The fashion industry as it is today is not sustainable. As consumers, our priority has been on cheaper, easier, faster, when it should simply be on better: better fabrics, better quality, better working conditions. As a result of our desire for cheaper, easier, faster, our water is polluted with tanning chemicals, people who work in the industry suffer skin diseases, injuries & even death, and much of the clothing we’re finished with that doesn’t end up in landfills (and fails to decompose because it’s primarily synthetic) eventually makes its way to developing countries, crowding out local industry, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and fast fashion (= not sustainable).
Sustainable fashion, also called eco fashion, is a part of the growing design philosophy and trend of sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of environmentalism and social responsibility. – wikipedia
But what are our options if we want to do better? We can stop buying new altogether, sticking with second-hand/vintage, or simply not adding anything else to our wardrobes, wearing and taking care of what’s already in our closets. We can re-use what we have, tailoring things to fit, coming up with innovative ways to wear things we already own. And we can simply get by with less; we can have less, buy less.
In an ideal world, perhaps we could all just stop now, and work with what we have. This, I think, is the BEST option for having a more sustainable closet: wear what we have. But then that assumes that we have been buying high quality garments all this time and have a wardrobe full of things that will last (a questionable assumption, to be sure).
And then, what if you, like me, enjoy shopping? I like new things every once in a while (I could probably still acquire new things less frequently than I do but…baby steps…), and my attempts at not shopping for a period of time always go out in a giant ball of flames.
For me, then, the answer is to just try and be a more conscious consumer. I’m not going to argue against the reality that I’m a shopper (who runs a shopping blog), so I’m going to work hard to shop consciously, and with intention, making sure my choices have less of an impact on the environment and the people who live in it with me, constantly trying to do better.
How, then? First, I’ll start with fabrics. (I’ll tackle the supply chain and origin in another post).
Sustainable fabrics are the low-hanging fruit as it were; it’s easy to start simply by paying attention to fabric content. Everything we buy has a tag on it detailing the types of fibers that make up that garment. They also have a “made in” label, but again, that’s a discussion for another day.
I think first, just start to notice what your clothes are made of. Are they blends? 100% cotton? Rayon? Viscose? Read the tag, feel the garment, think about how well it’s held up, what you paid for it, whether you’d buy it again, etc., etc. Do you notice that most of your pieces that are poly blends were cheaper? Have they held up as nicely as 100% cotton pieces? Do they pill?
Then, as you’re thinking about adding new pieces to your wardrobe, keep in mind what you learned about the fabric content of what you already have, and how each item appealed (or didn’t) to you, held up over time, and then consider some facts about what makes a fiber sustainable:
Natural fibers (not petroleum-based) like cellulose or plant fibers (cotton, jute, flax, hemp, bamboo, soy) and protein or animal fibers (Wool, Silk, Angora, Camel, Alpaca, Llama, Vicuna, Cashmere*, Mohair) are most sustainable because they are renewable, carbon-neutral, and 100% biodegradable.
Of the natural fibers, then, what are the best choices for sustainable fabrics? Linen (flax) is excellent, as is hemp (although not legal to grow everywhere, or “soft” enough for certain garments), and maybe bamboo, although bamboo fabric can be environmentally damaging to produce because of the chemicals used to create a soft viscose from hard bamboo.
The most readily available sustainable fabric right now, is organic cotton.
To sustain a method of production in the long term (and thus make it sustainable), healthy and climate change resilient soils must be maintained, biodiversity of seeds and wildlife must be promoted and the livelihoods of farmers protected. Organic agriculture is based on this approach. – the organic cotton initiative
Cotton has its problems though. It has a relatively large carbon footprint for its cultivation and production, and all cotton, organic or not, uses a lot of water during the growth and dyeing phases.
Nothing is perfect. All we can hope for is better by one measure or another. And right now, organic cotton is a very good option for sustainable fabric, aside from recycled/surplus/vintage, because it is generally available, and relatively affordable. Companies like Zady and Eileen Fisher are doing amazing things to introduce pieces made of linen, and hemp, and making them more accessible, but for most things now, you can generally find a good organic cotton alternative.
Also, important is a fabric’s environmental and social impact during an items LIFESPAN – not just in production, but how it wears, washes, and breaks down, and this is where natural fabrics beat out all others; they are all 100% biodegradable. Some synthetic and semi-synthetic fabrics and garments can wash/wear pretty well (assuming they’re made well), while not always having the best hand feel, but take up to 200x longer to decompose once they’re discarded.
Finally, “protein fibers” (animal fibers) like wool/cashmere/alpaca/silk are considered natural and sustainable. These types of fibers are inherently sustainable, like plant fibers, since they are generally farmed and reproduce quickly. Whether you consider using animal fibers ethical or not is up to you, and indeed there is some debate about that, but such fibers are widely considered sustainable, although cashmere less so as we discover that increased demand has led to over-grazing – “using up” land otherwise availble to farmers in those areas.
Semi-synthetic fabrics are fabrics made from the manufacture of cellulose fibers, wood pulp and include rayon, viscose, modal, and lyocell. Viscose is most concerning, given “the environmental costs of its production” and revelations that according to NGO Canopy:
Seventy million trees fall every year in the world’s endangered forests to make almost 5 million tonnes of viscose for fabric production.
Yikes. Canopy is working with companies like Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher, Prana, Inditex (ZARA), H&M & Patagonia with the ultimate goal of phasing out the use of endangered forest fiber in fabric altogether, and presumably if you buy viscose or other cellulose fibers from any of those companies you can be relatively sure they didn’t come from endangered forests. But be aware and ask questions of other manufacturers who use viscose.
With regard to semi-synthetic and synthetic fibers, recycled or surplus is the best choice if you can find it (TYR uses recycled nylon in swimsuits, Reformation makes most of it’s designs with surplus fabrics), but otherwise, look for Tencel:
Tencel (the brand name for Lyocell) is specifically always produced in a closed-loop system where all the resources it takes to manufacture are recycled and used again in subsequent batches. This process is basically the definition of sustainable; it produces little waste, and uses a lot less water, although still requiring quite a bit of energy. Reformation works with a factory in LA that knits its own Tencel and uses a lot of it in their designs . The methods of production for other cellulose fibers differ, though, making it harder to call them equally sustainable. **and semi-synthetic fabrics do not breakdown like natural fabrics if they’re discarded.
We can’t leave out synthetics altogether though, because they’re not going anywhere. And anyway, I need my workout leggings to wick away sweat, and stretch with me; something you can only get with nylon/spandex. Synthetic fabrics, in general though, like nylon, polyester, spandex, etc. are not sustainable because chemicals used to manufacture them, then dye and treat them are environmentally harmful. Also, synthetic materials don’t break down as quickly, continuing to leach harmful chemicals into the environment when they’re discarded. Some polyesters include natural occurring chemicals plus synthetics, and interestingly, natural polyesters and a few synthetic ones are biodegradable, but most are not.
New technologies though, like AirDye (water-less dyeing) and certifications like BlueSign make synthetic fabrics/processes more sustainable (my favorite SoLow workout leggings are BlueSign certified sustainable nylon), and are excellent options when buying synthetics outside of recycled. And as I mentioned before, TYR uses recycled nylon in swimsuits.
There is a LOT more to know about sustainable fashion than just making the right fabric choices, but I’ll cover that in more posts later. And as I mentioned last week, Zady has done an AMAZING job of breaking things down in their New Standard section
It’s really up to you how you prioritize fibers when you choose to buy something new. Personally, I’ll look for organic cotton, hemp, linen, alpaca and recycled/surplus fabrics before anything else, but I may still choose to buy conventional cotton if I know that I’ll get a lot of wear/use out of a specific piece. You may be more of a secondhand shopper, and then when you buy something new, you may prefer Tencel, or surplus fabrics only. Again, you choose your path, whatever is better and feels right to you; the path you can keep walking on.