One of the most common questions I get from friends, family, random emails in my inbox is about the choice of fibre for clothing. I had it again the other day so I thought I would write about my thought process behind my standard answer to this. The question usually goes something like this:
“Is this <insert fibre/fabric> sustainable?
“I don’t know which fibre to choose for project X. Can you help?
“I think <insert fibre/fabric> is sustainable. Where can I buy it?
My answer always involves two elements: 1) there is no such thing as the most sustainable fibre (refer to my blog post about the most sustainable textiles here). 2) I would choose functionality and use over fibre sustainability.
I actually like getting these kinds of questions because it shows that individuals want to think about what they are using to sew. Unfortunately, for me to give an accurate answer tends to put people off or put sustainability in the “too hard basket” – because guess what? There is no black and white answer and I would be lying if I told you that there was.
Why the choice of fibre is not my top priority
Update 13 September 2020: the way I sew is not the biggest action I can take as an individual against climate change. Transport and diet are far more important. See Grace’s blog post here (she’s an environmental scientist that cares about data and truths).
Fashion Revolution #30wears challenge
There are alarming statistics about how little we wear our individual items of clothing. Whilst we might think it is more applicable to the non-sewist than sewist, I think we’ve all had our share of sewing fails that don’t make the 30 wears cut. But really, the most sustainable garment is the one that’s already in your closet. Having said that we know it’s not practical to buy or make nothing. In which case I’d suggest the love-it-use-it test is most important. After all, what’s the point making something super mindfully from a sustainably produced fibre if it’s not suitable for the project? You probably won’t get much joy out of the end result.
As an aside, a friend of mine asked me just the other day about fleece alternatives for a dinosaur beanie requested by her 5-year-old. My answer: if you already have the fleece, he likes it and promises he will wear it, then just use it! Truthfully I couldn’t think of anything else to suggest given the circumstances. In terms of fabric, for example, cotton jersey/interlock would be too floppy. Too much interfacing would make the beanie too stiff. Wool is probably going to be scratchy on the forehead. You get the idea.
There is no right answer when it comes to “sustainable” fibres
Synthetics are one category of fibre that some purists love to hate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – when I’m riding a bike I’ll take a polyester raincoat any day over a cotton canvas one any day. It’s lightweight, more windproof and dries quicker in case of heavy rain.
Also spare a thought for if you ever wear or sew with jersey. If you want stretch, then you need the nylon (elastane) to ensure you have some recovery (i.e. so it doesn’t stretch out and stay that way). But Kate! What about microplastics? you say. Yes, I know there is a microplastic problem and I’ve decided to keep my clothes for longer and wash them less than avoid synthetics completely. But that’s my personal opinion, it might not be yours.
Finally, if you’re buying something “sustainable”, the term generally applies to the way that something is manufactured. How long you choose to keep/use something, care for it and then dispose of it has a big impact on the sustainability profile of that item.
Individual piety doesn’t change the world
That’s Clare Press (sustainable fashion journalist) quoting Australian economist Richard Denniss in her book “Rise and Resist”. It’s not just Richard in this camp – Extinction Rebellion co-founder Clare Farrell also said the same thing to me once. But if it is true that individual actions don’t matter, then why do we even bother? Because counterintuitively, the opposite is true. If we ALL engaged in some kind of collective action, that has an impact. But we can’t collectively engage if individuals aren’t engaged right? A bit chicken and egg in my mind.
The flip side – why you might want to care about your choice of fibre
Fibre choice may be one way that you choose to engage in sustainability. Maybe you don’t want to use thrifted fabric or you can’t find anything you like. Maybe you prefer to buy the prints that you like and use up every scrap in various projects. Whatever the reason, you want to buy new fabric – so you think you should buy better. Great! Then choose something that is produced more sustainably if you can – bearing in mind that fibre sustainability is not clear cut.
What do I mean by this? Well, in the absence of any widely accepted fibre sustainability ranking, you need to choose what you are passionate about. If you want to be anti- plastics, avoid synthetics. Worried about pesticide use? Choose organic. Does it all seem too hard? The fashion industry has come up with some rankings and indexes on the sustainability of fibres. But these should be treated with caution.
A note on using fibre sustainability ranking lists and indexes
The benchmark that I have found easiest and clearest to understand to laymen like you and I was developed by a consultancy called Made-by. Whilst the firm doesn’t exist anymore, as recently as last year I still saw it being quoted as a source of info. But the benchmark is not without problems. Besides being quite a few years old (I want to say 2012 but I’ve lost the original file now except the picture), the basket of measures on which is based is determined by the consultancy – so entirely subjective.
Another index is the Higg MSI. This looks at the impact of materials production. In contrast to the Made-by list, Higg will tell you that linen has a higher impact than cotton, with viscose having a lower impact than both linen and cotton. This goes against all kinds of conventional sustainable fashion wisdom which tells you that linen is preferable to both cotton and viscose.
The point is that depending on what measures you use and what you perceive to be the real problem areas (do you think the environmental impact of agricultural is worse than extracting oil from the ground?), what is sustainable to you is going to be different to what it is for me. At least by making a choice, you’re sticking with the principles that you believe in.
I care about my choice of fibre but it’s not my top priority
I love clothes and fabric, so fibre choice is one way I try to engage in living a more sustainable life. But I have a lot of clothes. So it is just as important (if not more) to me to get the best use out of them, which means thinking about use. Ultimately it is just personal choice. There are so many things I could better in terms of an eco-friendly life (transport, diet) that I don’t think it’s worth being overly stressed about fabric choice!
Want to think more about the most sustainable textile debate? Click here to read my interview with Dr Mark Sumner from Leeds University on what is the most sustainable textile to buy. Spoiler alert: there isn’t one.
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