FABRIC GUIDE: THE BEST AND WORST

From seed to garment, the production of textiles for the clothing industry can have devastating environmental and human consequences. Even fabrics made from natural fibres and touted as 'sustainable' can have a negative impact on the environment. Thankfully, increased scrutiny and consumer demands are leading to better, more environmental and sustainable processes being developed. We have rounded up some of the best and worst fabrics to help you make more informed choices next time you hit the shops.

The most sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics

Hemp

This hardy crop requires no pesticides or insecticides to grow, uses a third as much water as cotton to grow and regenerates the soil. This versatile and durable fibre can be used to make soft fabric or sturdier fabrics including rope. It has antibacterial and mildew resistant properties along with offering UV protection. Being a breathable fabric it wicks moisture away from the body much better than cotton does. This fabric is really amazing, you will mostly find it blended with organic cotton but unfortunately it’s not yet widely used in clothing and soft furnishings.

Organic Cotton

Conventional cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world, which means it’s saturated in chemicals. It also represents over nearly half of the textiles used to make clothing. Organic cotton farming aims to reduce the resource intensity and environmental impact of cotton production by using natural materials to protect crops and ensuring soil rejuvenation along with banning the use of GMO seeds.

Bamboo

The bamboo plant is quick to grow and replenish itself without the use of pesticides. There are assertions of antibacterial and odour repellent qualities but these claims are contentious particularly when it’s blended with other fibres such as viscose. However it is a versatile crop that can be used for food, fibre and shelter. There are two ways to manufacture – chemical and mechanically. Chemical uses sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide in the process and these chemicals have been linked to nerve damage. Unfortunately the mechanical process isn’t used very often for clothing due to the time consuming nature. The good news is there are new methods being developed that are more environmentally friendly, what you need to look out for is bamboo lyocell fabric (or the branded name of Tencel).

 The not so eco-friendly fabrics

Conventional Cotton

The non-organic cotton farming method is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world and is largely unsustainable. These chemicals can seep into waterways causing disease in the local community and environmental decline. The pesticides deplete the soil leading to soil degradation and reduction in quality. Cotton crops are very thirsty and require a lot water to grow - it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to make 1kg of cotton. These issues have devastating impacts on the local ecosystem.

Conventional Polyester

This fibre is manufactured using petrochemicals, which comes from non-renewable resources - coal and petroleum - and causes huge environmental damage in the extraction process, contributing to global warming. Manufacturing of polyester is an energy hungry process. The good news is, while polyester isn’t biodegradable, it can be recycled as it’s mostly made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). And water use for recycled polyester is almost zero.

Viscose

This fabric is manufactured in a non-ecofriendly manner from wood pulp (cellulose). As with some bamboo fibre manufacturing carbon disulphide, used to treat the wood pulp, is the main concern in viscose manufacturing. As mentioned above, this chemical can cause nervous system damage from prolonged exposure. The manufacturing process of viscose requires a lot of water.

Due to low cost manufacturing and the fast fashion business model, the cheap, poor quality and environmentally damaging fabric types are still the most widely available in the market. So, unfortunately, you’re probably not going to be able to walk into a high street store anytime soon and pick up a garment made of hemp. If we can actively seek out environmentally and socially conscious brands that do use eco-friendly fabric the big fashion brands will get the message.