Do you know what your clothes are made from?
Surveys in recent years have revealed that our children have a surprising lack of knowledge about where their food comes from. In 2016, a survey commissioned by Asda found that 41% of children didn't know that eggs came from chickens and 1 in 20 thought that avocados were laid by animals. But whilst there is a growing lack of knowledge among our children about where their food comes from, aren't most of us guilty of a similar lack of knowledge about where our clothing comes from? Many of us don't know what our clothes are made from or anything about the materials we wear on a daily basis. As our clothing factories have been pushed further afield and spread out across the globe, there is a growing disconnect between ourselves and our clothing.
So what are our clothes made from?
Clothes today are made from a variety of materials including synthetic, regenerated cellulosic and natural fibres. Synthetic fibres such as polyester, acrylic and nylon are derived from petroleum and are types of plastic. Natural materials such as cotton, wool, linen and leather are sourced from plants and animals. Regenerated cellulose fibres such as viscose, rayon, bamboo, tencel and lyocell are extracted from natural resources and transformed through chemical processing into materials.
With a push in parts of the fashion industry to find more eco-friendly alternatives to these materials, recent years have also seen the launch of more experimental fabrics such as those derived from pineapples, milk and mushrooms.
It is estimated that 65% of all fibres used in the fashion industry are made from synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, elastane, acrylic and polypropylene. Synthetic fibres are cheap to produce and their overall environmental impact according to The Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report released in 2017 is less than some natural materials. However, they are composed from plastics which will take thousands of years to break down. Synthetic clothing is thought to be responsible for 20-35% of all micro plastics, microbeads, fibres, pellets and capsules in the sea. Water from our washing machines collects microplastics from our clothing and the water is often dumped into the sea. These plastics pollute our waters and have been found in the stomachs of sea creatures.
Natural fibres such as cotton, wool, silk, leather and linen tend to be more expensive and water intensive to produce.
Cotton is used in around 21% of all fibre globally. Cotton accounts for around 2.4% of the worlds crop-land and 7% of all pesticides and 16% of all insecticide usage globally. Cotton can be difficult to grow and is vulnerable to pests, meaning that more pesticides and insecticides are used to grow this crop than any other in the world. Thousands of cotton farmers die every year from pesticide poisoning and the World Health Organisation has linked high occupational exposure to these chemicals with a number of health problems, including cancers. There has also been a growing number of suicides among cotton farmers which is thought to be related to debt problems as a result of low yields, decreasing prices and high chemical costs in the industry. Farmers can spend up to 60% of their annual incomes on pesticides and insecticides and these costs are a huge burden. The chemicals used in cotton farming can also flow into waterways and damage local ecosystems.
Organic cotton is sometimes considered a better alternative to conventionally grown cotton as it encourages biodiversity and improves the fertility of the soil. Improved soil quality as a result of crop rotations means that water is better absorbed into the soil and organic cotton plants require less water than conventional cotton plants, albeit at a lower yield. Organic cotton farming can be better for the farmers as they don't have the high chemical outputs to pay and don't have the associated health risks of farming with chemicals. However, it can be difficult for organic cotton farmers to find markets for their crops, with most buyers still preferring the cheaper conventionally grown cotton over organic. Many are also deterred by the comparatively lower production of organic crops and fears of pest attacks. The market and demand for organically grown cotton would have to increase to enable more farmers to farm cotton organically.
The Cleaner Cotton Field Program offers a middle ground alternative, helping farmers to minimise chemical usage whilst integrating more biologically based management practices. This may enable farmers to reduce ecological damage whilst retaining high yields.
Wool has a small share of the global fibre market at around 1%. 2 billion kilograms of raw wool per year are produced from a global herd of around 1.16 billion sheep. This equates to one wool jumper per person per year for everyone on the planet. These figures include wool textiles used for other items such as furniture and carpets. Wool is natural, biodegradable, breathable and a natural insulator meaning it does have a lot of eco-friendly credentials. However, the wool industry is not without environmental footprint. Less than 0.1% of wool is classified as organic and chemicals have their own environmental footprints. Certain livestock also produce methane which contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, multi-species grasslands and improving diversity of species on grasslands can increase carbon sequestration and storage in the soil. Apart from this, there are also some concerns about animal welfare standards and the mulesing of sheep and some may wish to avoid all animal products. When buying wool, you can look for certifications that ensure fair animal welfare and environmental consideration such as the Responsible Wool Standard, ZQ Merino Standard and the Soil Association Organic Standards.
Leather is one of the oldest forms of materials used by humans for clothing and is now largely used for footwear and accessories. According to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report in 2017, Leather has the highest environmental footprint of any material. You can read more about the leather industry here.
Linen is made from fibres from the flax plant and accounts for a very small proportion of global fibre usage. Linen is one of the most eco-friendly materials. It is grown using rain water and requires no additional water, is natural and biodegradable and requires very little energy to produce. An Advisory Commission report to the European Parliament also stated that flax cultivation has beneficial effects on the eco-system diversity and one hectare of flax can retain 3.7 tonnes of CO2. Linen is a great eco-friendly material but has sadly been out of fashion due to its propensity to crease.
Regenerated cellulose fibres include viscose, rayon, bamboo and TENCEL. These fabrics are constituted partly from renewable cellulosic plants such as beech trees, pine trees and bamboo and undergo chemical processing to transform them into fabrics. About 6 million tonnes of cellulosic fibre is produced each year for the textile market and the industry is worth around 9.1 billion dollars. It is a growing market and is expected to grow by 8% year on year until 2025. The major processing centres are located in China, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan and Indonesia. They are generally biodegradable and recyclable fabrics. TENCEL is thought to be one of the most eco-friendly fabrics. Concerns about the production of some cellulosic fibres include the use of toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, carbon disulphide and sulphuric acid which are all known toxins to human health and the environment. In addition, the use of chlorine in bleaching wood pulp can produce chlorinated byproducts that are difficult to eliminate with conventional waste treatment. The wood pulp used for lyocell and modal may also come from endangered rainforests. According to Textile Exchange, only about 2.5% of modal comes from certified sustainably managed forests.
There have been many promising material innovations in recent years including leathers made from pineapples and mushrooms. Additional promising eco-friendly innovations include cellulosic fibres derived from milk protein, oranges and seaweed.