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Sustainability in Textiles: Definition & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Sustainable living is an important ideology in the modern world. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of sustainability and see how it can be applied to the textile industry.

Sustainable Textiles

We put a lot of effort into our textiles, or human-made fabrics. Across the world and throughout history, textiles have been the base of some of the most lucrative economies and networks of exchange in the world. Ever heard of the Silk Road? Textiles are important, and it's not just because we need them to stay warm. We enjoy our textiles. But, we want to be able to feel good about our textiles. Just as we want to make sure that we are making responsible habits in the food products we purchase and consume, we need to be aware of the impact of our role as economic consumers of textiles. In accordance with that agenda, many people in the world are pushing for more sustainable textiles or ethically produced fabrics. We may look good in our textiles, but we want to feel good about them too.

Defining Sustainability

Sustainable living is becoming more and more of a concern in the 21st century, as the impacts of human production and waste are becoming inescapably apparent. We apply this term to food production, international trade, commercial industries, and now textiles. But, what exactly is sustainable living? The goal of sustainability is the creation of cycles of behavior with the greatest long-term benefits for the greatest number of people. There are three defining elements of this: economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Environmental sustainability may be the most obvious. This means that we want to encourage habits that will not have negative long-term impacts on the environment, including the preservation of resources. Social sustainability refers to creating a balance of social equity of fairness. We want to avoid practices that are inherently exploitative or which are only beneficial to some communities at the detriment to others. Economic sustainability means creating products that can realistically be incorporated into existing markets. You can create the most environmentally responsible products in the world, but that won't matter if you can't produce it at a cost people can afford. In terms of textiles, this is also important because design matters. A responsible product still won't sell if it's ugly.

Sustainable Materials

Let's talk more about these ideas as they pertain specifically to textiles. Sustainable textiles begin with sustainable materials. Many of our modern textiles are created using synthetic textiles. Many people don't realize this, but most synthetic materials are actually developed using petroleum. Petroleum based fibers include polyester, nylon, and spandex. However, petroleum, which may be naturally limited in quantity and inherently extractive, may not be sustainable.

Natural materials tend to be much more sustainable. However, some materials are more sustainable than others. Hemp, bamboo, and soy are sturdy, versatile plants with minimal environmental impact. Sheep have a lower environmental impact than goats. However, this is where we need to consider the other elements of sustainability as well. Cotton is not as environmentally friendly as hemp, but is much softer. Cashmere comes from goat wool, not sheep wool.

So, to make sure that textiles are economically sustainable, we need to learn to produce them in sustainable ways. One major way to do this is to reduce the use of pesticides. Integrated Pest Management systems involve using non-chemical methods to protect plants like cotton. Ladybugs and other predatory insects can be used to eliminate harmful pests, and even some plants naturally repel insects and rodents. Another consideration is the amount of land, water, and chemicals (including petroleum products) required to produce a crop or support animals.

Insects like this can be used for pest management
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Sustainable Production

Once we have sustainable materials we can use, we need to ensure that the actual production of textiles is also responsibly done. One big area here is the issue of dyes. When's the last time you bought something that had no color or design whatsoever? Dyes are a big part of textile production, but can produce large amounts of chemical waste. We can combat this by using low-impact dyes, made from natural ingredients with few salts and no metals. There are other options as well. Cotton, for example, can be naturally grown in a variety of colors, reducing the need for dyes.

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