Fashion and sustainability: What are the most sustainable fabrics?
Fashion and sustainability: What are the most sustainable fabrics?
Many well-known textile brands advertise their products with slogans such as "sustainable", "organic" or "clean dyeing". But are fashion products made of organic cotton, recycled polyester or Lyocell automatically more sustainable? Or is this just a new greenwashing attempt or some questionable advertising claims of the fashion industry?
With the rise of fast fashion fashion, the consumption of synthetic fibres has exploded: The use of polyester for clothing purposes rose to 21.3 million tons worldwide, because the demand is enormous. By 2030, the world's population will consume an unimaginable 102 million tons of garments - a quantity equivalent to 500 billion T-shirts - which consist of almost 70 percent synthetic fibers.
But is the beloved cotton really better? Not necessarily, because in order to achieve the highest possible harvests, about three quarters of this natural fibre, which is cultivated worldwide, is irrigated – in some cases extremely heavily. On average, about 11,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1 kg of cotton, since cotton is grown mainly in dry areas to prevent it from becoming mouldy due to too much moisture. In addition, a lot of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are used during cultivation. These are toxic residues that remain not only in the environment but also in clothing and are suspected to be carcinogenic. And according to the Öko-Institut, the CO2 emissions from the production of conventional cotton are 26.25 kg  for 1 kg of cotton . Because cotton is grown primarily in Asia, South and North America, India and Pakistan, considerable amounts of carbon dioxide are produced simply by the long transport routes. And 99.5% of the cotton grown worldwide is not organically grown, but conventional . Moreover, a large part of the cotton cultivated worldwide is now considered genetically modified . This is also to be considered critical as long as the long-term effects on humans and animals have not been sufficiently researched.
Although organic cotton has a better ecological footprint than conventional cotton, its market share is only 0.4 percent – and it is declining. This is because the worldwide greed for clothing can hardly be satisfied with organic cotton . Moreover, the term “organic cotton” is not precisely defined: Common cotton labels such as Cotton made in Africa, Fair Trade or BCI each define their own individually different criteria and minimum standards. In addition, organic cotton is also often treated with toxic bleaching or dyeing chemicals during further processing. The use of organic cotton therefore says nothing about whether the garment itself has been produced sustainably, fairly and “organically” . It is therefore advisable to pay particular attention to trustworthy seals that guarantee very high ecological and social standards when buying. These include IVN Best Standard, Fair Wear Foundation, bluesign and OEKO-TEX.
Hemp is also currently celebrating a revival in the textile industry. The advantages of the hemp plant are definitely its ease of cultivation: no pesticides are used and the plant requires very little water, it is durable and grows quickly, and the yield per m² is twice as high as that of cotton .
You can find products made of hemp e.g. at our brand partner Bleed.
Although Viscose is made from the natural raw material wood, the production of this fibre requires a massive input of energy and chemicals. Moreover, wood is a scarce resource and wood plantations are hardly more environmentally friendly than cotton fields.
On the other hand, the topic of “recycling of worn textiles”, which is fortunately being increasingly promoted in the industry, could be a way out of the raw materials dilemma. Because while the so-called new “virgin materials” waste resources, recycling saves resources. But the circular economy – i.e. the idea of using, reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible – is unfortunately not always so easy to implement.
Because in practice, colours, applications, zippers and not least mixed fabrics make the recycling of textiles more difficult. Therefore, the share of recycled fibres in the total clothing production is unfortunately still very low today. To solve this problem, brands must develop a “Design2Recycle” claim and create end products that are as single-material as possible so that recycling will be easier in the future. This could make it possible to create a completely closed textile cycle that no longer requires new fibres, as new products can be reproduced from old textiles again and again. To this end, some visionary brands have already joined forces in a so-called wear2wear™ industry partnership to work together on new technologies and developments.
Recycling could effectively reduce global garment waste and spare the oceans from new plastic waste – to the delight of the environment and the animal kingdom. Since the manufacturing process is also relatively cheap compared to the other textile fibres mentioned, sustainable clothing could also be produced relatively cheaply .
The recycling of used PET bottles into polyester fibres has already proven its worth. Recycled polyester, called rPET, is obtained by melting down existing plastic and spinning it into new polyester fibre. Recycled polyester requires around 59 percent less energy to produce than new polyester. And yarn for a large XL shirt can be obtained from just five PET bottles . Sympatex has also been working with recycled yarns from PET bottles for many years, and since the beginning of 2017 we have been pushing the topic more intensively through our “Agenda 2020“. For the outer fabric of a common Sympatex men’s jacket, for example, 27 PET bottles are recycled and thus reused. The outer fabrics made from the recycled yarns account for up to 90% of the finished Sympatex laminate and, together with the 100% recyclable PES membrane, result in a 100% recyclable product. The recycling process used is a mechanical process without the addition of environmentally harmful chemicals, and the performance of recycled and non-recycled PES materials is comparable at a high level.
Finding truly sustainable clothing is not always easy, so it is worth taking a closer look at labels and tags. And in case of doubt: ask!Write to your favourite brands directly and ask where and how the clothes are produced. In this way you can avoid unecological shopping mistakes and at the same time create awareness for the topic of sustainability among the brands.