How Eco-Friendly is This Outfit (part 2)
If you are on the journey to understanding and enacting change in your life and wardrobe to better align with your sustainable fashion ethos, understanding the fiber content on your clothing labels is an absolute must. If you have never looked at all of your clothing tags before, chances are that the most common type of fabric in your closet is polyester.
In 2016, 55% of global fabric consumption was polyester, and because of reasons including it’s contribution to microfiber pollution, polyester is not considered an eco-friendly material. Scientific advancements have shown us that we can produce remarkable materials in a lab including fabric made from mushrooms, so we can’t automatically state that all synthetic, lab-made materials are bad, or that all natural materials that are farmed are good. Because it is complicated and can get a little confusing, these lists will help you identify what to avoid and what to look for when building your sustainable wardrobe.
What to Avoid:
Polyester - is made from synthetic polymers that are derived from coal, air, water, and petroleum. We all are already on board that pollution from coal and petroleum is awful for the environment, so let’s convert that into action and stop buying polyester fabric. Not only that but polyester is one of the larger textile contributors of microplastics, and these little pieces of plastic are showing up in large amounts in our tap water globally.
Acrylic - Like polyester, acrylic is derived from petroleum. Studies have linked breast cancer to the workers who produce this material, there have not been studies performed to clarify if wearing the fabric may cause cancer, according to the EPA.
Rayon - 6% of global fabric consumption is rayon, and this recycled wood pulp is most often processed using harsh chemicals to scour the wood and turn it into a fiber (the fiber then turns into a yarn, then a fabric). And in the yarn or fabric stage types of rayon ore often finished with chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid. While bamboo rayon is gaining popularity as a sustainable fabric, the processing of it requires sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, and these cause water and soil pollution. So while the farming of bamboo and most of these woods isn’t necessarily problematic for the environment, the manufacturing of the fabric is.
Nylon - 4.7% of global fabric consumption is nylon, another material that like polyester is made from petroleum. And while more polyester than nylon is produced yearly, nylon requires more energy to manufacture.
Non-organic cotton - 27% of global fabric consumption is cotton, and out of this only 0.51% is organic, meaning the majority of cotton used to produce our clothing is farmed using pesticides and treated with chemical bleach. Worldwide, cotton covers 2.5% of the cultivated land and cotton growers use 16% of the world’s pesticides. There is documentation showing that the environmental impact of farming cotton with pesticides and of treating fabric with bleach are causing soil and water pollution in excess.
Fabric Dyeing and Finishing - Reading the label is a great start, but it won’t tell you everything. The main release of textile wastewater pollution during manufacturing occurs during the dyeing and finishing processes. The wastewater released by these brands often poses severe environmental and health hazards to the community they operate within, and even when this is happening across the world, we are still responsible and effected (affected?) by it. There are 85+ known toxic textile dyes on record, these pose a direct threat to humans and the planet through being released into our waterways. Many companies will not release information of their proprietary formulations, meaning the actual number of harmful dyes in use is likely being greatly underestimated. Fabric finishing is also a big contributor to water pollution, If it is static resistant, stain resistant, permanent press, flame proof, wrinkle-free, stain proof, moth repellant. Many of the stain resistant and wrinkle-free fabrics, then it was treated with carcinogenic per-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs), formaldehyde,
What to Look For:
Organic Cotton - the farming of organic cotton uses less water and no pesticides, this brings the environmental impact of this natural fabric way down and makes it a smart choice.
Recycled textiles - Look for certified recycled textiles like Econyl, a type of nylon made from used fishing lines and other ocean plastics.
Eco-Friendly Rayons - These are usually the rayons listed by their name, including Tencel, Lyocell. It also includes some bamboo, soy, pinapple, and banana fabrics - but you should still research more about the fabric a brand is using, because many of these fabrics still use harsh chemicals like formaldehyde.
LInen and Hemp - flax and hemp have low water consumption, and they grows without the need for pesticides because they are naturally insect-resistant.
Wool and Silk - I understand the vegan perspective that using animal products should be eliminated whenever possible, and I support anyone who makes this choice. But there is a demand for wool and silk and other animal products, so it is important to address this. The biggest benefit to animal fibers is that they are biodegradable, unlike most other fabrics produced, these do not remain in the garbage dump for eternity. When produced without the use of pesticides and harsh chemical scours wools are starting to be labeled as organic just like cotton, and these specifically have one of the lowest environmental impacts. Just avoid protein fibers that have been finished to be wrinkle or odor resistant, these types of chemicals are pollutants and their impact on your health is questionable.
Use and Care
In a study done by Patagonia, a single fleece jacket sheds up to 250,000 microfibers during a single wash, which is about 1.7 grams, the best way to launder clothes and prevent these microfibers from entering our ecosystem is by washing them is as seldom as possible. Of course it’s not possible to entirely stop washing your laundry, so here are a few helpful tips on washing: use a “green” laundry soap that is pH neutral, and free of , wash full loads only, use cold water only, use lemon juice instead of chlorine bleach, and avoid chemical drycleaning.
These past two posts have been shared to raise awareness about the environmental and human health impacts of the clothes we wear. I hope this information is helpful to anyone researching sustainable fashion, and that it leads you all to make more informed decisions while shopping and caring for your clothes. Sharing the knowledge we have about sustainability in this industry is the best way to build responsible communities who are passionate about saving the planet and the people on it. Thank you all for doing your part, no matter how small that is.
With over 15 years of experience in fashion design and product development, Katina puts her heart and soul plus skill and craft into the garments she designs and produces. While attending FIDM in Los Angeles, CA, she developed her technical knowledge about fashion design and patternmaking, and later on while attending the College of Textiles at NCSU she gained a deeper understanding of retail and supply chain management.