FIBRES & MATERIALS
Materials account for a significant portion of the impacts of a product. The impacts of different fibres can be addressed through the development of a sustainable materials program. Understand the social and environmental impacts of different fibres so you can make an informed choice.
Cotton is a natural fibre that is breathable, absorbent and durable. It’s used in many of our wardrobe staples such as denim and T shirts, and makes up 25 per cent of global fibre production. It grows best in warm, humid climates with more than three quarters of the world's cotton production concentrated in six countries - China, India, Australia, Brazil, the US and Pakistan.
Conventional cotton’s most prevalent environmental impacts result from the use of chemicals, the consumption of water, and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use. In some countries large areas of forested land have been cleared to plant cotton, and major water systems which provide livelihoods to communities have been diverted to irrigate crops. An example of this is the Aral Sea in Central Asia, where the volume of water has depleted by over 80% since 2000. (1)
Water use is high. Growing 1 kilogram of non-organic cotton lint (the raw cotton fibre) uses about 2,120 litres of water from irrigation, according to Textile Exchange, a not-for-profit group promoting sustainable practices within the industry. Only 30 per cent of the cotton produced comes from ‘rain-fed’ farming, the rest relies on irrigation, often from some of the most water stressed areas on the planet.
Most conventional cotton grown today is genetically modified, and its cultivation uses 4 per cent of global pesticides and 10 per cent of insecticides (2). Use of these chemicals damages soil leading to loss of biodiversity, and pollutes water through eutrophication (enrichment of water with nitrogen) which in turn impacts drinking water sources for local families, animals and aquatic life.
Once harvested, cotton fibres are de-seeded using a cotton gin, cleaned, carded (to align the fibres), spun into cotton yarn, woven into fabric and dyed and finished. These processes use additional water, energy and chemicals and produce associated outputs in the form of waste, effluent and emissions. China Water Risk estimates that 20% of water pollution in China is from textile treatment and dyeing.
Conventionally grown cotton doesn’t fare much better socially. The use of GMO seeds and the associated inputs required to grow cotton has trapped many farmers in a cycle of poverty and debt, particularly in India where smallholder farming is common. Child and forced labour and debt bondage have always had strong ties to cotton production. Slavery has been reported in cotton cultivation in 18 countries according to CottonUp, including 4 of the top 6 producer nations, and is a known issue in cotton spinning mills particularly in Southern India under the Sumangali Scheme. Exposure to hazardous chemicals at all stages of the supply chain also present real danger to workers health.
More sustainable options
There are several global initiatives working to produce cotton more sustainably as awareness of its impact grows, and evidence suggests clear environmental benefits. More sustainable options include certified organic cotton - the most rigorous of which is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), along with Fairtrade Cotton, Better Cotton (BCI), Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA), Reel Cotton, and recycled cotton. These options address sustainability impacts in different ways, depending on whether they are driven by social or ecological issues.
Organic cotton is a regenerative crop that maintains soil health. It’s grown using water-conserving practices and without harmful pesticides and fertilisers, and its water pollution impact has been shown to be 98 percent less than non-organic cotton production. GOTS is a internationally recognised organic textile standard that tracks fibre and ensures both social and environmental responsibility right through the process from fibre to finished garment.
A 2017 Textile Exchange life cycle analysis found organic cotton had reduced potential for global warming, acidification, soil erosion, water consumption and non-renewable energy compared with conventional and BCI cotton production. In Australia, a 2014 industry report found Australian cotton had increased its water efficiency by 40 per cent over the previous decade and had reduced insecticide use by 89 per cent since the late 90s.
It should be noted that Better Cotton (BCI) in particular has come under fire from some, with Changing Markets calling BCI “one of the worst schemes, which could have undermined the growth in organic cotton.” It charged that the BCI’s “tolerance of the use of pesticides and GM seeds has resulted in farmers switching from organic to GM cotton.” The C&A Foundation commissioned two reports that looked at impacts from three cotton cultivation systems – organic, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and conventional – in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The findings indicate that organic cotton production has 50 per cent less impact on climate change when compared to conventional farming, while Better Cotton has no significant difference from conventional cotton. Similarly the acidification potential of organic cotton is 95 per cent less when compared to conventional cotton, while it claimed to be about 1 per cent less for Better Cotton.
Recycled cotton is another more sustainable choice available with increasing frequency. Using recycled cotton reduces water consumption by up to 80% by eliminating the need for water intensive farming of cotton crops, according to Textile Exchange.
POLYESTER & SYNTHETICS
More sustainable options
A study by the University of Netherlands found that sourcing mechanically or chemically recycled polyester fibers results in a reduction in energy use of up to 85% and a reduction in a global warming potential of up to 76% compared to virgin polyester
Synthetics such as polyester, acrylic, nylon are made using fossil fuels.
Synthetics makeup 68% of total fibre usage and Polyester is the most widely used fibre in clothing, accounting for over 50% of global fibre usage. It is predicted the industry will double the use of oil-based synthetic fibres such as polyester by 2030.
Plastic-based fibres are made from large quantities of non-renewable resources, and are energy-intensive to produce. According to the World Resources Institute, while synthetic fibers like polyester have less impact on water and land than grown materials like cotton, they emit more greenhouse gasses per kilogram overall, and their manufacturing releases highly toxic antimony. Polyester is often dyed with disperse dyes, which are insoluble in water and are made up of a complex molecular structure that does not readily decompose.
Beyond the manufacturing phase, all synthetics, recycled or not, have a longer-term environmental impact while they are being used by the consumer. Washing synthetics releases microfibres, with the international Union for Conservation of Nature estimating that each year, around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres – equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles – are released into the ocean as a result of the washing of textiles. Once oil based fibres are produced the majority persist in the environment, meaning they don’t break down.