HELP! What Materials are Sustainable?
Something is only sustainable if it’s good for the environment, good for society and good for the economy.
Having trouble looking at labels and deciding what material you should and should not buy? Read this quick guide to sustainable materials.
Vintage (second – hand)
Re-purposing an article of clothing is obviously the best way to acquire a larger wardrobe with very minimal impact on the environment. By wearing and buying vintage or reused clothes, we can combat 14.3 million tons of textile waste per year. Because the average American throws away approximately sixty-five pounds of clothing and bedding, almost six percent of all municipal waste is made up of textiles. Shopping vintage is a great way to incorporate reducing waste into your life.
Textiles make up almost 6% of the trash entering the U.S. landfills every year. Garments made from deadstock allow us to reuse and divert materials from landfills that would live hundreds to thousands of years. Deadstock is made out of old, leftover and over-ordered fabric from designers/warehouses. Making your closet a much more sustainable place.
Tencel (similar feel to cotton)
We try to find clothes made out of Tencel 9 times out of 10. Made by the Austrian company Lenzing, Tencel is a semi-synthetic fiber with properties almost identical to cotton.
Tencel is manufactured from Eucalyptus trees, which grow fast. It takes just half an acre to grow enough trees for one ton of Tencel fiber and Eucalyptus trees don’t need irrigation which saves tons of water. Our favorite part of Tencel is its closed loop manufacturing process which means over 99% of the solvents used to create it are pushed back into the production system instead of being flushed out into the environment. While Tencel does take more energy to produce than a natural fiber, Lenzing (again…company that makes Tencel) uses 100% renewable energy to minimize Greenhouse Gas emissions. Tencel production is also done without the use of pesticides or insecticides, so you don’t have to worry about toxic chemicals getting on your skin.
ps. pesticides have been known to cause neurological disorders, birth defects, and cancer. NO THANK YOU!
Rayon, Viscose, Modal (think silky materials that are not actually silk)
These materials also originate from plants. Specifically the pulp of wood that mainly comes from our forests. Each year, 70-100 million trees are cut down to produce wood-based fibers. This figure is expected to double by 2030. Trees are a renewable resource, so what is the big deal? Well, the truth is, trees take time to grow. For example, A pine tree, which might be used to produce rayon, takes 30 years to grow from a seed into its mature stage. When a forest is managed sustainability, trees are cut down at a rate that allows the forest to be replenished by new trees and ensure the habitat and biodiversity are also preserved. Forests are highly vulnerable to illegal logging. So while the wood from a well-managed forest can be considered a renewable resource, wood from an exploited forest is non-renewable as it is depleting the natural habitat at a much faster rate than the earth can replenish it. At the current deforestation rates, the world’s rain forests could vanish within the next 100 years. That is in your children’s and grandchildren’s life time…
It is estimated that 30% of the wood going into rayon is sourced from endangered and ancient forests (forests that have reached old age without being significantly disturbed and have rich biodiversity). Forests serve four key environmental functions: they store water, absorb carbon, structure the soil, and provide a habitat for wildlife. Altogether, forests cover 31% of the earth’s surface, which may seem like a high percentage, but just 50 years ago, forests accounted for 60% of the earth’s surface, indicating a massive loss of the world’s forests! Think back to 4th-grade science…trees play an important role in transporting water from the ground into the atmosphere and clouds – affecting rain cycles and fewer trees equal even drier climates. As far as wood based materials go, the best thing we can do as consumers are to buy products that have been approved by a sustainable forestry certifications such as The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), look for this on all paper-based products, not just viscose and rayon (Birthday Cards, note books). It’s not just a fashion issue – we actually need our forests.
Probably the most well-known clothing material of all. This one might surprise you the most. We all want to love cotton, it is so soft and cozy and comfy and seems so wholesome and natural …and it is. However, harvesting cotton is way more tough on our environment that we would imagine. First, you should know that cotton is produced all over the world, primarily in areas with dry, warm climates. Cotton is also a very thirsty plant and requires A LOT of water to grow – cotton is the biggest consumer of water in the entire apparel supply chain…so, yes..a lot of water to grow. Because cotton is grown mainly in dry regions and needs so much water to grow, rain does not usually supply cotton crops with enough water so irrigation is required. Irrigation involves applying additional water to the land, and 73% of the world’s cotton is grown on irrigated land. This means some of our most water stressed areas are directing scarce water resources towards cotton production. Instead of things like…drinking, bathing, did we say drinking?
Let’s talk chemicals – so almost 100% of the planet’s cotton is grown through farming methods that rely on the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds. Where do you think the runoff of the pesticides/fertilizers go? That’s right, back into our freshwater resources, ocean, and soil. Causing tons of pollution and harm to wildlife.
How can we mitigate this? Look for Organic Cotton certified by USDA. This is the most conscious cotton option available. This means that the cotton is grown without synthetic chemicals (like pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers and genetically modified seeds). Instead, these farmers rely on traditional farming methods like mixed farming, crop-rotation, and no-till farming – all of these help plants grow and promote healthy soil. Healthy soil is able to retain more water and isolate carbon at faster rates. So all in all, organic cotton uses less water, has a lower carbon footprint and uses less energy than non-organic cotton. However, it still uses WAYYY more water than Tencel and needs a least five times more land to produce.
Polyester (Nylon, Acrylic)
I bet when you think of plastic piling up in the ocean and landfills your mind doesn’t go to dresses and jumpsuits. However, that is exactly what polyester is – melted down plastic.
Polyester is a synthetic plastic fiber made from petroleum. Petroleum, which is also known as crude oil, is a fossil fuel extracted from deep within the earth and used in many applications, including fuel for transportation, electricity generation, and, of course, in the creation of plastics. The most common type of polyester in our clothing is technically called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. If PET sounds familiar, that is because it’s the same material used to make plastic bottles. Given how prevalent plastic bottles are in our lives, we might be tempted to think that PET is predominantly used to make them—but in reality, 60% of the world’s PET is used to make our clothes, while 30% is used to make plastic bottles. CrAzY… We Know!!
So why is there so much polyester (or plastic) in our clothing? It is actually very user-friendly and easy to maintain. It doesn’t wrinkle, it dries quickly, and it is durable. It is also economical and cheaper than our natural materials (almost half the cost of cotton). This makes polyester the favorite in this era of fast fashion. In fact, the demand for polyester had doubled in the past 15 years.
That all sounds great for a company that is trying to make clothes quickly and cheaply for its customers, but what does this do to our environment? First of all, polyester is made from petroleum and burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is bad for things like climate change. In addition to being a big polluter to our planet Polyester is also a non-renewable fiber which means it will take millions of years for the earth’s oil reserves to replenish what was used to create it. It is also a very long lasting material, so when you decide to get rid of it – it doesn’t go away. It takes approx. 200 years for a polyester garment to decompose and each year Americans throw away 10.5 Million tons of clothes (70 pounds of clothing per person each year). There’s more…. When we wash our polyester clothing, micro plastic fibers shed into our water. Each time a polyester garment is washed, it sheds 1,900 individual plastic micro fibers. These fibers eventually make their way to the ocean. Micro plastic fibers make up 85% of the human made material found on the ocean’s shorelines depleting our ecosystems.
Does this stuff have any good qualities? Polyester does use a lot less water to produce compared to cotton production, it does not use any agricultural land for crops, and since it is not grown no pesticides are used. Since polyester is here to stay what can we do to help mitigate this plastic problem? We can buy products made from recycled PET materials so we aren’t creating more and more plastic, we can recycle our clothing vs throwing them a way (perform a google search for fabric recycling near you), and buy what you love to last, think quality over quantity. Try to stay away from the fast fashion mentality and help break our cycle of over consumption.
We hope this material crash course will help you on your journey to a more sustainable wardrobe. We know it is a lot of information and can be confusing at times. Don’t worry we are here to help support you. After all, we are making our way down this path with you. Hold on tight – we think it’s going to be quite the adventure!
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