A Material Guide: The Real Cost of the Fibers You Wear

What are you wearing right now? (Yes, I mean it.)

Do you know what it's made from? Do you ever look at the label before you buy? Does natural always equal sustainable?

Sustainable fashion can be a minefield and with the surge in organic, fair trade baby clothes in Australia and beyond, we are taking a deeper look into what fibres truly are less harmful on the planet and better for the workers who produce them.

By bringing to light the problems in kids clothing, we better understand the direction that leads us to the solution. During these tumultuous, existential times, that is something I can get excited about.

Understanding the environmental consequences materials used in fashion have on the planet and our long-term health is critical to make more informed decisions around the clothes you put on your child and on yourself, however, it is not that easy to navigate through the jungle of fiber fabrications.

I have broken it down into the basics you should know about natural fibres such as cotton, linen, and hemp but also synthetic fibres like polyester which is made from finite fossil-fuels.

Naturals vs Synthetic Fibers

Technically, there are two types of textile fibers. Natural and synthetic.

Natural fibers come from nature, like cotton and flax (linen) or from animals, like silk and wool.

Synthetic fibers are, well, made from synthetic fibers of which the most common material is polyester.

When assessing whether a material is less harmful for the environment (bear in mind that even sustainably sourced fibers have an impact), the most common definition you will find is this: "sustainable’ is defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

So you see, it does not only come down to natural vs synthetic fibers, because when we look at cotton as an example, this so- called 'white gold' requires a lot of water. According to studies, it can take more than 2,700 litres of water to produce enough cotton for just one T-shirt.

As a thumb rule, sustainable fashion should tick three boxes: it must not impinge on workers’ rights, animal rights, or harm the environment. Let's look at the break down in more detail.

A Material Guide by Fiber

Cotton

Cotton Field

Cotton is the most common material for clothing with over 25 million tons of cotton produced every year globally, making it the second most used fiber in the fashion industry after polyester. It's light and breathable, durable and soft.

While it is a natural fiber and can be grown organically without pesticides, the cotton plant needs a colossal amount of water to grow. Cotton production does not only take away water from those who don't have access to clean drinking water, but it further pollutes rivers and waterways along the way due to the use of chemicals in the production and dyeing process.

To be honest, there is so much more to say about cotton but in a nutshell, it's production is associated with a lot of pollution, exploitation, and slavery (yes, still in 2020) while it's also suggested that the introduction of GMO cotton (genetically modified cotton) has significantly deteriorated the life's of Indian farmers who now have to borrow even more money from independent loaners to grow their supposedly pesticide-free crops, finding themselves in risky and often life-threatening situations.

Organic Cotton

So, what about organic cotton? Currently less than 1% of global cotton production is organic, with an even smaller percentage being recycled.

Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton as it does not contain harmful pesticides and therefore does not pollute waterways. It is also cheaper than GMO cotton which makes it more affordable for farmers to grow and boost their income. Unfortunately, it still requires a lot of water. The most sustainable fabric would be to use recycled or up-cycled cotton which means that the cotton has already had another useful life, similar to post-consumer recycled paper where no new trees were harmed.

Recycling and composting are two very important end-of-life options to keep fashion waste out of landfills where they would otherwise emit methane, a toxic greenhouse gas that is causing climate change. Therefore it is really important to choose fibers that can be either given another life or composted back into nutrient-rich soil in true circular economy style.

Organic and Conventional Cotton Comparison


Synthetics: Polyester, nylon and acrylic

Polyester is the most common fiber used in fashion and the go-to for fast fashion brands as it is a cheap, versatile, wrinkle-resistant, and hydrophobic material. However, polyester being made from plastic (petroleum), doesn't break down and therefore contributes significantly to the world's plastic pollution.

Polyester, nylon and acrylics are all artificial fibres made from petrochemicals that are absorbed by the skin of the wearer, potentially impacting your overall health the more wear you get out of them.

While they don't consume as much water as cotton, every time you wash a polyester garment it releases microfibres into our waterways causing immense damage to our marine life and vital ecosystem.

Their heavy reliance on the fossil-fuel industries brings with it other detrimental issues including oil spills, methane emissions and wildlife disruption and biodiversity loss.

Fossil fuel industry producing synthetic fashion

Wool, leather and silk

Animal-derived fibers are considered natural materials and even though not made from plastics, livestock contributes to almost 15% of global carbon emissions which makes it a significant cause of global warming and climate change. Wool, leather and silk bring their own complex issues like animal cruelty so they cannot be recommended as sustainable outright. We suggest you look into the standards of your local wool industry to avoid mulesing and other unethical practices that could harm or even kill animals. 

Wool sheering to produce fashion

Regular silk is made from animal protein – usually from silkworms.

While silk requires very little land and water to produce, you wouldn’t buy or use regular silk if you are vegan or against animal cruelty because silkworms are usually boiled alive to make it. There is a form of making silk called Peace Silk, where silkworms are kept 'free range' and allowed to hatch out their cocoons, but it is more costly and time intense.

Bamboo

Bamboo is certainly having a moment right now. Many believe that bamboo is a more sustainable alternative to timber or plastic, and it's such a diverse fiber that it can be manufactured into many different things, from houses and homewares to fashion.

Bamboo forest

While bamboo is a sustainable crop that doesn't require much water and is also low on pesticides and labour, it's manufacturing process doesn't look so bright. The chemicals used in the production of bamboo clothing are highly toxic and a risk to human health. About 50% of hazardous waste from rayon production (including the bamboo variety) cannot be recaptured and reused, and goes directly into the environment. So, not a winner after all.

However, a similar fabric called lyocell better known as the trademarked term TENCEL® is gaining momentum and uses a closed-loop process to recapture and reuse 99% of the chemical solution. Tencel is often made from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees, and the fabric was awarded the “European Award for the Environment” by the European Union.

Organic Hemp

Hemp is fantastic! Sustainable fabrics like hemp are great for the skin because they are made of organic fabrics. The natural dyes which are used on them do not contain any chemicals, making them ideal for babies as well. 

Hemp is a sustainable fiber for fashion

Hemp is grown all around the world and requires very little chemicals, fertilisers and water – making it so much more environmentally-friendly than other crops.

The main reason our hearts are racing for hemp? It’s considered a carbon negative raw material which means it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere.

Organic Linen

Linen I have to admit is my go-to fabric for its anti-bacterial claims and the way it feels on my skin. I use it for bedding, towels and it's my favourite wardrobe staple because it keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer, but what about its impact on the planet?

Flax plant a sustainable fiber to produce linen fashion

Linen is the Keep Cup of fashion. Similar to hemp, linen has been grown for centuries and is derived from the flax plant which requires little water and pesticides to grow. Linen is the perfect fiber for the circular economy where no resources are wasted. The flax plant is fully utilised upon production and the fashion made from linen is also fully biodegradable – a zero waste fiber and closed loop solution!

New innovations

The industry has innovated dramatically over the past years and has seen a surge in vegan fabrics representing the future of fashion, including linen and hemp. Even more versatile and environmentally sound are fairly new materials made from seaweed (SeaCell), wood pulp (Lyocell), beech tree (Modal), soybeans - the vegetable cashmere - and Coconut (Nanollose). 

Seaweed: Fabric from the ocean

Combat greenwashing with certifications

While it's a great idea to choose organic baby clothes, certifications are a great way to ensure the brands you buy from are truly ethical and sustainable. The most commonly used textile certifications for organic cotton and other fibres are The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO-TEX ® 100.
If the product doesn't have any certifications, it is up to you to ask the right questions: who made my clothes, what materials were used in the process and so on. Certifications are expensive and smaller, independent labels might not always have the budget to support their environmental claims with a rigorous supply chain evaluation. They should however always know and be happy to provide you with an honest response, so use your purchasing power and ask why before you buy.

What is GOTS-certification?

Always look for a GOTS certification on the care label of a garment. This is a definitive sign that the fabric has ticked all (or most) of the boxes to be considered sustainable. If a fabric is GOTS-certified, the buyer of the fabric can trust that it’s fair trade.

What is OEKO-TEX® certification?

Independent OEKO-TEX® partner institutes test textiles and leather for harmful substances at all processing levels and certify the environmentally and socially responsible production conditions of production facilities.

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Here’s to a 2020 ahead that shows clarity, calm, and a path forward. Join us on Instagram for more sustainability talk and the latest in organic baby and children’s clothing, or click the links below to build on your knowledge:

How checking labels can help you avoid toxic clothing?

What are the most sustainable fabrics?

How ethical is cotton?