As we increasingly recognize the detrimental impact the fashion industry has on the environment and the people who make our clothes, we begin to take notice of our clothing labels and ask important questions such as, “who made my clothes” and “what fabric is most sustainable”? Let’s explore the latter question.
Without a doubt, natural, non-synthetic fabric made of animal or plant-based fibers is most sustainable. These include cotton (please choose organic cotton instead of conventional cotton), wool, silk, linen, viscose, etc. These fibers biodegrade and for the most part, don’t have a negative effect on the environment. On the other hand, synthetic fibers which include the likes of polyester, acrylic, and rayon are made from oil and have negative environmental effects during the extraction process, while washing as they shed microfibers into our waterways, and finally, once we throw them away by just sitting in a landfill without biodegrading. Now a scary fact: Over 60% of clothing nowadays contain polyester (either 100% polyester or blended with another fiber) – this is due to the rise in fast fashion, or in other words, cheap, trendy clothes you’re meant to throw away after a few washes.
If you want to delve deeper into the topic of sustainable fabric, I suggest looking at the entire supply chair of a fiber. If we take a step forward after we as the consumer are done with a certain garment, we see a giant story about waste. Unfortunately, if we also take a step back to when the garments we wear are produced, we see yet another story about massive waste. Just how wasteful is the Fashion Industry, you ask? Well, it is one of the biggest contributors to the world’s waste issue. In the US alone, over 11 million tons of textile waste went into landfills in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As I mentioned, there are two types of textile waste, pre-consumer and post-consumer. Pre-consumer is generated in the fashion supply chain before getting to the customer. Post-consumer waste happens once the consumer throws away a garment. Now let’s focus on the pre-consumer waste dilemma.
The typical garment factory is wasteful, averaging a whopping 40% waste during its production cycle. The reason being that efficiency is given most significance so factories cut fabric quickly, rather than doing it accurately and attempting to maximize the amount of fabric used. Additional common scenarios which create leftover fabric is one where a factory either simply overbuys or buys an unnecessarily fabric yardage quantity in order to meet minimums but doesn’t actually need all that fabric so rolls of fabric go unused. A fashion house may also deem the fabric they originally intended to use as just not being the right one. Yet another example is the fabric sample packs factories produce to give to clients as examples of available fabrics any given season. The leftover fabric either get sent to landfills, get incinerated or in some cases, is collected for recycling. There’s a sort of movement underway with more and more brands using leftover fabric from large fashion houses as the material for their collections. Leftover fabric is also referred to as “deadstock” “remnant”, or “scrap” fabric. This fabric may be slightly flawed, or just have limited yardage and most big companies won't use this fabric because of the "production headaches" it would cause them to do so.
The unused fabric from factories and companies create a unique opportunity for smaller brands to use the fabric to produce in limited runs and make their limited-edition, exclusive, and one of a kind-pieces. Examples of companies using rescued remnant fabric include: LA-based companies Reformation and Christy Dawn; Ukraine-based brand Bazuhaus, and Cambodia-based Tonle. By using scrap fabric, these companies are operating in an environmentally sustainable manner since they aren’t using new materials and thus don’t add more waste, as well as save precious resources that would’ve otherwise been used in the manufacturing process. Another major benefit for companies to use deadstock fabric is the fact that it’s inexpensive, or cost a fraction of what new fabric would cost. Talk about ticking off sustainability checkboxes, this one ticks of the financial one for sustainability-minded brands, which is a tough one to achieve!
Although there are many opportunities, using deadstock material also poses a number of challenges to those companies that use it. First of all, the fabric is inherently limited in quantity. The size of fabric, color/print, fiber type varies and will most likely never be available again so a garment can’t be reproduced using the same fabric. Additionally, unlike buying new fabric, with deadstock, information about the fabric may be unavailable. Thus, if you’re a sustainable fashion brand that, for example, only works with natural fibers, a level of expertise in fiber is needed to determine the type of fiber you’re getting. Due to these limitations, companies need to find creative ways to use scraps. A strategy that companies implement includes having a trademark style and using it with different available fabric.
So, which fabric is most sustainable you ask? I say, you should really be on the lookout for deadstock fabric using natural fibers. That’s the epitome of sustainable fashion and excitedly, The Artesao has some projects in the work using exactly those fibers. So stay tuned, dear!