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12.2 Clothing and Textiles: Materials

Author: Jenny Truc Uyen Chung

ABSTRACT: The fashion industry is increasingly profiting from our culture of overconsumption, however, there are many people who are beginning to acknowledge these issues that have encouraged slow fashion consumption and movements within the fashion industry. This includes where, and how a fibre or textile and sourced, how they are treated and who that affects along the way. There are also many other textile innovations within the fashion industry working to recreate all our loved textiles without the cost of our environment. 

(Retrieved from WorldGBC Embodied carbon call to action report, 2019)


Today, the fashion industry is currently responsible for 10% of our global carbon dioxide emissions annually. This is due to the materials we are using in our garment production, with synthetic materials making like nylon, lycra, rayon, etc; making up 62% of all fibres produced every year. This rise in synthetic fibre production and consumption is what is pushing the movement of slow fashion which includes purchasing from ethical brands as well as consuming in ways that are sustainable.

Sustainable textile includes anything made of natural fibres, which are divided into two categories of protein and cellulose fibres. Protein fibres are fibres produced from animals and insects such as wool from sheep, silk from silkworms, and furs and feathers from mink, geese and many more. Cellulose fibres include fibres derived from plants which include cotton, hemp, flax, bamboo, linen, etc. Some of the major differences in natural and synthetic fibres are that natural fibres are both renewable and biodegradable making impacts far less than that of synthetic fibres. Synthetic fibres are essentially plastic making them harmful in all stages of their life from production to disposal. 

Natural fibres also require additional steps in order to turn them into something that can be weaved or knitted into a textile. To explain the process I will be using wool as an example:

  1. Wool is sheared off the sheep and checked for its yield (overall quality).
  2. Wool is scoured which means the wool is cleaned in warm water and steam in order to get rid of any residual dirt, food, and grease from the wool. 
  3. Scoured wool is then sent to be spun into yarn to different thicknesses known as lace, DK, worsted, or bulky. 
  4. Yarn can then be dyed, natural dying being the most sustainable option. Many different plants, flowers, vegetables and spices can be used to produce different pigments.
  5. The yarns are sold as hanks or weaved or knitted to create fabrics for garment production.

Some argue that wool is harmful to the environment due to the greenhouse gases in the methane sheep produce. Issues are also raised due to the amount of land, fresh water and food it takes to raise sheep. However, the carbon footprint of raising sheep is sequestered as they are a natural part of the carbon cycle. 

(Retrieved from IWTO Green Wool Facts Article, 2014)

In this chart, you can see how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is taken up by plants through photosynthesis, is converted to organic carbon. This organic carbon is what is consumed by the sheep through grazing. The organic carbon consumed is quickly returned to the atmosphere through respiration and decay with less than 10% of it being converted to methane gas. Even then, this methane is gradually broken down to carbon dioxide which is consumed by the plants again, thus completing the carbon cycle between land and the atmosphere. Wool is also an abundantly renewable fibre that is natural and biodegradable. It is odour and stain-resistant, with fire retardant properties that cannot be replicated in synthetic fibres. Much of the carbon produced with wool fabrics today includes the amount of power used to spin, dye, and clean the wool, as well as the energy used during laundry cycles during its use. While this isn’t to say that natural fibres do not harm the environment in some way, it is a more sustainable option as we continue to consume and produce clothing. The carbon is also lessened by producing and sourcing locally like the group the FibreShed which is a community in Toronto who are building a movement towards mindful garment production with local Canadian farms, weavers, and garment makers. 

In addition to natural fibres, many people today are innovating the textile industry by creating sustainable alternatives the company Mylo who have created leather and silk alternatives using mushrooms and spider webs. The use of 3D printing and 3D knitting is also done to reduce textile waste. Another sustainable method of producing textiles is to grow them. Saint Martins graduate Scarlett Yang, created a glass-like textile made up of algae and silk proteins. This textile is alive meaning it will continue growing in the right conditions and only takes hours for it to dissolve and decompose in water. 

While many efforts today are being made to combat this issue the only remarkable solution to textile waste and pollution would be to stop producing garments altogether. However, it is an unrealistic goal as of right now. Fashion is deeply embedded within our culture, therefore in order to combat these issues,  we must change the way we choose to consume. By becoming an informed consumers we can mindfully purchase clothing and practice consuming less by mending, reworking, and thrifting.


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