Updated: Feb 17, 2021
A quick guide to the adverse effects of different fabrics and my top picks of which fabrics you should use and avoid.
When I started writing this blog, I thought it would be a simple question. Which fabrics are better for the environment and society... turns out things aren't so clear cut. This is what I found.
My top sustainable fabric picks
The Good (Look for these! 👍)
The Bad (Avoid)
Elastine (Spandex or Lycra)
The Ugly (Avoid)
Wool - Mulesing of sheep is seen as unethical and non-sustainable5
Silk - Seen as unethical as the Pupae is killed by dropping the cocoons into boiling water
The fabrics that you wear and buy can make a big impact to the trail of social, economic and environmental damage that they often leave behind. The manufacturing and dying of fabric uses large amounts of water and energy 1, resources that must be wisely used to limit the impact on the environment. They also create a lot of waste, whether that be textile or chemical. The main concerns that consumers have around the social and socio-economic impacts of fabric manufacturing are 'health and safety, child labour, fair salary, employment security, equal opportunities, discrimination and respect for human rights' 2. In short, as consumers, we can be mindful to purchase and use fabrics that are more sustainable so as to reduce the effects that they have on people and planet.
The main goals for achieving a more sustainable fabric manufacturing process are eliminating the use of water, reducing chemical use and minimising toxic substance emissions.1 Special treatments and finishes to fabrics to make them flame retardant, water resistant, easy iron and care are often treated with chemicals that can harm the wearer and the maker 1. Things like 'headaches, allergies, skin irritation, and respiratory problems'3. Formaldehyde use for the development of easy-care finishes has been linked to nasal cancer and leukaemia in long term exposure1 and although there are regulations in many countries, they don't all align1. I'll never ignore the 'wash before use' recommendation again!
My general rule is to think about the entire life cycle of the product. How is it farmed, how is it manufactured and treated and what will happen to it after I use it? In industry terms this is called a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) where the 'eco-costs' of material depletion, transport and emissions, human toxicity and land use are considered4. Some researchers had a look at the LCA of common fabrics: cotton, polyester, nylon, PET and elastane4. It's important to note that where the fabrics are manufactured play a big role. Some products made in China have production facilities with older, more polluting power production4. Other factors are the size of the yarn and whether it is woven or knitted as the machinery has different eco-cost values4. Knitted fabrics use less energy4. Their research showed that cotton was the worst fabric in terms of eco-costs and acrylic was the best.. 🥴 go figure?! This didn't seem right to me... I thought cotton was good! Turns out I was wrong.
And what about Microfibres?
Buying organic and natural fabrics that don't contain plastics and heavily chemical coatings and dyes are a great place to start. The good news is, consumers, just like us, are putting the pressure on farmers and manufacturers and things are starting to change. Polluting textile materials like cotton and polyester3 may soon be history as new eco-fabrics emerge, like 'coconut husks, wood pulp and corn' 3, and others are a little bit more sci-fi like fabrics sourced from 'hagfish slime, fermented wine, spoiled milk and genetically engineered bacteria'3. In
But for now, which fabrics and processes rate the best? Which ones should we buy? Steer clear of elastane and polyester, these are made from fossil fuels and can leak micro-plastics into our waterways when we wash them. We can also look out for standards and certifications that help us recognise products from organisations that are doing their best to reduce the harms I've spoken about. One of these is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)3.
After reading up about the fabrics, and finding out about GOTS, I had a look inside my Ever Eco produce bags and look what I found!
1. De Smet, D, Weydts, D & Vanneste, M. Sustainable finishing and dyeing processes for textiles in : Blackburn, R, Environmentally Friendly Fabric Finishes, 2015 Elsevier Ltd.
2. Zamani, B. Towards Understanding Sustainable Textile Waste Management: Environmental impacts and social indicators, Technical report no: 2014:22, 2014, available from: http://publications.lib.chalmers.se/records/fulltext/204502/204502.pdf.
3. 'Sustainable textiles and their importance.' Indian Textile Journal, 15 Oct. 2015.
4. Natascha M. van der Velden & Martin K. Patel & Joost G. Vogtländer. LCA benchmarking study on textiles made of cotton, polyester, nylon, acryl, or elastane. Int J Life Cycle Assess [internet], 4 September 2014, [cited 25 April 2020], 19:331–356.
5. Smith, K. Sustainable textiles: Fact, fiction and the future, just-style.com, Jan 24, 2014.
Sources of information for businesses
Chemistry Australia: Responsible Care https://chemistryaustralia.org.au/safety-environment/responsiblecare