Chapter 1. Materials – Fashion & Sustainability

Chapter 1: Materials

Ours is a material world, and materials are essential to sustainability ideas; materials are the tangible synthesis of resource flows, energy use and labour. They visibly connect us to many of the big issues of our times: climate change, waste creation and water poverty can all be traced back somehow to the use and processing of and demand for materials. Besides being essential to sustainability, materials are critical to fashion: they make fashion’s symbolic production real and provide us with the physical means with which to form identity and to act as social beings and as individuals. Not all fashion expression takes fibre form, but when it does, it is subject to the same laws of physics and finite natural limits as everything else. Diminishing oil reserves influence price and availability of petrochemical fibres. Insufficient supplies of fresh water change agricultural practices. Rising world temperatures redraw the map of global fibre production (see fig. 1).

To date, exploration of materials has been the starting point for the lion’s share of sustainability innovation in fashion. There are many reasons for this, including the obvious – almost iconic – role played by choice of materials in commonly held views about what makes fashion ‘eco’, ‘green’, or ‘ethical’. Received wisdom suggests that if we substitute materials we alleviate impacts: job done. In reality, however, the issues are far more complex than this suggests. One reason for the dominance of material-led innovation is its status as a quick fix. Substituting materials leads to benefits that are felt fairly rapidly, introduced into products in months and showing up in sales figures soon after. Further, material-led sustainability innovation tends to fall within the control of most designers and buyers, slotting effortlessly into established working practices and the industry status quo (more of the same, but ‘greener’) without demanding ground-shaking business reform. Although the benefits of choosing ‘more advanced’ materials are always going to be limited by the businesses and supply chain of which they are part, they are of consequence nonetheless, and not just for the agricultural workers or resource levels that different material choices directly affect, but because they demonstrate to us that change is possible.

Fig. 1 Sustainabilica: a new continent of fibres.

The sustainability impacts of fibres

The sustainability issues influenced by a garment’s material include the full gamut of impacts: climate change; adverse effects on water and its cycles; chemical pollution; loss of biodiversity; overuse and misuse of non-renewable resources; waste production; negative impacts on human health; and damaging social effects on producer communities. All materials impact ecological and social systems in some way, but these impacts differ in scale and type between fibres. The result is a complex set of trade-offs between particular material characteristics and specific sustainability issues that have to be negotiated for each fibre type.

In the case of textile materials, most areas of sustainability-led innovation can be roughly divided into four interconnected areas:

  • increased interest in renewable source materials leading, for example, to developments in rapidly renewable fibres;
  • materials with reduced levels of processing ‘inputs’ such as water, energy and chemicals, resulting in low-energy (sometimes described as low-carbon) processing techniques for synthetic fibres; and organic natural fibre cultivation, for example;
  • fibres produced under improved working conditions for growers and processors as exemplified by producer codes of conduct and fully certified Fairtrade fibres;
  • materials produced with reduced waste, spawning interest in, among others, biodegradable and recyclable fibres from both consumer and industry waste streams.

The relevance of these areas of innovation is in constant flux, for they are subject to a continually evolving base of scientific research, which in turn influences social and ethical concerns. Carbon emissions, for example, have become a prominent issue over the past decade, linked to recent scientific revelations on climate change; this has led all industries, including fashion, to search for ways to respond. Other concerns, such as high levels of pesticide use, particularly in cotton cultivation, have precipitated expansion of the market for organically grown fibre (grown without restricted synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, growth regulators or defoliants). This market has also benefited from the widespread public mistrust, especially in Europe, of genetic modification (GM) technology, which can now be found in almost 50 per cent of global conventional cotton production but is prohibited in organic agriculture.2 At the same time, ethical scrutiny of fibre-production processes has led to the development of a Fairtrade mark for seed cotton (the raw cotton, before ginning) that guarantees a minimum fibre price to cotton growers and a further premium to be used for community development projects. The key to innovating with materials is to ask questions – of suppliers, of clients, of buyers – about the appropriateness of a particular fibre for a specific end use and about whether alternatives exist. This detailed research is made more powerful if it is accompanied by a willingness to look at and engage with the big picture – the overall garment life cycle and the fashion system of which the garment is a part. Connecting a fibre with a garment and its user is a springboard from which small changes made at the level of materials can translate into big effects in products and user behaviour.

Renewable fibres

The Earth’s natural resources are limited by the planet’s capability to renew them. Forests and harvested products are renewable over a number of years or months, provided that exploitation does not exceed regeneration. Fibre crops such as cotton and hemp and those based on cellulose from trees, such as lyocell, have the potential to strike the critical balance between speed of harvesting and speed of replenishment and to be renewable. In contrast, for fibres based on minerals and oil, there is a gross imbalance between rate of extraction and speed of regeneration (which for oil is around a million years); hence they are described as non-renewable.

Classifying fibres by the renewability of their source material is quick and easy, and divides those based on plant or animal polymers (cotton, wool, silk, viscose and PLA, a biodegradable polymer derived from corn starch) and those based on non-renewable fibres (polyester, nylon and acrylic) – see fig. 2. Such simple categorizations often reaffirm preconceived notions of which fibres are ‘good’ in sustainability terms (assumed to be natural and renewable) and those that are ‘bad’ (manufactured and non-renewable). However, raw-material renewability alone does not guarantee sustainability, for a material’s ability to regenerate quickly tells us very little about the sorts of conditions in which it is created – the energy, water and chemical inputs it requires in the field or factory; the impact it has on ecosystems and workers; or its potential for a long, useful life. Bamboo is a case in point. Recent claims about the sustainability of bamboo fabrics have been based entirely on the vigorous growth of bamboo grass and its rapid and constant renewability. But the subsequent processing into viscose of cellulose sourced from bamboo has high-impact waste emissions to both air and water.3 Truly enhancing environmental and social quality involves a more complex, extended view of responsibility, one where rapid regeneration of a fibre’s source material is pursued not in isolation, but as part of a bigger strategy of safe and resourceful production in appropriate garments with coherent plans for eventual reuse.


Renewability: a route to extended responsibility

Within this bigger picture of extended responsibility, there are two key priorities. First, to develop strategies to use and reuse those fibres that are already in our wardrobes. That is, to find ways to recycle in perpetuity existing fibres, whether renewable or non-renewable, in order to extend a fibre’s use for as close to its regeneration time as possible. Second, to pursue low-impact renewable fibres as a preference to virgin non-renewable ones. This could, for example, involve specifying fibres that are rapidly renewable (regenerating within three years) and annually renewable (grown in a single year). Indeed, a substantial amount of research and development has been done to bring to market new classes of synthetic fibres that are based at least partly on renewable polymers. DuPont’s Sorona® (polytrimethylene teraphthalate, or PTT), for example, was recently designated as a new category of polyester fibre (and given a new generic name – triexta) by the US Federal Trade Commission. It combines source material produced by fermentation of dextrose – up to around 37 per cent by weight – with traditional petroleum-based feedstock.4 And a biomass alternative to nylon 6 produced by Japanese manufacturer Kuraray is based on castor oil.5

A now well-established low-impact renewable fibre is lyocell – a regenerated cellulose fibre made from wood pulp. Lyocell differs from viscose (also a regenerated cellulose fibre made from wood pulp) in that the raw cellulose is dissolved directly in an amine oxide solvent without needing to be first converted into an intermediate compound – a development that substantially reduces pollution levels to water and air. The cellulose/solvent solution is then extruded to form fibres and the solvent extracted when the fibres are washed. In this process, more than 99.5 per cent of the solvent is recovered, purified and reused6, and since amine oxide is non-toxic, what little effluent remains is considered to be non-hazardous. Since lyocell fibres are pure and bright in their raw state, they require no bleaching prior to dyeing and can be successfully coloured with low-chemical, -water and -energy techniques. Some branded forms of lyocell, such as Tencel®, source wood pulp from trees (normally eucalyptus, which reach full maturity in approximately seven years) that are grown in fully accredited sustainably managed forests and some producers are even exploring options to become organically certified. This would guarantee that cellulose was not sourced from GM eucalyptus trees, which are currently being trialled in the US, modified to withstand frost.7

Jacket in lyocell from H&M’s Garden Collection, 2010.

Research and development work is on-going to explore non-tree-based sources of cellulose, though at present such options as bamboo cannot be processed in the lyocell manufacturing chain owing to their subtly different chemistry. In its low-impact-focused 2010 Garden Collection, Swedish brand H&M featured pieces in Tencel alongside other materials including recycled polyester, organic cotton and organic linen.

Biodegradable fibres

Designing garments with the potential to biodegrade harmlessly at the end of their lives is a proactive and ecosystem-inspired response to the rising levels of textile and garment waste, overflowing landfill sites and increasingly proscriptive legislation controlling the ways in which clothes can be discarded.

Biodegradation processes

The process of biodegradation involves a fibre (or garment) being broken down into simpler substances by micro-organisms, light, air or water in a process that must be non-toxic and that occurs over a relatively short period of time.8 Not all fibres biodegrade. Synthetic fibres, for example, are from a carbon-based chemical feedstock and are considered nonbiodegradable. They persist and accumulate in the environment because micro-organisms lack the enzymes necessary to break the fibre down. In contrast, plant- and animal-based fibres degrade into simpler particles fairly readily.9 Yet garments are often made from fibre blends, and if synthetic and natural fibres are combined together (as in a wool–acrylic blend), decomposition is inhibited. Further, garments comprise more than fibre. Facings (including fusing adhesive), thread, buttons and zips all break down at varying speeds, in particular conditions and with different effects. Using polyester thread and labels or facing with synthetic fusing in a cotton shirt inevitably slows complete decomposition. Biodegradation is therefore possible only when it is designed and planned for in advance, so that fibre blends, non-biodegradable thread and garment trims are avoided at the outset. This being said, from an energy perspective, electing to compost a garment rather than to recycle it or, say, incinerate it with energy recovery, actually wastes the majority of energy embodied in the garment (i.e. the energy needed to grow and process fibre, manufacture a product, distribute it, and so on), for it converts a complex, high-energy product (a garment) directly into a low-energy product (compost) without attempting to extract higher value first.10

In their book Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart see composting as one of two cycles acceptable in a sustainable industrial economy.11 They argue that through composting, waste (such as clothing) from one part of the economy becomes the raw material for another (production of organic matter for agriculture, for example), effectively following a natural cycle of growth and decay. The other cycle described by the authors is an industrial recycling loop, where materials (termed ‘industrial nutrients’) are perpetually reused. In McDonough and Braungart’s vision of a sustainable economy, there is no place for products that fail to fit into either of these categories.

New-generation biodegradable fibres

Increasing interest in waste issues and opportunities for closing natural and industrial loops has catalysed the development of a new class of polyester fibres that biodegrade (sometimes called biopolymers), which include fibres made from polylactic acid (PLA). PLA fibres (such as Ingeo™ from NatureWorks) are made from sugars derived from agricultural crops, normally corn, and are melt-spun in a similar process to that of conventional oil-based polyester. These fibres hold promise, but are also associated with a number of concerns. Corn-based polyesters have restricted processing temperatures on account of the low melting point of the fibre (170°C/ 338°F), which can cause problems in dyeing and pressing, although recent developments have seen this increase to 210°C (410°F).12 PLA fibres are renewable and biodegradable, but decompose only in the optimum conditions provided by an industrial composting facility. This is a rarely acknowledged critical factor limiting the success of biodegradable synthetic fibres, for the near-ambient conditions found in home compost heaps do not provide the required combination of temperature and humidity to trigger fibre decomposition, and when the right infrastructure of industrial compost schemes and a collection system to control and channel waste materials to them is lacking, these fibres can never return to the soil and close a loop. In fact, evidence suggests that in landfill conditions biodegradable synthetics produce very high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.13

Biodegradable T-shirt from Trigema, Cradle to Cradle ® certified.

Clearly, the issues associated with fibre biodegradability are far from straightforward. Indeed, an extra layer of complexity has recently been added by the marketing of some polyester fibres as ‘degradable’ (as distinct to non- or bio-degradable). For example, DuPont’s degradable polymer Apexa® (made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, resin – like conventional polyester), apparently decomposes in as little as 45 days, albeit in rigidly controlled conditions (high temperature, humidity and pH).14 This now makes for three classes of fibre degradability for synthetics: biodegradable, degradable and non-degradable.

1.  Biodegradable synthetic fibres (such as the biopolymers described above) replace fossil-fuel ingredients with plant-based materials and meet minimum standards for decomposition.

2.  Non-degradable fibres are based on synthetic polymers from oil and do not break down.

3.  Degradable fibres are based on synthetic polymers from oil but do decompose, though this process typically take several years.

It should be noted that within each class there is variability of speed of decomposition and composting conditions.

Barriers to the introduction of biodegradable polymers

In addition to the scope for confusion around terminology associated with synthetic fibre degradability, there are further hurdles to these fibres successfully delivering on their sustainability promise, in that they increase the potential for cross-contamination of different waste streams with fibre of different classes of degradability and can compromise the quality of the final product.

Innovating around a fibre’s biodegradability, therefore, has a number of significant challenges, including:

1.  Design of completely biodegradable garments where all fibres and component parts compost fully and safely.

2.  Development of suitable infrastructure to collect and process compostable fibres.

3.  Better information and labelling for biodegradable fibres, specifying composting routes and differences from oil-based degradable or non-degradable synthetics.

Working in the first area of challenge highlighted above, a collaboration between Cradle to Cradle authors’ consultancy MBDC and German casual-wear brand Trigema has produced a cotton T-shirt designed to be fully biodegradable.15 Aiming for rapid and non-toxic biodegradability impacts through choice of fibre and processing chemicals, the concept also places restrictions on sewing thread, labels, zips, fastenings and elastomeric yarn. The piece is created from 100 per cent cotton, chosen specifically to be free of pesticide and fertilizer residues, is dyed with chemicals that have passed the Cradle to Cradle® (proprietary) screening and is constructed with 100 per cent cotton sewing thread. It should be recognized, however, that while the Trigema T-shirt answers certain questions about fibre reuse, it leaves many others unanswered, such as: does conventional cotton fibre already biodegrade safely? Are Cradle to Cradle® recommended processes reflective of best practice (water and energy use in dyeing, for example)? And what is the optimum amount of wear before composting? For all this, it seems that its main contribution is less in the irreproachable application of Cradle to Cradle® philosophy in practice, and more in the realization that entirely new types of thinking need to be developed if we are to bring change on a scale necessitated by sustainability.

People-friendly fibres

Innovating around human health and workers’ issues in order to improve the sustainability of fibres used in fashion comprises changes, on the one hand, to specific issues such as health and safety practices, better working conditions, access to unions and living wages; and, on the other, to larger questions about business models and domestic and global trading practices that respect workers and give back to producer communities.

The many issues that influence workers’ lives are brought to light most frequently in cut-and-sew factories, where garments are assembled. Attention tends to be focused here because cut and sew is an extremely labour-intensive part of the supply chain, and the concentration of workers in one place acts as a flashpoint for labour abuses such as low pay, lack of contracts, no access to collective bargaining, occurrences of physical or sexual abuse, and so on. Yet labour issues are also prevalent in other parts of the fashion supply chain. Farm workers in cotton fields, for example, report widespread health problems following exposure to acutely toxic pesticides. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that there are approximately three million pesticide poisonings a year, resulting in 20,000 deaths, largely among the rural poor in developing countries.16 In addition, the use of child labour in cotton picking is commonplace in countries such as Uzbekistan, where the government routinely mobilizes children to ensure that state cotton quotas are met.17 Other pervasive issues for farm workers include low pay and itinerant work; and for small farm owners, fluctuating commodity prices, which result in squeezed profits and a struggle to stay on the land.

The influence of trading and business systems

Other issues that influence labour communities are linked to overarching rules and values of the system of trade and business. Textile fibres such as cotton are cash crops and, when sold in the global market, are an important source of foreign currency for a producer country. In some places, the political pressure to turn productive land over to cash crops has led to countries that were once self-sufficient in food terms now having to import produce, making their population vulnerable to rising global food prices. One well-known response to these vulnerabilities is Fairtrade, the purpose of which is ‘to create opportunities for producers and workers who have been economically disadvantaged or marginalized by the conventional trading system’.18 Fairtrade farmers receive a minimum price for their product, covering the cost of production, with a Fairtrade premium paid in addition for investment in social, environmental or economic development projects.

Yet the fact that Fairtrade certification exists at all is an indicator of an economic and trade system that is essentially off-track: a system that is so large that connections within supply chains have been lost; where a designer or company no longer knows the maker. In effect, Fairtrade is a market-based response that has emerged from the need to maintain industrial production (including fashion production) within safe (people-friendly) limits; an organizational fix for the deeper problem of eroded trust in the system. The real challenge for designers is to develop these relationships ourselves; to know our makers and to understand the scale at which personal connections work and the point at which they break down. For when we build an industry around different scales, relationships and values, then certification may no longer need to be the main focus.

The Fairtrade mark was introduced in 2005 to ensure that farmers receive a minimum price for seed cotton along with a premium for community investment. In order to meet certification standards, Fairtrade-mark cotton farmers are also required to wear protective clothing when spraying pesticides, to reduce the risk of poisoning.19 Yet the speed at which Fairtrade has been accepted by the market has in some cases outpaced the ability of education programmes to induct all farmers in best practices for growing cotton. Furthermore, ensuring a fair price to the farmer does not necessarily guarantee the same to the farm worker. Balancing market demand with the natural time it takes to conduct training around cultivation and understanding the limits of existing market mechanisms to deliver on the broad goals of sustainability in cotton are critical and point to the complexities that designers, companies (and consumers) must consider.

The European-based high-street clothing retailer C&A has partnered with the Textile Exchange and the Shell Foundation to establish a new entity named Cotton Connect, whose aim is to transform cotton supply chains by addressing sustainability issues from farm to finished garment. As part of its original organic cotton strategy, C&A joined with selected agricultural enterprises, asking their suppliers of organic cotton fabric and products to purchase yarn from spinning mills that were themselves buying from these selected farm groups. The company communicated information on its expansion plans and expectations through a series of conferences, which brought together suppliers, business partners and farmer partners, working with Textile Exchange to identify key progress indicators, such as critical food situations, shortage of water, and training in farm practices, as well as to build awareness of necessary social practices. Cotton Connect now plans to partner with other brands and retailers in order to enable scalability, building on the learning of the original partnerships. In this way, by engaging partners throughout the whole supply chain, market growth and demand is synchronized with the ability of producers to supply fibre in a manner that is economically, socially and ecologically viable over the long term.

Low-chemical-use fibres

For certain fibres – most notably cotton – reducing the amount of chemicals applied to the fields during cultivation would bring substantial positive effects to both the lives of workers and the levels of toxicity in soil and water. Currently, US$2 billion’s worth of chemicals are sprayed on the world’s cotton crop every year, almost half of which is considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization. Cotton is responsible for the use of 16 per cent of global insecticides – more than any other single crop. In total, almost 1 kilogram (2.2lb) of hazardous pesticides is applied for every hectare of global cropland under cotton.20

Options for reducing chemical use in cotton growing

There are many routes to reducing the chemical load in cotton growing. Perhaps the best known is organic agriculture, which has been popularized over the last two decades by Katherine Hamnett and scores of others. However, additional routes include biological IPM (integrated pest management) systems, where farmers use biological means to control pests and pathogens; and those including GM (genetically modified) fibres that use biotechnology to resist pest infestations and make weed management simpler. The fact that these options exist at all is due to cotton’s commercial value and its status as the most scrutinized fibre in the world. Cotton has become a lens through which to examine all other fibres; and its issues – including high levels of chemicals use – are a microcosm of the debates played out in practices of fashion and sustainability as a whole.

Cotton is grown in more than a hundred countries, each with its own unique biological conditions and challenges. Not all of those challenges are linked to use of chemicals. Water resources are of major concern in Central Asia, for example, where the Aral Sea has been depleted to a fraction of its former size because of water from inflowing rivers being diverted to use for the irrigation of nearby cotton crops. However, in West Africa, where rainfall is high, it is the use of chemicals rather than diversion of water that is the sustainability priority (though water contamination from chemical run-off is still an issue). Such differences have led to the development of regional cotton strategies that address the needs of a specific area and acknowledge that very few of the issues we face can be solved by a one-size-fits-all ‘universal’ solution. Yet in spite of this certain knowledge, current economic models favour grand universal solutions over small-scale regional ones because they are easier to roll out. In the case of cotton, this is exemplified in extremis by the rapid growth of GM technology in cotton cultivation. Introduced for the first time in 1996, GM now accounts for almost 50 per cent of all conventional cotton produced in the world21 and 88 per cent of the US crop.22

Genetically modified cotton

Peer-reviewed scientific papers suggest that the most successful variety of GM cotton for achieving chemical reduction is Bt.23 Bt cotton has been engineered so that the genetic code of the plant includes a bacterial toxin (Bacillus thuringiensis, hence Bt) that is poisonous to pests, meaning that the crop comes under attack less often and therefore requires fewer pesticide sprays. Although the biotech industry claims that this saves the farmer money (owing to less outlay on pesticides and on crop management/ labour costs) and maintains fibre yields and quality,24 there are many questions of GM technology that remain unanswered – not least regarding its safety and its effectiveness to reduce chemical use over the long term, as well as the likelihood of genetic resistance developing in the pests exposed to Bt toxin, which then allows them to thrive and reinfest the GM crop as well as crops on neighbouring farms.25 Interestingly, however, questions can also be raised about the organic approach, specifically in highly efficient growing regions. Organic yields can be as small as 60 per cent of those of conventionally grown cotton, and (depending on the usual volume of fibre harvested per hectare) such reductions can represent significant financial losses for the farmer, especially if the market does not support the necessary increase in price. This and other challenges have fostered scepticism within the cotton industry about the viability of organic methods as the key tool to reduce chemical use in cultivation. Indeed, organic cotton currently represents just 0.24 per cent26 to 0.74 per cent27 of global cotton production.

Innovating around reduced levels of chemical use in fibres is almost impossible without being drawn into the many commercial and philosophical points of difference between GM on the one hand and biological IPM and organic methods on the other. Achieving clarity on these issues is complicated by the lack of independent scientific research into the effectiveness of the various approaches: currently, most published research in this area is funded by the biotech industry into its own GM products. The sheer volume of papers that exist about GM fibres tends to give an impression of biotechnology as ‘scientific’ and ‘verifiable’; by contrast, the lack of peer-reviewed studies into organic and other similar methods can make them appear ‘ideological’ and ‘unproven’. Yet this is a false deduction; both camps bring with them a set of values through which scientific data is interpreted. For proponents of GM, these values are based on a faith in technology to solve problems. For representatives of the organic movement, faith is instead placed in nature-based, co-operative solutions. The former group tends to work within the status quo, accepting the conditions that created the problem (in the case of cotton, existing agricultural practices) and acting to reduce its adverse effects (by, for example, developing a new, more pest-resistant and herbicide-resistant seed). The latter group, in contrast, attempts to transform the problem system (industrial agricultural practices), so that the problem itself disappears. Thus the seemingly simple act of selecting one fibre over another is in fact intimately connected to global questions and personal values; to whether we prefer deep, slow change over fast-acting process improvements; and to which sorts of interventions and scales we think are necessary in order to make sustainability happen.


Expanded options for ‘sustainability’ in cotton.28 Organic production is one tool that provides a stepping stone to more sustainable practices in cotton growing. Additional biological farming systems broaden ecological goals through scalability. *GM Bt cotton may provide a stepping stone to biological systems29 in areas that are so degraded that chemical dependence is too high to transition immediately to organic, but the threat of evolving genetic resistance in insects is widely acknowledged.30

Non-genetically modified cotton

The Home Grown T-shirt by Prana was the first item to be made using California-grown Cleaner Cotton™, fibre grown with significantly reduced toxicity. Cleaner Cotton has similar goals and rules to those of organic agriculture (see fig. 3): both approaches aim to reduce chemical use in the field, require seed to be non-GM, and make use of biological farming systems, such as the release of beneficial insects to control pest populations and trap crops to draw pests out of the field. Cleaner Cotton methods disallow the 13 most toxic pesticides used on conventional cotton. If, when faced with an economically damaging pest infestation, farmers use the more toxic materials on the ‘do not use’ list, the fibre is no longer eligible as Cleaner Cotton and goes into the conventional market. This ‘safety net’, combined with the fact that the system maintains fibre yields, makes Cleaner Cotton scalable at the farm level. The programme has reduced chemical use on Californian cotton by several thousand kilograms and provides a viable alternative to GM crops.

Home Grown T-shirt by Prana (2006), the first garment made in Cleaner Cotton™.

Low-energy-use fibres

Energy use is a key issue for fibre choice in fashion. It is, of course, closely tied in with prominent global issues such as climate change and a host of contributing factors including carbon emissions and the use of petrochemicals. The burning of fossil fuels to generate energy is ‘carbon positive’, in that it moves carbon stored deep in the Earth (in the form of coal, natural gas or oil) and releases it into the air as carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas. Using less fossil-fuel energy in fibre production and so reducing the amount of carbon dioxide produced is both environmentally and economically compelling as we experience such phenomena as peak oil. The term ‘peak oil’ reflects the fact that any finite resource will at some point reach a level of optimum output (the ‘peak’),31 after which the oil, in this case, becomes more risky, difficult and expensive to extract as oil fields age and become less productive. The twin challenges of climate change and the rising price of oil, which reached a record high of US $147 a barrel in 2008, have converged to drive energy-saving practices in fibre production, to increase interest in alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, and also to bring a new focus on low-energy, and in some cases, low-carbon fibres.

A much overlooked though significant low-energy route to fibre production is recycling. Estimates suggest that even the most energy-intensive forms of synthetic fibre recycling, where polyester or nylon is taken back to polymer and then re-extruded into a new product, is around 80 per cent less energy-intensive than the manufacturing of virgin fibre.32 For those fibres that are recycled using traditional mechanical methods – shredding fabric and then re-spinning fibres into a new yarn – the savings are also substantial.

If virgin fibres are selected based on the energy profile of their production alone, natural fibres are generally considered lower in energy consumption than regenerated ones such as viscose or lyocell, which in turn are less energy-intensive than synthetics such as polyester and acrylic (see fig. 4).33

Carbon footprinting

Recent popular interest in carbon dioxide as a key indicator of sustainability activity in fashion has been catalysed by the analysis of a standard garment’s carbon footprint. The UK-based organization the Carbon Trust measured the carbon footprint of a large unisex cotton T-shirt as 6.5 kilos.35 Corporate-wear brand Cotton Roots, working in a pilot project with the Carbon Trust, claims to have reduced this value by 90 per cent, to approximately 0.7 kilos per T-shirt, by switching to organic farming methods in developing countries (which make use of hand-picking rather than energy-intensive machine-picking and avoid petroleum-based pesticide sprays), by utilizing wind- and solar-powered manufacturing and by distributing through carbon-neutral warehouses in London.36 While these savings represent an impressive factor 10 reduction in carbon dioxide, it is vital that we do not confuse measures of low carbon dioxide specifically, or reduced energy use more generally, as proxies for good sustainability practice in fashion, for they reflect impacts as measured along a single scale. The challenge is to use innovation around energy as a gateway to a greater understanding of interconnected sustainability issues and influences.


Magenta dress by Bird Textiles, Australia’s first carbon-neutral business.

Bird Textiles, Australia’s first carbon-neutral business, started out producing its fashion and homewares lines ‘off the grid’ using renewable sources of energy.37 This meant hand-printing fabric and having seamstresses work on foot-powered treadle machines or those powered by electricity from photovoltaic cells and wind turbines. With the advent of publicly available ‘green’ electricity through the conventional power grid, Bird Textiles’ network broadened to include suppliers buying green power from utility companies as well as those with autonomous energy supplies. The result is a fusion of low- and high-tech responses to energy use and carbon emissions.

Low-water-use fibres

Water moves in a continuous cycle, above and below ground, but its volume is fixed. The demand for this finite resource is growing and as industrialization spreads and populations expand, pressure on limited water resources increases. According to figures produced by UNEP, over the next 20 years humans will use 40 per cent more water than they do now, if current trends continue.38 And yet even as demand for water is increasing, we face the prospect of reduced supply of clean water, thanks to growing levels of pollution. The result is that water, or lack of it, will soon become the headline geopolitical issue around the world. According to both UNESCO and the World Economic Forum, we are facing ‘water bankruptcy’, which will likely have even greater global effects than the financial meltdown now destabilizing the global economy.39

Water: a major issue for fashion

Water is a key issue for fibres and therefore for fashion. However, levels of water use vary widely from fibre to fibre and from one growing region to the next. For example, globally, 50 per cent of the land under cotton cultivation is artificially irrigated, with a wide-ranging set of practices and efficiencies. In Israel, where water is scarce and expensive, highly efficient irrigation equipment is used to deliver water to the plant at specific times and in controlled quantities as needed; whereas in Uzbekistan, where the cost of water is low, over-irrigation is common.40 The remaining 50 per cent of the global cotton crop is rain-fed, and fluctuating rain cycles result in variable fibre yield and quality. Since the world’s water circulates in a closed system (known as the hydrological cycle), its use on cotton affects access to water for other purposes (such as drinking, food-crop irrigation or industry), and contamination of water from fertilizers and pesticides makes it unfit for other uses. Cotton is not the only thirsty textile fibre; the production of viscose, for example, draws on approximately 500 litres per kilogram of fibre produced.41 In contrast, many synthetic fibres (most notably polyester) use fairly low levels of water in their production. Likewise, some other natural fibres grown in areas of high rainfall, such as wool, hemp and linen (flax), require no artificial irrigation (see fig. 5).


Innovating to reduce water use in fibres is an inescapable part of fashion’s future. Water scarcity will drive up the cost of water resources, making safeguarding water as much of an economic imperative as a sustainability one. Commentators predict a similar scenario for water as has been described for oil (sometimes dubbed ‘peak water’), namely that from now on water will become increasingly difficult and more expensive to access. The implications of peak water for a sector like fashion, whose products rely on a cheap and plentiful supply of water to grow, produce, process and then launder them, cannot be exaggerated. As UNESCO states, ‘conflicts about water can occur at all scales’. For fashion, these scales are both micro and macro and reflect individual decisions about fibre cultivation, processing and laundry routes that cumulatively conflict with the water needs of producer countries and continents.

Nano Puff Pullover by Patagonia, with a water footprint of 69 litres from raw material to distribution.

US outdoor sportswear brand and sustainability pioneer Patagonia has acted on the broader business trend towards greater transparency of supply chains by publishing online the ‘footprint’, including the water footprint, of a small but growing number of its products from design to delivery.43 This action both exposes the problems that exist in manufacturing chains and gives Patagonia the opportunity to demonstrate its response to them. Measurements of water consumption vary substantially between garments. For example, to get a cotton/Tencel-blend women’s top to the point of purchase takes 379 litres of water, compared to 206 litres for a men’s nylon waterproof jacket and 135 litres for a polyester fleece top. Yet there seems to be a trade-off here, as products that draw upon relatively small amounts of water in production are often energy-intensive, reinforcing the need once more for these issues to be seen in the round. Interestingly, of all the garments that Patagonia has assessed on water use, the ones that we are likely to own the most number of – cotton or cotton-blend T-shirts – are the most water-consumptive. This illuminates both our past attitude when resource intensiveness of a particular fibre or garment was no barrier to its production, and also the scale of the challenges we face as we look to sustainability and the future: that our most ubiquitous garments and widely consumed items are also the most thirsty.

Predator-friendly fibres

‘In wilderness, ecology in action can be seen in a naked and overwhelming way. Many people have ecstatic experiences in wilderness. They come away changed… Wildness can inspire us to live from nature’s bounty without destroying it.’

Ernest Callenbach44

While such farming practices as organic have been highly successful in helping designers to connect fabric choices and purchases to land cultivation and rural economies, they have done little to explain the relationship of our practice to the larger landscape around the farm – to wild and uncultivated areas. As Fred Kirschenmann notes in the introduction to Dan Imhoff’s book Farming With the Wild, organic farms remain isolated ‘pristine areas of production’.45 But land-use practices by humans disrupt ecology far beyond the farm gates. Land that is segmented to facilitate ownership by humans for residential, industrial or agricultural use fragments the migration paths and territories of other species. This is especially critical in the case of large carnivores, such as wolves, mountain lions and bears, which need ‘freedom to roam’, to hunt and to breed.46

Although the link between large predators and our design choices may seem tenuous, predators directly relate to one of our best-known fibres, wool. The US’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports that up to a quarter of a million lambs and sheep fall victim to predators each year.47 And just as conventional cotton farmers defend their fibre crop by using chemicals on insect infestations in their fields without considering the wider ecology that causes the imbalance to begin with, so sheep ranchers defend their stock from predator species without necessarily considering the impact elsewhere. Indeed, with an increasing human population and already declining resources, it is inevitable that competition for land between humans and other species, including large predators, will intensify. Reports already indicate, for example, that 80,000 coyotes are killed by Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services per year, at a cost of US $10 million.48

‘Guard llama’ on Thirteen Mile Farm, Montana, used to protect sheep from large predators.

In recent years, environmentalists and a federal recovery effort have helped re-establish wolves in such areas as the Northern Rockies. While it is widely recognized that re-establishing predator species in wild areas benefits biodiversity in the regional ecology, including holding prey populations in check, ranchers’ flock losses to predators are reportedly high, and with ranch finances already barely manageable, a contentious battle between wolf advocates and ranchers is inevitable. On the one hand, flock losses to predators clearly reduce income for commercial sheep operations, and it is understandable that ranchers act to protect their already tenuous finances. Yet the circumstances that contribute to the economic pressures on sheep ranchers are complex, and include low commodity prices for fibre, market competition from strong wool-producing nations such as New Zealand and Australia, and competition from synthetic fibres such as polyester as well as other meat industries including pork, beef and poultry.

Integrating fibre-growing areas with surrounding ecosystems

Recognizing these and other complexities, a nationwide movement has formed in the US that aims to integrate farming and ranching more thoroughly into surrounding ecosystems. This effort involves co-operative range management, which links cultivated land to national parks and privately held areas to create wildlife corridors, thereby expanding habitats for larger predators and better ensuring their connectivity and genetic diversity. It also involves the planting of habitats to invite wildlife on to the ranch and better integrate cultivated fields with surrounding wild land. Parallel to these efforts, ‘predator-friendly’ ranchers are working to maintain economic viability without killing predators. Instead, ranchers employ deterrents such as electric fences or conventional fencing in good condition, keeping such animals as burros (donkeys) and guard dogs present on the ranch, and even the selection of ‘savvier’ livestock! Complementing these ranch efforts, government incentives to offset financial losses are also being negotiated. And on the marketing side, Predator Friendly® certification is now available to generate a small premium, which offsets the economic risks of farming with sensitivity to the wild. Combined efforts such as these are helping ranchers and wildlife to co-exist.

Thirteen Mile Farm is a 65-hectare piece of land located in Montana that was placed in a permanent conservation easement by owners Becky Weed and Mike Tyler. This arrangement ensures that the land is protected from development in perpetuity. Two adjoining properties are similarly protected; together they form a 160-hectare space that links into and expands a wildlife corridor.49 Predators around the ranch are controlled with guard dogs, guard llamas and electric fences. Sheep losses are higher than they would be if the predators were killed, but the couple devised some innovative routes to offset this economic challenge. Rather than selling their lambs at auction, they sell organic grass-finished lamb direct to consumers. And rather than selling their wool fibre into the commodity pool, the couple helped establish a niche market for predator-friendly wool fibre. They also invested in a small wool spinnery and identified a network of local women adept on domestic knitting machines, and so are now able to provide predator-friendly yarn and finished sweaters, thereby adding further value to their fibre. These combined efforts enable them to piece together a decent farm income that so far works both for the ranchers and the wildlife alike. Since they first began ranching, Weed and Tyler have expanded from having just 12 ewes to a flock of 250 and have doubled their land area.