Sustainable fashion: seeing the wood for the trees

The fashion industry has taken a battering in recent years for its eco-credentials, so how can we shop more sustainably? Jussi Piira, product manager at Stora Enso discusses more.

More than ever, people are looking for more sustainable ways to lead their lives. From the food they eat, to the transport they choose and even to the clothes they wear. Forward-thinking retailers and designers such as IKEA and Marimekko have responded by experimenting with more sustainable, alternative materials, but overall our fast-fashion lifestyles and reliance on fossil materials keep us hooked on unsustainable textiles.

London Fashion Week has long shone a spotlight on brands and designers looking to do better by the planet, and this year it relaunched the Designer Showroom with a focus on Positive Fashion. Yet overall progress has been slow. So, where should we be looking for wardrobes that are green in every colour? And what are the problems with our current array of common materials?

The world wears oil

Fashion can be as fossil-fuelled as any car. As recently as 2016, 65% of global textile fibre volume was fossil-based fibres such as polyester and nylon. They are cheap and easy to produce, with high performance on many measures: perfect for throwaway, fast fashion.

Except that we are becoming more conscious of what throwing away these materials means. These materials are plastics, and they do not biodegrade well in landfill, contributing to our pervasive plastic pollution problem.

However, the clothes don’t even need to be thrown away to cause problems. Every time we wash them, these clothes shed microplastics – as many as 700,000 fibres per 6kg wash. These microplastics make their way to our rivers and oceans and, from there, into the food chain. What’s more, as products of fossil fuels, these materials have their share of the environmental blame for the broader oil and gas industry.

Keep it natural

What about natural alternatives then: wool, silk, linen, cotton?

Of these, only cotton is anything close to a serious contender, with 23% of the market. Wool accounts for 1%, and all other natural fibres only manage another 5 per cent taken together.

However, cotton is no environmental panacea. It takes as much as 12,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. That’s almost three months’ worth of household water supplied directly to an individual EU citizen – and cotton is often grown in areas suffering from drought. Pesticide and fertilizer use are also worryingly high.

Retailers recognise this. H&M has set itself a goal of using 100% ‘preferred cotton’ – meaning organic, recycled or ‘Better’ cotton.

Man-made natural materials?

So, if synthetic materials are contributing to climate change and plastic pollution on the one hand, and natural contenders are too resource intensive, it seems we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But there is an alternative; materials that are both man-made in one sense and natural in another.

This may sound contradictory, but it is not. To explain: viscose is a textile that is manufactured from pulp: a product harvested from wood. So, it is man-made in that it is not directly grown like cotton, but natural in that it is made from a naturally occurring material.

Viscose can be a far more sustainable option for textiles. For a start, it is created from a renewable resource – trees – that can be regrown and even act as carbon sinks if responsibly managed. It also requires far less water than cotton – those 12,000 litres of water used to produce 1kg of cotton would yield 26kg of viscose.

Viscose also performs fantastically as a fabric. It is soft, smooth and breathable like cotton, but offers much better moisture management. It drapes well, has great lustre and holds colour and prints extremely well, even after many washes.

A new season for viscose

But viscose is not some new wonder material. It has been around for well over a century. At times, viscose has been a hugely popular fabric – as well as the basis for anything from cellophane to sponges to sausage casings – but has since suffered a decline.

This is largely down to concerns over the use of carbon disulphide in the manufacturing process. A dangerous and toxic chemical, carbon disulphide has resulted in worker safety incidents in developing countries, and its environmental impact has dented viscose’s eco-credentials. At the same time, beginning in the 1970’s, tighter emissions standards for European businesses raised costs and led to outsourcing production to China.

However, modern viscose is changing. Current production processes for both viscose and other man-made cellulosic fibres focus on a high recovery rate of chemicals and closed chemical loops, greatly reducing environmental harm.

Widespread investment into worker health and safety and environmental controls also means that even viscose made using traditional processes is becoming safer and more environmentally friendly.

A future is in sight where viscose is the sustainable answer to sate the global textile industry’s demand for beautiful and high-performance materials. Our industries and societies are increasingly mindful of the impact they have on the planet and are realising that the future must be built using renewable materials.

Jussi Piira

Jussi Piira

Product manager, biomaterials at Stora Enso

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