The Sustainability of Fabrics and Materials Explained
Here at the Printd. Collective we use a variety of materials and methods to produce our products. With so many fabrics to choose from, it can be confusing to know if your choosing ethical or sustainable items. This post is the first in a series created to tell you about the fabrics you are buying and the impact they have. To start off the series - we are talking about everything fabric and material. We cover all the materials you will find in our products as well as some other common ones you'll find in everyday life.
Hemp is a natural fabric, sourced from the Cannabis Sativa plant. Yes, this is the same plant marijuana originates from, however industrial hemp plants have been grown to remove these properties and has no use as a recreational drug . Hemp plants can grow in most soil types and can grow without using pesticides. Growing hemp also requires less water than cotton. According to the National Hemp Association “Hemp has the strongest (and longest) plant fiber in the world, resistant to rot and abrasion ”. This makes hemp fabric is very durable and is suited to a wide range of applications.
GOTS Certified Cottons
The official GOTS website states that "The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. ” This means when you purchase a GOTS certified product the product has been scrutinized from raw materials up to finished product to make sure that the product meets environmental and socially responsible requirements. Due to this, you know that when you buy a GOTS certified fabric that workers are fairly paid and working in safe conditions.
In the case of GOTS cotton, here the certification means that the material is produced organically. This is a great attribute as it means that no nasty chemicals. are used when producing the cotton. When this is compared to non-organic cotton, pesticide and insecticide usage is an essential part of producing the crop and are used in high quantities . Organic cotton also uses significantly less water in its production – a report produced by the Soil Association states that “organic cotton reduces water consumption by 91% compared to conventionally grown cotton ”.
Linen is one of the oldest textile fibers known to man and can be traced back to Egyptian times . Linen was a very popular fabric until cotton entered mass production in the 19th century, however, remains a common choice for the summer season due to its breathable nature. Like cotton, linen is a natural fabric produced from the flax plant. The V & A states that “When grown in its ideal geographical zone, the cultivation of flax produces no waste ”. This is due to all parts of the plant being used to create a variety of products including, textiles, paper, varnish and animal feed. Growing flax also does not require the use of any pesticides or fertilizers meaning that no groundwater or rivers are polluted in the process.
Recycled polyester or rPET is made by melting down already existing plastics together, and re-spinning it into a new fiber . Existing plastics used can be many forms – from plastic bottles and containers produced everyday by consumers, as well as industrial plastic waste. Fashion United state that “five soda bottles yield enough fiber for one extra-large T-shirt ”. Due to the materials used in the production of recycled polyester, its production saves waste from landfill and gives it a new life. It also reduces our need to make more plastic, and so reduces the need for oil and gas to be extracted. Recycled polyester fabric is a similar quality to virgin polyester but according to a 2017 study by the Swiss Federal Office “requires 59% less energy to produce compared to virgin polyester” . It also uses 32% less CO₂ to produce. Recycling polyester does however have its limitations. It can be difficult to achieve a crisp white fiber due to the combination of materials that are combined. This means that harsh chlorine-based bleaches can be used to achieve this. Dying the fabric can also prove difficult, meaning that materials may need to be re-dyed multiple times using more dye, chemicals, water and energy. Despite stopping plastics such as bottles reaching the ocean, recycled polyester still produces microplastics, the same as virgin polyester. This means that every time you wash a polyester garment, recycled or not, you are creating plastic pollution.
Deadstock is a fabric or product which has been obtained from a brand which no longer has a use for it . It is not limited to any specific fabric type. Deadstock can be created by brands in many ways- mostly it is due to the brand ordering more than they need or the product not selling as well as anticipated. Due to the nature of how deadstock is created it is hard to source and only available in limited amounts . By using deadstock as a base material for a product you are saving that product from landfill and reducing waste in the process. This makes deadstock a great option to use to work towards a more circular economy and is preferable over sourcing a brand-new fabric.
Despite being a natural fiber, there are many issues still surrounding cotton - the main issue with conventional cotton is its water consumption. The Soil Association tells us that “one kilogram of cotton takes as much as 10,000-20,000 liters of water to produce” . Cottons which are grown non-organically also use a severe amount of pesticides and insecticides. The Soil Association states that “Conventional cotton alone is responsible for 16% of all insecticides sold worldwide” to be exact. Also, there is a high-risk of the fabric being produced in modern slavery conditions without the fabric production having governing bodies such as GOTS to assure workers are treated and paid fairly, as this lowers the cost of production.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber commonly referred to as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and is a plastic made from crude oil . Polyester is very popular with almost half of all clothing being made from it and demand still increasing .The production of polyester uses less water than natural fibers such as cotton and have no need for toxic pesticides , however the production of polyester produces nearly three times the amount of CO₂ in comparison.
Microplastics are a big problem with polyester. Microplastics are tiny microscopic fibers which come from synthetic fabrics when washed. When you wash clothes made from polyester in your machine thousands of microplastics are released . A study done by Plymouth University states that “each cycle of a washing machine can release more than 700,000 plastic fibers into the environment ”. From your washing machine these microplastics go down the drain any much of them end up reaching the ocean, where they can life for hundreds of years.
Viscose is a type of rayon; it was initially produced in 1883 as an alternative to silk . It is very popular amongst fashion brands due to its low production cost. Viscose is made from wood pulp, however, to make the fabric last for general use it must be treated with large amounts of harmful chemicals.
Thanks for reading our breakdown on the environmental impacts of fabrics. Next time you are out shopping, check the label before you buy. Think about what the the item is made of and its impact on the environment before you purchase. Stay tuned for our next blog post discussing print methods used for fabric production.