On textile fibres and sustainability
April 27, 2021
Every year, Fashion Revolution Week commemorates the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 that killed over 1000 garment workers, mostly young women, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since then, Fashion Revolution has sought to demand action to increase transparency in the global textile industry and to end the industry’s exploitation of people and the environment.
To highlight these themes of transparency and sustainability (economical, ecological and social) in the textile industry, I’m writing a few blog posts about the topic and this text on textile fibres and sustainability is the second one. You can read the first post, “On textiles, consumers and sustainability”, by clicking here!
Natural fibres = an eco-friendly choice?
In the past few years talking about sustainability and textiles has shifted to not only include garment production but also materials, the textile fibres themselves. Which textile fibres are eco-friendly? Recyclable? Or responsibly produced?
Qualifying a textile fibre as eco-friendly is not at all simple, because even the production of natural fibres (cotton, linen, wool and silk) can be problematic from an ecological viewpoint.
Out of natural fibres, cotton requires a lot of pesticides and water to grow. Organic cotton, which is grown using natural pesticides and certified by different organisations, exist; however, the quantity of organic cotton is small compared to the quantity of cotton. Linen is a much more eco-friendly fibre to grow than cotton since it grows in more modest conditions; however, linen’s share in global textile production is small.
Cellolose fibres rayon (viscose) and lyocell
Cellulose-based regenerated fibres rayon (viscose) and lyocell share many qualities with cotton and are therefore an option when seeking for an alternative to cotton. Out of these, the production of rayon requires the use of hazardous chemicals and much water, while lyocell is produced in a more environmentally-friendly closed-loop system. Lyocell is often called by its brand name Tencel.
In general one can say that the more eco-friendly a natural or regenerated fibre is, the more expensive it is as well. This is why clothes made with organic cotton or lyocell are more expensive than cotton and rayon garments as a rule.
Synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon and elastane (also called Spandex and Lycra) are not necessarily all equal either when talking about sustainability. Polyester, for example, can be recycled into new fibres quite efficiently while fabrics with elastane, which is usually blended in small amounts with cotton and other fibres, are hard to recycle. Polyester and other synthetic fibres are oil-based and as such these materials do not decompose in nature, and they release micro-plastics into the environment when washed and used.