Recently there have been blog posts popping up about the greatness that is ethical fabrics, eco friendly fabrics, sustainable fabrics. I am not going to be militant on definition as these terms are ultimately all variations on a sustainability theme – textiles that are good for the environment, good for people, good for the economy. All sounds well and good when you consider the oft quoted line that the textile industry is globally the second most polluting industry after oil. But here is my (possibly controversial) view:
There is already too much fabric in the world. Eco fabrics in their current form are band-aid rather than long term fix.
Pretty horrible stuff eh? Whilst this may not directly apply to you and the way you sew or live, unfortunately there are enough people out there for whom it does apply. Throw away culture is a double edged sword – consumers are buying more clothes and keeping them for shorter periods of time.
A circular economy – a viable alternative?
Circular economy – an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. (source: WRAP UK)
- Production and manufacturing (point 1)
- Consumer use (point 2)
- Post consumer recycling and reuse (points 3 & 4)
But the point is that this is aspirational and we do not have a circular economy. Therein lies the problem with reliance on eco fabrics as the solution to fast fashion’s problems.
Why I don’t think eco fabrics are the answer
- At the moment, eco fabrics are more about manufacturing. There are more virgin than recycled materials being used to make textiles. For example, organic cotton labelled with GOTS (the gold standard organic certification) still relies on cotton being grown, albeit with a set of growing and manufacturing standards which minimise social and environmental issues. But it does not, and cannot, address how a consumer discards clothing. Unfortunately 73% of clothing globally is still landfilled or incinerated once disposed. Which leads me to (2).
- The technology does not yet exist for a complete circular textiles economy. Two examples: (a) the technology to turn polyester back into polyester is in its infancy. The infrastructure for producing recycled polyester is based on plastic bottles and this is not without its problems (see here). For context, at this point <1% of all clothing is turned back into clothing of a similar quality (b) Shoes often end up in landfill instead of being recycled because it is too difficult to separate the component parts (no kidding! I’ll write more about that another day). Because of this…
- Eco fabrics are still using up resources, albeit potentially less than non-eco fabrics from a manufacturing perspective. I mentioned advertising in an earlier post and how it really came into its own in the 1950s with TV and the post WWII era. Today we have internet, and advertising is probably even more prevalent than before. Coupled with the messaging that more stuff will make you happier, it is bad news for the planet.
The counter argument
Of course you can at this point say that I am being a bit doom and gloom. The converse argument is that we have to start somewhere and any small change better than nothing. I am in agreement with this too! If we all sit back, do nothing and demand nothing then it follows that nothing will change. In my view it is only a good thing that there are so many people that care about sustainability (or even work in these industries!) that think about how we can do more with less and be more circular in our approach. A couple of my favourite brands doing great stuff:
- ECOALF uses the plastic bottles that fishermen pick up in their ocean trash and turns it into recycled polyester.
- Freitag produces compostable clothing using lower environmental impact fibres (linen, hemp, modal) which is grown within a 2500km radius of the factory in Zurich.
So are you an advocate of eco fabrics?
Yes. I am an advocate for eco fabrics as they are less likely to have less of a footprint than the conventional ones we would typically see and buy. For example, organic cotton over conventionally grown cotton, tencel over viscose, linen or hemp or bamboo etc. (I will be writing a series on the goods and bads of different fibre types shortly).
What I am saying is that while we can feel good about buying eco fabrics from a fabric shop, lets not pretend that it has no environmental impact – it is still fabric that has required resources in order to be produced, whether from virgin or recycled materials. As ever, the best thing that could be done is to buy nothing at all and wear a capsule wardrobe until they are in tatters and no good for anything but furniture stuffing. But this is at odds with our sewing hobby which is good for mental health; so maybe the initial step is to be mindful about what you are sewing. Replacing your stash of conventional fabrics with eco fabrics is not sustainable; neither is sewing all the clothes so you can get rid of your RTW.
I have so much admiration for those of you who practice your sewing hobby via thrifting, remaking and upcycling – it is something I would really like to aspire to. Let me leave you here with my final thought of the day:
The most eco friendly fabric is the one that already exists.
(noting of course that we still have a micro plastic problem with polyesters!)
PS. If anyone has recommendations for second hand stores in London with the crafty type sections, please let me know! So far I have only seen curtains and sheets in my local ones. Despite a few repeat visits I have not found something I would want to make and wear.