What are our clothes made of?
We are going shopping… and usually, we have something in mind. Maybe we think about the fit, a cut, a specific style or a designer, a color, or an occasion. We will also probably consider the price, but what else should we think about? In addition, we always have to assess the quality and sustainability of the clothes we are buying. “Who made my clothes” and “What are my clothes made of” are both meaningful notions. Not everyone considers checking the label on a sweater to know what it is made of. However, it is important to develop a basic curiosity towards fabrics when purchasing clothing for the following reasons. The fashion industry makes about 25% of the world’s carbon budget, making it one of the most polluting industries second to the oil industry.
Fabrics contribute to this pollution exponentially: the fashion industry wastes perfectly usable textiles and slowly leaks toxins into the earth and microfibers into the waterways. All of these are methane emissions that contribute to climate change. When focusing on “What are my clothes made of” it is important to note that different fabrics have varying degrees of impact. If you choose materials that have a low environmental impact, you can help to change the fashion industry to be less polluting. This is more reason why we should understand fabrics.
So what are fabrics? Fabrics are made of fibers and they are put into two categories, Natural and Chemical Fibers.
Natural fibers are made of natural materials that come from plants or animals and they said to have a smaller environmental impact. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Let’s take bamboo for example. Bamboo is renewable, and biodegradable, which would make it an excellent choice as an environmentally-friendly fiber, but if it is transformed using a chemical procedure, it can have a negative impact. Chemical fibers are either artificial or synthetic, and they are also produced by men. The production of chemical fibers is cost-effective. However, they take a longer time to decompose biologically.
Currently, one of the worst fibers for the environment are – surprise! – cotton. Many do not know this, but cotton generally has a negative impact. It is water-intensive to cultivate and process. It takes between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make a T-shirt. However, sustainable cotton production and manufacturing is available. Some companies use methods to produce sustainable cotton, and often sustainable cotton use is noted on your garment. You can read it on a tag, or ask a vendor about it.
Another environmentally damaging fiber group is Synthetics (Polyester, Nylon, and Acrylic). Synthetic fabrics are usually produced from oil and account for 63% of the material input for textile production. While these fibers do not require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they are not biodegradable. They become waste, and rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning they are dependent on fossil fuel extraction.
Some of the best fibers for the environment are recycled man-made cellulose and bast fibers. In order to be environmentally friendly, we have to stop making use of virgin resources to produce new materials and instead use and repurpose what we already have. Fortunately, there is already a growing movement making use of recycled wool, cotton, and synthetic fabrics for design purposes.
Cellulose-based fibers are another good option. They are those fibers that are
derived from plant-based materials. Cellulose-based fibers can be safely biodegraded if they are produced without using any substances of concern.
Bast fibers are made of plants with a stem consisting of a woody core and fibrous bark, such as hemp, flax, nettle, and jute. These materials are of great interest because of their small footprint. They consume less water and have better resistance against pests and diseases than other natural fibers. For example, hemp can be grown in lots of different environments all over the world.
It does not need pesticides to thrive and contributes about half the carbon footprint of cotton while having similar properties. Besides these fibers, it is good to keep an eye on how technology is taking us to a more sustainable future. As a consumer, you can explore brands that are known for working with sustainable fabrics. Some brands are specifically focused on the environmental impact of fabrics.
There are companies today that work with fabrics where each fiber, chemical, and process is screened for compliance with a series of ecological and human health criteria:
PANGAIA is a fashion brand and R&D company that partners with the world’s leading research institutions, laboratories, and scientists to bring to life the latest problem-solving innovations in materials science through their products. They use bio-based fibers like yarn, as well as materials made from recycled plastic and garment waste.
PYRATES is a R&D and textile supplier that uses sustainable fibers in their formulas. They are natural, organic, biodegradable or upcycled fibers which consume less water, energy or CO2 during their production process. They focus on developing fully traceable, durable fabrics, which, due to their quality, will last for many years.
Stella McCartney is a luxury fashion brand that uses certifiably sustainable materials and continuously focuses on innovation. It aims to prove that it is possible to create luxurious products without causing unnecessary harm to the planet.
Aside from investing in the right clothes there are other ways we can all improve the sustainability our own wardrobes. Here are our top 3 tips:
1. We need to start buying better, focusing on quality and usability, and wasting less! There is an important question we should ask ourselves every time we want to buy new clothes: How many times will I put on these? According to Fashion For Good, when you use and wear your clothes for an additional 9 months, you will reduce waste and water usage by 20-30%.
2. Do not think of throwing away any unwanted clothing. It doesn’t matter how long we have used them. It doesn’t matter what we have used them for. In a way or another, all clothes can either be reused or recycled and have a potential second life after we no longer want to wear them.
3. We should buy vintage and avoid low quality and non-renewable clothes, as these will only produce more levels of waste. Reusing clothes that have already been produced saves resources. If we want to ensure that there are vintage items in the future, then we have to repair, sell, or donate our own clothing.
One of the best decisions we can make now that will impact our future positively is having a proper understanding of fabrics. If you have not been so conscious of what your clothes are made of, we are very happy you took the time to read this article. Whatever decision we make today will either have a positive or negative impact. Together, we can make a change; our future is right in our hands.
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