Textile Fiber Guide: Revealing the climate impact of your clothes

What are you wearing today? And no, we don’t mean jeans and a shirt. What fibers are you wearing? It may sound like a strange question, but all cloth materials are made up of fibers. They can be natural or man-made, so-called synthetic fibers. And as you might have guessed, the synthetic ones can be real climate-crooks. But what might surprise you is that some natural fibers can be just as bad for the environment. 

Are you ready to take your shopping know-how to the next level and learn more about the fibers that make up the clothes you know and love?  

Synthetic fibers 

Most synthetic fibers that we use today are made from petroleum, just like plastic. Yes, this means that a lot of the clothes you wear are made from fossil fuels, are non-biodegradable and tend to end up in either landfills or the ocean. Since they originate from petroleum, synthetic textiles emit a lot of microplastics when they’re washed. It’s estimated that as much as 35% of all microplastics released into the ocean each year originate from the washing of synthetic textiles! On the upside, synthetic textiles are durable, stretchy and don’t wrinkle as easily as natural fabrics. 

Polyester 

The by far most popular fiber today is polyester, which makes up about half of all fiber production worldwide. It emerged during the 1970s and was quickly popularised since it’s durable, doesn’t wrinkle and is easy to clean. It is, however, made from petroleum and its production uses a lot of chemicals and causes toxic by-products that pollute both water systems and the air we breathe. 

And the negative effects on the environment doesn’t end with the production stage. Polyester contains vast amounts of microplastics, which are released into the water when we wash it. These microplastics eventually make their way into the ocean where they’re consumed by fish and other wildlife. Through this cycle, the microplastics eventually return to us whenever we eat seafood. In a single laundry load a polyester garment may lose up to 0.5% of its mass, and washing a load of polyester (or polyamide and acrylic) clothes can emit up to 700 000 microplastics. 

Have we thrown enough numbers at you to make you think again when buying a brand-new polyester garment? Today you can buy garments, such as swimwear, from recycled PET bottles instead. A much better alternative, if you ask us. 

Polyamide/Nylon 

The next petroleum-based textile up for scrutinising is polyamide, or nylon as it’s also known. It’s actually the first fabric made entirely in a lab, and became available around World War II where its durability and ability to stretch was useful in military clothes and stockings. For those same reasons you’ll mainly find polyamide in activewear and swimwear today. The environmental impact of polyamide is like polyester, and like polyester it emits large amounts of microplastics when washed. 

Acrylic 

Acrylic is a synthetic fiber that has given wool a run for its money. It’s commonly used in knitting yarns for sweaters and socks, as well as carpets and blankets. Properties such as high elasticity, colour brilliancy and, as with the other synthetics, ease of washing has made it very popular. Just like polyester and polyamide, acrylic fibers are made from fossil fuels, and its energy-intensive manufacturing combined with toxic chemicals make its environmental impact quite severe.  

Natural fibers 

Let’s bid microplastics adieu and move on to textiles made from natural sources such as plants and animals. The main pro with natural fibers is that, well, they’re natural. So, no fossil fuels necessary to provide the raw material. On the other hand, they tend to be less durable, wrinkle easily and may shrink.  

Cotton 

Cotton is the most profitable non-food crop in the world and is used in about half of all textiles. Its fibers are strong, breathable and dye absorbent, making it widely considered one of the most comfortable textile materials. It does, however, wrinkle quite easily, which makes it popular to combine with polyester. 

The environmental impact of cotton production is extensive. Although it’s a natural fiber, the industry is fraught with over-use of fertilisers, pesticides and intensive water use. This has severe impacts on soil and water quality as well as local biodiversity and human health. 

As with all crops, going organic drastically improves cotton’s climate impact. Organic cotton can reduce: 1) greenhouse gas emissions by almost 50%; 2) acidification (pollution that reduces pH-levels) of land and water by 70%; 3) water consumption by over 90%; and 4) energy consumption by over 60%. 

So remember, cotton isn’t necessarily environmentally-friendly just because it’s made from a natural source. And by choosing a pair of jeans made from organic cotton instead of traditional cotton you can save over 2 000 liters of water! 

Wool 

Wool is a natural fiber sourced from animals, most commonly sheep but also other species such as goats (cashmere & mohair), rabbits (angora) as well as alpacas and llamas. Depending on the type of wool there are significant differences in its environmental impact, so we’ll focus on sheep here. Wool isn’t the most popular fabric in the world; it only makes up around 1% of the global textile market.  

Wool processing consumes considerable amounts of energy, but most greenhouse gas emissions associated with wool production comes from the farming stage. Just like cows, sheep cause methane emissions, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Deforestation can also occur in order to clear land for grazing, and there is always the issue of animal cruelty to take into consideration. 

There are several benefits with wool as a fabric, predominately that it can absorb a lot of moisture and it keeps you warm in cold climates. It also has a long lifespan, needs to be washed at lower temperatures, is recyclable, biodegradable and since it’s protein-based it doesn’t emit any nasty microplastics. 

Linen 

Linen is one of the oldest textiles that we still use today, its long history stretches back as far as the ancient Egyptians! Although the fabric itself doesn’t stretch, it’s well-appreciated in hot and humid climates since it’s both breathable and dries quickly. 

It’s made from flax fibers, which generally has a low environmental impact compared with cotton, but it largely depends on how much fertilisers are used to grow the flax. If you have the option, go for organic linen that isn’t intensively dyed, as the dyeing process releases many toxic pollutants. 

Silk 

Like linen, silk (or the queen of textiles as it’s called) is one of the oldest textile fibers we know of, its origins dating back to the emergence of China as one of the great civilizations. And it’s certainly the most exclusive textile covered here, as many associate silk with luxuriousness and elegance. More practically, though, it’s a fabric that can keep you cool when it’s warm, and warm when it’s cool. It’s one of few natural fibers whose impressive properties can compete with the synthetics, except for its durability, as it’s a rather sensitive fabric. 

Silk is made from an insect fiber, produced by silkworms. These domesticated silkworms are fed mulberry plants, and when the worms have eaten their fill they begin producing a liquid protein, that hardens into a cocoon. Under natural circumstances a moth would eventually emerge, but here is where the slightly more unethical aspect of silk production comes in. In order to harvest the silk, the silkworm within the cocoon is killed.  

Unlike synthetics, silk doesn’t require much processing, so it has a considerably less environmental impact. And again, no microplastics! 

Man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCFs) 

Alright, we did begin by stating that there are two types of fibres. But there may be a third, a hybrid between natural and synthetic fibers: a semi-synthetic fiber. Man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCFs) contain cellulose, an organic compound found in plant’s cell walls. There are several different MMCFs, and the market is growing rapidly, but the three main ones are lyocell, viscose/rayon and modal.  

MMCFs typically originate from wood and bamboo and undergoes a conversion process in order to turn the cellulose into textile fibers. This is also the main environmental impact of MMCFs, as the process of converting the wood into textile fibers can be very polluting, requiring large doses of chemicals. Deforestation also needs to be considered, since natural forests can be cleared to make room for plantations for MMCFs.  

There are some differences between the different MMCFs, though, in terms of environmental impact. Lyocell is considered top of the class in terms of environmental performance. Unlike the other MMCFs, it’s made in a closed-loop system, which ensures that chemicals are recycled and don’t end up in wastewater streams. If lyocell doesn’t ring any bells, you might have heard of the company Lenzing’s Tencel. It’s a lyocell fiber that has gotten quite popular and is praised for its environmental performance. 

The pros with MMCFs such as lyocell, viscose/rayon and modal, then, is that they’re sourced from renewable resources such as wood and bamboo. On the downside, the industry can cause deforestation and entails a heavy use of chemicals that can leak into water systems. And if you’d have to choose one, lyocell is generally your best bet.  

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all fibers used in the fashion industry today, but they are some of the most common that provides a good starting point if you’re interested in more sustainable clothing. We hope you feel inspired to begin checking the tag when you’re about to make your next purchase. Polyester or Lyocell? Cotton or Linen? Decisions, decisions… 

And remember, the three R’s of recycling apply here too: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The best thing you can do for the climate is always to refrain from buying more new clothes. Make your old clothes last as long as they possibly can by treating them with care. Of course, wear and tear is unavoidable at a certain point, so try and mend them if you can. And if a garment is beyond saving, recycle the textile or upcycle it. An old linen shirt might make a nice hair band and a couple of dishcloths.   

Sources:  

Acrylic fibres | SpringerLink 

Cellulosics – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics 

Cellulosics | Textile Exchange 

Cotton Fiber – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics 

Cotton | Industries | WWF  

Cradle to gate environmental impact assessment of acrylic fiber manufacturing | SpringerLink 

Environmental Impact Analysis of Flax Fibre Cultivation for Composite Reinforcement | DiVA 

Environmental impact of textile and clothes industry | EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service 

Environmental impacts associated with the production, use, and end-of-life of a woollen garment | SpringerLink 

Global Market Study on Wool: Industry Focusing on Research and Development as Demand Continues to Wane | Persistence Market Research 

History of Linen Textile | History of Clothing 

Organic Cotton Round Table |  Textile Exchange  

Polyamide | Textile Exchange 

Polyester | Textile Exchange 

Recycled Polyester Round Table | Textile Exchange  

Silk Production – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics 

Textila material | Naturskyddsföreningen  

Textile Dyes: Dyeing Process and Environmental Impact | INTECH 

The environmental impact of wool | The Ecologist  

Wool Sustainability | IWTO | International Wool Textile Organisation 

Workshop on Microplastics from Synthetic Textiles: Knowledge, Mitigation, and Policy | OECD 

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