We already put together guides on what might be some of the most eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics, and also the least eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics.
In this guide, we outline what might be some of the main factors that contribute to those classifications.
*Note – in addition to eco friendliness, sustainable and animal friendliness, there’s also the consideration of the economics and practicality of supplying and producing a fibre/fabric, how it impacts employment, how it impacts the price for the consumer, and the performance of the final product in terms of how it looks, feels and how long it lasts.
Factors That Contribute To How Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly Different Fibres & Fabrics Are
The main factors might be:
Whether it’s a synthetic, regenerated or natural fibre
– Natural cellulose material like plant, wood/tree (birch, eucalyptus, and so on) and vegetable type fibres tend to be more eco friendly across several measurements like embodied energy and carbon footprint than synthetic fibres like polyester, nylon, and acrylic.
– There’s also the fact that synthetic fibres come non renewable petrochemical sources, and involve mining
– But, not all natural fibres are perfect. Hemp for example exhibits weed like traits, and cotton tends to be very water hungry. Animal based fibres like silk, wool etc. also have animal cruelty issues to consider
How the fibre/fabric is sourced or grown
– What agricultural inputs are used (synthetic nitrogen fertilizers vs animal manure, synthetic pesticide chemicals vs organic pest control, or irrigated water vs rainfed water for example)
– How efficient resource inputs are (amount of water, land and other resources used vs yield produced)
– What the yield is (a better yield can contribute to more efficient use of resources – how fast the plant grows, number of harvests per year, and so on)
– Whether intensive or sustainable/organic farming practices that preserve soil health are used
– Is a plant used, like Bamboo for example, that contributes to soil health
– Whether GMOs are used or not
– Whether growing happens primarily in one country or not e.g. Bamboo in China … this can lead to supply issues, or a lack of transparency in supply chains and growing processes
– Whether there’s some type of responsible or sustainable growing/material sourcing certification in place (such as FSC certification, or another individually reported sustainable growing operation)
– Can the source material be traced through the supply chain?
– Some materials like Peace silk can be a better alternative than regular silk in terms of reducing or eliminating animal cruelty. Silk, wool, down, angora, fur, and leather can all have animal cruelty issues
– Natural fibres like cotton for example can cause wild life issues indirectly through the use of pesticide sprays, through synthetic nitrogen fertilizer run off, through farm machinery, through chemicals and water dumped from production factories and plants in aquatic environments, and so on
– There’s also debate over whether organic farming practices and naturally derived chemicals are really the perfect alternative to conventional farming, GMOs and conventional chemicals in the agricultural and production process
How the fibre is retted, or separated from the plant
– Mechanically (with a machine, with water, with dew, with enzymes/basteria etc.), or chemically
– This is particularly relevant for fibres like flax/linen
Transport of materials and products
– Type of transport used impacts things like carbon footprint, fuel efficieny, and so on (so – road transport, air, water, etc.)
– Distance transport has to travel. For example, bamboo coming from China to the US is going to have a larger transport footprint in general than locally grown cotton
What happens during processing
– A huge consideration is whether processing uses heavy and harmful synthetic chemicals, or naturally derived chemicals. Mechanical or hand made processing can often be the most sustainable (like what is used for some fine linens)
– Another significant consideration is whether waste water is dumped without treatment, or whether closed loop processing is used where waste water and chemicals are captured, treated and re-used where possible
– In processing, there’s several stages to consider such as breaking a material down into a pulp, dissolving the pulp, extruding the fibre or filament, dying, bleaching, finishing, and so on
How the fibre is spun into a yarn, and weaving
– Dry spinning, wet spinning and other spinning methods
– How much energy is used in weaving
– Note that after a fibre is produced, the fibres have to be weaved, which is a separate process altogether and can be performed by other companies
Making and blending fabrics
– Fabrics can be blended together, such as cotton and polyester for example. There’s two different footprints to consider here that are being combined
– Energy, and water used to clean and maintain a fabric
– How long the final product lasts (impact sustainability the longer or shorter it lasts)
– Whether it drop micro plastics whilst in use
– Whether the fabric can be recycled or re-used, or whether it has to be discarded to landfill
– Whether it’s biodegradable or compostable
Across the various stages there’s these things to consider:
- The environment – land, air and water pollution, impact on a changing climate
- Resources – water, energy, land, chemicals used, impact on issues like water scarcity
- Wildlife and animals – impact on wild life and their habitats, animal cruelty
- Human health – whether humans are exposed to harmful chemicals
- Workers rights and safe working conditions – whether workers receive fair pay and have a safe and healthy workplace to work in everyday
*There’s also other factors like how fibres/fabrics impact business, employment, the economy, the price the consumer pays, and the quality or performance of the final product
Some practical and feasibility considerations with fibre and fabric production might be:
Are there any difficult laws or regulations around growing the plant commercially? e.g. hemp has restrictions in the US
Where can the plant be grown? – what growing conditions does it need, what soil conditions does it need, what sort of land does it need (how fertile does it need to be)
How far can the plant or source material be transported before losing value? e.g. Hemp loses value the further is moves from where it’s grown
Amount of time and effort to grow and gin/separate the fibre for processing – hemp is labor intensive compared to cotton (can use a decoritator to separate the bast fibre from the hurds)
Is the fibre spinning process efficient? – e.g. hemp spinning is far less efficient than cotton spinning
Can the fibre be blended with other fibres to make one fabric?
What is the fibre scale of production? how many producers are there, what quantities can be produced? e.g. TENCEL currently isn’t produced in anywhere near the quantity that cotton is
Are there any barriers to entry to grow the fibre, or produce/manufacture it from a technology, cost, geographic or other perspective? e.g. TENCEL has their own technology and facilities to produce their fibres
How many uses does the fibre have based on the final features and qualities of fabrics produced e.g. does it have wide use, or niche use like linen and jute
What is the cost/price of the final fabric or product for the consumer?
Does the fibre growing and production employ a lot of people, or provide a livelihood for low income regions
What does the final fabric look like aesthetically? Does it take dyes well? How many colors can be produced?
Qualities of the fibre – breathability, durability (how it handles washing, UV resistance), suitability for exercise and different activities, does it bunch up and wrinkle?
Can the fibre be grown locally?
2. Various Better Meets Reality eco, sustainability and animal friendly fibre guides and posts