What makes fabric sustainable or unsustainable? There are several factors to consider when determining if a particular fabric, material or textile is sustainable or unsustainable. HEALabel uses the following criteria when analyzing the environmental impact of fabrics, materials and textiles.
Factors That Determine If Fabric Is Sustainable Or Unsustainable
What Is The Material’s Fiber Source?
A fabric’s fiber source is simply where the materials come from. Fibers may be ‘natural’ or ‘synthetic’ and within both categories there may be sustainable and unsustainable examples. Here are three main categories HEALabel uses to categorize fibers. Again, within these categories we must look at each fabric individually to consider multiple aspects that will determine its eco-friendliness…
- Plant-based materials are from ‘natural fibers’ that tend to be the most sustainable
- Animal-derived materials are also considered ‘natural fibers’ but tend to be the least sustainable
- Synthetic materials are typically from ‘synthetic fibers’ or ‘man-made fibers’ and will vary in sustainability. Some synthetic materials are derived from fossil fuels or petroleum. These can be considered unsustainable. However, there are other examples of innovative, ‘man-made fibers’ such as qmonos that are not necessarily unsustainable.
Browse all of HEALabel’s Fabric and Material snap-shots to see specific examples!
Is The Material Biodegradable?
When a material biodegrades it breaks down to base substances such as water, carbon dioxide, methane, basic elements and biomass. Technically, all materials will eventually biodegrade…even ones commonly thought to “last forever” like plastic.
However, the time it takes for a material to biodegrade is what’s important in regards to sustainability. The faster a fabric or material can biodegrade, the more sustainable it tends to be. The longer it takes a fabric or material to biodegrade, the more unsustainable it tends to be. This is because during that time it can be problematic, particularly in the case of harming wildlife and contaminating water, air and soil.
- Plastic is highly unsustainable, as may take as long as 450 years to fully biodegrade
Is Material Single-Use Or Durable?
Material durability is an important factor to consider when calculating sustainability. If a fabric or material is long-lasting it can be considered more sustainable, as it won’t need to be replaced as frequently. However, if a fabric or material is single-use it is most certainly unsustainable as it will soon be thrown into a landfill after its short-lived purpose is fulfilled.
Is Material Reusable Or Recyclable?
Materials and fabrics that can be used again and again can be considered more sustainable, unlike its single-use counterpart. If a material is recyclable energy and water must be involved in the process, but the material will not go into a landfill, making it more sustainable than non-recyclable. New-life, second-life and repurposing materials are all terms that refer to this concept.
Check out this ‘Recyclable and Non-Recyclable Materials List‘ to see examples in your home!
Other Ways Fabrics And Materials Can Be Environmentally Destructive
It’s not just the fiber source and biodegradability that determine whether a fabric is eco-friendly…we need to consider everything. Here are some forms of environmental destruction that will make a fabric or material ‘unsustainable’ even if it has a natural fiber source and is biodegradable…
- Chemically treated fabrics and materials (pollute air, water, soil, kill plants) This can include tanning and unnatural dyes
- Carbon emissions generated from production (can be from factories but also come from animal manure / animal emissions)
- Heavy pesticide usage for certain crops (non-organic cotton is notorious for receiving high amounts of pesticides whereas organic cotton does not)
- Resource intensiveness (animal-derived materials are an example since livestock requires land, freshwater and food crops which is an inefficient means of material production and create a strain on natural resources, i.e., materials like leather, wool and down)
- Ecosystem disruption or an unbalance in nature that causes a chain-reaction in the environment pertaining to plants and wildlife (this may be brought on by mono-cropping plants or livestock farming)
Examples Of Sustainable Fabric And Material
Perhaps the most sustainable of all fabrics and materials would be a natural fiber that is plant-derived, requires little to no pesticides and is biodegradable.
Bamboo, hemp and jute are materials that match this description. Regarding resources, bamboo for instance, does not require much land and needs very little water to grow. It’s hardy, yield is plentiful and it is a non-invasive plant species with numerous uses and applications.
Examples Of Unsustainable Fabric And Material
Leather is a natural fiber and biodegradable. However, it is often tanned with toxic chemicals that contaminate the environment. As previously mentioned, sourcing materials from animals is quite problematic. Cows require land, water and food. Being ruminant animals, they have multiple stomachs and emit high volumes of carbon emissions, bad for air, water, soil, etc.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber, a common plastic, essentially derived from fossil fuels or petroleum. Its production contributes to the oil manufacturing industry -the world’s largest pollutant. Polyester manufacturing uses energy-intensive heating process, requiring large quantities of water for cooling. Furthermore, polyester does not biodegrade quickly may take up to 200 years to decompose.
Why it’s important to consider all factors
As we’ve learned above, it’s not just fiber source and biodegradability that determine whether a fabric is eco-friendly. There are many other important aspects to analyze when determining the environmental impact of fabrics and materials. Observe the materials you use and that exist around your home. Be mindful the next time you shop for clothing and other textiles now that you know the impact they have on our planet.
That’s why HEALabel considers all factors to determine whether a fabric is sustainable or unsustainable.