Choosing sustainable fabrics

Ruth Strange explores the latest thinking around the fabrics used on the high street.

pie chart: global market share of fibres
Global market share of fibres

Synthetic clothing and microfibres in the oceans 

Plastic-based or synthetic fibres account for about two-thirds of all textiles. The majority of this is polyester, followed by nylon and acrylic. Another quarter is cotton. With cotton try to buy organic, or it has one of the highest environmental impacts of all fabrics due to the amount of pesticides used.

Although synthetics aren’t grown (so they do not require agricultural land and use relatively little water in production), they are all energy-intensive to produce and are mostly made from oil.

Synthetics are not biodegradable and, when washed, they can release plastic microfibres which can end up in rivers and oceans. Once there, they can absorb other toxic chemicals, get eaten by sea creatures and, thereby, enter the human food chain.

This relatively recent discovery has sent ecologists and clothing companies off to do further research.

Although it looks like only around 8% of microfibres in the ocean come from synthetic clothing, the problem still needs solving.

Friends of the Earth published an excellent report in November 2018 called “Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution”. It concluded that the ubiquity of synthetic clothing means that consumers can’t solve this one on their own.

The ultimate solution will require regulators to address issues like compulsory changes to sewage plants and washing machine filters, and companies to change the clothes they are making.

In the meantime, it does offer some advice to consumers including the following:

  • Buy fewer fleeces as these initially look like the most problematic garment type.
  • Wash synthetic garments in a ‘guppy bag’ or with a ‘Cora ball’. 
  • Wash synthetics at low temperatures with full loads and lower spin speeds.

Other groups such as Plastic Pollution Coalition talk about trying to avoid all synthetic clothing.

However, its ubiquity, and its presence as mixed fibres (such as elastane) in other garments, make this as tricky as avoiding all single-use plastic food packaging.

Image: dirty fashion report viscose

Viscose

Viscose is a wood-based fibre which has the potential to be a more sustainable alternative to synthetics derived from oil. But this is only if sourcing and production practices change.

In 2017, Ethical Consumer cosigned a letter from Changing Markets, asking brands for details of their viscose supply chains. Then, in EC168, we reported how Changing Markets’ exposé of pollution in viscose production had revealed how suppliers in the top three viscose producing countries – India, Indonesia and China – were dumping untreated wastewater, which was contaminating waterways and causing severe impacts on local people and their livelihoods. 

A year later, a ‘Dirty Fashion’ update was released, assessing companies’ responses. In summary, the tide is beginning to turn, with a number of companies signing up to the Changing Markets’ Roadmap. The Roadmap was published in February 2018 and expects retailers and brands to engage with their suppliers to drive the transformation to closed-loop production, where chemicals are reused instead of being released.

One stand-out brand that features in our guide is Patagonia, whose viscose only uses the ‘lyocell’ process, with a non-toxic solvent which is recovered and reused, instead of using more hazardous chemicals and releasing them into the environment. The report also reveals some companies that are not engaging at all.

Asda, Boohoo, Forever 21, Missguided, Monsoon, and Sainsbury’s are all categorised as ‘in the Red Zone’. Best performing companies appear on our table on Initiatives Table in our guide to critical fashion workers' rights issues.

Bamboo viscose is discussed in more detail in the Ethical Clothes Shops guide.

Cotton

In our 2017 clothing guide, we wrote that ‘There is a general lack of Fairtrade, organic and recycled clothes on the high street’. In 2019, there is some improvement. White Stuff had a number of Fairtrade dresses and tops, and more of the companies had a wider range of organic products on their websites.

We did not count those which only had organic baby clothes or underwear, or just the odd item.

Organic cotton options

  • ASOS – mostly t-shirts, vests and polo shirts.
  • Burton – men’s shirts, t-shirts and jeans.
  • FatFace – various tops, and women’s cardigans, shorts and chinos.
  • Monsoon – a range of clothing under the S.E.W. label.
  • New Look – mostly women’s t-shirts.
  • Topman – various men’s tops, and some trousers and shorts.
  • White Stuff – shorts and trousers.

Is Better Cotton better?

Many brands are claiming to be using ‘sustainable’ cotton or have commitments to source more of the stuff. However, when you look for more information about what that means, it’s not always convincing. Many define ‘sustainable’ as either organic, recycled or part of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), but tend to favour BCI.

We know organic and recycled cotton have much lower environmental impacts than conventional cotton, so what is Better Cotton?

According to ISEAL, the ‘global membership association for credible sustainability standards’, “BCI was formed by stakeholders from across the cotton sector with a specific intention: to offer an accessible, efficient approach to more sustainable cotton production with the potential to reach a large number of farmers globally and enable transformational change.”

Better Cotton does not include any cotton produced in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, where there is a high risk of forced labour. However, the initiative is criticised by another Changing Markets report, ‘The false promise of certification’, which highlights BCI as one of the least ambitious certification schemes.

Much criticism is based on the lower environmental standards of the scheme compared to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). BCI, for example, allows for the use of pesticides and of genetically modified (GM) seeds.

A French broadcast in 2017 apparently showed that many farmers have switched from organic to GM cotton as a result of their participation in BCI.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has also criticised the BCI explaining that its “focus seems to be on gathering as many members as possible without raising the bar.”

While BCI may train a large number of farmers on reducing water and pesticide use, brands should use organic rather than Better Cotton.

For more detail on issues in the cotton and leather supply chains see our feature on the cotton supply chain and search for leather in our guide to high street shops.

How sustainable are different fabrics?

  • As a broad rule, the fabrics with the least negative environmental impact are recycled or organic.
     
  • In the middle are the lyocell products (Tencel and Monocel), linen and hemp, followed by Modal, acrylic and polyester.
     
  • Worst are conventional cotton, non-lyocell viscose, rayon, elastane, nylon and wool.

What fabrics to avoid when buying clothing

Is it made of synthetic or fleece material?

Concerns have recently been raised about clothing made from synthetic materials releasing microplastic particles into the oceans when washed. Fleeces particularly have come under scrutiny.

Is it fur or leather?

Over one million animals are killed every year for their fur, and leather has a high cost in terms of the environment as well as animal rights. Avoid clothes containing these fabrics.

Is it dirty viscose?

Campaigners are targeting viscose clothing, which may also be labelled as rayon or bamboo because it has a very polluting manufacturing process. Cleaner viscose will be labelled as lyocell, Tencel or Monocel.

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