste water.
People Tree 100% TENCEL™ lyocell jumpsuit
The good news is that there are some brilliant alternative fabrics made from wood pulp that are sustainable and infinitely less polluting in their production, and the brands that use them are very keen to promote them on their labelling, so they’re usually easy to find. In particular, look out for lyocell, which is often listed as the brand name TENCEL™.
4. Witness the fitness : what’s the environmental cost of your gym gear?
I’ve only recently become the sort of person that gets excited at the prospect of a pair of leggings that promises to stay up over my belly during a set of burpees (blame freelance life for my new love of the gym) but our passion for fitness brings with it a need for stretchy manmade fibres.
Lycra and other stretch fabrics have a similar environmental impact as polyester, but there are good stretch fabrics and bad ones, so it’s worth reading the label if you would prefer to be sustainable during your workout.
On a positive note, because many people who enjoy sport also enjoy the great outdoors, athleisure brands are perhaps working more quickly at becoming sustainable, and are also communicating it much better to their consumers. You can pick up a pair of leggings made from recycled PET bottles or even coffee granules pretty easily; small yoga brands like British label Flip The Dog are a particularly good place to start.
Clockwise from top left: One Teaspoon 20% organic cotton jeans; Bailey Nelson 70% plant-based acetate sunglasses; Monki 95% organic cotton top; Maik London eco-friendly dyed socks; Good News London organic cotton and recycled rubber sneakers; Lowie 100% British lambswool jumper
5. Tell people about your clothes
If you’ve gone to the effort to shop sustainably and someone compliments you on your clothes, tell them about them! The best way to get the message across is to speak to people.
I find I now spend half my time saying “it was knitted in Scotland! The sheep are really happy!” or “it took 12 recycled plastic bottles to make this!”. Having someone see a beautiful piece of clothing that tells a story, and telling them that story, is far more powerful than someone skim reading an article like this on the train.
This is just a snapshot of a much wider issue (we haven’t even touched on the end of life of your synthetic clothing – a whopping 350,000 tonnes of wearable clothing goes to landfill in the UK each year) but it’s as good a place as any to start. And if you want to read more about sustainability in fashion, I’ve listed some additional resources below.
I’d love to hear from you on this issue. Please leave comments!
Really useful Hannah. Trying to be more sustainable but as you say it’s quite hard work!
It really is! It shouldn’t be up to us to make all the decisions but in lieu of governing bodies and brands taking the lead I feel it’s important to arm ourselves with information so we can make informed decisions with our shopping. And that in itself is not easy!
I know its a much bigger issue that one fibre over another but I’m attempting to give up polyester. I allow myself to buy second hand but otherwise its a no no. Wool and other animal fibres are my preference for knitwear, cotton and modal or lyocell for everything else. I may have let a faux leather skirt through the net but otherwise I’m doing ok. But is only I could find a cream wool cropped chunky ribbed cardigan I would be happy. perhaps I need to learn to knit!!
You should! Making your own clothes is such a great thing because then you are in complete control! Says the person who would struggle to use a sewing machine…(and I’m a pretty awful knitter, too!)
Great to see posts like this. Clothing made from recycled PET fibres is better but still not a perfect solution as they still shed fibres when washed. Most synthetic polymers can only be recycled 7-9 times. My colleague and I teach these issues along with other aspects of material sustainability here in NZ. Better to do something even if it seems small.
Yes I did have these facts in my original draft but it just got so complicated! I wanted to make it as straightforward as possible. Trouble is, it’s not straightforward! I like the brands that use recycled PET when they are clearing up the oceans but agree, best to avoid completely if possible.
There is a product called guppy friend which is supposed to stop the micro plastics getting into the water when you wash them (essentially a giant net bag you put all your clothes in before putting in the washing machine). I’ve yet to get one but this article has reminded me! Since 100% avoidance is unlikely, perhaps it’s a good compromise?
Personally I hate the feel of polyester – it makes me really hot – so I’ve avoided it for a long time for that reason, except in gym wear of course…(!)
Yes I’d heard of that too – thanks for the reminder as I’ve also been meaning to try it out
[…] READ MORE: 5 EASY WAYS TO BE A MORE SUSTAINABLE SHOPPER […]
Fantastic article, thank you! Have just downloaded the Good On You app. Doing an increasing amount on sustainability at work which just makes me even more keen to do my bit at home as well.
That’s great to hear!
Thanks for this, Hannah. It’s incredibly useful in what sometimes feels like a minefield of information! It’s also even more useful as we’re running a fashion sustainability event in our school tomorrow – there’s a few tips here I can add to the info. Thanks!
Oh so glad to be of help! It is absolutely a minefield. There is no cure all answer but the more we know the better decisions we can make. How brilliant you are doing that in your school!
Great article – exactly what I was looking for, thank you! I’ve been trying to become more sustainable with clothing, food, washing products. But as you say, it can be quite hard. Have you ever come across sustainable brands that make ladies formal wear – suites, dresses, white shirts/blouses? I’d appreciate any pointers. Thank you!
[…] READ MORE: HOW TO BE A MORE SUSTAINABLE SHOPPER […]