Sustainable Textiles in Fashion

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What are you wearing? Do you know how it was made? Today, people are becoming aware that clothing has an impact on our environment. In this lesson, we'll explore the use of sustainable textiles in fashion.

Why Are Sustainable Textiles Important?

You probably own more items of clothing than your ancestors ever did. And we know that fashions change with great fanfare each season. But how is all this clothing made and what is it doing to our planet? Sustainable textiles are designed to address a growing awareness of such issues. Sometimes also called eco-textiles (and you'll also see the term eco-fashion), these textiles are created in ways that address human impact on the environment and ensure more social responsibility in their growth and manufacture.

To understand why sustainable textiles are important, here's a little background: conventional textile making and dyeing is dirty work. Factories burn fossil fuels to create electricity used in the manufacturing process. Fabrics are cleaned, dyed, and laundered with toxic chemicals; producing and processing textiles uses a lot of water and results in considerable waste. And we've all seen news stories about unsafe workplaces and dangerous labor conditions.

As everyone becomes more aware of preserving the world around us for future generations, people are working to make fabrics and fashion more eco-friendly. How? Among many other initiatives, by encouraging more ethical labor practices and the use of fabrics that last longer, as well as by developing ways to recycle materials and creating manufacturing processes that are more energy efficient and nontoxic. Now that you understand why sustainable textiles are important, let's look at materials used to make them.

Materials Used in Sustainable Textiles

People use fibers from two basic sources to make textiles: natural fibers from plant and animal sources, and synthetic fibers like rayon and nylon. The most common natural fiber in clothing is cotton, and many growers are working to produce organic cotton without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Companies also blend cotton with other more ecologically friendly plant fibers. One of these is hemp, a member of the cannabis family. Hemp is well-suited to organic agriculture because it doesn't need fertilizers or pesticides, grows quickly, and needs less water than cotton. It does have drawbacks, including a scratchier texture and a resistance to dyes. Another fiber, bamboo, is a grass that grows incredibly fast and also uses less water. But processing it can require toxic chemicals and solvents. As you can see, each material has advantages and drawbacks. Manufacturers are making textiles by blending cotton and other fibers to find the most responsible and sustainable fabric.

Detail of the collar of a shirt made from hemp fibers

Synthetic fibers present different challenges. Some are made from petroleum-based substances, and not all of them can be recycled. Those can include polyester and some nylons, and companies are creating ways to sort and untangle the recyclable synthetic threads in textiles that also contain non-recyclable fibers. Synthetic materials are similar to plastic, and in fact some companies are using fibers made from plastics from things like bottles and used fishing nets and weaving them into fabric. Levi Strauss spins fibers made from recycled plastic into the denim used to make their jeans.

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