The clothing and textile industry as a whole is known to have detrimental effects on the environment. From energy intensive, polluting, and labour intensive manufacturing methods, to discarded clothing piling up in landfill, the negative impacts are only mounting over time. The advance of fast fashion, where clothing is made cheaply from inexpensive, poor quality and non-biodegradable materials and shipped to stores as quickly as possible, only to be discarded by the customer once a new trend emerges is mostly to blame.
In response to the environmental crisis caused by the negative impacts of the clothing and textile industries, companies and consumers alike have opted for more sustainable ways forward. A key solution so far has been utilising sustainable fabrics instead of their less sustainable counterparts.
Fabrics such as polyester, regular cotton, rayon, acrylic and nylon use a huge amount of energy, water and resources to produce, as well as producing toxic byproducts during their manufacturing process. They have the potential to release microplastics in the water during washing, as well as taking thousands of years to fully degrade in nature once disposed of.
Thankfully, there are plenty more planet-conscious options when it comes to fabrics, and their popularity is only growing. Here is a more comprehensive look into them;
Hemp is a natural fibre that is known for its extreme durability. It comes from the hemp plant, which is extremely fast-growing and requires very little water. Due to hemp being so densely and freely growing, it requires little to no pesticides. It also returns about 60-70% of the nutrients to the soil once it’s cultivated, giving hemp its worthy ‘eco-friendly’ label.
As it is an organic, plant-based fibre, hemp fabrics will completely biodegrade once disposed at the end of its life cycle. As hemp is so durable, products made from hemp fabric are not expected to be discarded for many years.
Linen is a plant-based fibre that is derived from flax. Linen uses considerably fewer resources and water than the likes of cotton or polyester to produce.
The flax plant can grow in poor quality soil, and in some cases can rehabilitate polluted soil. Much like hemp, it doesn’t require any pesticides to grow and is mostly a self-sufficient plant.
Linen is incredibly durable, lightweight, breathable, and naturally anti-bacterial. It is an ideal fabric for clothing, bed linen, and towels.
Recycled cotton is made from pre-existing cotton in the form of old garments and fabric scraps. It does not have the same negative environmental impacts as traditional cotton as utilises a pre-existing material, and therefore has very little production emissions.
Much like traditional cotton, recycled cotton can be used in almost any item of clothing.
Recycled polyester (rPET)
Recycled polyester (rPET) is actually derived from plastic water bottles. It is an innovative solution to the damaging effects of traditional polyester, which is the most environmentally damaging fabric to produce. Much like recycled cotton, rPET helps to offset the need to make a new material, by utilising one which already exists and repurposing it.
Due to this rPET helps to reduce textile waste ending up in landfills.
Recycled polyester is extremely durable against the elements, so it is an ideal material for clothing designed to be worn outdoors. It is often used to create outerwear, activewear, and running shoes.
rPET is considered the sustainable way forward for companies that manufacture sports uniforms. The fabric has been proven to be a durable, breathable, and comfortable uniform solution for athletes who will wear and wash the uniforms many times. A Perth company has already rolled out rPET in their basketball uniforms and netball dresses, using a rPET based fabric called ‘Intercool’.
Lyocell is a sustainable alternative to rayon. It is derived from wood pulp, usually eucalyptus trees. As eucalyptus trees grow quickly and require little water and pesticides to grow, there is little to no environmental damage done when harvesting from them. Lyocell also uses a closed-loop method of manufacture, meaning that 99% of the chemical and solvents used during the production process can be recovered and recycled with very little waste and very low emissions.
Lyocell is lightweight, breathable, doesn’t crease as readily as other fabrics, and is fully biodegradable. Research into the applications of Lyocell is ongoing, but it has been used in clothing, medical dressings, and even conveyor belts.
Econyl is a brand name for a more sustainable form of nylon yarn. It was created by an Italian company called Aquafil. It is actually made from discarded plastic waste, namely industrial plastic, and fishing nets—which have been a growing point of concern for marine environmentalists worldwide. By repurposing the fishing nets, it saves them from ending up in oceans and endangering marine life.
Much like Lyocell, Econly uses a closed-loop manufacturing process that uses very little water and produces little waste. It can be used to create everyday products and clothing.
A brighter future
Advances in technology and growing demand for more sustainable products have allowed for these innovative fabric alternatives to be created. Not only do they offer high-quality, durable, comfortable clothing solutions, they greatly reduce our collective environmental footprint. They are the future of our clothing industry, and we should truly invest in them if we wish to take care of our valuable planet.