When Do “Sustainable Materials” Become Unsustainable?

Sustainable fashion encompasses many different aspects of the supply chain– from fiber to finish, there are multiple elements which come together to make a garment or company sustainable. One of those elements is the use of sustainable materials. Similar to sustainable fashion as a whole, there are several ways in which materials can be sustainable. 

Sustainable materials
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But can sustainable materials be overused to the point where they are no longer sustainable? Little to no data can be found on the exact environmental impact of the sustainable materials currently in circulation, most likely because this movement is still a relatively young one. However, all signs point to moderation as a key component in any effort to combat climate change. “All resources, both non-renewable and renewable, need to be carefully managed,” the BBC has stated. Industries around the world are not only extracting materials which create large carbon footprints, but they are overusing materials in general. The UN Environment’s Global Resources Outlook 2019 report found that “resource extraction has more than tripled since 1970” and “global material use could double to 190 billion tonnes (from 92 billion)” by 2060. In order to keep sustainable materials out of this equation fashion will need to utilise climate-beneficial farming techniques, non-toxic chemicals and dyes, as well as circular design. Even sustainable materials must be used wisely.

Polycropping vs. Monocropping

With recent talk of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals highlighting the world’s lack of biodiversity problem, regenerative farming is making its way into mainstream conversation and discussions around sustainable fashion. The same UN Environment report previously cited in this piece found that “the extraction and processing of materials, fuels and food contribute half of total global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress.” While not all of this is directly connected to fashion, the industry undoubtedly has a part to play in it. Regenerative farming has been provided as a way to bring health and life back into the world’s soil. Through a more holistic look at farming land and crop harvesting, it has the ability to actually sequester carbon (meaning, capture carbon from the environment,) creating opportunities for climate negative garments. Polycropping, or polyculture systems, are a large part of regenerative farming. Instead of monocropping (planting and cultivating only one crop on the same land continuously,) polycropping combines plants which can grow in harmony together. According to Grow Observatory this system means crops which are less susceptible to pests and diseases, a more productive and profitable harvest, enhanced ecosystems, and conservation of water.

Sustainable materials
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Synthetic Treatments for Natural Materials

A material is only as sustainable as the processes used to turn it into a product. Organic materials like hemp, linen, bamboo, and cotton all have the potential to be sustainable materials, though it all depends on how they are treated. If these materials are dyed or treated with synthetic chemicals, then the product is no longer sustainable. So many brands claiming to be environmentally friendly forget this very important qualifier. The same goes for natural materials which are grown, cultivated or turned into fibre with the use of toxic chemicals. For example, garments made from bamboo often draw skeptics because of reports of land depletion and toxic chemical processes used to turn the plant into fibre. In some cases, bamboo is no more sustainable than viscose or rayon. A material must be sustainably grown, harvested, manufactured, and brought to consumers in order to keep a sustainable material from becoming just as harmful as conventional ones.

Sustainable Materials Turned Textile Waste

One of the largest issues in fashion today is not only the resources used to produce clothing, but the fact that the industry is overproducing in general. Some argue that sustainable fashion, while better than conventional, is still adding to the mountains of textile waste piling up in landfills around the world. This is where it proves vital for companies to design with end-of-life in mind. Sustainable fashion brands can be forces for good, though they have to be producing goods which will last or have recycling potential. The Architect Magazine reported on a talk by materials research engineer Martin Green in 2015, saying “scraps are not waste, but rather ‘materials out of place.’” This remains true today and ever-important in ensuring that sustainable materials stay sustainable. 

Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.

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