The fibres that are used in fashion – or rather the way they are created – play a huge role in terms of pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation and climate change. Fashion accounts for no less than 20 % of the global water pollution and 10 % of the global carbon emissions according to the UN, and much of that can be attributed to our choice of materials.
This blog post is a call to action; a gentle nudge to educate yourself on the (relatively few) fibres that are used for clothing if you haven’t already done so, enabling you to make informed decisions when you shop new clothing. All it takes is five minutes of your time.
Why is this important? Well, in 2018 alone, 107 trillion tonnes of fibres were produced for the textile industry – and the number is expected to reach 145 trillion in 2030.
This is obviously a problem. Not only is the majority of clothing made from fibres that have an adverse effect on the planet, the amount of fashion produced on a global scale is also increasing. We are walking towards a cliff edge!
Make a difference – choose fashion made from sustainable fabrics
As it all feels rather hopeless, it's tempting to put the blinders on and pretend nothing is happening. Fortunately, we have all the tools & knowledge required to turn things around and there is hope. What we need to do, is to raise awareness and take actions (big or small) in our daily life that inspire others to do the same. One of these actions is to choose fashion that is made from more sustainable fabrics.
In the following, I will give you 10 reasons to choose more sustainable fabrics when you buy new clothes by taking you through the issues relating to three of the most polluting fibres in fashion. Plus, I will share some much better alternatives with you.
Some facts about conventional cotton – and reasons to choose organic cotton instead
The market share of cotton is 24.3 % in total. 66 % of that is conventional cotton and, sadly, less than 1 % is organic cotton. In between, you’ll find the likes of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI cotton), which is certainly better but not good enough.
So, what are the issues related to conventional cotton production?
1. Water usage
The cotton plant is a very thirsty one, making the cultivating of the crop a water intensive process. 57 % of the global cotton production takes place in areas under high or extreme water stress and approximately 60 % is grown in irrigated fields, using ground water as the main water source.
The global average water footprint for 1 kg cotton, enough for only one t-shirt and a pair of jeans, is 10.000 litres. Yes, you read that right.
2. Synthetic pesticides & insecticides
Conventional cotton production accounts for 11 % of the global pesticide sales and 24 % of the global insecticide sales despite occupying only 3 % of the global arable land.
Not only is this a major contributor to water pollution due to run offs from fields, it is also the main cause of cancer, miscarriages and developmental issues amongst farmers, their children and surrounding community. Additionally, there is speculation that it may affect our own hormonal health too, despite us living far away from a cotton field. This is due to a phenomenon called ‘long-range transport’ or, in other words, pesticides being transported in our food or via rain.
As the pests and insects become accustomed to the pesticides & insecticides, the farmers regularly have to ramp up the dosage. It’s a vicious cycle.
3. Synthetic fertilisers
Conventional cotton farming is also known to use nitrogen-based synthetic fertilisers, causing oxygen-free dead-zones in water bodies when it runs off the fields and emitting greenhouse gasses.
While organic fertilisers such as manure increase the soil quality and fertility, the synthetic kind depletes the soil. Similarly to pesticides, this means that the farmers need to use more and more synthetic fertiliser to get satisfactory yield from the cotton fields.
4. Loss of biodiversity
And finally, the combination of extensive usage of chemicals, soil erosion and soil degradation (as a result of heavy water usage) is ruining wildlife habitats and contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
Most of the above-mentioned points can be avoided by changing to organic farming methods, using natural fertilisers and pesticides, as well as rain water as primary source for irrigation. In other words, choosing organic cotton instead of conventional cotton is MUCH better for the planet.
Some facts about generic viscose – and reasons to choose Tencel instead
Man-made cellulose fibres account for a market share of 6.2 % in total. 79 % of this is generic viscose, the worst offender pollution-wise.
Originally created to imitate silk, viscose is often used for dresses, skirts and blouses due to its beautiful drape and the way it ‘takes’ prints. But there is nothing beautiful about the production of generic viscose.
The Dutch organisation Changing Markets is making headway with their Dirty Fashion campaign, having managed to get the manufacturers of 50% of the global viscose production and 25 of major brands/retailers to commit to more responsible practises when it comes to producing viscose, yet there is still a long way to go.
So, what are the issues related to generic viscose production?
5. Deforestation and unsustainable forest management
Cellulose fibres are mostly made from wood pulp stemming from trees such as beech, eucalyptus and fir. Sometimes the wood used for viscose comes from sustainably managed forests, but often this is not the case and sadly some of the wood is still being sourced from ancient, endangered forests.
Only 11 % of forests globally are certified as sustainably managed forests. According to WWF, we are losing forests at the rate of 48 football fields every minute due to unsustainable or even illegal logging. The result is loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitats, as well as a negative impact on ‘the lungs of the world’.
It takes a lot of chemicals to transform the wood pulp into soft cellulose fibres; sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), carbon disulphide, sulphuric acid, sodium sulphate and zinc sulphate to name a few. Carbon disulphide in particular is not for the faint-hearted as it’s known to cause respiratory, neurologic and reproductive issues amongst workers at viscose producing plants.
Traditionally viscose production is a vertical operation meaning that the chemicals are only used once before they are discharged into water ways as part of the wastewater from production. Some plants will treat the water discharging it, but most traditional viscose plants will leave it untreated, destroying local ecosystems and causing health problems amongst humans and wildlife.
Created in a closed-loop system and made from sustainably forested trees, Tencel (lyocell) is a more sustainable version of man-made cellulose fibres and offers the same beautiful drape as generic viscose. Unbranded lyocell is also better from a pollution point of view although it comes with a risk of the wood not being sustainably sourced.
Some facts about virgin polyester – and reasons to choose recycled polyester instead
A study carried out by the charity Royal Society for the Arts recently drew headlines on the BBC when it stated that half of fast fashion is made from new plastics, in other words virgin polyester. That doesn’t come as a surprise as polyester accounts for 52 % of the global market share of textile fibres, and 87 % of this is virgin polyester.
So, what are the issues related to virgin polyester production?
7. Fossil fuel and coal
Synthetic polyester is made from coal and petroleum. In 2015, it required 330 million barrels of oil to produce enough polyester to meet the world’s demand for the fibre. While we are hopefully becoming less reliant on fossil fuels, it’s worth noting we have approximately 47 years’ worth of oil reserves left on the planet. Oil is not a renewable resource.
8. Greenhouse gases
Producing new polyester is a carbon intensive production. In 2015, polyester production released approximately 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases which, according to the World Resources Institute, is equivalent to the emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants! This number is projected to double in 2030 – despite the need to reduce carbon emissions in order to stop climate change.
9. Microplastic particles
Another big problem associated with polyester is water pollution. Part of it is caused by untreated waste water from polyester production and part of it is microplastic particles released when we (the consumers) launder our clothes.
10. It sticks around forever
And finally, as I am sure you know, plastic sticks around forever.
The best alternative to virgin polyester at the moment is recycled polyester, which is created from recycled plastic bottles. It is not the silver bullet as recycled polyester also sheds microplastic particles during washing and hence, we (the consumers) need to combine it with a filter or washing bag that catches the small particles. It does, however, require 70% less energy to produce recycled polyester than virgin polyester, making it a much better alternative and a good ‘stepping stone’ while new, more sustainable, fibres are being developed.
The solution is right in front of us – we have better alternatives to the most polluting fibres
As mentioned right at the start of this blog post, we have all the tools and knowledge to do better. It is not necessary to use conventional cotton, generic viscose or virgin polyester. VILDNIS is the proof of this, consistently using organic cotton, Tencel (lyocell) and recycled polyester instead.
The report from Changing Markets highlights that some major fashion brands have started to transition to eco-friendlier alternatives. However, it also mentions that the vast majority (75 % of the brands questioned in the report) continues to use the most polluting versions and will likely keep doing so until regulation against it or consumers start voting with their wallets.
In order to speed up the change, VILDNIS has launched a petition calling on the UK government to ban the most polluting fibres in fashion from 2025.
We could have included many more fibres such as acrylic, virgin polyamide (nylon) etc, but have chosen to focus on the fibres with the biggest market shares: conventional cotton, generic viscose and virgin polyester.
Sign our petition here if you wish to do something actively to help change fashion – and tell your friends about it.
I hope this blog post has inspired you to check out the fibre composition in the care label next time you shop fashion and actively look for items that are made from sustainable fabrics. It genuinely will make a difference.
Thanks for your time :-)
Caption: the Bromo Jumpsuit made from 100% Tencel.