ARE SUSTAINABLE FABRICS ALL THEY CLAIM TO BE?
The shift to conscious fashion gives consumers power to shape the future of clothing production and create solutions to counter the devastating environmental impact of textiles in the modern world.
The clothing industry contributes 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions into the air every year. The industry consumes an immense amount of water and heavily pollutes the water it uses, leading to severe environmental and community damage.
The numbers are staggering, with around 8,000 synthetic chemicals used to turn raw materials into textiles that we are putting against our skin and that run off is leeching into the Earth. Eight thousand! Statistics show that these chemicals from the treatment and dyeing of textiles make up 20% of global industrial water pollution. In response to this crisis, many brands are seeking more renewable, sustainable and humane solutions when it comes to clothing production.
With a plethora of natural fabrics to choose from, for the environmentally savvy shopper, there are still questions to be answered. We take a look at trending ‘sustainable’ fabrics to help you make the most informed decision when it comes to the quality and sustainability of the items you put against your skin.
BAMBOO AS A FABRIC
Bamboo clothing has been making its mark in the sustainable fashion industry and is touted as being a durable and renewable fabric. It is soft and comfortable, wrinkle resistant, naturally anti bacterial and highly absorbent with wicking capabilities. Bamboo as a plant, is considered a good choice for the environment for a few reasons. It grows prolifically- up to 1m per day and it regenerates and requires little water, pesticides and fertilisers. When compared to similar types of woody plants, bamboo absorbs five times more carbon dioxide and can produce 35% more oxygen. Bamboo is incredibly strong and durable which is why we see it used in a variety of products including structural support for buildings and scaffolding, flooring, kitchen utensils, joinery and much more.
IS BAMBOO CLOTHING SUSTAINABLE?
Well herein lies the catch. The downside to bamboo is not the plant nor the farming, but in the production of turning this strong, woody plant into fabric. This is also why, despite evidence of attempted production since 1881, it is only since the late 1990’s that technology and infrastructure has been available to commercially produce soft fabric from bamboo pulp.
There are two ways that bamboo fabric can be manufactured, mechanically or chemically.
Mechanical processing requires a lot of manpower and energy to break down the pulp using natural enzymes and yields a slightly harder fibre, which is often spun into what we know as bamboo linen. It is produced using a chemical-free process, however, the end product is a course linen.
Chemically processing tough bamboo fibres into silky bamboo clothing is not easy and often involves a lot of questionable chemicals, such as sulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide to dissolve the bamboo cellulose. The resulting fabrics are rayon - or otherwise known as viscose and are classified as a “human-made, regenerated” fibres. Sometimes clothing may be sneakily labelled as bamboo when it is actually rayon. Rayon doesn’t have any bamboo qualities; it is a human made synthetic fabric that is simply derived from the chemically extracted cellulose of bamboo. Other plants like cotton as well as trees can be used in same way to make rayon.
THE UPSIDE AND BENEFITS OF BAMBOO CLOTHING
There is an environmentally friendlier chemical process of making bamboo fabric called lyocell. One brand name for the lyocell process is Tencel®.
Tencel replaces the chemically intensive process with the NMMO process. The solution of N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide is more easily recoverable, and a closed-loop solvent system means almost no solvent is dumped into the ecosystem. Instead, it is recycled to produce new fibres and minimise harmful waste. Tencel® is also made from sustainably sourced bamboo (and other wood) through sustainably managed PEFC or FSC tree plantations which means they are certified as part of programs to protect forests and promote sustainable forest management.
However, Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) cannot certify chemically processed bamboo fibre or fabric even if the bamboo has been organically grown.
In terms of environmental impact, mechanically processed bamboo linen is a better choice however, neither of the methods above can be considered a sustainable solution.
As consumers, it’s important to become more knowledgeable about bamboo fabric production. Efforts to reduce the environmental impact of processing bamboo are being explored and the lyocell process will hopefully replace the harsh chemically processed rayon.
The verdict? At the end of the day, you're not wearing a natural fibre. Do your research before purchasing bamboo textiles claiming to be sustainable or natural as not all fabrics are created in a sustainable way. Look for certifications that no harmful chemicals were used during processing and or present at all on their final product.
IS ORGANIC COTTON A CHEMICAL FREE ALTERNATIVE?
As the most widely used natural fibre for clothing, cotton is a fabric that needs no introduction. It is widely used as a renewable resource that is natural and biodegradable, although many consumers are concerned about the chemicals and pesticides that are used on cotton crops and the excessive water use required [2700 litres!] to produce just one t-shirt. To curb this concern, organic cotton is seen as a more conscious choice when it comes to clothing. But what are we really buying into? Does organic really make a difference?
The short answer is, yes. When it comes to clothing, opting for organic instead of regular cotton does have less of an impact on the environment. According to statistics provided by Textile Exchange, the production of organic cotton contributes 46% less carbon emissions, uses 91% less water and reduces field emissions by 70% in comparison to regular cotton farming and manufacturing. Organic cotton doesn’t use any GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) seeds or harmful chemicals and has to comply with strict organic agricultural standards to ensure that its production sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and local communities.
By choosing a t-shirt made of organic cotton instead of regular cotton, you are saving 436L of water, the energy of powering a 60W lightbulb for one hour, driving a car for 1km and also reducing the amount of toxins in the environment.
Studies of fabric durability also concluded that the organically grown cotton is superior in performance, which means more durable and long-lasting clothing. When it comes to regular cotton verses organic, it’s a win for the environment, however organic cotton still uses more water than both bamboo and hemp when it comes to farming and manufacturing.
IS CLOTHING MADE FROM RECYCLED BOTTLES GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Hello modern technology! The use of recycled bottles in clothing (particularly activewear) seems to be the answer to the world’s waste woes. In Australia, 6 tonnes of textiles and clothing goes into landfill every ten minutes. That means by the time you’ve finished reading this article, another 6 tonnes have been dumped. Theoretically by using recycled materials in our clothing, we can help reduce this cycle of fast fashion and save the oceans from plastic at the same time. But what are we are putting against our skin? Is it energy efficient? And are we really helping the environment by wearing recycled plastic?
First and foremost, for this system to work, we have to work. Worldwide 13,000 – 15,000 pieces of plastic are dumped into the ocean each day, that’s 6.4 million tonnes each year. That is a staggering amount. By encouraging recycling and saving these bottles from the ocean, it needs to begin with the consumers and efficient recycling programs.
Okay, so I put my bottle in the recycling, now what? The bottles that are recycled to make your yoga tights are labelled as PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) which is the hard plastics that are used for drink and condiment bottles. From our recycling bins they are sent to a plant for processing. Although it should be noted here that although this sounds great in theory, Australia’s recycling process is quite fragmented and according to a 2018 study, only 9.4% of the 3.4 million tonnes of plastics in Australia was recycled.
For the lucky bottles that do make it to the plant, they are sorted and crushed down and shredded into small particles including PET flakes that are used as a raw material to make polyester fabric. After further sorting isolates the flakes from remaining traces of labels and plastic lids the PET particles begin the journey to be made into your new yoga tights. The flakes are treated to remove toxic chemicals, passed through a 2700 degree screw channel to create a long filament strand and then mixed and blended with different strands before being passed through another heated chamber to bond the fibres together.
Although this sounds very rigorous and energy expending, reports show that fabric made from recycled polyester requires 80% less energy and 90% less water than virgin polyester that is made directly from oil. The downside? This sorting process means that microplastics can still be released into the environment and that harsh chemicals are often used.
DOES MAKING CLOTHES OUT OF PLASTIC BOTTLES HELP THE WORLDS PLASTIC PROBLEM?
The other argument that is appearing from this process is that as demand grows for these recycled plastic products, it’s not doing anything to reduce the need for plastic bottles. It’s actually encouraging large producers of plastic bottles to make more rather than find a better solution. By making these fabrics we are essentially increasing the demand for plastic bottle production, and as mentioned earlier, less than 10% of plastics actually make it to the recycling plant in Australia. We know thats a lot worse for undeveloped countries. Where these clothes end up is also a factor to consider – Depending on what the fibres are bound with, they may not be recyclable after use – which ultimately contributes more waste to landfill.
At the end of the day, you’re wearing plastic and you need to decide whether that’s a good idea or not.
Hemp is making a big comeback in the fashion world. This versatile fibre has a rich history and was used for centuries as a material for textiles, rope, construction and as paper. In fact, even the Declaration of Independence was signed on hemp paper in 1776 and hemp ropes were used on ships that Christopher Columbus sailed to America in the 1400s!
Before we look into the sustainability of the fabric, let’s clear the air by stating that there are more than one variety of the cannabis plant from which it grows: the agricultural variety, known by the common name industrial hemp, and the pharmacological variety, marijuana. So cultivating, harvesting, producing, wearing hemp clothing or consuming hemp oil and seeds won’t get you high! A marketing campaign led by the cotton and synthetic fibre industries in the early 1900’s (considered a smear campaign against hemp) led to confusion when differentiating between the two plants and therefore, when marijuana was legislated as a prohibited substance and banned, so too was the growth and production of industrial hemp – a perfectly sustainable plant. Its fibres are used for textiles, its hurd is used for building materials like hempcrete and its seeds are used for oil, food products and cosmetics.
IS HEMP FABRIC SUSTAINABLE?
You bet. Fast forward a hundred years or so and hemp is not only being reignited in its role as a durable textile and being introduced into our diets as a super food but its environmental benefits are also being widely celebrated.
The hemp plant itself absorbs 4 times more CO2 than trees, takes as little as 90 days to cultivate and requires significantly less water than cotton. It uses little to no pesticides to grow and when considering the quality of clothing in terms of fibre for textiles, hemp's tensile strength is 8 times stronger than cotton. It is naturally antibacterial, thermo regulating, moisture wicking and due to its tough cell structure, it gets softer over time.
Hemp plants are also considered phytoremediatiors. This term came about after hemp was successfully used to accumulate heavy metals from soil in contaminated fields near Chernobyl in the 1990s using the plants natural ability to draw toxins from the earth. Research is growing in this area to understand the full potential of hemp crops reducing sites of toxic waste. And no, this doesn’t mean that your clothes or hemp seeds will have toxins, as crops that are grown to treat contaminated soil can’t be repurposed for production of textiles or harvested for nutrition purposes).
HEMP IS A SOIL REGENERATOR
Hemp an eco-friendly answer to soil pollution. Harmful agricultural practices can extract nutrients from the ground without allowing the soil to replenish itself, threatening our food crops’ productivity and overall health. Hemp sequesters CO2 not only from the air but also from the soil, leaving it in better condition than before the hemp was planted. Hemp returns a significant amount of nutrients into the earth resulting in healthier soil that can help slow erosion and sustain healthy farmland. This allows food crops to be grown right after hemp is harvested.
Hemp grows very quickly which makes it an ideal candidate for the rotation. This is an important aspect of sustainable farming as it allows for crop rotation, keeping up with the nutrients in the soil. This is good news for farmers and us consumers as it means richer, cleaner soils, leading to higher quality and greater crop yields.
HOW IS HEMP TURNED INTO FABRIC?
Hemp fabric is made from the long strands of bast fibre that make up the outer stalk of the plant. These fibres are separated from the inner stalk through a process called “retting” or decortication. Retting is a microbial process using water and bacteria that breaks the chemical bonds that hold the stem together and allows separation of the bast fibers from the woody core (hurd). The bast fibers are what is used to make yarn which is then woven into fabric.
WHAT IS THE MOST SUSTAINABLE MATERIAL?
When stacked up against each other, hemp is leading the pack with organic cotton sitting in a respectable second which is why at ZONE we are committed to using both hemp and organic cotton in our hemp clothing and hemp activewear.
“Most clothing brands are inspired by fashion, trends and making a statement, however the inspiration behind ZONE clothing is very different. When I stumbled across the environmental benefits of hemp, I couldn’t believe how few clothing brands were using it. Hemp inspired me to create clothing! The main reason for why brands aren’t shifting to hemp is that hemp fabric is a premium product and is more expensive. Most fast fashion labels are not interested in decreasing their margins to make a better quality and more sustainable garments. Are fast fashion labels correct in thinking consumers won’t buy hemp clothing if it’s more expensive but more sustainable? Are they correct in thinking that consumers won’t change their buying habits? Don’t they understand that by creating more hemp clothing, it will increase the demand for hemp and in time, as more farmers grow hemp and more hemp fabric is being processed, prices for hemp fabric will decrease and stabilise? Don’t they understand that by offering hemp clothing, it will help shift consumer mindset against using cheap synthetic materials?” – Lydia Lassila
HOW TO CHOOSE SUSTAINABLE CLOTHING
When considering which conscious clothing choice is best for the environment, bamboo, organic cotton, recycled materials and hemp are all powerful choices to help break the cycle of fast fashion. When you are considering the most sustainable choice for your wardrobe, here are some things you should consider:
- Brand ethos – Is the brand committed to sustainability and transparent about their clothing supply chains?
- Is it something you could buy second hand instead?
- What kind of dyes are used?
- Is it good quality? How long will this item last?
- Is it a fashion statement, or a timeless piece?
Here at ZONE by Lydia we are currently expanding our hemp clothing collection to soon include hemp crops, hemp leggings, hemp sweaters and sweatpants, unisex hemp tees as well as our original styles. We know it's taken us a while to release our second drop but hey, this is slow fashion! New styles, colours and increased sizing coming in 2022!