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Back in April we introduced Kari Vallury as part of the Little Tienda team. This month she's back to talk about sustainable fabrics. Friend. Foe. How to navigate this tricky world? Kari explains what's good, bad and ugly in the world of fabric and taking care of Mother Nature. 

We recognise that it's difficult to know where to start when there are so many messages being flung our way, Kari immerses us in some real talk that's easy to understand and digest. 

Literally THE most common question I get when I’m talking to people about fashion sustainability is, “which fabrics are most sustainable, and why?”. Materials can account for up to 80% of a garment’s environmental footprint, which makes understanding the impacts of fabrics crucial for both designers and regular humans alike.

That said, assessing the relative impact of different fibres and fabrics can be pretty tricky. And claiming fabrics are ‘sustainable’ can be problematic: Given that there’s no agreed upon definition or certification, what do brands actually mean when they claim they use ‘sustainable’ fabrics? How are they defining it? And proving it for that matter?

The good news?

Rather than focusing on whether a fabric is ‘sustainable’ or not, because it really is a sliding scale of terrible to terrific, the global textile industry uses the term ‘preferred fibres’. This helps categorise fibres (what fabric is made of) into the best and worst options. 

Our beloved Little Tienda pretty much only uses preferred fibres, which we’re pretty proud of. But you don’t have to take their word for it. I’m here to help bring you on the journey of learning all the juicy goss about your fave fabrics, so you can decide for yourself.

So… how do fabrics impact the environment?

The fabrics your clothes are made of have a range of environmental impacts at each stage of production and use. When tracking their environmental impact, we can ask:

  1. What is the impact of growing/extracting the source material (generally either petroleum, plants, or animal products)? For example, we can think about water and pesticide use, and whether its renewable or not.
  2. Which chemicals are used, and how much pollution is emitted during processing?
  3. How durable is the fabric, and does it shed microplastics when washed? 
  4. How quickly does it break down, and can it be composted or recycled at the end of its life?

 

And so, the award for Biggest Baddie in the fabric scene goes to…

If Polyester had a dating profile, it would be FULL of red flags. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to take it home!

Sourced from petroleum, polyester comes from a non-renewable resource, releases carbon monoxide during its processing, sheds microplastics when washed, and can take many hundreds of years to break down. Despite its few redeeming features, polyester makes up the majority of global fibre production: 52% in 2020, to be exact. Eek!

Conventional cotton comes in second-most-baddie, and makes up a quarter of all fibre production*. Don’t be fooled by its ‘natural’ nature: natural is a term often used to make people ‘think’ sustainability, and brands know this. Cheeky.

Cotton is VERY thirsty and the pesticides and insecticides used to grow it are pretty nasty for the people who grow it and for the planet. Think Co2 emissions, water, soil and air pollution. Cotton can be recycled (especially if it’s not blended with other fibres), which is a plus, and it will break down much more quickly than synthetics, but unless it’s organic you don’t want to be putting it in your compost. If cotton’s your only option, try lighter colours or undyed alternatives, which require less of what are often very harmful dyes.

Our fabric faves

The good cottons

‘Preferred cotton’ makes up about 30% of all cotton, and can have any one of a vast array of certifications which help to ensure it’s produced under improved social and environmental conditions. These can include appropriate pay for farmers, initiatives to reduce water consumption, and to reduce the use of harmful insecticides and pesticides. 

Certified organic cotton is perhaps the MOST preferred alternative to conventional cotton. It generates 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than non-organic cotton*, and although it still requires high levels of water for its production, it tends to be grown in areas with higher levels of natural rainfall, meaning the requirement for irrigated water is much lower than that of conventional cotton. The lack of harmful pesticides and insecticides means it is also much less polluting of air, soil and water, is better for human health, and can be composted at the end of its life.

That said, organic cotton only makes up around 1% of all cotton produced, so it’s not always easy to find.

Fun fact: Did you know, denim is made from cotton?! Switching to organic denim is not only super cool (in an eco-nerd kinda way) but also a sustainability WIN!

Linen

If Polyester is the worst Tinder date ever, linen may just be the best. Loves nature, romance, and consent. Hallelujah!

Linen is made of fibres from the flax plant, which requires a tiny fraction of the water needed to grow cotton, and little to no insecticides or pesticides. It’s pretty much as ‘natural’ as you can get, and undyed or naturally/organically dyed is compostable/biodegradable. Linen is also incredibly strong and durable, meaning it will last and last. Sadly though it makes up only 1% of the global fibre market. 

Interestingly, most of linen’s environmental impact comes in its washing and ironing, so if you’re willing to embrace the creased look and hang your linen in the sun to rejuvenate and minimise washing, it will work hard for you as a sustainability superstar.

Easy peasy

To recap the fundamentals: 

  • Avoid polyester. Full stop. But if you ‘need’ it, choose recycled.
  • Choose organic cotton or linen over conventional cotton.
  • Wash your clothes as infrequently as possible, avoid the dryer and the iron. True story!
  • You can compost pretty much all of your Little Tienda garments when they’re truly worn out. The worms will love them!

And if you have any specific questions, feel free to reach out to us on socials anytime.

Ps.  While I’ve tried to squish as much as I can into this article, there is so much to learn about fabrics, and so many more to explore. Here are some links to some great sources of easy-to-understand info.

*Textile Exchange 2021, “Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report 2021”, at https://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Textile-Exchange_Preferred-Fiber-and-Materials-Market-Report_2021.pdf
**Common objective 2021, https://www.commonobjective.co/hubs/fibres-fabrics/29/all. For the down low on linen specifically:  https://www.commonobjective.co/article/fibre-briefing-linen