Grown using harsh pesticides, processed in toxic chemicals, made from crude oil – fabrics are often the hidden bad guys in our wardrobes. The way they’re made has had catastrophic impacts on the environment and is pretty scary for our health. Thankfully, scientists and fashion designers have been working together (who would’ve thought?) to solve the problem. There are now a heap of clean, sustainable alternatives that look great, and don’t cost the earth – or our wellbeing. So how do you identify a sketchy fabric – and where should we be spending our dollars instead?
Ah, that good old staple, cotton. It’s in our shirts, our sheets – practically everything that touches our skin. But it’s actually one of the worst fabrics in terms of water usage. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it can take more than 20,000 litres of water just to produce pair of jeans and a single T-shirt.
And this thirsty fabric is really starting to cause problems for the environment. In 2014, NASA released shocking satellite photos of what used to be the Aral Sea in Central Asia. This was once the world’s fourth largest lake, home to 24 species of fish and surrounded by fishing communities. After the rivers that feed it were diverted for cotton, it totally dried up, releasing salt and pesticides into the atmosphere that poison the local land and people.
[From left] Satellite pictures of the Aral Sea in the year 2000 and in 2016 (photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
We don’t tend to think of fabrics as chemical-heavy products, but you’d be amazed by the toxic stuff your clothes are covered in. Almost all the fabrics you can buy have been cleaned, treated, dyed, prepped or coated in some kind of chemical: detergents, petrochemicals, Azo dyes, formaldehyde, bleaches or fabric softeners. The pesticides used to grow natural fibres are often unregulated and can cause cancer in farmers. These substances then rub off onto our bodies and are absorbed into our skin, and when we put in a load of laundry, they wash into our waterways and ecosystems.
But with less and less land available to grow cotton, synthetic fibres have taken over in recent years. While new and innovative synthetic fibres can take the pressure off the land and use less water, most of them are far from an eco-solution. Nylon is made from petroleum, acrylics contain dangerous polycrylonitriles, and polyester, which in 2007 overtook cotton as the world’s most-used fibre, is a plastic. Like plastic bottles, diapers and toothbrushes, it never goes away. Ugh.
Where most of your clothing ends up.
What about those soft, floaty summer clothes that seem to breathe so well? They’re probably made from rayon – also known as viscose. Rayon is created by chemically processing dissolvable wood pulp, made from wood chips, and as the demand for wood pulp increases, it’s causing serious forest devastation.
Forest conservation advocates estimate that 30% of rayon and viscose is made from the pulp of endangered and ancient forests in countries like Canada, Indonesia and Brazil. The hunger for wood pulp for fabrics has also led to the catastrophic loss of rainforest habitat for animals like the Sumatran orang-utan and rhino in Indonesia. Check out the Rainforest Action Network’s Out of Fashion campaign for more on how you can help.
Logging in the Borneo Rainforest, Malaysia.
So the world is doomed and there’s nothing we can do! Nope – thankfully not. It’s easy to do the right thing and buy soft, comfortable, eco-friendly fabrics: you just need to know what you’re looking for. Here are our tips.
Try TENCEL- Tencel is the fabric that gives wood-based rayon a good name. Manufactured by Lenzing, Tencel is soft and strong, and comes from Eucalyptus forests that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and grown on land that doesn’t compete with food crops or old-growth forests. But the best part is that their ‘closed-loop’ pulp processing recycles 99.5-99.8% of the solvents and water used in production.
Look for LENZING MODAL- Another type of rayon, Lenzing Modal is fully traceable and made exclusively from beechwood, which is grown and harvested sustainably in the same way as Tencel. Lenzing also recycles 95% of the solvents and water used in the production process. Be careful to ensure that your Modal is coming from responsibly managed wood sources, as some types of this fabric are leading to devastating deforestation in Indonesia.
Go ORGANIC- The fact is, we love cotton, but we don’t want it to be soaked in pesticides and insecticides. Look for GOTS certified fabrics (that’s Global Organic Textile Standard, not Game of Thrones) – it’s the world standard for cotton that’s both socially and ecologically responsible.
Check your DYES- Not all dyes are created equal! Look out for GOTS or Bluesign certification to be sure that eco-friendly, low-impact dyes have been used. These fibre reactive dyes are free from any harmful chemicals, and require less water in the dyeing process.
In the meantime, the future of fabrics is making incredible progress and there are so many advances to get excited about. Get ready to see more clothes made out of fruits and vegetables, using the parts of the plants that we can’t eat and usually throw away. Vegan leather alternatives like Piñatex, made from pineapple leaf fibres, and fabrics like cocona, made from coconut husks, are incredibly efficient ways to make use of our trash and avoid chemical tanning processes at the same time.
With nothing to lose, the fashion industry is really getting on board with these sustainable options. Hey, if these fabrics made from cellulose acetate are anything to go by, the future of fashion is literally the shit.
To learn more about the sustainable fabrics we use in each TAMGA product click here.