By Veronika Miralles-Sanchez
Textiles used to be so laborious and expensive to produce, it is no wonder they were used as symbols of wealth. Since then, through technological advancements, we found ways to dramatically
increase agricultural yields and speed up production to the point of treating textiles as disposables. The environmental impacts have been disastrous. So if we want to build an earth-friendly wardrobe, what are the options?
Synthetics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic are manufactured through an industrial process that turns fossil fuels into plastic filaments. Fossil fuel extraction is carbon-intensive, depends on a non-renewable resource, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Production of synthetic fabrics requires the use of formaldehyde, heavy-duty detergents, and chemical softeners. Synthetics are also resistant to natural dyes, so they use intense chemical dyes instead. Developing countries have tried to regulate the textile industry to stop factories from dumping dyes into waterways, but enforcement is difficult, and many communities have had to endure the health risks associated with a contaminated water supply.
Synthetic fabrics don’t biodegrade in landfill; instead, they take 100+ years to break down into smaller and smaller fibres while chemicals leach into soil and run-off waters.
Synthetics can be recycled to make new fabric, but recycling offers no solution for micro-fibre pollution. When synthetics are laundered, they release thousands of microscopic strands into our pipes. Water treatment plants are not equipped to catch fibres that small, so they flow into waterways and eventually out to sea. These plastic micro-fibres are often indistinguishable from natural food sources, so they are ingested by zooplankton, and then move up the food chain to shellfish, fish, marine mammals, turtles, birds, and eventually to humans.
Cotton crops require an overwhelming amount of water and are grown using pesticide-intensive methods. Unfortunately, in order to grow cotton organically, farmers require much more land and water to produce an equivalent yield. For example, one regular cotton t-shirt requires 290 gallons of water to produce, while one organic cotton t-shirt requires 660 gallons.[i] Despite being the most common natural fabric on the market today, it is by no means a sustainable option.
Cotton’s advantage over synthetic fabrics is its end-of-life impact: it is biodegradable and compostable. Cotton recycling, however, is not ideal: the fibres break into shorter strands, which weakens the material, and results in lesser quality fabric.
Linen and hemp, on the other hand, can be successfully grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and require much less water. One study found that, where it takes 290 gallons of water to produce one cotton t-shirt, a hemp t-shirt can be produced with 75 gallons.[ii] Linen and hemp are more durable than cotton, are compostable, and easily recycled.
Wood-based fabrics have a natural source but are considered semi-synthetic due to the chemical processing that turns the wood into cellulose filaments for fabric production.
Rayon, or Viscose, is generally made from bamboo, which can be grown organically, but not all producers do so. While bamboo lends itself to sustainable farming, it is estimated that a significant amount of the bamboo used to produce Rayon in China is harvested in Indonesia where old-growth forests are logged to farm bamboo.[iii]
Modal is manufactured using a closed loop process, where the chemicals are recaptured and reused to produce more fabric. Lenzing Modal is sourced from sustainable beech plantations, but other suppliers of Modal have been found to harvest old-stock beech in areas such as Indonesia where deforestation is rampant.[iv]
Lyocell, or Tencel, also uses a closed loop system, but the chemicals are non-toxic and the cellulose is sourced from sustainably grown eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus is highly sustainable because the trees grow quickly, and don’t require pesticides or irrigation.
Wood-based textiles may be biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable, but we must consider the harvesting and production processes.
Silk has a low environmental footprint and is biodegradable, compostable, and highly recyclable. However, in order to gain higher yields of silk from each cocoon, manufacturers developed a method that involves putting silkworm cocoons in boiling water, so the worms die before disturbing the cocoon. The cruelty-free alternative is called “Peace Silk.”
There are many types of wool (traditional, Merino, Mohair, Angora, Cashmere and Alpaca) that can be made from sheep, goat, rabbit or alpaca fleece. Animal farming produces a substantial amount of methane and uses chemicals and insecticides that leach into soil and waterways. Unfortunately, abuse in animal-farming is common, so look for labels that say organic or cruelty-free.
Of these, alpaca wool has the smallest environmental footprint because alpacas don’t eat or drink as much as other wool-producing animals. Comparatively, cashmere may be natural, but it has one hundred times the environmental impact of regular wool.[v]
What about hybrids like poly-cotton?
Unfortunately, blended fabrics result in the worst of both worlds: they do not biodegrade due to the synthetic components, and they cannot be recycled due to the natural components that will contaminate the synthetic recycling stream. These semi-synthetic fabrics are destined to spend 100+ years in landfill breaking down into smaller and smaller fibres.
What can we do to make our wardrobes more sustainable?
Make your clothes last as long as possible! If you are considering tossing something, ask yourself: can someone else get good use out of this? Can I repair it? Can I repurpose it? You will find a thriving do-it-yourself community online with tons of ideas and instructional guides; or come to a free Surfrider Stitch ‘n’ Beach event where we will help you figure out how to “fix it, don’t ditch it.”
When buying clothes, do research, and make strategic purchases. Choose more sustainable fabrics, styles that will last beyond the current season, and clothes made of durable materials and solid construction. These will be more expensive than the “fast fashion” options, but they are less likely to rip, stretch, and warp, and will save you money over the long run.
Buy only the essentials and say no to retail therapy! Once we stop seeing clothes as a disposable “treat” and start seeing them as functional items with unavoidably high environmental footprints, we will start consuming textiles more responsibly.