Most of us want to be more environmentally friendly in our daily lives; plastic straws make us shudder, we take our reusable coffee cup everywhere and haven’t used a plastic bag since 2010. But what about fashion? How do we make the right wardrobe choices for the environment?
Since being named one of the worst polluters, the fashion industry is finding ways to become more environmentally friendly. The various production phases involve making fabrics from harmful chemicals, causing water and air pollution. Some of the large-scale industrial processes even require large amounts of water and energy. Textile waste is another big issue with tons piled into landfill sites taking centuries to biodegrade.
As a result, more brands and companies are choosing cleaner materials and opting for more ethical practices. Fiber manufacturers, who are the start of the production value chain, are also putting more effort to develop sustainable, feel-good fibers from sustainably sourced wood, a renewable and naturally biodegradable material. Top fashion brands and designers, such as Zara, H&M and Stella McCartney are now choosing sustainable fibers in selected collections.
However, there are many unfamiliar names for fabric types and deciphering the sustainable ones can be a minefield.
Knowing What Is Truly Sustainable
It’s confusing. From the origin of raw materials, sourcing process to production, there are many factors determining how sustainable a piece of garment can be.
Some materials such as polyester and nylon are widely known as not sustainable due to their synthetic nature and non-biodegradability.
However, even if the source is botanical, some production processes of the raw material may involve practices that ultimately weaken the industry’s ability to sustain future production. Take cotton for example. While it starts life as a plant and seems to be sustainable, cotton-growing is a water-intensive process and has a very large water footprint.
According to the WWF, companies use up over 20,000 liters of water to produce just 1kg of cotton, equivalent to a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
Viscose, also known as rayon, is another plant-based fiber. It is popular in the fashion industry as a cheaper and more durable alternative to silk. Also, the industry often considers it a sustainable alternative to cotton and polyester.
While viscose is derived from an organic origin, wood pulp from regenerative trees like eucalyptus is manufactured unsustainably. Those processes inevitably contribute to the rapid depletion of the world’s forests.
Estimates show that wood that is sourced from endangered or ancient forests makes up about 30% of viscose used in the fashion industry. Those sourcing methodologies could also pose risks to habitats and endangered species.
There Are Environmentally Friendly Alternatives
There are alternatives. As technology progresses and processes are becoming more advanced, new materials are created. For example, the Lenzing’s ECOVERO™ Viscose fibers are an alternative to common viscose.
During the production of these fibers, it is possible to recover and reuse certain chemicals. And by doing so, it is possible to reduce emissions by 50% and use half as much energy and water than the production of common viscose.
Many fashion brands have started to use eco-viscose fibers in their collections, such as Japan’s Global Work, India’s Max Fashion and Germany’s Armedangels, plus many more.
Check Before You Wreck
From now on, opt for garments made from sustainable or recycled fibers, organic cotton, hemp, and linen with natural dyes. Also, armed with knowledge on common viscose and its issues, you can look for items made from eco-viscose fibers instead.
Bear in mind that some natural materials such as cotton and wool might still have their own ethical issues around environmental sustainability. For instance, those concerns can include labor rights and animal welfare.
To tackle those concerns, more brands and retailers are being more transparent about their supply chains. Specifically, 70 out of 200 major fashion brands published a list of their first-tier manufacturers.
This is an encouraging step towards a more transparent supply chain and materials that are traceable back to their roots. As the call for improved transparency across the fashion industry is stronger than ever, supply chain openness will soon be the norm and definitely something to be proud of. And our own purchase decisions will become more informed and more ethical.
Florian Heubrandner is the Vice President Global Business Management Textiles at Lenzing AG. Based in Austria, he is responsible for leading the company’s growth across the globe in both B2B and B2C segments of the textile sector. Heubrandner was appointed in December 2018 after having served as Lenzing’s Vice President of Global Strategy and M&A for 2.5 years.