14/05/19 What Makes A Fibre ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’?

With an increasing number of articles celebrating the latest innovations in material development within the apparel industry – which is undeniably fantastic -, it is understandably overwhelming to get your head around all of this information. Even more so, how do you go about distinguishing what makes a fibre ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

The main challenge being that when assessing and comparing the sustainability performance of fibres in general, the concept of sustainability has no global common definition. So how do we work this out?

In fact, a new two-part report by Mistra Future Fashion has sifted through the data on the environmental impact of fibres and claims that fibre content isn’t the be-all and end-all of sustainability.

Mistra Future Fashion is a research program focusing on circular economy aiming at a future positive fashion industry, funded by Mistra, The Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, and coordinated by RISE Research Institutes of Sweden. The program holds a unique system perspective operating cross-disciplinary in a consortium with over 60 partners.

The report argues that contrary to conventional wisdom, a T-shirt made from organic or recycled cotton may not even be the most eco-friendly option since they argue there are a number of factors to consider. 

 

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Image courtesy: woolme.com

For the first time ever, the report compiled all currently publicly available data on the environmental impact of fibre production. By doing this, the findings illuminate two things: 1) There is a glaring lack of data on the environmental impact of fibres – for several fibres just a few studies were found, and often only one or a few environmental impacts are covered. For new fibres associated with sustainability claims, there is often no data available to support such claims; and 2) There are no ”sustainable” or ”unsustainable” fibre types, it is the suppliers that differ. The span within each fibre type (different suppliers) is often too large, in relation to differences between fibre types, to draw strong conclusions about differences between fibre types.

 

“The data suggests the common separation into “good” and “bad” fibers, based on generic classifi- cations of fibre types, is too simplified”

 

Beyond this, it is essential to use the life-cycle perspective when comparing, promoting or selecting (e.g. by designers or buyers) fibres. To achieve best environmental practice, apart from considering the impact of fibre production, one must consider the functional properties of a fibre and how it fits into an environmentally appropriate product life-cycle, including the entire production chain, the use phase and the end-of-life management. Selecting the right fibre for the right application is key for optimising the environmental performance of the product life cycle.

The intended purpose of the report is to be used as a map over data gaps in relation to supporting claims on the environmental preferability of certain fibres over others, as well as a basis for screening fibre alternatives, for example by designers and buyers. However, for the latter, a comprehensive understanding of the environmental consequences of the choice of fibre would require a full cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment. 

Of course, it goes without saying, the environmental impact of fibres depends not only on the fibre type but also on where and how the fibres are manufactured. The context in terms of scale, geography, energy sources, chemical suppliers and waste management can have a dramatic impact, as will the final use of the fibres in different types of garments and the possibilities for reuse and recycling at end-of-life.

There is certainly a glaring lack of data on the environmental impact of fibres – in several instances, just a few studies were found, and often only one or a few environmental impacts are covered. For example, climate change and water use are relatively well-studied, whereas toxicity and eutrophication (the enrichment of an ecosystem with man-made chemical nutrients) are scarcely studied. This means that there is huge potential for improving the knowledge about the environmental impact of textile fibres, both in terms of the number of fibres studied and in terms of a more comprehensive set of impact categories. 

The report concluded that: 

1. First – even more so than for conventional fibres – data is often lacking for “new sustainable fibres” – producers and brands are (understandable) restrictive in disclosing data until large commercial scale has been realised, and even at that time data is scarce.

2. Secondly, there is no reason to restrict a study to “new” fibres. Established fibres produced in new and better ways, or traditional fibres long undervalued, maybe the sustainability winners of tomorrow.

3. Thirdly, there are great variations within each fibre type (as turned out to be consistent with later findings of the report): viscose produced with nearly closed chemical loops and renewable energy can be among the best alternatives, while viscose produced with irresponsible chemical management and coal power can be among the worst.

So, to take a step back from the research, what does that mean for us? Fundamentally, there is a need to question overly general claims about the environmental sustainability of textile fibres, and increasingly to consider the circumstances of individual producers/brands and how a specific use of a fibre influences its environmental performance. Think first, buy second.

Read the report in full here.