With consumers waking up to the impact of fast fashion and how their clothes are made, it is important for clothing retailers and consumers to understand the key sustainability risks in textile supply chains. Increasingly clothing is made from polyester and other synthetic fibres derived from oil. These materials rely on fossil fuels, are non-biodegradable, and can lead to micro-fibre contamination of the oceans. These environmental challenges have resulted in a renewed focus on traditional natural fibres such as flax, hemp and bamboo.

So what are the solutions?

Finding alternative materials to minimise the environmental impact of production is the ‘holy grail’ for the textile sector. Buying clothes made from renewable resources such as plants can improve their environmental credentials. However, plants grown for fibre can also have serious impacts on the environment. Cotton is the biggest culprit, with campaigns currently working to ensure improved working conditions and reduced pesticide usage for this crop. Cotton is a popular choice for a range of clothing due to it being durable, light, comfortable and moisture-absorbent. However, the monoculture nature of cotton production results in soil erosion, with high levels of pesticide and fertiliser use leading to water pollution and subsequent impacts on surrounding ecosystems. Cotton is also a very thirsty crop; requiring between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of cotton.

Many companies have signed up to initiatives, such as the Better Cotton Initiative, to show their consumers they are taking action to source cotton responsibly. This initiative provides training on sustainable farming practices to over 2 million cotton farmers in 21 countries. However, with so much negative press around cotton, some clothes manufacturers are now looking at other options.

What other natural fibres can be used to make clothes?

Plants such as hemp, bamboo and flax are being used as fibres in an effort to produce clothes which have less of an impact on the environment. Some fabrics made from plants are already widely recognised by consumers. Linen, for example, is produced from flax (also known as linseed) and is a popular choice for warm weather clothing as it is strong, breathable, and soft to the touch. Flax requires minimal levels of herbicides and pesticides and a lot less water than cotton.

Whilst linen clothing is widely available in the marketplace, clothes made of hemp are rarely seen. Hemp is very productive per hectare and requires low chemical inputs and minimal water for its growth. Hemp fabric is strong, durable, long-lasting and absorbent; however hemp cloth manufacturers face challenges with dye absorption, so hemp is often blended with other textiles to produce clothing.

Another natural option is bamboo. Bamboo is a crop that can sequester carbon quickly, can be effective in restoring degraded land, and can reduce soil erosion and water runoff. In areas with high rainfall, bamboo requires no irrigation, although some may be needed if growing bamboo in areas that do not naturally meet its water requirement. As demand for bamboo grows, there is a risk of it being overharvested, and natural forests being replaced with bamboo monocultures which could result in significant losses of ecosystems and valuable species.

Whilst plants such as flax, hemp and bamboo have less of an environmental impact compared with cotton, there are still environmental challenges to overcome in their production. These alternative crops are often grown in countries with weak environmental legislation and often by farmers who lack access to training in sustainable practices. The key concerns around the working conditions for producers of fibre crops and clothing must also be explored in each supply chain to assess this element of sustainability.

How can ADAS help?

ADAS is working with clothing brands that are using alternative fibres to help them understand the sustainability challenges in these supply chains.

Do you know where you are sourcing from; do you know what impacts your sourcing choices are having on the environment; have you thought about alternative fibres that can make your clothing more sustainable?

These are all questions that ADAS can help address to ensure that the natural fibres used in our clothes are sustainably produced and have minimal environmental impact. For more information about the environmental credentials of alternative fibres in textile production, and ensuring sustainability within your supply chains, contact Harriet Illman.