Sustainable textiles - Are they really good for the environment?
Fashion is moving towards sustainability with materials in the main focus. What the products we buy are made of gets center stage, besides the processes and ethical implications of production - for example ethical working conditions. But it’s easy to get lost in the sea of sustainable textiles. Organic, recycled, synthetic - why is one better than the other? We take a deep dive into this complex topic and reveal our reasons for choosing to work with certain textiles and not working with others.
What makes a sustainable textile sustainable?
One way or another, they try to cause less harm to the environment. This can happen through using natural raw materials, innovative production processes, waste management, or recycling that leads to lowered carbon emissions, less contamination, and water consumption, and less waste in the landfills. We can also add social sustainability to the list by not endangering workers in unsafe working environments and forcing them to work with dangerous chemicals. There are many labels and certifications out there to ensure that materials live up to certain sustainability standards. With that being said, there is no such thing as a “perfectly sustainable material” - while you prioritize one aspect, you will need to compromise on others. So are sustainable textiles really good for the environment?
Organic vs synthetic
At first thought, we would think that organic materials must be better for the environment than synthetic ones, without a question. But there’s more to a material than simply the origin. Production processes, chemicals used, working conditions, and the lifespan of the textile - these all play a role in the overall assessment of the fabric.
Take organic cotton for example. It is a very popular material for multiple reasons. It is made from non-gene-modified cotton, without the use of synthetic pesticides and insecticides which results in less harm to the environment, biodiversity, and yes, people. However, as we mentioned earlier, sustainability is a balancing act and where you gain some, you also lose some. In the case of organic cotton, we lose forests and water. As the crop has a lower yield than traditional cotton, it requires more water, and the need for more land results in deforestation. Plus, organic pesticides can be just as or more harmful than synthetic ones so in this case, “organic” doesn’t mean much.
Semi-synthetic textiles are man-made products from a natural raw material. Rayon, also known as viscose, is a semi-synthetic material made from cellulose. There are several methods to dissolve cellulose to create rayon, one of them is so damaging to the environment that it’s not even used anymore. The most commonly applied “viscose method” is the cheapest as it can use wood as a raw material. It does, however, require heavily toxic chemicals and produces large amounts of contaminated wastewater.
A less detrimental process called the “lyocell method” uses a solvent that is 99% recovered after the production of rayon and biodegrades without producing harmful byproducts. Tencel™ is a material created with the use of the lyocell method, and although it is considered much more eco-friendly than viscose rayon, it is also more energy-intensive and more expensive to produce.
Another interesting category of semi-synthetic fabrics is the ones made from upcycled plant waste. Similar to Leap, these consist of industrial waste from food production. Bananatex® is upcycling the bark of the banana tree, and Orange Fiber is using the leftover orange waste after pressing the fruit for juice. These fibers can be used to create different types of textiles from canvas-like to silky but they come with a higher price tag.
Virgin synthetic materials have the advantage of low energy demand and long lifespan which can be considered a plus from a sustainability perspective, but at the end of their lives they are simply bad for the environment, there’s no nicer way to put it. Polyester, nylon, and acrylic are based on fossil fuels and created through chemical synthesis. Since they are made of plastic, they don’t biodegrade and they release toxic substances during incineration, moreover, they shed microplastics into the water at every wash.
When it comes to synthetic materials, recycling is gaining more and more momentum. It is a great way to reduce the production of new plastic-based materials and it offers a more sustainable alternative for much-needed performance fabrics.
Recycled polyester is usually made of plastic bottles, while recycled nylon is created from fishing nets and used fabrics. Econyl® managed to bring recycling nylon to the next level by turning it into a closed-loop process through which they can reserve water and reduce waste.
We are huge fans of up-and recycling (read our previous blog post about our number one raw material, the apple waste) however, recycled synthetic textiles still carry the problems of the virgin material. They will still litter the landfills - or wherever they end up in nature - after the end of their lives for 30, 40, or even for 500+ years, plus they keep shedding microplastics during use.
What is on the back of Leap?
With so many available options and so many angles to consider, it should not come as a surprise that we put a lot of thought into deciding what kind of textile we want to use as a backing for Leap based on performance and availability.
It was clear to us from the beginning that we don’t want to work with fossil fuel-based textiles. Therefore, the first material we chose to use was organic cotton due to its sustainable aspects and its performance. Eventually, we decided upon Tencel because of its lower water demand and versatility. This is the fabric our current samples and prototyping sheets are available with. However, Leap is under constant development and we are exploring working with a waste-based material, just like our apple leather so we can have the highest upcycled content possible in our final product.
With these sustainable solutions, we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg today. Sustainability is an extremely multifaceted subject with nearly countless aspects to consider from energy demand, performance needs, and end-of-life concerns, not to mention the conflict of a material being bio-based but not biodegradable in some cases. Sustainability today comes with compromises but it’s exciting to see new innovations that the material evolution brings on.
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