The Sustainability Spectrum

The Sustainability Spectrum

Posted by Lucy X on 21st Aug 2021

What is it you look for from your fabrics? Affordability? Durability? Organically grown and made? Easy to wash?

We have recently linked in with Peterborough based non-profit social enterprise “Up the Garden Bath” that focuses on reusing and upcycling items for gardens and planting rather than have them going into landfill. They upcycle item such as old baths to turn into raised beds for community gardens.

They have also started a project using up unwanted fabrics, which is where we come in. (more about that project another time). This did get us thinking, however; curious about how fabrics are made, how sustainable are they, how can you dispose of fabrics responsibly?

There are so many aspects to think about with regards to fabrics and now we, as a society, are starting to really be more conscious of where our fabrics come from and how they are made.

Not that it is straight forward or black and white; what should you be looking for, how organic is it? Is it really sustainable? What does that mean? The purpose of this blog is not to dictate to people what they should do, it is just offering clarity on all the information out there.

Our blog this month is looking at the pros and cons of a range of fabrics, hopefully clearing up any confusion and helping you to understand what fabrics you are buying.

This blog was researched carefully and uses a variety of reliable sources; however, it is such a multi-layered topic that we welcome any corrections and input.

This blog will discuss the main categories of fabrics and their positives as well as disadvantages with regards to sustainability. We’re going to focus on the following two categories for this blog.

  • Plant Based Natural Fibres
  • Manmade Cellulosic Fibres

Sustainability, in the way it is used now, is a relatively new term. It is used a great deal but what does this term mean?

Sustainability: “Is the belief that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment”. Cambridge Dictionary. For example, harvested plants are replaced by new plants. This can be on a local and global level.

There is a lot of information out there regarding which fabrics are the best to use, best for the environment, responsibly sourced, ethically made but what does all this mean and how do you know what is best?

Some of the Jargon Explained

  • Fair trade = Means that the farmers and workers are paid a respectable wage, the cooperatives of the Fairtrade Movement have sustainable and equitable trade relations. Improved social and environmental standards.
  • Organic = grown without the use of pesticides, hazardous fertilisers or GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms), soil rotation programs are followed, and biodiversity is protected. When plants are grown without considering and supporting soil health, water use, toxicity, or other impacts, it can ultimately result in devastating, long-term damage to ecologies and therefore the livelihoods of the workers and farmers.
  • Oeko- Tex 100 = A product testing system that certifies the safety of textiles. 100= means that no chemicals or harmful substances are present in the finished product and is safe. It does not mean that chemicals have not been used in the process though.
  • Closed Loop System = Reusing materials involved in the process rather than wasting or discarding them. For example, chemicals involved in fabric production are reused rather than disposed of into, and therefore harming, the environment.
  • Organic Cotton Standard – meets the set of organic standards from the farm to the finished product.
  • Eco - Friendly = Products or methods that do the least damage possible to the environment.
  • pCotton = Preferred cotton. Cotton that is produced meeting the standards set out by the Textile Exchange.
  • GOTs = Global Organic Textile Standards
  • Bio- Degradable = it can be decomposed by bacteria and organisms and therefore can prevent pollution.
  • Bast Fibre = a fibre that come from inside the plant.
  • Retting = the method to separate cellulose from the stalks of bast fibre bundles.
  • Bio- Diversity = the variety of life and organisms on earth and their eco-systems.
  • Spinneret = A manmade stainless-steel nozzle through which the melted raw solution is forced to create filaments. The holes in a spinneret can be different sizes and shapes to determine the size and shape of fibre produced. Spinnerets can also be found in nature; in spiders and silkworms who use the same process to create fibres.
  • rPET – Recycled Polyethylene Terephthalalte (from which polyester can be made)
  • Low Impact Dyes - A dye that has been classified by the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 as eco-friendly. Low impact dyes do not contain toxic chemicals.

(In this blog, we have not gone into the details of which chemicals are used in the processes, so just the broad term ‘chemicals’ will be used).

Natural Plant Based Fabrics; Cottons, Hemp and Linen

COTTONS:

Cotton is a natural fibre that comes from the boll of the perennial cotton plant, the casing that surrounds the seeds of the cotton plant. It is therefore a sustainable source of fibre. Organic cotton is grown in fields where no pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used. Machines pick, separate cotton fibres from the seed pods, as well as removes dirt, stems, leaves and linter too (Ginning). There are by-products of this process; seeds can be refined into cotton seed oil. Then the fibres are put through a carding machine to separate these fibres into yarn, which is then cleaned, combed, and spun.

Cotton fabric is very absorbent and drapes well, however it is prone to pulling and creasing.

For Conventional Cotton the processes involved in farming and producing the fabric is very chemically intensive. Insecticides and pesticides and other chemicals to encourage growth are used in the soil which can be transferred to the boll. The boll, when processed to fibres can still contain the toxins. Processing the fibre into fabric also involves strong chemicals. Once the fabric has been made into a garment, body heat and sweat can accelerate the absorption of these toxins into your skin. Typical cotton production uses vast amounts of water - a kilogram of fibre requires 100 to 150 litres of water*.

Organic cotton production must meet certain GOTS standards to be classed as organic. The process differs greatly from conventional cotton as no pesticides, insecticides or GMOs are used in any part of the production. Significantly less water is used in the process, although large amounts are still required. Less energy is required to produce organic cotton fabrics too. If this fabric is also labelled as Fairtrade, it means that the farmers and workers who made it have all been paid a fair wage, improving social and environmental standards of the area. Organic and Fairtrade does not necessarily go hand in hand.

Recycled Cotton is arguably the best form of cotton to use from a green perspective as it does not create any further waste and requires far fewer resources than organic or conventional to create. It can however result in lower quality material due to the mix of cottons and can often be mixed with new cottons, ideally these would be organic and not conventionally produced.

HEMP:

Hemp is a fast-growing plant (can be harvested up to 3 times a year) and therefore does not need fertilisers and it does not require much water to grow. In fact, it requires 50% less water than cotton. It also gives nutrients back into the soil during its growth and harvesting stages. It can protect itself from harmful insects and therefore also does not require pesticides. All of this makes a very sustainable source for fabric fibre. Hemp can produce twice as much fibre than the equivalent of cotton.

Organic hemp is derived from the stalk of the plant (a bast fibre) and via a process called retting is separated from the bark. Chemicals are not needed to do this; bacteria are used, and it can happen in tanks or ponds (water retting) or even in the field at harvesting (dew harvesting). Therefore, the Hemp you buy will likely be both sustainable, environmentally friendly as well as organic.

Some producers however do use chemicals to break down the fibres into a pulp. This product is called Hemp Viscose as it uses more chemicals in the process (this is discussed further under Manmade Cellulosic Fibres). This process also causes air and water pollution as well as risks to worker due to the toxins used. This undoes all the good natural hemp can do to the environment such as soil revitalisation and boosting biodiversity. So, check labels when buying hemp products!

Hemp is a strong and durable fabric; “hemp produces the strongest plant fibre in the world” (nationalhempassociation.org/facts-statistic–hemp/) although it is prone to wrinkling. It is a more expensive fabric to buy compared to others due to its lack of demand.

LINEN;

Linen is also a Bast Fibre, as it come from the stalk of the flax plant. It is a cellulose substance, but chemicals are not required to separate it from the woody stalk. The plants are laid out in the field for several weeks and the process of dew, sun and heat separate the gummy substance from the woody part (Retting – as for hemp). This makes it a beautifully organic fabric.

Again, some producers do use chemicals for this process, to speed it up therefore increase output and therefore income. This means it is more harmful to the environment and no longer organic, however is, potentially, a cheaper to purchase linen fabric.

BAMBOO;

This description is in the section under Manmade Cellulosic fabrics. Whilst it starts off as a plant-based fibre the methods involved soon turns it into a semi synthetic one.

Manmade Cellulosic Fibres: Rayons, Viscose Rayon, Modal, Lyocell, Bamboo,

RAYON;

Rayon is an umbrella term for fabrics made from cellulose. Cellulose is the main substance in the cells of plant walls. Therefore, the sources of cellulosic fibres can be classed as sustainable if the trees have been harvested in a responsible way. It is the process of conversion into fabric that is mechanical and involves chemicals. The cellulose is pulped and chemically liquified. It is then extruded through a spinneret to make the individual fibres ready for spinning into fabric. A spinneret can produce different shapes of fibres which can change the characteristics of the fabric.

A causal effect of creating rayon from these natural fibres is the deforestation that is caused as not all manufacturers use fibres from sustainably grown trees.

VISCOSE RAYON:

This is possibly the most well-known and was the original Rayon. There is a lot of discarded chemicals after the process of manufacturing viscose and is still not always disposed of appropriately or efficiently. The main manufacturers of Viscose do not follow what is called ‘the closed loop process’, where the chemicals and water used in the production process is reused, rather than being disposed of into the environment or wasting water. Viscose fibre production also contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions than cotton production.

Environmental not-for-profit Canopy state that "of the 6.5 million tonnes of viscose pulp produced annually approximately half (3.3 million tonnes) comes from ancient and endangered forests, such as the carbon-rich peatlands of Indonesia and old-growth boreal forests of Canada."

The resulting viscose fabric is easily dyed, washable and can be ironed and drapes beautifully. It is also very absorbent and affordable. Methods could be changed to make this a much more ethically, sustainably sourced fabric.

MODAL:

The manner of production and manufacture of modal is less wasteful and less harmful than traditional viscose. It is commonly harvested from Beech trees; so can be sustainable. The cellulose is formed into sheets (using chemicals i.e sodium hydroxide) and further chemicals are used to break down these sheets into a substance that can then be extruded and put through the spinneret, as with other Rayons, to create the fibres.

Lenzing AG is the leading company in Modal production. Lenzing use sustainable wood sources, but not all companies do, and this obviously can have major impact on deforestation. Lenzing follow the Closed Loop Process in the production of Modal and use 10-20% less water in the full process than, for example, cotton, partly but not fully, due to beech trees require less water to grow.

Modal is a beautifully soft, light fabric and lasts longer than cotton, but is more expensive. Modal can be washed at lower temperatures and is bio-degradable. It can take natural dyes very well, however, often, chemical-based dyes are used.

TENCELL/LYOCELL:

Tencell (a trade name of Lyocell) is also a type of rayon; also made form extruded cellulose fibres from wood pulp. However, it is sustainably sourced trees from which the wood pulp is derived. It is also pure white when produced and therefore does not need to be bleached and it takes a lot less to dye it than cotton.

A closed loop system is used during the manufacturing process, unlike other rayons such as viscose. This means that the non-toxic chemicals are reused and not dispersed into waste water. It also uses less water and energy to produce than conventional cotton. It is also bio-degradable.

SeaCell is the trade name of Lyocell, with added seaweed. There are benefits to seaweed, such as providing breathability to the fabric, and it is antimicrobial. Such small amounts however are used within the lyocell rayon, approximately 5%, that there is some debate over whether it provides enough benefits to meet the cost. The seaweed is harvested responsibly and is therefore a sustainable fibre.

BAMBOO:

Bamboo more often than not is going to be classed as a rayon as it is using the cellulose substances from the bamboo and is then manufactured into the soft, smooth fibres required, using chemicals.

Bamboo itself is a sustainable resource; it is a fast - growing plant that can also self-generate from its own roots and does not need pesticides or fertilisers to grow (although, unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t used by some producers).

Many strong chemicals are needed to turn bamboo, as with other viscose, into fabric; this can harm the manufacturers, consumers of the garment and can have a negative effect on the environment due to the chemical released into the waste – water if the closed loop process is not followed. It also uses high energy levels.

Bamboo fabrics can be manufactured using the same methods as Flax and Hemp, using retting to extract the bast fibres form the inner bark of bamboo, Bamboo Linen Fibre. If water retting is followed, then no chemicals need to be used. This process does require a lot of manual labour and therefore it makes a very expensive product. The resultant fabric is quite coarse and can easily crease. Bamboo Lyocell (Clean Bamboo TM) is an environmentally friendly Bamboo fabric. The bamboo fabric we source from The Organic Textile Company is Viscose bamboo; the Closed Loop System is followed, and they are certified by Oeko-Tex 100 as being free from harmful chemicals.

Bamboo is bio-degradable and does create soft and strong fabrics.

The Fabrics We Use:

Within our Jenny Wren Pinny Range, from The Apron Supply Company, we use organic cottons and some organic bamboo from our suppliers, The Organic Textile Company – Their organic cottons, from Kerala, India, use low impact dyes. The fibres are dyed before they are woven. They are hand woven on small power looms or hand looms and are hand dyed. So it is beautifully artisan process.

The mills they use are GOTs certified which means that the environment has been checked for safety and that they meet the criteria to be certified as organic.

The Bamboo supported by The Organic Textile Company is Bamboo Rayon, made following the Closed Loop Process and are certified by Oeko-Tex 100 as being free from harmful chemicals. ABOUT OUR WEAVING PARTNERS (organiccotton.biz)

As mentioned earlier, we have linked in with “Up the Garden Bath”. If we have any fabric that we have been unable to utilise in our projects (we avoid waste as much as possible) we donate it to their new project.  Upcycled Bathtub | Up The Garden Bath

Essentially, if you are wanting to be more aware about the fabrics you buy, check the labels and do your research; an item can be organic, but may not be Fairtrade, could state to be Bamboo, but is Bamboo Viscose, and may not follow the sustainable method and take care when purchasing vegan leather as this can now be used as a new term for plastic. 

Bibliography of Supporting Texts

www.masterclass.com ‘What is Modal Fabric?

www.sustainablejungle.com

www.commonobjective.co/article/fibre-briefing-leather

www.greeenmatters.com

www.sustainyourlifestyle.co.uk

www.goodonyou.eco

www.the_sustainable_fashion_collective.com

https://www.tortoiseandladygrey.com/ The Environmental Impacts of Modal: Sustainable textile or another case of greenwashing?

nationalhempassociation.org/facts-statistic–hemp/

Briefing On Viscose | Sustainable Fibre | Common Objective

Canopy – Saving forests through business innovation (canopyplanet.org)

Takihyo Co., Ltd. | Textile Exchange

How sustainable is recycled polyester? (fashionunited.uk)

Reducing Fashion Industry Water Usage | Common Objective *

Define: Fibre Reactive vs Low Impact Dyes vs Mordants (organiclifestyle.com)

Sustainability - Lenzing - innovative by nature