SUSTAINABLE FABRICS

Fabric consultant, Jane Makower explains how we can become more sustainable when it comes to our fabric choices!

With everything that’s going on with our climate, do you think more about sustainable fabrics? Has it made made you more conscious of what we’re doing to prevent climate change and save the planet?

The Pulse of the Fashion Industry (2019) reported that the strongest triggers for conscious behaviour regarding sustainability are natural disasters and climate change efforts, which we’ve recently seen in full force.

Last year, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg stood up in front of world leaders at Davos and delivered a chilling speech. “We’re facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people.” She sparked a wake-up call across the globe demanding drastic change to save our planet and us. We’re all feeling the effects of the climate emergency, but is it affecting us all equally?

CHALLENGES AHEAD FOR TEXTILE PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION

Sustainability goals from the United Nations now include safeguarding precious water, looking after the oceans, using clean energy and being responsible consumers. These four are relevant and should trigger our conscious behaviour regarding sustainability. These are both a challenge and an opportunity for us to change the way we think about sustainable fabrics.

CHALLENGE 1
Textiles is a highly polluting industry* If we don’t adapt, some estimate fashion will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Currently, the annual greenhouse gas emissions from textile production are 1.2 billion tons per annum, which is more than international flights and maritime fishing combined!
*De Brito et al 2008

CHALLENGE 2
Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water in the world with 20% of water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.

CHALLENGE 3
One wash can release 70,000 micro-fibres that end up in the sea and threaten ocean life and the food chain.

CHALLENGE 4
Disposal of textiles and clothing is inefficient. Around 50 truck’s worth of used clothing ends up in landfill every day in the UK. In the past, less than 1% of disposed clothing has been converted into new sustainable fabrics!

SO AS A CONSUMER OF FABRIC AND FASHION, WHAT CAN WE DO TO ADDRESS THESE SUSTAINABLE FABRICS CHALLENGES ?

3000 respondents in five countries – UK, France, Brazil China and the US – were interviewed for the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report in 2019. This is what consumers had to say about sustainability:

75% of consumers think sustainability is ‘important’ or ‘very important’.

Mentions of sustainability on social media increased by over a 1/3 faster between 2015-2018.

About a third of consumers switched from their preferred brand to another because it credibly stands for positive environmental and social practices.

Around 50% of consumers pledge to switch brands in future if another brand is more environmentally friendly.

4 ACTIONS THAT WE CAN TAKE TO BE MORE SUSTAINABLE:

  1. Buy more sustainable fabrics including recycled fibres.
  2. Know where your fabric has come from, and if possible, where itsgrown and processed without exploiting the planet or workers.
  3. Make sure that the sustainable fabrics that you use – don’t have dangerous chemicals in them, or are processed with these harmful chemicals.
  4. Encourage and celebrate responsible consumption.

Remind yourself that by making something, you value and cherish it and are doing your bit to save the planet. Celebrate the slow fashion movement!

HOW TO CHOOSE ECO-FRIENDLY FABRICS

Natural fibres – Cotton, bast fibres like flax, hemp and jute, ramie, bamboo, wool and silk. Bast fibres and new processing methods offer opportunities for more eco-friendly fibres.

Manufactured fibres – Natural polymers such as viscose, acetate, milk, soybean and crabshell. Synthetic polymers like polyester, nylon and acrylic.

The King of natural fibres
Cotton used in fashion and textiles represents 90% of natural fibres. Growing cotton can use a lot of water. It takes between 10-20,000 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans. If we continue to consume at this rate – by 2030, it’s predicted that we’ll have a 40% shortfall in freshwater supply . Insecticides and pesticides are not good for the cotton workers, and can make the land less fertile in the longer term too.

Don’t rule out man made fibres
Jeans are made from 100% cotton, and uses 10-20,000 gallons of water (energy use 70MJ/kg) to produce. While the Nano puffer coat from the clothing brand, Patagonia uses just 69 litres of water (energy use 26MJ/kg). This nylon jacket uses 100% recycled polyester shell and 55% recycled insulation, and not to forget a fraction of the water. Recycled fibres in general uses 80% less energy than making the same product from virgin fibre.

Bast fibres
Eco-friendly fibres like flax (linen), hemp and ramie are sustainable. They grow fast, require little irrigation and their impact on the soils is low.

Bamboo
In theory, bamboo textiles should be one of the most sustainable options. It grows fast, doesn’t require fertiliser and absorbs five times more CO2.
However the processing from stalk to jersey uses harsh chemicals that pollute the water supply.

FEEL CONFIDENT WHERE YOUR FABRIC COMES FROM

Andrew Whale, Head of Product Sourcing for Debenhams predicts provenance will become increasingly important as it is in the food industry. It’s not easy to trace where all fabric components come from, or how many spinners, ginners and farmers have been involved in the process.

WHO OR WHAT WE CAN TRUST?

Global Organic Textile Standards (known as GOTS)
This is the Rolls Royce standard for fabric processing and content as it checks the entire supply chain. From farm to finished fabric or garment, all processes are monitored. This guarantees that no herbicides or pesticides have been used to grow the crop and low impact dyes and inks are used. Wastewater is treated properly and the water monitored. The content must be at least 70% organic.

The Global Recycled Standard This guarantees low chemical input, limited environmental impact and good working conditions. It’s a new process but the unofficial conclusion is that it’s an exciting new opportunity for the textile industry. It will be adoptedby the big fashion brands, which means that prices will come down. The yarn may use 80% less energy to process but the capital investment for the equipment makes it more expensive than conventional yarn. Clothing brand, Zara says that by 2025, it will only use organic, sustainable or recycled yarn. As organic is less than 1% of global cotton production, they must intend sourcing most of their cotton from sustainable sources. To find out more about GOTS – click here

Oeko-Tex Standard 100
This content standard guarantees the products are safe to wear. To learn more about this standard – click here

Better Cotton Initiative
This is training programme aims to train farmers to use less (rather than ban) pesticide, herbicide and less water. It has an ambitious target to train five million farmers worldwide by end of 2020. Most of the big brands
have signed up to this initiative, but just because fabric has the logo, it does not mean it’s produced to any defined standard. The more cynical amongst us might say that this as no more than an expensive marketing programme!
If you’d like to see more about the BCI – click here

Recycling with SCAP
Sustainable Clothing Action Plan known as SCAP is a consumer campaign. This sustainable clothing action plan aims to reduce the environmental impact of clothing across the UK. Backed by Patrick Grant one of the judges on The Great British Sewing Bee, he has recorded an excellent podcast called Making Fashion Sustainable. Find this on the BBC website under ‘In Business’.

SCAP wants us to care, repair and recycle our clothes. Rachel Strauss founder of an annual awareness campaign, Zero Waste Week says knitting and sewing classes are starting across the country as younger generations seek to re-discover the lost skills of repairing, refashioning and up-cycling clothes.

HOW TO SLOW DOWN YOUR FASHION CONSUMPTION

  1. Clean out your wardrobe and keep the items you want to
    continue wearing.
  2. Donate the garments you no longer want.
  3. When you need to buy new, choose better-quality garments, which will last longer!
  4. Shift your purchases away from companies that aren’t doing anything for the environment. Keep traditional methods of clothing making techniques alive, which provide meaning and value to the clothes we wear. Sewers are keeping these craft skills alive and keep their clothes for longer.

THE FAST FASHION REBELLION

Zara can design, produce and display new garments in 15 days. Clothes stay in the shop for this perido before customers are invited to ‘buy now’ before they disappear! We’re currently buying five times as many clothes as we did in the ‘80s, with more clothes ending up in landfill than ever before.

Oxfam recently publicised the issue of fast fashion and waste through its #Secondhand September campaign, which asked shoppers to say ‘NO’ to new clothes for 30 days and start treasuring our clothes and helping the planet. In September 2019, an incredible 62,000 people pledged to say no to new clothes for 30 days.

QUICK SUSTAINABLE ACTION PLAN FOR SEWERS

Be on the look out for eco-friendly materials including recycled fibres.
Consider a fabric’s provenance – where has it been made?
Check your fabric has Oeko-Tex Standard 100.
Take a look at what’s in your fabric stash, before buying new fabrics.

For more features like this visit our Learn to Sew page
or on our Blog page.