The Bad Amongst the Good | Weighing up Sustainable Fabrics

Breaking down the sustainable fabric market to make informed design and purchasing decisions is a tricky business. In many cases, preconceived notions of what is 'sustainable' are not always accurate and, when examined closely, not so black & white. Fabrics branded as 'natural' or 'eco' can often prove to have far more detrimental impacts than many realise, writes Tiarnie Gilbert.



In the fast paced fashion industry that has been engineered for todays millennials, sustainability and longevity of your purchase is often forgotten as a prerequisite before purchasing. It is however, becoming part of a large conversation again, particularly in Australia. Consumers are becoming more conscious of what they are buying and what effect that garment has had during its production phase. A slight problem when trying to break down the sustainable market and while trying to make informed decisions is that there is already a preconceived idea of what fabrics are sustainable. While some of these notions are based on facts and are accurate, there are a lot of fabrics that cause a much more detrimental affect than most people realise.


An example of this is Bamboo fibre. Bamboo is portrayed as a sustainable fabric and there has been a lot of green-washing around this fibre to sell the sustainability of it purely because of its name. While the natural product has a positive impact on the environment it is grown in when farmed correctly, the process it is put through to change it from stem to fabric is extremely toxic for the environment (Binkley, 2009). The fibre is modified in a similar way to Viscose/Rayon (synthetic fabric) and a number of manufacturers say that bamboo should be labelled as such. When the fibre is being ‘cooked’ with chemicals to create the product for spinning into fabric, the process lets off a high amount of Carbon Disulphide which is extremely harmful for workers and for the environment (Ha, 2011). The properties of Bamboo are heavily marketed as it is UV resistant, naturally anti-bacterial and has a handle similar to silk (Teon, 2016). These qualities are a positive for the consumer however the manufacturing process carries more negatives than positives. Overall, bamboo has a negative impact on predominantly the environment, but also the people working closely with the chemicalization if extreme caution is not taken.


Another fabric that is not as sustainable as it is is marketed is Vegan Leather (Polyvinyl Chloride/PVC). This fibre is extremely popular among the vegan community as well as the sustainable fashion sector. While anything that isn’t made from animal product is ideal in clothing and accessories, PVC also carries a number of negative affects during the production phase as it is essentially a thermoplastic made from 57% Chlorine and 43% Gas. It is commonly seen used as Vinyl and is completely non bio-degradable (Vinyl, 2016). The finish of the product looks extremely similar to leather and aligns closely with leather characteristics, however it is not as long lasting and fades faster. During the production phase the raw material is added to a a highly reactive alcohol called Dissocyanate and when the two elements are combined high toxins are let off into the air. The result is similar to the Bamboo fabric production and is highly unsafe for people to be around if caution is not taken as it is a carcinogenic chemical (Vinyl, 2016). A positive of PVC however, is that the product has been rigorously assessed by numerous bodies so the findings of the product are accurate and there is no room for dispute. There are only few alternatives to PVC for a leather-look product, such as Polyurethane (PU), and cork, however they both come with both positive and negative affects as well.



Possibly the most known and produced fabric within the sustainable clothing market is organic cotton. This is the same natural fibre as traditional cotton, without the use of pesticides and chemicals used on crops in the agricultural stage of growth. With traditional cotton farming there is a vast environmental impact, on making the land near unusable after a few short seasons of cotton harvesting. Traditional cotton farming is also responsible for huge amounts of water wasting, with 1kg of cotton using around 20,000 Litres of water which cannot be used safely again (Panda, 2016). This is due to the potent pesticides used on the crops, which makes the cotton grow stronger and faster with little to no interruption from fauna (Biondo, 1996). Thus, the introduction of organic and chemical free cotton farming. While this has certainly been a positive impact for the environmental issues around cotton, it has become a negative on cotton farmers. As most of Australia’s cotton is now imported from numerous parts of Southern Asia the rise of organic cotton farming is pushing farmer’s to close of business, and in a lot of cases suicide. It is extremely expensive to implement an organic system as well as highly labour-intensive, as the only two options to weed and remove pests is either by highly priced machinery or extra staff costs. These are simply not feasible options for agriculturists in Asian countries, like it may be here in Australia. A lot of farmers who cannot make this change to organic cotton farming are continuing to farm the traditional way, which has its own impact on the environment and on humanity as well.


When looking to make the change to sustainable purchases and conscious consumerism it is important to educate yourself on what is available, and what effects those products have on the environment and on the people who manufacture them. All is not lost and sustainability in all aspects of life, particularly clothing, is becoming a more common conversation amongst people. While the consumer hopes that the big brands will cotton on (for lack of a better phrase) and start making positive changes, they are currently not offering the transparency consumers want. Until then, start looking at alternative fabrics, there are plenty out there. Hemp, Tencel and Jute are all fabrics leading the way in sustainable practice, and if you can’t get your hands on those, there’s always upcycling and clothes swapping!



My name is Tiarnie Gilbert and I am living in Melbourne, Australia. I am 24 years of age and I relocated to Victoria from Bundaberg around 4 years ago. I have studied Fashion Design and Business at the Melbourne School of Fashion as well as worked in numerous parts of the industry, and I am now moving into Ethical and Sustainable Clothing design. The topic is something I have found myself continuously come back to and very passionate about, and I now consider myself an educated consumer of clothing, although there are always a million more things to learn. I’ll be writing content for the wonderful Sustainability Hub from time to time, and watch this space for an exciting Ethical clothing line coming soon! Please feel more than welcome to email me if you have any questions about my content!


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