Weaving A Better Way: Eco-Friendly Fashion Is On The Rise

Art installation "Massive Clothing Spill" illustrates the amount of fabrics that go to waste and enter landfills each year.
Art installation “Massive Clothing Spill” illustrates the amount of fabrics that go to waste and enter landfills each year.

What’s the most environmentally friendly fabric?

When it comes to conventional textiles, there is no best option. Textile production is a major source of air and water pollution and toxic waste byproducts. Fortunately there are many practical alternatives, but lack of awareness and customer demand are keeping the industry stuck in old and inefficient ways.

Almost all commonly used fabrics pose major environmental concerns. Synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon are made from large amounts of crude fossil fuels. Polyester production is a major emitter of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds and hydrogen chloride. Nylon production releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas emission 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Because they are polymers, synthetics do not break down in the environment.

Cotton, the most widely grown crop for textile production, is known to be the most heavily pesticided crop. Most of the pesticides used on cotton remain in the clothes even after they are sold, and many of these pesticides are known carcinogens.

Textile production is an inefficient process that uses huge amounts of water and crude resources and produces a great deal of waste. Bleaching agents and dyes (even naturally sourced ones) are a source of toxic wastewater pollution, and additional fossil fuel impact is created in the shipping of raw fabrics to factories in the third world and finished clothing back to the west.

Indigo, the dye used in blue jeans, is a source of water pollution even though it is naturally sourced.
Indigo, the dye used in blue jeans, is a major source of water pollution even though it is naturally sourced.

The way we consume fashion has also contributed to its environmental footprint. Prior to World War II clothing was reused and handed down, or recycled into rags and quilts. Post WWII, clothing began to be marketed as disposable, driving the economy with new trends each season. This led to more cheaply produced clothing and literally tonnes of used clothing entering landfills each year.

Animal rights issues are a concern in leather and wool production, and human rights abuses of garment workers in third world countries are becoming widely known.

But there is hope: unlike some industries, which face bigger hurdles to cleaning up their production, there are plenty of eco-friendly options for textiles.

Hemp and bamboo are more insect resistant than cotton, and offer promising options for natural fibres. Organic cotton is increasing in popularity and linen, a traditional fibre, is also a better option. Fair-trade certified fashion ensures garment workers are paid fairly and work in safe conditions.

Polar fleece is made from recycled pop bottles, melted and spun into thread.
Polar fleece is made from recycled pop bottles, melted and spun into thread.

Recycling is perhaps the most promising avenue to reducing environmental footprint. Sources estimate that recycling can reduce textile waste by 80 to 90%. Existing clothing can be recycled in the form of used clothing for the thrift and vintage market, or deconstructed for usable material.

The thrift industry is grow by as much as 7% per year, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Reused clothing and t-shirts are finding sales in emerging markets in Africa. Some designers up-cycle, using materials from other products in garment production.

Toronto's MariClaRo creates robust messenger bags from tire inner tubes and seatbelts.
Toronto’s MariClaRo creates robust messenger bags from tire inner tubes and seatbelts.

Some groups have implemented certification processes for eco-fashion, such as the Oeko-tex 100, the European Eco-Label for Textile Products, the Global Organic Textile Standard, and the World Fair Trade Organization.

So what can you do as a consumer? By purchasing organic cotton and other eco-friendly fabrics, consumer demand will push companies to provide more sustainable options. Consumers can also buy second-hand, donate their old clothes to charity or thrift stores, or recycle them into rags to keep then out of landfills.

Want to learn more? Here are just a few places to continue your reading:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1964887/
http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/1709/impact-of-textiles-and-clothing-industry-on-environment?page=1
http://www.ethicalfashionforum.com/the-issues/standards-labelling