Understanding the raw materials in your clothing.
Understanding the materials that go into making our clothing can be a complicated challenge. There are hundreds of different combinations and factors that go into the final sustainability scoring and reliability of these materials. Navigating these can be a task.
Before we jump into this article, we would like to make the point that it can be easy to lose yourself in the complexities of different fabrics and miss one simple key point: the most sustainable item is the one that is loved, worn and passed along.
At Comhla, we believe that the most sustainable product is one that fits its purpose and fulfils its ‘life’ to the full. It’s the item that is loved until it wears thin and falls apart, that weathers the passing trends and stands the test of time.
This is why our mantra at Comhla is to Buy Well, Mend and Extend. We create an inspirational place for shoppers to connect with them. And we support the businesses themselves on their sustainability journeys.
The most sustainable item is one that has lived its life
For us to look more deeply into the impact of the different materials, we must first remember every single material in the fashion supply chain has been put there for a purpose and has a unique set of properties that lends it to different uses.
Every fibre and material in fashion has a different property, process, life and a different set of qualities that lend it to a certain use.
For example, you wouldn’t want to choose a porous fabric to create a raincoat, (hint, you would get soaked) – equally, you wouldn’t want to wear non-breathable fabrics, like polyester, when you need that fabric to breathe (polyester does not breathe! you would expire).
The most sustainable item is one that has been designed to live its lifespan to the full. And therefore, for a fibre to be the right choice, it must fit the purpose of the garment well. The choice of material is an important signifier for how well a garment can be used to the full extent of its lifespan. It is particularly important in terms of how the garment is worn and cared for.
But when we look further, what do the different materials mean for sustainability and how can you navigate these responsibly?
Not all fabrics were created equal
(The good, better, best & worst)
Every fabric in our wardrobes has a different set of characteristics and a different story to tell. The infinite number of fabric types and variations that make up our clothing can be complicated to unfold and decipher.
To add to the mix, of complexity, there is no single unified opinion about which is better than the other. On one hand, we lack sufficient data to compare each against another by region and demographic and even to the farmer level. On the other, even the data that we do have is often highly contended and the different viewpoints are political to say the least.
Sadly, the reality is still a lot of data unknown when it comes to the real impact of our fabrics and fibres. And there isn’t really an easy answer to it all. But we can create a few easy rules of thumb.
When we look at the different sustainability credentials of fabrics, it is perhaps much more valuable to understand them on a sliding scale of good, better, best and worst – and why they are in use.
In this article we explore the top key types of fabrics and what they mean in sustainability terms.
Virgin Vs. Recycled Materials – the worst and the best
It is no secret. Fashion has a major recycling problem. And the waste is colossal.
An estimated 100 billion garments were produced annually, worldwide in 2014 according to a McKinsey report. It is estimated that of all the clothing ever produced much of it is still in existence today.
At present, a vast majority of all fashion on the market is made using virgin materials. For everything we buy new, raw materials are extracted from the earth and are used to create it, and people, human hands, craft it – make it.
To extract these raw materials requires a considerable impact in terms of water, carbon, chemical and waste. Whilst difficult to get exact figures on the total % of fashion recycled into new clothing globally, it is estimated that the recycling of consumer purchased clothing can be anywhere between 5-15%. By continuing to purchase items made with raw materials, particularly within fast fashion retailers, we are fuelling overproduction and waste and putting a strain on the planet’s resources.
That means a mountain of waste and resources (and it grows bigger each day).
Recycled materials, however, make use of materials that are already extracted from the earth. Taking waste streams and turning these products into new items. They therefore have a much lower carbon & water m2 footprint than their virgin material counterparts.
To put into perspective, just how incredibly impactful choosing recycled products over virgin products is, leading industry body, Textile Exchange, has put a huge amount of emphasis on the need to prioritise the transition towards recycled materials as one of the most efficient ways for fashion to minimise its carbon footprint and meet its net zero goals.
There are a few things to bear in mind. With recycled materials the innovations are still being built to viably recycle clothing at the level needed to do so and often the quality of these materials can be difficult to maintain. You might see a slight differentiation in certain fabric qualities or pilling in a garment. This affects durability and the lifespan of a product (which is why they are often mixed with a percentage raw materials to achieve a better quality).
There is also a deal of debate surrounding whether recycling plastic bottles into fashion is good or not. There have additionally been reports of widespread fraud and this is still an evolving conversation. A good rule of thumb is to look out for GRS or RCS certified labels on products. These have been audited by Textile Exchange to verify their ingredients as recycled.
We believe at Comhla, progress over perfection and whilst the legislation is not yet in place to police all recycled fabrics, recycled fabrics are a step in the right direction and pave the way to more good change in that area. By purchasing something that is recycled, you are also helping to create this change.
Plants vs Petrol
When we look to categorise materials based on their sustainability properties the fabrics tend to generally fall between two camps:
The plant-based camp (natural plant derived resources, like cotton, hemp, modal, bamboo, linen), and those derived from the petroleum and the oil industry (plastics, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and PVC).
Whilst this isn’t a simple classification, (some plant-based fabrics can be created using highly intensive chemical processes, such as bamboo or modal), it is a good line in the sand for looking at some key benefits between the two.
Polyester dominates the market. It is estimated that a massive 60% of all clothing today is made with polyester. Whilst polyester fabrics have several use-benefits, such as being wrinkle free, easy to wash and care for and fast to dry, they also support the ongoing extraction of oil from the earth, one of the major drivers of climate change.
Polyester is effectively a plastic, and like most plastics, they also have a lifespan that far outstrips any human life. It is estimated that most polyester fibres can last anywhere between 150-400 years before they decompose.
This is great if you don’t like ironing, but terrible if for landfill if they are only worn a few times and then thrown away.
Additionally, polyester fabrics release microfibres into the ocean. Which have been shown to break down and cause harm to ocean life and be digested by humans. We still do not know the impact of these, but with plastic being a known endocrine disruptor which has been linked to cancer, it doesn’t look promising.
Whilst the ‘plant-based’ camp of fibres does not always equal natural, there is one key differentiator between their oil-based alternatives: they use natural renewable resources and they biodegrade at the end of their lifecycle.
Plant based fabrics such as cotton, linen, hemp and nettle fabrics, for instance, are grown as crops and harvested. A renewable resource, unlike coal or fossil fuel, it is estimated that these fabrics last anywhere between weeks to months in the soil (as opposed to centuries) at the end of their life.
Organic vs. Non Organic
Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to cotton grown in non organic ways. Many natural fibres in fashion require pest control in order to grow. Often with these fibres, pesticides and herbicides are used for this purpose. In fact, fashion is a major consumer of global pesticides and herbicides (put figure in here).
Often pesticides are used in areas with very little regulation and control. And can cause unmeasured environmental and social damage. These chemicals can be highly toxic and dangerous. Due to the global nature of cotton supply chains this is different for different regions. However, some of the key problems with unregulated pesticide use include run off from fields causing a major problem to local health (it contaminates water), the food people eat (it can contaminate food), the microbiomes in the soil and eventually the oceans.
Organic simply means that it was grown pesticide free using non-GMO seeds. Farmers can use natural pest control, manure, crop rotation and water irrigation.
It preserves soil health and initiatives promoting organic farming often enable community growth and engagement. We think it is important to support our farmer communities and promote natural farming methods rather than high impact pesticide farming.
Mixed Vs. Single
When looking at fashion materials the importance of mixed versus single materials maybe isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
What is polyester and a cotton mix? Why should we worry?
The simple rule for fabric circularity is simplicity is best. The more fabrics are mixed, the more difficult if it is to break them down. This is a problem for end of life of garments. When a garment is sent to be recycled, first it must be sorted into materials and then either mechanically recycled or chemically.
The more different types of fabrics inside a garment, the more difficult it is to do this.
Our recommendations: where possible try to choose single type materials, when shopping for new clothing made with natural properties.
When we look at the fibres in our closets, it is important to remember that each has it’s own unique set of unique values that extend itself to the garment that you own.
Every fibre has a different property, process and value which when chosen correctly, has an immense value to the wearer.
These are just a few simple steps to look out for when purchasing new items.
- Love the items you already have! Afterall, is a garment ever sustainable if it has never been worn or loved in its lifetime?
- Invest in recycled materials over virgin materials
- Choose natural materials over synthetic – unless you need synthetic materials for that purpose.
- Look out for the certification GOTS organic or OCS
- Where possible try to choose single type materials rather than a blend