As sustainability continues to grow in becoming a core initiative of today’s world, new methods of production are being brought out. As consumers, you must decide on which companies you choose to support based on their ethics and the way this information is conveyed to you. Fast fashion has become a major conversation amongst environmentalists and the harmful impact it’s having on the Earth. This largely stems from the over production and over consumption of clothing, as well as what is being used to make these clothes. We wanted to weigh out the pros and cons of some of the most popular materials used today, to help educate on what you should be looking for when it comes to your own purchases.
For years, cotton has been the most used textile in the world. However, because of this, it wasn’t necessarily done in the best way and contributed negatively towards the environment. Luckily, organic cotton has begun rising in popularity as it far outweighs conventional cotton in terms of sustainability and will allow the production of cotton fabric to be done in an eco-friendlier way. Cotton is a natural fibre, so already doesn’t contribute towards plastic pollution the same way synthetic fibres (polyester, nylon etc) do. But what are some of the ways organic cotton is beating conventional cotton?
- Crop rotation
One of the main issues with conventional cotton is that during the farming process, there is no crop rotation. Crop rotation is when the same piece of land takes turns to grow different kinds of crops, allowing the soil to soak up different nutrients and benefits from the different crops it’s exposed to. When different crops are used, like during the organic cotton farming process, this allows the replacement crop to get nitrogen from the air into the soil. However, during conventional cotton farming, an artificial nitrogen fertiliser is used instead, which pollutes the Earth.
Organic cotton uses 91% less water than conventional cotton. Since organic cotton is grown in much healthier soil (crop rotation), it holds the water better and is able to trap it in to soak up the nutrients. This means that when it floods, it holds the extra water it’s exposed to; and when there’s a drought, it has water stored already to compensate for the loss.
- Pesticides, Insecticides, and fertilisers
One of the biggest polluters in the farming sector. Organic cotton does not use any artificial pesticides or insecticides or harmful fertilisers. This means the water used in the farming process doesn’t get polluted. You should also look out for GOTS (Global Organic Textile Industry) certifications, which have strict standards to be met for a fabric to be certified. These include making sure low impact dyes and inks are used and that wastewater is treated before being pumped back into its local environment, so rivers and lakes aren’t polluted.
Overall, since organic cotton entered the market, we have seen great potential in its ability to be used as a crop sustainably. Alongside less need for water, it has reduced:
- pollution of waterways by 26%
- greenhouse gas emissions by 46%
- potential for acid rain by 70%
- energy needed by 62%
As well as since organic cotton doesn’t use harmful chemicals, the plant is able to grow stronger, thus making the fabric it produces stronger. Having stronger fabric means clothes last longer and there is less of a need to buy clothes frequently, reducing fast fashion.
On the surface, bamboo seems like a great sustainable textile due to the way it’s grown. Some of its positives include:
- It’s a regenerating plant that just keeps growing, so it doesn’t need to be replanted.
- Less dye needs to be used due to its great absorbing qualities.
- It requires only a third of the water conventional cotton requires.
- It doesn’t release micro plastic.
- Very durable with strong fibre
- Natural pesticide qualities
Reading this list may make you want to immediately switch to bamboo products, as the process of growing the bamboo itself is a great one for the most part. However, how does the wood-like plant turn into a soft, silky fabric? There are two different kinds of processes.
The woody part of the bamboo is crushed and then using the natural enzymes of the plant, the bamboo cells are broken. The natural fibres are sourced out and spun into yarn.
The leaves and soft inner part of the bamboo is extracted and crushed, and then soaked in a chemical solution.
Majority of bamboo processing is done with the chemical method, as the mechanical is very labour intensive and costly, so it is mostly done on a small scale. It also doesn’t produce the same soft, silky fabric bamboo is known for. In fact, 95% of bamboo products are bamboo-viscose. The material resembles both rayon and viscose. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) said, “When bamboo is processed into rayon, no trace of the original plant is left. If a company claims a product is made with bamboo, it should have reliable scientific evidence to show it’s made with bamboo fibre.” Once all the processing is done, the bamboo cannot be found.
Bamboo also contributes to mono plantation. This is when only one plant is grown in an area or piece of land. When an area doesn’t have diverse plants and an ecosystem, it can’t thrive with living creatures. This means that the animals and insects that live in this ecosystem will die, which ends up attracting even more pests to the area. Yes, bamboo has natural pesticide qualities, but when an unusual number of pests enter its space, it doesn’t have enough to make a large impact on protecting itself against them. This means farmers must use chemicals instead. As well as most bamboo is grown in China, where they don’t have any rules or regulations regarding pesticides and there is no way for the consumer to find out the information themselves.
Polyester is a man-made fibre, derived from the oil petroleum. Since it’s man-made, its positives are that it does not use as much land or water compared to natural fibres because it doesn’t need to be grown. However, oil, where polyester comes from, is the number one industrial pollutant in the world.
One of the biggest environmental issues with polyester is the toxic chemicals it releases into water. Polyester is usually stain-resistant: it requires a specific dye to colour it. These dyes do not dissolve in water, and thus, the wastewater produced by the factory releases toxic chemicals into the environment after it is disposed of. This in turn has a serious impact on the animals and plant life in the area. Cancer is also a higher risk to the workers in these factories who are exposed to the dyes, as they report higher rates of infection than normal.
Polyester is also unsustainable when it comes to energy and water. The textile is made through a high-energy process using heat; and water is then used for cooling down. Greenhouse gases are also an issue, with polyester emitting three times the number of gases than conventional cotton.
Recycled polyester is starting to grow in popularity. This is when existing plastic (e.g used water bottles) are melted down and respun into a new polyester fabric. Some of the pros of recycled polyester are that it takes pollution away from the land and oceans and turns them into something which can be used for years to come. It also uses 59% less energy than regular polyester.
However, with all textiles, it has its negatives too. Since it’s made straight from plastic, it releases micro plastic back into the environment. This can be done through many ways, such as washing your clothes. The process of turning the plastic into a fibre also comes with its own set of issues, with chemicals and dyes posing harm to the Earth.
Wool has mostly a positive sustainable impact on the environment.
- It’s both natural and renewable since it comes from animals.
- It’s 100% biodegradable and uses less water and pesticides than other textiles, such as conventional cotton.
- It’s durable and requires less washes, making it last longer than other garments.
- It doesn’t contribute towards micro-plastic, which harms the ocean.
But what are the cons?
The main cons of the wool industry are the treatment towards the animals and the use of chemicals. With similar consequences as the other textiles through the use of chemicals, wool does participate in using pesticides on their animals, resulting in contaminating water in the area and putting workers at risk. However, the animals are also harmed in this practice since they are often dipped in pesticide baths or injected with pesticides directly. Therefore, many people choose not to support the wool industry.
Overall, the manufacturing of each textile comes with both positives and negatives, so it’s difficult to try and assess which is the best one in terms of sustainability. It’s up to the individual to do the research and come to a conclusion themselves. However, there are always ways in which you can reduce your effect on the planet. By choosing the organic/recycled options, you can ensure you are doing something to help the environment and minimising the impact you have on it.