what is ethical fabric?
Ethical fabrics are those that are environmentally or socially beneficial, preferably both. This includes fabrics that are organic, Fairtrade, made from responsibly-sourced raw materials, are recycled, and are manufactured by workers who are paid a fair wage or have a stake in the business.
Deadstock is fabric that is no longer wanted by the company that commissioned it from the textile mill. It's a sustainable option in that fabric is saved from the landfill, but mills have always sold this fabric on to stores to recoup their costs. For larger fashion companies producing limited numbers of a garment in existing deadstock, rather than new fabric, this is a sustainable option, but the fabric is not from an organic or sustainable source to begin with.
Cotton is the world’s most abundantly produced natural fiber, yet its production faces many environmental and social challenges. Today, genetically modified (GM) cotton seed, together with the pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers designed to work with it, make up most of the world’s cotton production. These chemicals have an adverse effect on the environment, many are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation. Cotton production is highly dependent on water, this means higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns caused by climate change have led to severe water shortages in some areas. In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided to divert the two rivers which fed the Aral Sea in order to irrigate the desert so they could grow cotton and other crops. The result of this was the entire sea was completely drained, and the lands left behind were turned into carcinogenic wastelands.
Many small-scale cotton farmers in Asia and Africa live below the poverty line and are unable to meet the rising cost of production or deal with volatile cotton prices. The global cotton trade is heavily distorted by subsidies given to cotton farmers in rich countries like the US. These subsidies have led to overproduction and artificially low cotton prices that result in debt, unemployment and extreme poverty for farmers in developing countries.
To make cotton more sustainable, conscious efforts are being made to use fewer chemicals, less water and to take the working conditions of those growing it into consideration.
Organic cotton is produced according to internationally recognized organic farming standards that restrict the use of GM (genetically modified) seed as well as toxic pesticides and fertilizers. An essential element of organic production is selecting varieties adapted to local farming conditions in terms of climate, soil and resistance to pests and diseases. Compost, mulch and manures are used to feed the crops and maintain soil fertility. By focusing on crop rotation and mixed cultivation the agriculture is more biologically diverse. Crops are generally rain-fed, reducing the pressure on local water sources, while the absence of chemicals means that the water is cleaner and safer for the farmers and their communities.
Third-party certification organizations verify that cotton farmers use only methods and materials allowed in organic production. But unlike organic food, textile products don’t have to be certified in order to be described as organic, so a product claiming to be organic might only contain a small percentage of organic cotton. The dyeing and finishing processes remain the most environmentally damaging and chemically intensive steps in making any garment. Unless an organic cotton garment holds a certification such as the Global Organic Textile Standard it is extremely difficult to know if all the processes used to make it were organic or not, making the garment production side of conventional and organic cotton the same.
Silk may be sustainable, but is it ethical? Silk is spun from long fibers that make up the inner cocoon of silkworms. In China, silkworms have been traditionally raised by professional keepers on trays of mulberry leaves for thousands of years. Over time they have become totally domesticated and no longer exist in the wild. During the silkworms’ natural lifecycle, the chrysalis must break through it’s protective cocoon to emerge as a moth. On breaking its way out, the chrysalis cuts the fiber in many places, decreasing the value of the silk filament. To keep it intact the cocoons are immersed in steam or boiling water for a few minutes to kill the chrysalides. The cocoon is then brushed to locate the end of the fiber and each fiber is laboriously twisted together forming a long, continuous thread. The entire process requires an incredible amount of hand labor, chiefly in countries where wages are extremely low. It takes 3,000 cocoons to make one yard of silk.
An alternative that allows the silkworm to complete its full lifecycle is called 'peace' silk eg. Wild silk is produced by 'free range moths' that live in an environment imitating their natural habitat. A vegan alternative is 'art silk' made from bamboo fiber but this is often chemically manufactured by 'cooking' the leaves in solvents.
Fortunately technological advances have introduced new eco-fabrics like lyocell which is a fibre made from cellulose found in eucalyptus tree pulp and converted into fabric using nanotechnology. Even then the chemical processing required to turn fiber into fabric is toxic, but harm to the environment is mitigated by the use of closed loop processing, which recycles the chemicals.
No matter how the fiber is produced it'd the dying and finishing of the fabric that is the most environmentally damaging and chemically intensive. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the leading processing standard for textiles made from certified organically produced raw materials. Cotton organically produced, factories are inspected and certified to strict social criteria, meaning no forced labour and no child labour. use of hazardous chemicals is prohibited, and all waste water is treated, protecting workers and water supplies.
In order to compete with increasingly low prices, the textile industry has had to cut corners. Most conventional fabrics are produced by untrained, underpaid (and sometimes not paid at all), overworked staff, in unsafe surroundings. These textiles require highly toxic chemicals to produce them, and these are often handled by workers without the proper safety equipment.
Fairtrade is primarily a social label that focuses on improving the conditions of small-scale cotton farmers by securing a guaranteed crop price that never falls below the amount it costs them to grow the cotton. Some Fairtrade farmers still use pesticides (although only from a restricted list) and 19% of all Fairtrade cotton is organically produced.
Ethical haberdashery: organic threads and zips, upcycled buttons, organic interfacing, bias binding and ribbons. Sourcing these smaller items can be difficult though as the range available is still quite small.
Then the fabric, and the garments its used to make, are transported all over world, increasing carbon emissions.
So is there really such a thing as sustainable fabric? No, not really.
Removed human and environmental cost food and clothes produced.
- Produced from toxic chemicals that are extremely harmful to humans and the environment
- Sourced from non-renewable resources (oil)
- High energy consumption during production
- Produces carbon dioxide
- shed huge number of particles creating long-lasting pollution
Sustainability is more than a selling point.
Good on you app rates clothing brand for its impact on people, planet and animals.