Listen to the generations before us, and our elders will tell us how instead of a walk-in closet full of clothes, they had a tiny crevice in their room, or a wardrobe, where they stored a few garments: One nice coat, maybe a handful of shirts, and a couple of pairs of trousers were the norm for men, for example. Clothes were not always washed, but often brushed to keep clean, and shoes were polished daily. Fast forward to today, and fast fashion is all the rage. It is common to have several colors of the same shirt or pants, and many consumers do not think twice about discarding a garment — not to Goodwill or charity, but literally into the trash can — after a few wears.
Finally, the fashion industry realizes we cannot continue this trend in a world where the rising population will have to devote more land to food — or even energy. We cannot continue to grow cotton like mad, nor can we endlessly spin fossil fuels into polyester or other synthetic fabrics. The road toward more sustainable fibers will be a long one with plenty of failures and misses, but it is one we need to take. That is, at least, absent a total rethink of how many clothes we really need in our closets -- a discussion the large global clothing chains want to avoid.
To skirt that problem, more clothing companies are focusing on sustainable fiber. Levi Strauss, for example, has modernized and transformed its brand in part by emphasizing sustainability in everything from its garments’ origins to long after the sale. The company has spun recycled plastic bottles into its iconic denim jeans and has worked with other countries to launch the Better Cotton Initiative.
While there's still plenty to be done, the use of sustainable fibers is on the rise. Read on to learn more about how five textiles are shaping sustainability in the fashion industry.
Even if more companies move toward sustainably-grown and responsibly-sourced cotton, this crop will always have a massive water footprint. Cotton will always be coveted because of its strength, comfort and breathability, so some companies are experimenting with blending other fibers with cotton to lessen the footprint of the final garment. California-based Synergy, for example, offers organic cotton blends that include hemp and bamboo. And advocates for more sustainable garment production often tout the latter two as plant fibers that can be used in textiles with a smaller environmental footprint.
Hemp often scores points for its durability and rapid growth without excessive use of water and pesticides. It does not dye as well as cotton, and not everyone appreciates its linen-like and sometimes scratchy feel. But manufacturers, including Colorado-based EnviroTextiles, are introducing more updated textures that look like denim or wool. For hemp to scale, however, U.S. laws that have put a stranglehold on hemp production need to be relaxed. That could be a reality soon: In Maine, for example, the state legislature is considering two bills that will lift restrictions on the industrial production of hemp.
Meanwhile, bamboo’s stock as a “sustainable” fiber has fallen. Several years ago, the miracle grass was touted for its environmental chops. But it turned out that the fibers spun from bamboo require so many solvents that it is virtually indistinguishable from rayon or viscose. Many journalists and bloggers began to raise red flags, and complaints with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission concluded with several retailers settling with the regulatory agency. Other materials such as stinging nettle and tencel (from harvested trees) have gained interest, but the ecological impact of their processing and concerns about scalability come into question.
When it comes to scale, synthetic fabrics are showing more promise. The era of more collaboration and less patent litigation, at least when it comes to developing more ecologically friendly textiles, offers hope. Some of this change is due to companies like Nike with its sustainability index, which boosts the sharing of ideas and innovation.
But with the size of the global textile industry, and increased awareness about its massive and oft-destructive impact, an emphasis on improved textile recycling technology will be crucial if the garment industry will truly become more sustainable. More closed-loop systems will be needed — as of now what few exist are in their infancy.
The changes are starting at the base of the supply chain with companies such as Aquafil, a synthetic fiber manufacturer that now recycles fishing nets and unwanted textiles into regenerated yarns for use as carpet or fabric. The company has spearheaded an effort to raise awareness about the dangers of plastic ocean trash and “ghost gear,” and works with nonprofits and aquaculture companies to collect unwanted plastic equipment to churn into new textile fibers, which it brands as Econyl. The company in turn says it can collect those garments made from its fibers, recycle them again and continue the closed-loop recycling process.
Camira is another company churning waste textile fibers into fabric — though it insists its final product, X2, is preferable for upholstery. The challenge these and other companies face, however, will be acceptance from designers, who want fabric with which they can seamlessly work, and consumers, who overall still show bias against “green” or recycled fabrics over concern of their quality and durability.
Companies such as Aquafil are the foundation of a complete re-thinking of how the textile and garment industries will operate in the future. Manufacturers and retailers, however, will have to be part of the solution, as well. One company taking a step is The North Face — an easy step considering its customer base is one who loves to be in the outdoors. The company recently modified a popular line of its jackets using recycled yarns, including one made from both fabric scraps and recycled bottles. It is hardly a closed-loop system, but it is getting there: The North Face says for every 10 jackets produced, four more jackets can be produced out of those scraps. Other global chains, including Marks & Spencer and H&M, say they are collecting textiles for reuse, recycling and repurposing. But so far the progress on sustainable textiles, while growing impressive, is still a drop in the bucket in the sea of waste and over-consumption that is a massive blot the global fashion industry.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.