The fashion industry creates significant global environmental and socio-economic problems. This includes waste in landfills and developing nations, chemical pollution, and the mistreatment of workers. Many companies are moving toward sustainable fashion as a business model, including the use of natural fibers and fabrics and bio-engineered materials.
But are these “natural” materials as sustainable as companies claim? And are they better for the environment than synthetics?
Here I’ll dive into the debate surrounding natural versus synthetic fibers and look at different fashion technologies driving true sustainability forward. But first, let’s look at greenwashing and how it influences perceptions of sustainability.
Greenwashing in the Sustainable Fashion Industry
Greenwashing happens when companies make unwarranted and misleading claims about sustainability. This is often achieved through marketing and unclear product labeling, and they may also overuse vague and unregulated sustainability buzzwords like “eco-friendly,” “energy efficient,” or “natural.”
Many big brands, such as H&M, get a “green halo” by claiming to implement sustainability initiatives while lacking the evidence to back up these claims. Often “environmental” collections contain the same amount of synthetics as the brand’s conventional lines, as this study makes clear.
Understanding greenwashing is an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle. Consumers need to understand the jargon companies use to conceal unsustainable practices and use this information to hold them accountable while calling for stronger regulations.
One of the best ways to see if a company is working sustainably is to inquire about their labor policies, sustainability reports, and living wage policies. For larger brands, you can also check certifications from, GOTS, OEKO-TEX, B Corporation, Fair Trade, and more, which highlight companies with more rigorous social and environmental performance levels, including using sustainable materials.
Synthetic Fibers vs. Natural Fibers
The primary fibers used in the fashion industry are natural and synthetic. Synthetic fibers are manufactured today mainly using chemicals and fossil fuels, and these chemicals are often associated with adverse health effects.
On the other hand, natural fibers come from animal or plant sources. Cotton, silk, bamboo, and wool are the most common natural fibers used in clothing, and these materials tend to be light, breathable, and hypoallergenic. Hemp is also a natural material gaining prominence again.
How Do They Compare to Synthetics?
Many assume that natural fibers are better for the environment than synthetics. But it is not always so clear-cut. For both threads, the biggest emissions occur in the upstream stages of the supply chain.
For example, cotton and bamboo are two natural fibers often used in textile production. These materials require a certain amount of processing to be turned into fabric, which usually includes bleaching and other highly toxic chemicals.
While it’s true that natural fibers like cotton and bamboo need to be processed to be turned into fabric, it’s not true that this process is any more chemically intensive than the process used for synthetic fibers like polyester. Many of the same chemicals are used in all three cases.
So, if you’re concerned about using harsh chemicals in textile production, in that case, you should know that it may happen regardless of whether natural or synthetic materials are used, especially if the natural material is not OEKO-TEK or Organic Certified.
Also, both types of fabric need a lot of water to process. Cotton is one of the worst offenders, using 10,000 liters to produce only 1kg of cotton. And the growth of non-organic cotton is also often associated with pesticides and soil erosion. Specifically, over 99% of cotton uses fertilizers and genetically modified seeds.
There is also often confusion around vegan materials used in place of leather. Many vegan alternatives get made from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and Polyurethane (PU), which are not sustainable and do not biodegrade.
Another argument is that some synthetic fabrics are more fit for purpose. In some cases, they outperform natural alternatives and can have a longer lifespan. You can see this with many outdoor and activewear companies that have developed sweat-resistant, water-resistant, and stain-resistant performance fabrics. However, natural materials are biodegradable; synthetics may be recycled depending on the blend. Recycling something can be better than bringing something new into circulation; we will explore this more in the next section.
Innovations in Fashion Technologies
As natural fashion grows so does the technology to create sustainable materials. Let’s look at some of the next-gen technologies developing worldwide.
Textile recycling technology has lagged behind other forms of recycling for some time. Now companies like Circ are developing tech that returns clothes to raw materials. This is achieved using hydrothermal processing, which can potentially replace virgin materials in the supply chain.
An issue with recycled fabrics is that the material is of lower quality and value than the original, often known as “downcycling.” It can help reduce the amount of clothing in a landfill. But it usually still ends up there due to the low quality.
New research using textile waste with high cellulosic content is changing the game. Recycled textiles like Cirulose and Infinna offer a high-quality solution. These products are biodegradable and should replace many virgin materials currently used.
Swedish company Renewcell, which manufactures Circulose out of 100% textile waste, plans to recycle the equivalent of more than 1.4 billion t-shirts every year by 2030. Apparel brands can use Circulose to replace high-impact raw materials like polyester and non-organic cotton in their textile products.
Most recently, Renewcell announced a collaboration with fashion giant Zara for a 100% recycled capsule collection. Although Inditex, and other fast-fashion giants like it, aren’t usually friends of the environment, these partnerships are essential to moving the needle. For cutting-edge developments to be adopted, the public needs access to them. However, we would like to see the partnership extend to Zara’s entire collection to have an impact.
Another novel use of technology is the development of enzymatic processes. This is where enzymes break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) synthetic fibers. This extracts polyester and can recreate the thread in its original, virgin form, rather than being downgraded into rPET (standard today in yoga leggings and swimwear).
Polyester is the most widely used fiber in the textile industry. So enzyme research could have significant implications for textile recycling.
Developed by Carbios, large sportswear companies like Patagonia, PUMA, and Salomon recently adopted enzyme technology. The four brands share a challenge: conventional recycling technologies can only partially meet their ambitious sustainable development goals. Carbios’ innovative process constitutes a real technological breakthrough for recycling polyester (PET) fibers, which are widely used in apparel, footwear, and sportswear. These brands signed an agreement with the potential to speed up the use of Carbios’ bio-recycling technology to create a more circular economy from used plastics and fibers technology so they can be more intentionally reused rather than dumped in a landfill.
Another great innovation to mention is bioengineered materials grown in labs by scientists using molecular biology and fermentation to create bio-fabrics.
Modern Meadow, for example, creates a leather-like material that reduces emissions by 90 percent. Because it is a coated textile, meaning a plastic resin that has been overlayed on the raw textile on one or both sides, it is very durable and water-resistant. It is also flexible and has vivid colors, making it perfect for the fashion market.
Mylo is another great invention, created using mycelium, a fungi-based leather alternative developed by Bolt Threads. Major fashion houses like Stella McCartney and Adidas are investing in and using this fabric, proof that these materials can be as high-end as traditional leather.
Other labs are also creating bio-fabricated materials using proteins.
The Pangaia Lab developed the first hoodie made with Brewed Protein. This works through a complex fermentation process with microbes. The brand hopes to spur the development of non-petrochemical fabrics. Pangaia has also used the grape byproduct from wine production to make leather shoes.
Natural Fabrics and Dyes
There have also been recent developments to create denim that doesn’t contain plastic, commonly added for stretch. Several other brands have banned heavy metals and chemicals throughout their production processes.
Natural dyes are also progressing, especially for wool. These dyes can be extracted from natural ingredients which are safe and renewable, and this can be from items such as indigo, saffron, woad, and madder. Even seashells can be used! One example is Smartwool, which uses an environmentally conscious process that uses dyes derived from plants instead of artificial substances, using less water and energy.
These dyes can biodegrade in marine environments as well as terrestrial ones.
There have been some major inroads into leather alternatives. These creations are better for the environment, and they are cruelty-free.
A company called Peelshere has developed a fruit waste and algae-based material. The material is a robust and flexible alternative to leather and is antibacterial and biodegradable.
It is a versatile material, with lots of colors available through the use of natural dyes. Its surface is ideal for weaving, embroidery, and sewing.
Other companies are using other plant materials to create similar products. This includes Piñatex, made from pineapple leaves, and others made from kelp, banana leaves, and oranges.
A Circular Economy
All these innovations bring us closer to a more sustainable fashion industry. After all, the answer to sustainable fashion is building a circular economy (more on that next month!).
But wide-scale changes in the global apparel industry need to be made to gain traction. Adopting recycled textiles or bio-engineered materials can help reduce new clothes in circulation.
This change is also dependent on consumers. This means getting informed on production, curbing unnecessary purchases, and pushing for industry change. This way, only products that you have a genuine need for will get produced.
Building a Sustainable Fashion Industry
Creating sustainable fashion is a complex issue. There is not one answer to this global problem. Sure, natural materials can reduce your impact. But there are still adverse effects during production and distribution.
But, there is hope with new and exciting technological innovations across the industry. As production develops, we can reduce our planetary impact garment by garment. Enjoyed this article? Check out our other articles on fashion and sustainability. You might enjoy our article on indigenous wisdom, and you can also check out our shopping tab for a roundup of sustainable brands.
Meera Raval is the CEO and Founder of The Meraki Power. Meera is a purpose-driven social media marketer. She is on a mission to empower women social entrepreneurs and impact leaders to grow loyal online communities using the power of “Meraki” – a word that describes the soul, creativity, or love put into something.