10 eco-friendly textiles and fibres to know now

We know that 6 out of 10 pieces of clothing end up in landfills within a year of production. These garments are often made of synthetic fabrics (polyester, nylon etc) which are non-biodegradable and take more than a century to decompose in the soil. But did you know that the environmental impact of fabric production begins in the initial stages, in the farmlands and forests? Here's 10 sustainable fibres/fabrics to know now, their benefits and their potential drawbacks.

Image of a ball of thread to accompany article on sustainable fibers on ZERRIN

Organic cotton

While the total land area used to produce cotton hasn’t significantly increased over the past 80 years, the total amount of cotton produced has tripled. Behind this is the use of large amounts of pesticides and fertilisers that contaminate the soil and water and alter the biodiversity of farmlands.

Organic cotton appeases the environmental impact of cotton production. However, the production of organic cotton relies heavily on manual labor, making it more expensive than it's non-organic counterpart. Consequently, this discourages farmers from transitioning to organic cotton production out of fear of losing against their competitors.

Recycled Fibre

Initially fabric was recycled by mechanically tearing apart the fabric structure, breaking the fibres into shorter lengths in the process. This caused the downcycling of fibres and the production of bulky, low-quality recycled fabrics.

Despite technological innovations, natural fibres continue to have this effect when recycled whereas synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon can be broken down using a chemical procedure. Although this process emits potentially toxic chemicals and is energy-intensive, it could solve the issue of non-biodegradable clothing ending up in landfills.

Polylactic Acid

Also known as thermoplastic polyester or biopolymers, polylactic acid is derived from 100% renewable sources, primarily corn. These fibres can be composed in industrial composting facilities which provide the perfect balance of temperature and humidity.

However, because the fibre is derived mainly from corn, which could be produced to feed humans instead, its production has been controversial. Furthermore, landfills of biopolymer emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which includes carcinogens harmful for humans.

Soybean Fibre

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Developed in the 1950s due to a lack of resources after WWII, soybean fibre was forgotten over time because it could not compete with other materials. Recent research, however, has allowed soybean fibre to become an attractive alternative to cashmere, since the farming of goats required to produce cashmere depletes grasslands.

Commercial soybean production does, however, use large amounts of water, fertiliser, and pesticides, not to mention that the soybeans could help feed humans instead. Moreover, organic soybeans are currently 30% more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.  

Pineapple Fibre

Making textile from pineapples is an age-old tradition in the Philippines. Ananas Anam, the company that markets Pinatex brought this dying practice to the mainstream when they introduced pineapple fibre as an alternative for leather products. The only issue, however, is the high cost of the textile due to its complex and time-consuming production process.  

Image of Pinatex Booth for CFS 2019 to accompany article on sustainable fibers on ZERRINAnanas Aman, the company that markets Pinatex, held a booth at this year's Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Hemp

Hemp has always been a go-to textile alternative for eco-conscious shoppers perpetuating the image that environmentalists are not necessarily fashionistas due to its dull colour and rough texture. Contrary to popular belief, however, technological innovations have allowed hemp to be almost indistinguishable from cotton. This is good news since hemp requires less than 1/40 of water used to grow cotton and has a high yield in which 20 to 30 percent of the plant is fibre.

Lyocell

Also known as Tencel, from one of the pioneering brands of lyocell, the fibre is derived from wood pulp, usually from the eucalyptus tree. If you're wondering whether tree-derived fibre are in fact sustainable, rest assured. Eucalyptus trees have a fast growing cycle and reach maturity in 7 years. Furthermore, the production process is clean since there is no bleaching process that is usually required for other textiles.

Unfortunately, fabrics made from lyocell are a bit more prone to creasing. Preventative measures such as enzyme treatment and the use of resin consume energy and chemicals and produce waste.

Peace Silk

Also called vegetarian silk, peace silk got its name for its relatively peaceful production process where the silkworms are bred in the forest where they have easy access to food and are not exposed to chemicals.

The silkworm grubs (the stage when the moth is inside the chrysalis) are not killed when extracting the silk but are instead left to grow until they leave the chrysalis as a moth. Because the moth damages the chrysalis in their growth process, the extracted silk is considered to be of a lower quality compared to normal silk.

Organic Wool

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Organic wool is produced by sheep that have grazed on grasslands free of pesticides. However, since medication to prevent parasites that cause diseases like sheep scab cannot be used for sheep, the market of organic wool is small.

Rayon

Rayon is a controversial fabric in terms of sustainability. Derived from the cellulose of softwood trees or bamboo, the fabric itself is biodegradable. However, the chemicals used to alter the fibre into fabric have been associated with Parkinson’s disease and premature heart attacks and strokes among garment workers.

Furthermore, if your fast fashion clothing is made from rayon, high chances are the fabric has been derived from bamboos planted by large manufacturers by replacing the trees already growing in the forests, destroying the biodiversity of the area. Through future technological innovations, though, rayon may become more eco-friendly and ethical.

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