by Lori Cunningham, Founder of Loskey, a brand of sustainable, certified organic cotton t-shirts

Fashion and Beauty on Female First

Fashion and Beauty on Female First

As many consumers try to make more sustainable choices when it comes to fashion, one of the first places they often look is the fabric from which a garment is made. However, reading the label is one thing, understanding what it truly means is another. To help navigate the sometimes confusing world of sustainable and organic fabrics, I’ve pulled together a bit of a cheat sheet to help you know which fabrics are truly best.

Recycled Fibres

By taking fabrics that were destined for landfill and making them new again, we are having a doubly positive effect on the environment. We not only save the planet from having to deal with non-biodegradable fabrics that, in the case of polyester and spandex, can take up to 200 years to break down, we are also sparing it the harmful chemicals used to make these fabrics in the first place.

There are a number of recycled fibres being used in garment manufacturing at the moment: recycled cotton, recycled wool and mechanically recycled polyester & nylon. Cotton accounts for almost half the fabric in the fashion industry, so finding a way to recycle it saves new crops being farmed, and, in the case of conventional, non-organic cotton, pesticides and chemicals being used. However, recycling cotton does have its limitations, most notably that the resulting fibres are not as strong as virgin cotton and therefore have to be blended with new virgin fibres to be durable enough for use in fashion. Wool is much more durable, and as a result it accounts for the highest proportion of recycled fibres in fashion. As much as 25% of wool garments are recycled into new clothing through a closed-loop system that spins them into new yarns ready for weaving.

Recycled polyester & nylon is probably the most controversial in the sustainable fashion space. While it indeed stops plastics ending up in landfill, there are limitations to how many times these fibres and be recycled, so they are destined to wind up in landfill eventually. Also, recycling does not address one key issue with polyesters, virgin or not – each time they are washed they shed microfibres that end up in our water supply. Once there, small organisms such as plankton end up consuming these microfibres, and they get passed up the food chain. The ultimate impact of plastic consumption on marine life and the health of our oceans is not known, nor the impact it might have on humans and other animals that eat these creatures. Therefore, there is a school of thought that only organic, natural fibres are truly sustainable.

Organic Fibres

In considering organic fibres, there are a number of sustainable alternatives – cotton, linen and hemp. Organic cotton is by far the most popular. There is a worldwide standard to certify that cotton is organic – GOTS, the Global Organic Textile Standard. In addition to the fact that organic cotton production uses less water & energy, and thus produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions that conventional cotton, GOTS certifies the organic nature of the fibres, environmental criteria for all dyes and chemical inputs (e.g., bleaching), as well social criteria for the workers involved in its manufacture. It's not just about doing what's best for the planet, it's about ensuring that the workers involved with production and harvest are safe and not exposed to toxins. It’s exactly why Loskey uses only 100% GOTS-certified organic for production of our tees!

Organic linen, made from the Flax plant, is another excellent sustainable fibre. Given the versatile and robust nature of the plant, it can be successfully grown using very few pesticides and minimal water. With its lightweight and natural sweat-wicking ability, it’s the perfect summer fabric, and has been worn for centuries in hot climates.

Organic hemp is growing in popularity and becoming a main-stream fashion alternative. Like linen, it is very easy to grow, and also quite versatile. Hemp is a slightly stiffer fibre than linen, but it does become softer with wear, and is very long-lasting. It also has the added benefit of not only keeping its wearer cool in the summer, but warm in the winter!

While wool and leather are clearly natural fibres, their production is riddled with many complex issues, so it’s not possible to classify them as sustainable. The same is true for bamboo viscose – while made from the pulp of bamboo trees, the chemical used to dissolve the fibres is toxic, and when not managed correctly, can be very harmful for the environment.

Man-made, Innovative Fibres

The good news is that advancements in technology are driving the creation of new, man-made sustainable fabrics and fibres, including Tencel, Pinatex and synthetic silk. Tencel, made by the Lenzing company, has tackled the issue of toxic chemicals in the production of bamboo viscose, as mentioned above. It produces bamboo cellulose fabric, while managing the chemicals used to break down the wood pulp in a closed loop system so they are never released into the environment. The resulting product is naturally moisture wicking and anti-bacterial but has none of the environmental issues of traditional viscose, making it an increasingly popular sustainable fabric choice.

Pinatex is a leather alternative, but unlike PVC (often referred to now as ‘vegan leather’) it does not use any harmful petrochemicals in its production. In fact, it is made from pineapple leaf fibre, which means it also has the added benefit of reducing food waste! Made by Ananas Anam, it has proven so popular that the company has been challenged to keep up with demand from brands and designers.

There are a few companies that are pioneers in the production of man-made silk, including Spiber, which produces Qmonos, a synthetic spider silk said to be 5x stronger than steel, and Bolt Threads, the producer of MicroSilk, another synthetically made spider silk fibre. Bolt’s initial collaboration was with Stella McCartney and resulted in the first dress made entirely of MicroSilk, unveiled in New York at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in October 2017. Technology is advancing quickly meaning that soon these innovative silks will be more efficiently mass-produced, and thus more widely available to all.

So, there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of the world of sustainable fabrics! Hopefully making sustainable fashion choices just became a little bit easier.

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