Sustainability: Fabrics, Fibers & Facts

A Brief Guide to Sustainable Sourcing

By Tanu Vasu

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As a designer, I frequently find myself being asked about sustainable fabrics–how to source these fabrics and, most importantly, what they even are. I think it's important that we as a community are recognizing that the textile industry is one of the world's biggest polluters.

Unfortunately, polyester is one of the dominant fabrics in the textile and fashion industries. Polyester has been found in 60% of clothing–which not only involves a number of chemicals in production, but also lacks the feature of biodegradability. Studies have shown that EVERY wash releases microfibers into waterways, contaminating our oceans and rivers, and polluting them indefinitely. Below is a list of some eco-friendly materials that may come in handy on your next shop.

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Linen–derived from the flax plant–is  breathable, durable, absorbent and cool. Linen requires little water and is biodegradable. The fiber is also easily dyed, and often heavier than cotton giving a crisper feeling. When deriving flax for the production of linen, the entire plant can be used for either fabric production, or other materials such as linseed oil. Due to this lack of waste, production is very cost effective. Fun fact: according to the United Nations, flax utilizes thirteen times fewer pesticides and other harmful chemicals than potatoes.

Hemp possesses similar qualities to linen, however, it can have a rough texture until after multiple wears and washes. The fiber does not deplete the soil, requires little water for production and is one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics. Hemp is naturally resistant to pests, thus negating the need for the use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Due to the resiliency of the hemp plant, it has been known as a way to cleanse soil pollutants. This assistance in providing healthier soil by hemp plants allows for farmers to grow food crops directly after a hemp harvest.

Wool is usually the first natural material to enter my mind. A warm, water-resistant, hypoallergenic and fire-resistant fabric that is easily dyed, biodegradable and long-lasting. Wool is a great replacement for polyester fleece and many other man-made “warm” materials.

Silk, a natural protein fiber,  has a good drape, natural sheen and is very soft. Although the fabric is quite high maintenance, the fabric maintains a luxurious feel. It has close to zero energy usage in production, it's biodegradable and dyes easily. However, silkworms are often killed in order to harvest fibers, removing the fabric from the vegan marketplace. Silk comes from silkworms or moth caterpillars, their larvae produce the fiber to form cocoons.

Bamboo, while in itself is a very renewable material that requires less water to grow (compared to cotton), bamboo fabrics often contain either rayon or viscose. Although a raw material, similarly to the process of rayon, bamboo is transformed through a chemical process into a “new” fiber that blurs the lines between man-made and natural. Under the viscose process, bamboo fiber is often dissolved in a strong solvent to create a solution that is then spun into strands of fibers once solidified.  This proves as an environmental con as the process include many chemicals in manufacturing, as bamboo is often treated like a synthetic. Still, it is possible to get pure and organic bamboo. This process uses fewer chemicals, but is still quite controversial as the process is energy intensive, and very few people manufacture it this way.

Organic cotton, features the absence of pesticides and genetically modified organisms, unlike non-organically grown cotton. This ensures that the chemicals don't pollute the air or water, and also benefits workers on organic cotton farms. Non-organic cotton consumes 2.5% of the worlds land but utilizes 16% of insecticides. This is more than any other crop used for fabrics a vast amount of water is also used to cleanse the material from these chemicals.

Lyocell, while a synthetic fabric, is the most environmentally friendly one on the market. It is biodegradable and often made in a “closed loop system” which means the chemicals are recycled. While the process of production includes notable amounts of chemicals and water, they are considered harmless to the environment. Lyocell is considered a biodegradable fiber, as its products can be recycled, however, not a natural fiber, rather often referred to as a “regenerated cellulosic fiber”.

Leather is, of course, the primary material for handbags and shoes in the fashion industry. Many animals are often harmed during the process of manufacturing leather, and the hide goes through a treatment process and tannery in order to maintain the leather. However, it is possible to source leather from animals that have died a natural death which can be seen as more sustainable. Many people have also turned to vintage leather, repurposing old items that have lived their life with the previous consumer.

Natural dyes are also at the forefront of sustainable dying. Rather than the harsh chemicals used in the dying process and the plethora of water waste used to cleanse them, vegetable dyes provide a natural solution. Vegetable dyes include onion skins, strawberries, beetroots, red cabbage, and celery. Plant-based dyes include roots, leaves, flower petals, bark, and wood. It is possible to fixate these dyes into fibers securing its longevity.

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