Finding alternative materials as a small business seeking to make sustainable choices can be intimidating. But don’t worry, we’re here to help. We’ll go through key things to ask yourself before you start, as well as material concerns and how to identify the right source.
Using more sustainable fabrics in consumer products is one of the simplest ways to help. When it comes to designing a garment, the most crucial issue is selecting the correct fabric. Fabric selection influences the garment’s key physical and technical characteristics.
It can be difficult to choose the most environmentally friendly fabric for your design, but it is possible. Each fabric choice is a trade-off between the fabric’s environmental impact and the environmental values that were used in the design process.
So, what constitutes a sustainable material?
It can be difficult to figure out everything on your own! In your sourcing procedures, indexes and assessments of environmental and social impacts, such as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) and Life Cycle Assessments (LCA’s), will be your closest friends. These two are great resources, but they often don’t think about what happens during the use and disposal stages, as well as human and animal concerns.
Why is selecting sustainable fibers so crucial when it comes to a fashion brand’s environmental footprint? How important are the materials you are using?
It is estimated that the design stage, which includes material selection, determines 60–80% of a product’s influence. This is one of the most important aspects of developing a brand’s long-term sustainability strategy. Choosing the proper materials has an impact on how the garment is worn, for how long it is worn, and what happens to it once it is discarded.
Every textile fiber has a social or environmental impact, whether it’s the amount of water or energy used, the amount of land used, the influence on local communities, or the carbon footprint. As a result, it’s critical to make an informed choice when it comes to materials. In general, regenerative, organic, and recycled materials have a smaller environmental impact than their conventional equivalents.
The stages to finding the ideal material for your products are outlined here.
Recognize the stages of the life cycle
A thorough examination of the data available on various materials necessitates a choice of the most sustainable fabric for your design and business. Because there are so many aspects to consider throughout the life cycle of fabric from crop cultivation to processing, assembly, shipping, use, and final disposal of the garment by the consumer this step may be rather difficult. There are environmental consequences at every stage of the garment’s life cycle.
In terms of environmental impact, fiber extraction or cultivation is the single largest contributor to a garment’s carbon and water footprints. Trims, linings, and the style and feel of a garment are all decided at the design stage. There are a lot of things that need to be done before a product can be made, so it’s no surprise that the design stage is responsible for about 80% of its environmental impact.
Checklist for selecting sustainable fabrics based on data
- Decide how you’ll evaluate the possibilities. Can LCAs or the Higg MSI (or another approach) be used?
- Whatever approach you use, make sure you’re aware of its limitations and whether it compares fibers or fabrics.
- Are you comparing and contrasting data? Does the LCA provided by your supplier consider all of the consequences of a fabric’s life cycle?
- Keep in mind that none of these strategies are likely to include the ultimate steps of garment manufacturing, use, or disposal.
- Determine what matters most to your company in terms of long-term viability. Will you rank fibers based on carbon emissions or water consumption, for example?
- Compare traditional materials to alternative fabrics that perform similarly.
Once you’ve made your decision, dig deeper into the data.
Dig deeper into the data
In general, scientific investigations use one of two data types: individual category emissions data or an indexing technique that aggregates these results into a more easily compared score. This should allow you to balance any assertions made by suppliers regarding fabric and arm you with the necessary questions to ask in order to choose the most sustainable option that suits your concept.
Using the data, choose the most environmentally friendly fabrics
Given the many variables at play, comparing like fibers to like fibers is a good way to go. Rather than trying to choose the “greenest” cloth overall, use the data sets to decide which type of cotton to choose. This ensures that you’re obtaining fibers that do the same task and that the life cycles are similar in subsequent phases.
Your strategy could be as follows:
1. Determine the purpose of your clothing and the concerns that most worry you.
If you know that your item will be washed a lot by the wearer and that reducing pollution is important to you, organic, rain-fed cotton is a good choice.
2. Determine how you want your fabric to function.
Perhaps you should think about how you’ll wear your clothes. When washed and dried, cotton and organic cotton are identical. Choosing organic cotton reduces global warming contributions by half compared to conventional cotton.
3. Contrast typical fibers with alternatives that function similarly.
Assume you’re a luxury brand in need of silky fabric. Traditional silk is consumed in large quantities. Other choices, such as more environmentally friendly silk or cellulosic, may be discovered using the data. In fact, for most weights, the heavier the fabric, the fewer emissions per kilogram of greige are produced. These types of rankings might assist you in focusing on the values that are most important to your company.
Where do you begin when it comes to obtaining sustainable fabrics?
The design stage determines 80% of a product’s environmental footprint. This fast overview gives you the lowdown on the most important sustainability challenges with commonly used materials. It also directs you to practical guidelines that give you more information and contact information for companies that make environmentally-friendly products.
Synthetics & Polyester
The disadvantages of traditional polyester and other synthetics include:
- Petrochemicals are the source of this term.
- It currently accounts for 62 percent of all textiles produced globally.
- Microfibers that are damaging to the body are shed.
- Polyester is more environmentally friendly.
- Plastic bottles, ocean plastic, post-consumer waste textiles, fishing nets, and industrial plastic are all examples of recycled fibers.
- Bio-based yarns are made from castor oil and methane.
The following are some disadvantages of traditional cotton:
- The majority of conventional cotton is irrigated using inefficient flood irrigation.
- Pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals are used in large quantities.
- Cotton farmers in countries that aren’t very well-developed may be paid less than they should, and their children may be forced to work for little pay.
Alternatives to cotton that are sustainable include:
- Cotton is grown organically or from a fair-trade source.
- Cotton that has been recycled and has natural-colored cotton.
- In a lifetime, one pair of jeans consumes an average of 10,850 liters of water.
- 5kg of CO2 will be released when cotton is grown, processed, dyed, bought, washed, and so on.
- Working conditions are notoriously bad, especially for those involved in sandblasting.
- There are a number of environmentally friendly denim options available, ranging from water-free dyeing to the use of recycled fibers.
Trims and other finishing touches
- Thread, zips, interlining, tags, and labels all have a negative influence on the environment. More environmentally friendly solutions include:
- Cotton thread is made from organic cotton.
- Recycled plastic bottle zippers and interlinings
- Hemp and organic cotton care labels, as well as recycled polyester satin
- The drawbacks of traditional stretching
- Spandex, also known as elastane and lycra, is still the most popular stretch fiber.
- The usage of fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming, has a significant influence.
- It’s tough to recycle because it’s usually combined with other fibers.
Stretching that is more sustainable includes:
- Yarns manufactured from recycled polyester and organic fibers are available.
- Fabric is produced from ocean debris and plastic bottles that have been recycled.
- Fabrics that save energy
Some disadvantages of traditional viscose:
- More greenhouse gas emissions are produced than cotton production.
- Every year, over 200 million trees are destroyed.
- Viscose and viscose alternatives that are more environmentally friendly include:
- Eucalyptus lyocell is a sustainable lyocell.
- Yarns made of repurposed materials
- Yarns are produced from discarded food.
The following are some of the disadvantages of traditional leather:
- Concerns about animal welfare
- Concerns about the environment
- Working in the exceedingly hazardous conditions of a tannery has a human cost.
Leather that is more environmentally friendly:
- Suppliers who provide a pleasant working environment
- Tanning of vegetables
- Alternatives to animal leather, such as those made from plants,
- Leather that has been grown in a laboratory
- Wool from traditional sources has a negative influence on the environment.
- Land use, water pollution, and global warming are all challenges that need to be addressed.
- Concerns about animal welfare
Wool that is more environmentally friendly includes:
- wool that is manufactured in a more environmentally friendly method.
- Wool is good for sheep’s health.
- wool from recycled sources
- Animal-free alternatives to vegan wool
- Traditional silk’s impact: social concerns for workers and child labor difficulties
- Concerns about animal welfare
- The Higg Index assigns a high ranking to silk fiber for fabric manufacture, owing to its high energy consumption.
- Organic silk production is more environmentally friendly.
- Plant-based alternatives to peace silk.
One more piece of advice from the pros
Finding the correct sustainable material for your product is a difficult procedure. There is no holy grail, how-to guide for acquiring materials, let alone starting a business. The freedom and pleasure of being an entrepreneur and establishing your own path, however, comes with all uncertainties.
Allowing perfection to be the enemy of the good is a mistake. Every business owner’s definition of sustainability is different, and it’s typically a trial-and-error process. It is far more vital to make progress toward a greener tomorrow than it is to achieve perfection.
It is critical to conduct the necessary research, but you should also seek assistance from experts with actual expertise when necessary. When picking a fabric, employ a cradle-to-cradle approach and set quantifiable, ambitious, but doable goals. Understand that sustainability is a process, not a destination, and that progression over perfection is more significant.