A Conscious Consumer's Guide To Fibers: Part 2
Best Fibers For New Purchases
One of the best things you can do as a conscious consumer of fashion is to simply buy less. What you don’t buy is even more important than what you do. However, that doesn’t mean that what you buy doesn’t matter.
No fiber is inherently sustainable so every supply chain and brand needs to be evaluated separately, but the environmental impact of some will always be greater than others. To learn about the benefits and issues of some of the best fibers to look for in new purchases, keep reading.
When many people think of clothing made from hemp they picture garments resembling burlap sacks. It is true that hemp has a long history of rope making but modern hemp is actually a lot like cotton.
Hemp is six times as strong as cotton, requires half as much land to grow, improves the soil it grows in, and doesn’t require chemical fertilizers and pesticides. You may now be wondering why hemp hasn’t replaced cotton if all this is true, and the answer will probably frustrate you.
It all boils down to legal issues. Though the plants used to make hemp, the fiber and fabric, are not the same as the ones often used to grow the common psychoactive drug, the plants do look very similar. Because of this, there have been a lot of legal issues surrounding the growing of hemp. It has gotten easier in recent years, but the legal questions and stigma have kept hemp from becoming mainstream. This has also delayed innovation in the hemp industry.
Another factor holding back hemp’s adoption is that it is not widely considered a ‘low impact’ crop despite its positive attributes because many techniques used to produce and process it are inefficient. Hemp can be produced with minimal labor, chemicals, and water usage, but it can also not be. Supporting hemp and the brands that use it well can help increase the demand for it and encourage innovation. It’s a win for the consumer, who gets a high-quality piece of clothing, and for activism, as it encourages industry-wide change.
Though linen is often considered a luxury fabric, it has one of the longest histories as a clothing material of any fiber we use. As far back as 8000 BCE, humans have been enjoying its uniquely airy, moisture-wicking properties. It used to be a common textile, but now makes up less than 1% of the clothing market. Linen production and processing are not free of issues, but they pale in comparison to the two fibers that make up most of the rest of the market: cotton and polyester (A Conscious Consumer’s Guide to Fibers, Part 1).
A cotton t-shirt requires 4 times more water to produce than one made of linen. Growing flax, the plant from which linen is derived, has a low impact on soil because it requires very few pesticides and fertilizers, also making it a great candidate for organic farming. Not all linen that is grown under organic conditions is officially organic because certifications can be difficult and expensive to obtain so growers choose not to obtain them.
Still, linen supply chains struggle with high energy and water usage, not so much in production, but in the consumer use phase. 80% of water and energy use associated with linen is from customer washing, ironing, steaming, and drying. But you, the consumer, have control at this stage. If you allow linen garments to air dry, avoiding excess winkling by laying them flat to dry, and by ironing and steaming less. Embrace the wrinkles!
The more you learn about it, the less it makes sense that cotton is the most commonly used natural fiber and the second most common fiber overall. From its copious water and pesticide use to tragically high rates of farmer suicide, cotton is not an ideal fiber, to say the least.
Cotton is the world’s largest non-food crop, and the industry employs over 350 million people. As the world consumes clothing more rapidly, stress on cotton farmers grows. Even though Cotton drains the soil it grows in, many farmers try to grow cotton in the same area year after year. To reinvigorate their depleted soils, farmers turn to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which harms the soil further and gets worse every year. Growing cotton consumes 4% of the world’s pesticides and at least 10% of the world’s insecticides. This cycle has led to the largest recorded wave of suicides in history. In the last 16 years, India alone has seen over 250,000 farmer suicides. Many end their lives by drinking the very chemicals they went into staggering debt to purchase.
Cotton will always be one of the most water-intensive crops, but this can be minimized and there are solutions for most of its other problems.
Despite all the issues surrounding it, cotton can be produced in a way that is more sustainable than many other fibers and is easier on the planet in the disposal phase. If you purchase new garments made from cotton, look for certifications like Organic, Fairtrade, or Better Cotton Initiative. And there are always garments made from deadstock cotton to consider (How Sustainable is Deadstock Really?).
Natural and semi-synthetic fibers both use natural resources to create fabric, the difference is how they perform as fabrics and which resources they use. The first semi-synthetic fiber, viscose (aka. rayon) was created to be like silk, but on a budget and without animals. Natural fibers like cotton and hemp would be hard pressed to mimic silk. Semi-synthetics can also utilize plant cellulose that natural fiber cannot. The bamboo and wood pulp often used to create semi-synthetic materials can often be grown in a less resource heavy way than ones used to produce natural fibers like cotton.
Like synthetic fibers, semi-synthetics are very energy-intensive to create, most of them produce hazardous waste and use toxic chemicals. In addition, the harvesting of their raw materials also often contributes to deforestation since they require cellulose from various kinds of wood. As a popular source of cellulose, bamboo is sometimes planted where ancient forests or native plants used to be.
Lyocell, also called Tencel, doesn’t use toxic chemicals or produce toxic waste. If you can confirm that the raw materials used to make it were sustainably harvested, lyocell can be a great semi-synthetic option.
With its reputation for thick scratchy garments, wool can be an intimidating choice for many people. As far back as 10000 BC, people have been wearing wool. But now, wool only makes up 1% of the apparel industry.
The ethics behind animal fibers are complicated, to say the least, and, in the end, the decision to wear or not wear them is very personal. Animal rights and sustainability are undeniably intertwined, but for the sake of this article, we will be trying to separate the environmental sustainability from the animal rights questions.
Wool has moisture-wicking, odor control, and lasting properties that make it very versatile. Also, remember, there are many different kinds of wool (cashmere, merino, alpaca, angora, etc.) and techniques for processing it, meaning, it isn’t always itchy and hot.
Since raising sheep and other animals is resource and land-intensive, looking for recycled or upcycled wool can be a good way to utilize wool’s amazing properties while not contributing to some of the environmental issues. There is an 81% reduction in emissions in the creation of recycled wool versus virgin wool.
There are also some fabrics and fibers that you may have never heard of or considered. Have you heard of fabric made from pineapple? Or coffee grounds? What about ones grown entirely in a lab?
New fibers are being created all the time, so keep your radar up. However, just because a fiber is creative or alternative, does not make it sustainable to produce. For example, the most common vegan alternative to leather is made polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC, which is made from petroleum and, thus, brings all the environmental issues of petrochemicals and fossil fuels with it. Make sure not to get caught up in the novelty of a fabric and scrutinize its ethics and sustainability before purchasing.
What Should I Do Now?
When you do choose to buy new clothing it is important to vote with your dollar where you can. Choose clothes made from natural or semi-synthetic fibers to support sustainable textiles, but avoid natural or semi-synthetic fibers blended with synthetic fibers. Blends like these can’t biodegrade or be recycled.
Linen, hemp, cotton, viscose, Tencel, and wool are among the fibers that conscious consumers look for when shopping for new clothes. However, it is important to check out the supply chain and other information available before supporting a brand.