So what fabrics are the most responsible choice?
Cotton, whilst a natural fiber, is one of the most environmentally intensive materials we have. First, cotton needs a lot of pesticides and fertilizer to grow. It’s one of the world’s most pesticide-intensive crops. Second, cotton consumes a lot of water. It takes around 700 gallons of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s roughly equivalent to 40 showers-worth. Third, most cotton is grown using genetically modified seeds. GM crops present a host of environmental issues, including soil and water pollution and threats to biodiversity. Because cotton is the second-most common material in our clothes after polyester, these environmental issues are significant due to the scale at which we cultivate cotton.
Linen, hemp, are significantly less polluting. Linen and hemp in particular are highly sustainable materials that don’t need pesticides or fertilizers to grow and require little water.
Pass on cashmere in favor of wool or alpaca. In Mongolia, one of the world’s top producers of cashmere, overeating goats are severely altering the ecosystem. When goats graze, they pull grasses from the root, whereas sheep and alpaca only eat the grass at the surface, preserving the root system. Due in large part to overgrazing for cashmere production, 90% of the land in Mongolia is experiencing some form of this transition to desert land. So whilst cashmere is not inherently unsustainable, production in these unprecedented volumes is.
Silk is a natural fiber with low environmental impact in terms of pollution, there are however some ethical issues in it´s production as the silk worm dies when the silk is extracted.
Lyocell, sold as the branded fabric #Tencel®, is a highly sustainable material. Tencel’s wood source is most commonly eucalyptus, which grows quickly without irrigation and doesn’t need chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Furthermore, eucalyptus can grow on marginal land that isn’t ideal for farming, which means its production doesn’t compete with the production of food. Tencel is produced through a closed loop system, in which virtually all of the chemicals are captured and reused, rather than being emitted into the environment as pollutants.
Given that over 70 million trees are cut down annually to make wood-based fibers (30% of which come from endangered/ancient forests), eucalyptus-based Tencel is a much more sustainable option than wood-based rayon or modal.
In summary, when it comes to materials, taking a moderate approach is key. There is no perfectly sustainable material. The goal is to be more aware of the impact of our choices so we can make informed decisions.