The sustainability issues influenced by a garment's material include the full gamut of impacts: climate change; adverse effects on water and its cycles; chemical pollution; loss of biodiversity; overuse and misuse of non-renewable resources; waste production; negative impacts on human health; and damaging social effects on producer communities.
Ch. 1 Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, Kate Fletcher
Changing the materials that we use to make our garments is the first step in sustainable innovation. It is a relatively quick and easy change to make, and the benefits can be felt very quickly. It is a good first step, yet it cannot be the only step to sustainability.
|Lyocell - cellulose fiber from wood pulp|
Fibers and materials for garments can be sustainable in a few different ways: they might be made from resources that are easily renewable; made from materials that do not require a lot of water, energy and chemicals to be produced; made by recycling or up-cycling waste; or made from materials that can biodegrade after their life cycle is complete. However, there are trade offs between these characteristics. For example bamboo is a very renewable resource, however it takes a lot of chemicals and energy to break it down to a fiber that can be used for clothing. So in the end it is not the best sustainable material.
One fiber that has gained a lot of popularity lately is Lyocell (brand name Tencel). It is fiber produced from cellulose from wood pulp. The fiber can be generated without much energy and waste, and it is naturally a light color that takes well to dyeing (so no bleaching is required). Typically the wood pulp comes from eucalyptus trees which regrow relatively quickly. From what I've heard Lyocell is the closest we've found to a truly sustainable fiber, and luckily it makes a nice fabric, and can easily be blended with other fabric types.
Recycled Polyester is another fabric that seems like it has a bright future. Amazingly we have found a way to turn plastic bottles into a fiber that can be used for clothing. Taking a waste product like plastic bottles and giving it new life in a garment is a great way to reduce impact.
There has also been a lot of talk about biodegradable fabrics. If we were able to compost our clothing waste and return it to the natural cycle, it could reduce a lot of waste, and create a cradle-to-cradle scenario. However, Fletcher brings up an interesting point about creating bio-degradable garments.
...from an energy perspective, electing to compost a garment rather than to recycle it... actually wastes the majority of energy embodied in the garment ... for it converts a complex, high-energy product (a garment) directly into a low-energy product (compost) without attempting to extract higher value first.
Essential she's saying that we are wasting the potential in a garment if we choose to compost it rather than use it in another way. The amount of energy that is put into a garment should be used to its full extent before a garment is returned to the natural cycle. I personally wonder if a garment designed to biodegrade would be strong enough to have a long life as a piece in my wardrobe. How do you design something to fall apart, but last long enough to be used?
Then of course there is still a lot of discussion and interest in organic cotton. Cotton has always been the "fabric of our lives," but quite frankly I think it's on its way out. Cotton is too susceptible to pests and need too much water to ever really be sustainable. Organic cotton is produced under better conditions, but since less pesticides and chemicals are used, not all of the crop's full potential is realized. This (in my opinion) makes it not sustainable. If you put the time and money into a crop that doesn't yield enough in the end, then that to me is a waste. However as of now, the world relies on cotton too much, so I understand why organic cotton is preferable to standard cotton.
When it comes to fibers there are so many different components to consider. There are a lot of new experimental fibers being created, such as fibers made from proteins such as milk or soy; fibers made from other plants like hemp, jute, and corn; and ever crazier sounding fibers like silk made from spider-webs. Choosing the right fiber seems like the first important step in overall change, but it's not entirely clear which fibers are the best when you consider all the angles.