It’s no secret: the retail industry dramatically contributes to climate change. Estimates say between 3-8% of all carbon emissions can be attributed to textiles, and, if trends continue, it could account for 25% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.
And that’s not even including the other negative impacts of chemical waste, water and air pollution, and humanitarian crises affecting animals, farmers, and factory workers around the world.
Between agriculture, energy, water use, manufacturing, dying, treatment, transportation, distribution, and eventually the disposal of clothing around the world – garment production causes more harm to the environment than many consumers would care to admit.
However, consumers of today are more informed about social and environmental causes than in any previous decade, and they are aware of their power of choice. As a designer or creator of textile products, you have the power to avoid contributing to this massive problem by choosing materials and production partners that operate with the highest ethical and environmental standards in focus.
Let’s take a look at some of the harmful aspects of the textile industry, key fabrics to avoid, and some excellent sustainable fabric choices that you can implement into your business and feel good about.
Why is retail so harmful to the environment?
The textile industry – between clothing, accessories, footwear, home décor, furniture, and other textile categories – produces over 100 billion products annually. Chief concerns with garment and textile production include chemical waste, textile waste, soil degradation, and pollution of natural bodies of water – all of which contribute to climate change.
Additionally, a lack of transparency and accountability among retailers in producing their goods ethically creates confusion for consumers that want to shop with sustainable businesses. These, and more, are issues that farmers, manufacturers, designers, and retailers alike – not to mention governments worldwide – all have an obligation to resolve.
The average American throws away over 70-80 pounds of clothing every year. Only about 15% of that is recycled, while about 25% is destroyed, and another 60% end up in landfills. However, the vast majority of textile waste does not come from consumers, but from manufacturers and retailers. The EPA reports that United States retailers generate about 17 million metric tons of textile waste annually, 95% of which could have been reused, recycled, or donated.
Man-made fibers now constitute 70% of global fiber production. Environmental campaigner Dame MacArthur released a report recently which outlined that:
- Less than 1% of material used to make clothing is recycled into new garments;
- An entire truckload of clothing is wasted every second across the world;
- The average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36% in 15 years;
- Half a million tons of plastic microfibers are released annually from washed garments – 16X more than cosmetics – contributing to ocean pollution.
Now is the time for textile retailers to take a fresh look at what they’re telling customers and make changes needed to comply with demands of environmentalists, human right activists, and even shoppers who are actively looking for brands that are doing good for the world.
By stepping away from traditionally used fabrics and innovating with more sustainable crops and farming techniques, we can effectively reduce and/or eliminate carbon emissions, animal welfare issues, human rights violations, and the pollution or disruption of natural resources. With enough participation from fashion and other textile retailers worldwide, we can take steps to actually REVERSE global warming by removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
What are the worst fabrics for the environment?
Estimates suggest that as much as 20% to 35% of all microplastics in the marine environment are fibers from synthetic clothing. Aside from plastics, there are also fibers that have high costs in water waste, pollution, and human rights violations.
When seeking raw materials and production partners for your business, you’ll often find some of the most widely available materials to be the most harmful, and unfortunately, also the most affordable. As fashion industry professionals, it is our duty to be aware of which materials to avoid as you are producing your fashion lines.
Polyester is non-biodegradable, meaning that it takes at least 20, but as many as 200 years to break down in a landfill. Polyester is also derived from oil, which is a major source of environmental pollution. Also, its energy-intensive production processes can lead to reduced availability of clean drinking water in areas of water scarcity, and chemical waste from garment factories are a major contributor of microplastics.
The production process to make acrylic uses highly toxic chemicals that can harm factory workers by skin contact or inhalation, not to mention, the material can take up to 200 years to break down.
Cotton as a fiber is not inherently harmful. However, conventional cotton farming is considered extremely harmful to the environment because of the vast amounts of water needed. Between growing the plants, producing the yarns, fabrics, and eventually finished garments, it takes nearly three thousand gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans.
Cotton’s most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of agrochemicals, namely pesticides, the consumption and pollution of water, soil degradation and erosion, and the conversion of lands once used as animal habitats to farms for agricultural use.
Rayon is known in the textile industry for regularly being greenwashed due to being a plant-based fiber, but in actuality, it is not deserving of any sustainability badge. The actual material is biodegradable and non-toxic, but the production process is harmful to the environment and the workers due to it’s high tolls in water waste, energy expenditure, and chemical processing. Demand for rayon has also increased the demand for plants, so deforestation of some very important lands has become rampant as farmers and manufacturers try to keep up with the demand from fast fashion retailers for rayon.
Nylon, like polyester, is also derived from crude oil. It is non-biodegradable, and is made from petroleum, which is one of the worst industries in regards to carbon emissions and environmental impact, water waste, and pollution of microplastics.
There are many fabrics that break the cardinal rules of sustainability and environmental protection, but by avoiding these core few and focusing on better alternatives like you’ll find below, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of retail corporations – and your customers will thank you for it by choosing to shop with you.
What fabrics are the most sustainable and environmentally friendly?
-Now that you know which unsustainable materials to avoid and why, you need to know what more sustainable fabric options you have to consider.
From Vogue Business, “The vast majority of materials on earth will biodegrade. The problem is that some, like plastic, will take a millennium to disappear.” First and foremost, biodegradable fabrics are always the best choice. These are natural textiles that easily break down in as little as a few weeks, up to a few years. Popular examples of natural fibers include cotton, wool, silk, flax, jute, and hemp.
Conversely, non-biodegradable fabrics are man-made, and can take between 20-200 years to fully break down. However, there are a myriad of both natural and synthetic materials that, when grown and processed with the environment in mind, can lower, or even reverse the carbon footprint of textiles.
Linen fabric is already quite popular in the textile industry due to its natural properties of being highly absorbent, lightweight, soft, and durable. Its durability can be attributed to the fact that flax fibers are much longer than cotton fibers, thus resulting in very strong threads once the fibers have been spun into yarns.
However, linen production is not without its faults. Linen fabric is often bleached before dying, which can cause water pollution and harm to garment workers. Additionally, linen also wrinkles easily if not treated with wrinkle-resistant chemicals (which are also good to avoid).
One of the most eco-friendly fabrics around, hemp plants actually sequester carbon, meaning it removes carbon emissions from the air and deposits them back into the soil, creating more nutrient-rich, fertile soil, while simultaneously helping to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gasses.
Additionally, hemp is the most durable of all natural fibers, it grows abundantly in many different climates around the world, produces two times more fiber per acre than cotton, and uses 50% less water than cotton production.
Hemp plants also have long roots, so it does not contribute to soil erosion. The fabric itself is highly absorbent and lightweight, and is said to be up to three times stronger than cotton. There is very little waste created in the production of hemp, and is less harmful to the farmers who grow it.
A few cons about hemp include that it wrinkles very easily. With repeated or prolonged wrinkling, the fibers can start to wear down and break, especially at high-abrasion points like the hem, sleeve, or collar.
This is by far the most widely known sustainable material. Organic cotton is praised for being GMO-free, farmer-friendly due to the lack of pesticides, fertilizers, and other harmful chemicals, and uses over 70% less water, and over 60% less energy than conventional cotton.
Currently, organic cotton makes up less than 1% of all cotton production, so there is a lot of room to expand the demand for this method of growing in lieu of conventional cotton farming. Just keep in mind, the only proof that the cotton you’re buying is organic is certification; otherwise it’s just the word of whomever you’re considering for your cotton supply.
Like organic cotton, recycled cotton is praised for being GMO-free, using even less water, and having very low energy requirements to produce. The biggest benefit of all, however, is that unwanted materials are diverted from ending up in landfills when they are recycled.
Unfortunately, each time cotton is recycled, the quality of the fibers is reduced, resulting in a lower quality material that is more fragile. As such, many recycled cotton fabrics have a blend of synthetic fibers added to improve the durability of recycled cotton.
Cotton may be a naturally biodegradable material, but it can still take a while for tightly woven fabrics to fully break down. So, adding synthetic fibers to improve the quality of recycled cotton fabrics also further prevents the material from being composted.
Bamboo is often touted as being eco-friendly due to the availability and high yield of bamboo. The plant grows very quickly, is incredibly resilient, consumes high levels of CO2, and saves a great deal of water. Sounds great, right? While bamboo can be manufactured sustainably, such as with bamboo linen, these less-harmful versions of the fabric are quite rare.
Bamboo rayon, also known as bamboo viscose, is more commonly available, and is not deserving of any gold stars for sustainability due to its processing methods, which involves high levels of water waste and the use of dangerous chemicals: sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid. These harsh chemicals have been found to be detrimental to the environment and harmful to people.
From PureWow’s article on the 13 most sustainable apparel fabrics, “Bamboo processing isn’t as well monitored or regulated as cotton, linen or hemp, and all too often involves harsh chemicals or harmful land-clearing methods.” For these reasons, GOTS does not currently certify bamboo, even though it’s a natural fiber.
The key takeaway? It is far easier on the environment to opt for responsibly grown, and organic bamboo fabrics.
Wool can certainly cross the threshold into inhumane and unsustainable if it’s not raised and harvested ethically. However, with the right processes in place, this material is sustainable, renewable, and does not harm animals (when shearing is done by hand vs by machine). Also, with controlled grazing techniques, wool livestock can help sequester carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil to reduce the environmental impact.
The Responsible Wool Standard is a voluntary standard that addresses the welfare of sheep and the land they graze on. The RWS provides tools, training, and standards by which all participants of the supply chain, from farmers and yarn makers, to manufacturers and retailers are held. As long as animal and worker welfare are maintained, these wools can be excellent and eco-friendly additions to your collections.
- Sheep Wool
- Merino Wool
- Cashmere Wool
- Alpaca Wool
- Yak Wool
- Camel Wool
Lyocell is a sustainable, semi-synthetic material made from wood pulp, usually eucalyptus trees. It grows very fast, and doesn’t require replanting, pesticides, fertilizer, or chemical treatment. The fabric is made by dissolving the pulp with a non-toxic solvent, drying the mixture, then spinning the fibers into yarns, and eventually into fabric.
Lyocell is made using a closed-loop process, which means the water and chemicals are reused, which is better for the environment. A few downsides to this fabric is that it doesn’t hold dyes very well, so the colorfastness may be compromised. Also, because of the short fibers, it can pill easily if not handled gently during washing and other care.
Piñatex is a sustainable, semi-synthetic material made from the discarded leaves of pineapples, and is a suitable, plant-based replacement for leather. This material is considered highly sustainable because of its closed-loop production process, and because it turns trash (food byproduct) into treasure.
However, pineapple growing is very time consuming and water intensive. Thus, if the demand for pineapple leaves rises too quickly, it could ultimately lead to deforestation.
Econyl is a vegan, synthetic substitute for nylon. Made from recycled industrial plastics and fishing nets, the process to make Econyl is closed-loop, which means water is reused and never leaves the facility.
Because this fabric also releases microplastics when washed, it’s best for items that don’t need to be washed frequently, like shoes, handbags, backpacks, lunch boxes, etc.
Modal is a sustainable, semi-synthetic fiber made from the pulp of beech trees. It is generally regarded as softer and more delicate than its relative, lyocell, and also uses a closed-loop production system to recycle both water and chemical solvents.
This material, when produced responsibly, can be carbon neutral, and recycle up to 99% of the chemicals used during production; the Lenzing Group is a world leader in creating sustainable modal fabric.
Qmonos, a synthetic spider silk, is vegan, biodegradable, sustainable, and ethically made. It is also regarded as one of the strongest fibers in the world, said to be five times stronger than steel. The physical properties of Qmonos silk are often compared to rayon and natural silk, despite being made entirely of synthetic proteins modeled after the fiber-producing genes of spiders.
Currently, there are only a handful of companies experimenting with this material. Spiber, the primary producer of this material, calls the fiber Qmonos, based on kumonosu, the Japanese word for spiderweb. In 2015, the makers of this innovative fiber did a collab with Northface to make a parka for extreme cold weather.
While Qmonos may not be widely used yet, due to its strength, durability, and low impact on animals and the environment, this just might be the go-to rayon or silk replacement of the future.
While virgin polyester is a known culprit of climate change, when it’s recycled, this vegan, synthetic material has a much lower impact on mother earth. According to the NGO Ocean Conservancy, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate in marine environments.
Recycled polyester requires 35% less water than conventional polyester, and can be recycled several more times before the fabric becomes unusable. However, it’s important to note that even recycled polyester can still release microplastics during laundering, so it’s important to minimize the frequency of laundering, and use a washing bag to prevent plastics from entering waterways.
Innovators have developed a new vegan leather alternative that is made from a food byproduct of everyone’s favorite probiotic drink: Kombucha. SCOBY leather is made from a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (S.C.O.B.Y.).
This sustainable, semi-synthetic material is made from the cellulose film that is produced by bacteria and yeast cultures formed during Kombucha fermentation. When laid in a mold, SCOBY leather (also known as Kombucha leather) dries quickly, and after some final processing, can be used in a variety of products from footwear, to handbags, clothing, and accessories.
Aside from causing no harm to animals, and needing no harsh chemicals during processing or tanning, SCOBY leather is also significantly less expensive to make than it’s non-vegan counterpart.
Cupro is a vegan alternative to silk that is made from an often unused part of the cotton plant. This material is praised for being made using a closed-loop process, having low shrinkage during laundering, good levels of absorbency, and a natural resistance to wrinkles.
However, from Sustainable Jungle, while cupro is “both a recycled and semi-natural fabric (and thus far more sustainable than any non-recycled synthetic),” it is one of the least sustainable options on this list.
The major cons with this material are that it stains easily, and from an environmental standpoint, it goes through a round of salt processing that requires significant amounts of water.
Synthetic rubber is basically made of plastic, whereas genuine rubber is a natural polymer made from the milk (known as latex) of the Hevea tree. Natural rubber comes from a renewable source, and is an essential raw material used in more than 40,000 products, ranging from medical gloves and car tires to pacifiers and footwear.
The best part of using natural rubber instead of synthetic, aside from the natural biodegradability, is that the harvesting of rubber does not harm trees, but actually helps them flourish. It also prevents forests from being cut down as this renewable resource gives economic value to the continued exploitation of the Hevea tree.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
Genuine leather will never be an animal-friendly product, as it is the dried skins of dead animals. However, the majority of leather produced comes from animals that are already being harvested for their meat, so in essence, the leather is a food byproduct.
However, the ethical and environmental concerns with meat raising are not absolved by this fact. Furthermore, the biggest problem with leather production as a textile is the harmful and often toxic chemicals that are used in dying, or “tanning” the material.
If you’re set on using leather in your collection, opting for leathers that have been tanned with vegetable-based dyes is a great step in the right direction. Of course, you always want to ensure that any leather you’re sourcing came from ethical farms that focus on animal welfare, but responsibly-raised, and responsibly-dyed leather is far better on animals, factory workers, and the earth than conventional methods.
Like the leather industry, down is an animal byproduct, as the feathers used for duvet blankets and puffer jackets are often harvested during duck or goose meat production. However, many breeders will repeatedly pluck feathers from live birds over their lifetime to maximize their economic output, which causes extreme pain and distress to the birds.
It’s especially important to avoid down that comes from any facility that produces foie gras, as these birds are being force-fed to fatten them up and inflame their livers. Initiatives like the Responsible Down Standard are helping duck and goose farmers to prioritize animal welfare, rewarding and influencing the down and feather industry for practices that respect the humane treatment of ducks and geese. Check here to browse the Textile Exchange’s list of RDS certified companies.
Silk is a protein fiber spun by silkworms, and is a renewable resource. Silk is also biodegradable. For these reasons, we consider silk a sustainable fiber. However, chemicals are used to produce conventional silk, so we will always consider organic silk to be a better option.
Because conventional silk production kills the silkworm, animal rights activists call for the use of “Peace Silk” – ahimsa silks which allow the moth to exit their cocoon before it is boiled to produce silk.
However, in digging deeper, even peace silk has been known to cause more harm than good in some factories. In an article by Shop Like You Give A Damn, they share that lyocell, modal, or recycled synthetic fibers are great alternatives to silk, as they meet the criteria of being a soft and shiny fabric with a luxurious feel.
What makes a fabric sustainable?
There is no such thing as a 100% sustainable fabric, but some are much better than others. The sustainability of a material is determined by the amount of resources used to produce the material, and the life-cycle analysis of the product. A life-cycle analysis is a review of the product from “birth” to “death” and its impact through each phase of its life.
For a fabric to qualify as sustainable, it ought to meet a few qualifications:
- It makes animal and worker welfare a priority
- It reduces or eliminates the output of water, textile, or chemical waste
- It comes from a renewable source
“A truly conscious company will make transparency a top priority and have a section or page on their website dedicated to the fabrics they use.” –The Good Trade
The increased interest in sustainability of textiles can be seen in the work conducted by the industry, as well as by governments and other authorities of some countries. However, since fabric content is one of the only facts that is available on all clothing products, this is often the most frequent basis for comparison.
Where can I find sustainable materials?
So, now you know about a few dozen sustainable fabric choices that are good for your business, and even better for the earth. But, how do you actually find these materials? How do you find the suppliers who back up their sustainability claims, and truly hold your values regarding environmental protection, animal welfare, and human rights?
If you are a product designer, or even a hobbyist, seeking sustainable, ethically produced materials, there are a few sources you can try to find a sustainable supplier.
How can you tell that a supplier is ethical & sustainable?
As previously mentioned, the only “proof” in the textile industry is certifications. There are a number of organizations that have created sustainability and responsibility standards. Here are some examples of textile certifications to look out for:
There are a number of criteria that organizations like these use to grade businesses for being ethical or sustainable. But some of the key qualifications are:
- Transparency – who made it, how was it made, what raw materials, production processes, dyes, etc;
- Sustainability – eco-friendly materials, renewable energy, reduce water waste, carbon emissions, investing in circularity;
- Fair labor – businesses that treat farm and factory workers humanely, providing dignified employment, living wages, healthcare, childcare, and investing in the communities where they operate.
How do you know if a business is greenwashing?
Some companies may participate in a form of performative activism called “greenwashing.” To paraphrase an article on PureWow, greenwashing is when a company pushes environmentally-focused initiatives in an attempt to hide some of their not-so-green behavior.
Greenwashing can be difficult to spot, but designers, retailers, and consumers alike should be aware of a few tell-tale signs that a fashion brand or supplier is greenwashing:
- Impressive-sounding initiatives to reduce carbon emissions at head office
- Eco-friendly packaging (and not much else)
- Energy efficiency that is really just them following environmental laws
- Misleading claims and sustainability targets
- Payment of a ‘minimum wage’ versus a ‘living wage’
- ‘Sustainable collections’ from large companies versus widespread adoption of sustainable production practices
Great examples of greenwashing in the fashion industry are by fast-fashion brands like Zara, Uniqlo, and H&M. These brands advertise their green initiatives heavily, despite sustainability programs representing only a small fraction of their collections, production methods, and company focus, as a means to win favor with eco-conscious consumers.
In 2019, H&M launched a “green” apparel capsule that was titled Conscious. They claimed to use organic cotton and recycled polyester in the collection, but it was found to be nothing more than a shady marketing ploy to appear more eco-conscious. The fast-fashion retailer was reprimanded by the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF) for engaging in misleading marketing tactics. In their 2021 report, CMF found H&M to be one of the worst offenders of greenwashing, “with a shocking 96% of their claims not holding up.”
From Good On You, a blog dedicated to supporting ethical and sustainable fashion, “when brands like these talk about reducing waste without changing their mass production practice, then the greenwashing alarm bells should be ringing.”
Since feeling the heat, H&M appears to have gotten more serious about righting the wrongs they’ve inflicted upon the environment. On the sustainability section of their website, they promote innovation in textile production, transparency in how and where they produce, closing the production loop to minimize water waste and pollution, and even programs like recycling and repairing clothing before you consider buying something new.
Athletic apparel is another industry that has a long way to go in achieving sustainable production methods and using eco-friendly materials. Brands like Adidas are setting the stage, taking a stand against virgin polyester, and actively working to reduce the global footprint of their entire fleet of products. Though, even they still have a long road ahead.
We’ve only got one earth, and we need to protect it at all costs. Over 90% of the climate change that has occured during the last 150 years can be attributed to human activites.
But, the fashion industry isn’t going anywhere, nor do we want that! As creative people with a passion for clothing, accessories, cosmetics, and home furnishings, we see no reason that these industries can’t or shouldn’t exist. But, it’s up to all of us to challenge ourselves, and the corporations, governments, and suppliers who refuse to put our earth first.
If product designers like you – who give a damn about this world we call home – continue to focus on choosing materials, vendors, and manufacturers that operate ethically and sustainably, the textile industry will change for the better.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hi, I’m Taylor Daniel, CEO of FOMO agency. Before starting my Fashion Launch Coaching business, I earned a B.S. in Fashion Merchandising. I’ve also have two decades of retail experience, including work as a fashion buyer for numerous popular retail corporations.
I’m on a mission to help small businesses take over the fashion industry, one profitable launch at a time. I help business owners go from confused-about-where-to-start to having a clear vision and path toward profit!