BBC Earth: Six Sustainable Materials for a healthier planet
19 March 2019
The consumption of fast fashion and usage of environmentally harmful textile materials in fast fashion garments have reached a critical point. As one of the most polluting industries in the world, it may seem as if the only way to reduce the pollution caused by our habits is to simply purchase less or not at all. Recycling and repairing our garments will certainly reduce environmental burden, but there will always come a time when our clothing reaches the end of its life cycle. Fear not, there is now a plethora of environmentally friendly alternatives to nonorganic textiles. Some of those may even be in our wardrobes already. Let’s explore six great materials BBC Earth considers the most compelling sustainable fibers today; and ones which we should look out for when next purchasing new clothes.
A recent study has shown the tiny microplastics that shed from synthetic fibers in the wash, such as polyester, now pollute even the most remote waterways around the world. Synthetics have come a long way since polyester, and artificial materials made from sustainable fibers are now accessible in an increasing array of garments globally. TENCEL™ Lyocell is a cellulose made from wood-pulp which is sourced from renewable forests. The fiber is completely biodegradable and even compostable and wastewater used in its production is also recycled. No toxic chemicals or plastic is used, meaning washing the garment won’t contribute to waterway pollution either.
2. Organic Cotton
Most of our clothes use at least some form of cotton. But in farming the fiber, hundreds of liters of water and dangerous pesticides are used. These harmful chemicals have a substantial impact on water, air and soil quality, not to mention the health of the people growing or living in the vicinity of these toxins. Organic cotton that carries the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) label uses no toxic chemicals and is created with efforts to reduce water wastage. What’s more, the label is clearly visible on each garment that supports the standard.
Though it could be a controversial entry, as the material may not always be ethically sourced, wool is actually quite sustainable. Wool is both renewable and biodegradable. The durability of the wool fiber also ensures a longer useful life cycle, meaning it will spend less time clogging up in landfills. The material is extremely recyclable too, and when washed, won’t release any microplastics or other detrimental byproducts into the world’s waterways.
Linen has been used for centuries owing to its durability, breathability and water absorption. Linen is made from flax, which is an extremely versatile plant, and can grow well in very poor conditions. The cultivation of the plant does not require pesticides or harmful chemicals, and needs far less water than cotton. Linen is so durable in fact, that dyed linen fibers upwards of 36,000 years old have been found in caves cross the globe, and the linen wrappings of 3000 year old mummies survive to date. Therefore, like wool, linen garments do not need to be replaced as often as other less sustainable alternatives.
Pineapples and clothing may not seem like a matching pair, but the fruit’s leaves are actually great materials for creating fibers. There is certainly no shortage of the material as pineapple leaves are commonly discarded, and global pineapple production surpassed 25 million tons in 2016, according to Statistica . Pineapple leaves can be used to produce pineapple leather, which is far more sustainable than animal-based leather, requiring less wasted water, and no toxic chemicals during production. It is a great vegan alternative too. Additionally, the leftover leaf waste can either be recycled or used in fertilizers. Plant based leather alternatives are becoming more popular, and so far have gained traction as upholstery for furniture and automotive interiors.
Scientists and designers who constantly look to the natural world for new fiber inspirations have found a protein in squid’s ring teeth which can be engineered in a lab to form the basis of an array of fibers for the production of recyclable and biodegradable garments. The protein also features self-healing properties, which means, theoretically, this sustainable material may actually heal itself. Developments such as these are still in their infancy, but in the next few years, we may all be wearing squid clothing.
There are far more than 6 types of sustainable alternatives out there, and new innovations are becoming readily available and easily accessible every day. So do some research, and when out shopping, read labels carefully to select garments made from environmentally friendly and ethical materials. With the abundance of sustainable materials in the fashion world nowadays, we can all play a part in minimizing the environmental impact of fashion.