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Sustainable fabric - What does it even mean?

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Ever got confused by what the difference is between sustainable, organic or ethical fabrics? Are there any fabrics that are truly environmentally friendly? There are so many factors to consider when determining whether a fabric is sustainable or not and so often they are more environmentally friendly in one aspect but then have a bigger impact in another way. Here I will discuss the different issues surrounding the term 'sustainable fabric' and aim to help you make more informed decisions when you are shopping sustainably.

Sustainability in Fashion

So what does it even mean for a fabric or product to be sustainable? The word sustainable, when you look it up in the dictionary, at its core means to 'be able to be maintained at a certain rate' - when translated into its more common modern use it refers to being able to meet current demands, without affecting future generations and their ability to provide for their needs. In essence, not using up resources and not destroying our ability to keep producing what we need in the future - this is where environmental factors come in. Sustainable production should coexist with our environment to ensure we aren't damaging it for future generations - a lot of this will come down to how the land is managed, chemicals, energy and water usage and how the people that produce these products are paid and treated so that they, too, can maintain a healthy living. We should, however, also take into account the volume of products created into this sustainability mantra. If a large fashion chain is selling a sustainable, conscious or ethical range, but is still producing millions of garments a year and launching new products daily, is this really addressing the problem? Producing a 'sustainable' collection at an unsustainable rate, is not truly environmentally friendly - there will still be the same problem with overproduction and could even reinforce consumer habits to keep buying unnecessarily. Large fashion brands can rarely be truly sustainable as the need to keep profits rising will take precedence; in turn the amount of items being produced will rise and their ability to ensure every small decision has its environmental impact taken into account, will be reduced.

Term Distinction

When it comes to the fabrics that are often used in sustainable fashion, there are lots of different terms that can be used to describe them. Here are the most common ones and the differences between them:

Organic - this will mean that the fabric complies with strict rules regarding the use of chemicals and waste management, from fibre production, through to the dying process, manufacture and distribution and is mainly used with cotton and wool. The cotton plant is incredibly water and pesticide intensive to grow and many farmers are exposed to dangerous chemicals in standard production. Organic fibres are produced without the use of toxic chemicals and also ensure the farmers are working in safe conditions. For a fabric to be labelled as organic, they must be certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). A product must be made out of 95% certfied organic materials to be labelled as organic and at least 70% to be labelled as 'made with organic' fibres.

Ethical - the production of these garments focuses more on the people that produce them. Ethical will mean that the workers are paid and treated fairly. The Fair Trade logo will fall under this - for a product to bare the Fair Trade logo they need to have been certified by the Fair Trade Foundation that the workers have been paid a fair living wage.

Natural - these fibres come from plants, trees or animals. The fabrics that fall into this include cotton, bamboo, hemp, wool and silk. Quite often the word 'natural' is used to imply sustainability, but many are intensive in their use of water, chemicals or energy. Cotton, for example, uses a huge amount of water in the irrigation of the plant (approx. 1800 gallons goes into growing enough cotton for a pair of jeans) and is reliant on pesticides. Bamboo, often used as an alternative to cotton, uses less water and pesticides, but is energy intensive in turning the fibre into a fabric. Natural can also mean that the fibre is, in its very nature, biodegradable, but the way it is disposed of plays a big part in how it degrades.

Deadstock - this refers to fabrics that have been produced for large fashion brands and designers, but have gone unused. This is either down to the colour or print not being quite how the designer wanted it, or due to a change in requirements. These fabrics are then sold on to avoid them going to waste. In its current form, this is a sustainable option as it is using up fabrics that have already been produced, but in its essence it is relying on the un-sustainable practices of larger fashion brands.

Life after Production

When you look at the intrinsic meaning of the word sustainable, the majority of fabrics don't fall completely into this category unless you also take into account how they are looked after and what happens to them throughout their life as an actual garment. For example, is an organic cotton t-shirt still sustainable if the consumer that buys it only wears it a handful of times and it eventually ends up in landfill? Well, no. The initial tee may have been made in a more environmentally friendly way, but the way it is used is contributing to the throw-away culture, which is not sustainable for future generations.

Overall, sustainability in fashion is a complicated issue and can be broken down into many sectors. However, with a bit more understanding of the terms used to describe sustainable fashion and the different types of fibres and fabrics that are used, you can make informed choices when buying and ensure you can take a positive step forward. From then on, it's down to us as consumers to change the fast fashion habit and love and look after our clothes for longer.

If you would like to delve into the glossary of sustainable fashion terms further, I would recommend listening to the second episode of the Common Threads podcast, find the links to listen here.

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