Sustainability is all about trade-offs —is taking one action an improvement from what you would have otherwise done? We can’t be perfect, but we can work on improving sustainable practices in a lot of areas. The following are 5 ways to make trade-offs that improve sustainability with your fabric choices.
1) Use more natural fabrics instead of synthetic fabrics
Synthetic fabrics are made from fibers derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool, silk, or linen, come from renewable resources and are biodegradable. Just like our society recognizes the benefit of natural alternatives to plastic, natural fabrics are better for sustainability than synthetic ones.
Even fabrics with blends of natural and synthetic materials can be an improvement from purely synthetic fabrics, however blended fabrics are more difficult to recycle than purely natural or synthetic fabrics. But in 2017, only 15% of fabric waste was recycled in the U.S. while the rest was landfilled or incinerated . Since it's better for a larger portion of the landfilled fabric to be biodegradable, it seems that fabrics that are partially natural are still better than pure synthetic fabrics when they are likely to end up in the garbage at the end of their life. In the future, if/when fabric recycling becomes more commonly available to communities, choosing fabrics that are easier to recycle will be more significant. But overall, choosing natural fabrics will reduce your environmental impact.
On another note, it is important to point out that bamboo fabric differs from other natural fabrics. Although commonly promoted as eco-friendly, it depends on what you are comparing it to. Bamboo fabric is usually a form of rayon that is manufactured using harmful chemicals. Other rayon fabrics are made with wood pulp, so bamboo rayon comes from a more renewable resource than normal. But unlike rayon, cotton fabrics don't require chemical processing. If you want to use bamboo fabric, look for bamboo fabric certified to be processed without harmful chemicals or lyocell processed bamboo rayon which has the water and chemicals in production in a closed loop system that is not released into the environment. Overall, even if bamboo is easy to grow sustainably, the way that it has to be processed for fabric may have a higher environmental impact than you’d think.
2) Go organic instead of using non-organic natural fabrics
Among other benefits, organic farming practices prevent pollution of our environment and water from toxic pesticides and fertilizers that would otherwise be used with regular non-organic practices. Keep an eye out for Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification which provides more regulations against toxic chemical use throughout the entire fabric production process too. Organic cotton fabric seems to be one of the best options as demonstrated by Patagonia's inspiring leadership in investigating sustainable fabrics in the clothing industry. Organic hemp and flax (linen) are great natural options as well.
Although cotton is commonly considered a water-intensive crop, a research study on the life cycle of organic cotton by the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton reduces water usage by over 91% . While conventional cotton uses 2,120 liters of water per kilogram of cotton grown, organic cotton only uses 182 liters --that's about 3 average length showers worth of water . The same study concluded that organic cotton is 46% less harmful to global warming, reduces land/water acidification by 70%, reduces soil erosion by 26%, and also reduces energy demand for machinery and ginning by 62% .
3) Choose digitally printed fabrics instead of fabrics with other dyeing processes
As much as 200 liters of water is used for every 1kg of textile produced according to an academic paper published in 2014 . The dyeing process accounts for the majority of the water used during fabric production and pollutes heavy metals, bleach, and other chemicals into the environment. Digitally printed fabrics use drastically less water. Spoonflower’s digital printing process uses less than a thimble full of water to print the same amount of fabric. Water usage has a high carbon footprint due to the amount of energy put into the supply, treatment, and transportation of water; it represents 5% of all carbon emissions in the United States, equivalent to the emissions of over 62 coal fired power plants . So choosing digitally printed fabrics will reduce your carbon footprint.
4) Use recycled synthetic fabrics instead of virgin synthetic fabrics
Although synthetic fabrics are made from non-renewable resources, recycled synthetic fabric allows the resource to continue to be useful for longer. Sometimes synthetic fabrics have beneficial characteristics such as durability and insulation. So although synthetic fabrics aren’t the most sustainable choice, if needed, recycled synthetic fabrics are the better choice. Recycled polyester reduces CO2 emissions by 59% compared to virgin polyester . Rareform is a great example of sustainable use of synthetics since they directly re-purpose old billboard vinyl without the extra energy involved in producing new fabric from the material. Recycling and re-purposing is a great way to reduce waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
5) Reduce waste via smaller batches and using manufacture overruns instead of over-purchasing and overstocking
Another way to reduce fabric waste is to purchase manufacture overruns of fabric. I understand that in some cases you really want to have your own custom fabric for a product, but in a situation in which this isn’t the case, buying overruns diverts fabric from the garbage and works really well for small batches and product research and development. With my small business, this technique allows me to access a much larger variety of quality fabrics without having to commit to buying more than I can use. The only downside is that you may not be able to buy more of it later on since it is no longer being produced. Similarly, buying seconds quality fabric can also be a more sustainable choice and works fine for R&D at minimum; any small imperfections in the fabric can be worked around and it prevents that fabric from being thrown away as well. Smaller batches also work with digitally printed custom fabric by only ordering what you need and restocking as you go in order to prevent unnecessary waste.