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Sustainable Fabric: Demystifying the jargon

Sustainable Fabric: Demystifying the jargon

Recycled, repurposed, deadstock, organic… there are so many options, but what do they mean, and which are the most environmentally and socially friendly? In the labyrinth of today's clothing labels, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the plethora of (potentially) sustainable fabrics. From materials made out of bananas to intricate certification schemes and conflicting practices, the world of sustainable textiles can be difficult to engage with. However, understanding these differences on a basic level can help you consciously improve your wardrobe's environmental and social footprint. From the wacky apple leather to the wackier SCOBY Leather, this article will give a swift overview of what’s out there on the market.

It's no secret that the materials used in clothing have a profound impact on the environment. The fast fashion industry has earned its place as the second-largest water polluter by churning out virgin synthetic materials such as polyester, spandex, viscose, and nylon. These textiles contribute to 8% of waste and, owing to their plastic content, take hundreds of years to biodegrade, releasing harmful microplastics into the environment. In recent years, the fashion industry has undergone a significant transformation, with a renewed focus on textile innovation. The production and processing of materials have long been recognized as the major contributors to fashion's carbon footprint. As the world grapples with environmental challenges, some fashion brands are stepping up to the plate, paving the way and adopting groundbreaking fabric solutions.

Choosing eco-friendly fabrics is a simple step you can take towards building a more sustainable wardrobe. As these fabrics become more accessible to us, it’s important to know your apple leather from your Mylo. Just as we ask, "#whomademyclothes," we should be asking "What are my clothes made of?"

What Makes a Fabric Eco-Friendly?

Understanding what qualifies as "sustainable fabric" is the first step. To comprehend this, let's briefly examine what makes a fabric unsustainable.

Conventional textiles, historically used in fashion and home goods, have often been developed with profit in mind rather than environmental concerns. This has resulted in environmentally damaging sourcing of raw materials, chemically-intensive material processing, and circularity being side-lined. In contrast, sustainable fabrics aim to significantly reduce the environmental impact compared to their conventional counterparts. They achieve this through practices such as organic and chemical-free farming, the use of recycled materials, circular manufacturing processes, and sustainable end-of-life disposal. Let’s explore what solutions the market has come up with.

Leather Alternatives

One of the most prominent areas of innovation is the development of leather alternatives. Traditional leather production from cattle has a substantial environmental impact, contributing to an estimated 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In response, innovative materials like Mylo have gained traction.

Mylo: made from mycelium, the root structure of fungi. Supported by major players like Stella McCartney, Adidas, Gucci-owner Kering, and Lululemon, Mylo is produced by growing large sheets of fluffy foam from fungal cells, followed by a tanning process. While not completely plastic-free yet, Mylo aims to eliminate synthetic content in the future.

Reishi: Another promising material is Reishi, developed by MycoWorks. Like Mylo, Reishi is created from mycelium sheets grown from specially-engineered cells and agricultural waste. Hermès, in collaboration with MycoWorks, launched products made from Reishi, marking a significant shift towards sustainable luxury fashion.

Mirum: crafted by Natural Fiber Welding, represents a plastic-free alternative to leather produced from plants and minerals. Mirum is touted as endlessly recyclable, creating a fully circular material. Brands like Allbirds and Pangaia have already embraced Mirum, with Ralph Lauren also investing in the company.

Piñatex: made from pineapple waste, Piñatex has gained popularity among brands like H&M and Hugo Boss. Although it currently contains a bio-based plastic (PLA) and a PU coating for durability, Piñatex represents an early alternative leather that showcases the potential of sustainable materials.

Vegea: another plant-based leather option, crafted from grape waste from the wine industry. Since winning the H&M Foundation Global Change Award in 2017, Vegea has been adopted by brands like Ganni, Pangaia, and Calvin Klein. While it still contains 45% PU, Vegea offers a sustainable alternative to traditional leather.

Recycled Textiles

The fashion industry is also making strides in the realm of recycled textiles. Albeit it is necessary to note that the energy intensity of recycling fibres is a critical factor in the sustainability of a fabric, especially in recycling synthetic fibres.

Circulose: Circulose, developed by Renewcell, utilizes 100% discarded clothing. Through a process involving renewable energy, cotton content from garments is separated and dissolved into wood pulp, which is then transformed into a type of viscose.

NuCycl: created by Evrnu, is another 100% recycled clothing material primarily composed of post-consumer cotton waste. Stella McCartney, in partnership with Adidas, introduced its Infinite Hoodie using NuCycl.

ECONYL®: Made from recycled synthetic waste like ocean plastic and abandoned fishing nets. This fabric is commonly used in sustainable swimwear, enabling responsible production in one of the hardest garments to make sustainably.

Recycled Polyester (RPET): Repurposes plastic bottles into versatile fabrics, but watch out for microplastic pollution.

Deadstock Fabrics: Utilizes manufacturing scraps, vintage clothing, or unsold stock to reduce textile waste. Deadstock serves to reduce textile waste by giving a lease of life to what would have been sent to landfill.

Getting Back to Nature with Natural Fibres

Organic Cotton: Grown without synthetic pesticides and processed without chemicals, it uses 62% less energy and 88% less water than conventional cotton.

Hemp: An eco-friendly fabric that requires minimal water and pesticides, with the added benefit of carbon-negative raw material.

Linen: Derived from flax plants, it requires little to no fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation inputs.

Animal Derived Fibres

When evaluating animal-derived fibers, it’s important to raise questions around the animals' welfare, lifespan, and conditions. To do this, look to the certifications behind the products.

Sheep Wool: Known for its moisture-wicking and temperature-regulating properties, wool can be produced with minimal environmental impact and chemical use. Sheep farming is part of a growing world of regenerative agriculture in which sheep contribute to environmental preservation. Certifications to look out for include Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), Certified Organic Wool, Certified Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane® Label, and Soil Association.

Merino Wool: Sourced from Merino sheep, which should ideally be raised with ethical practices, avoiding procedures like mulesing. Certifications include ZQ Merino Standard, Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), Woolmark, and Certified Organic Wool.

Alpaca Wool: Considered ethical, alpaca farming doesn't harm the environment and supports local economies.

Cashmere: Sought after for its softness, it can be ethically sourced, but buyers should scrutinize the production process. Cashmere, with its fine 15-micron fibers, is a popular biodegradable fabric for sustainable sweaters, offering exceptional softness. However, its production raises environmental and ethical concerns, particularly in mountainous regions like Mongolia, where goats contribute to desertification. To promote sustainability, choose brands employing ethical sourcing methods, including hand combing and free-ranging goats, and consider recycled cashmere options.

Yak Wool: Harvested from yaks, it's a warm and sustainable alternative to cashmere.

Understanding the nuances of these sustainable fabrics empowers you as a consumer to make informed choices that align with your values. By choosing eco-friendly materials and supporting brands committed to ethical and sustainable practices, we can collectively shape a more responsible and eco-conscious fashion industry—one garment at a time.

"Buy less. Choose well. Make it last."

Vivienne Westwood

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