Can We Do Better? 3 Types of Sustainable Materials Causing Controversy

Sustainable fashion is no longer an obscure term, going from a fringe hippy movement to mainstream chic over the last several decades. It’s undoubtedly exciting to see a giant industry make strides towards more conscious practices, but with progress comes imperfection. As individuals, brands, and companies jump at the chance to fill sustainable fashion gaps, much trial and error is occurring. Are these sustainable materials really thatsustainable?

Plant-Based Materials

In recent years, fashion and science have collided to create sustainable plant-based materials. Interdisciplinary researchers and designers have developed materials out of pineapple leaves, algae, mushrooms, corn and more. These innovations changed fashion’s perception of wearable materials and opened a whole new host of options for the industry. Many of the materials are produced with plant products which would otherwise be discarded, are renewable or are actually poisonous. For example innovative company nat-2™ has created a sneaker made from a type of fungus which grows as a parasite on dead or weak birches.

However, regenerative farming advocates argue that this route is the equivalent of Tesla’s Elon Musk working on building sustainable systems for humans to live on mars; maybe we should focus on the planet we already have. Organizations like Fibershed are adamant about the various benefits of healing our soil and supporting our land’s biodiversity. The focus for these groups is less futuristic and more about getting back to our collective roots– literally.

Can these two systems coexist? Is there room for rejuvenating the old and inviting the new? Are innovative thinkers able to push the envelope while also leaving room for farmers to replenish the land?

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Made From Trees

Materials such as bamboo fabric, viscose, Tencel®, and Modal have garnered praise and criticism from many within the industry. Viscose, aka rayon, is made from wood pulp and turned into fiber through a chemical process. Because of this dichotomy, viscose cannot be classified as a synthetic or a natural fabric, making it hard to be completely celebrated or discouraged. In 2016, Stella McCartney released a brand video celebrating viscose as a sustainable material. The short film showcases the complications with the fabric by addressing another controversial aspect of viscose; the deforestation which can occur from irresponsibly sourced wood. The company claims to, as of 2017, switched to sourcing only from “sustainably managed and certified forests in Sweden.” Yet, the video contains no mention of the environmentally harmful chemical manufacturing practices normally employed to turn that sustainably sourced wood pulp into fabric.

Bamboo fabric comes with a similar story. Bamboo on it’s own is an incredibly sustainable material, and bamboo fabric has the ability to be one as well, the problem is what happens in between. Unregulated bamboo suppliers cause deforestation and many processing plants utilize a cocktail of chemical solvents in order to break down the tree material into a fiber. Eco Warrior Princess explains that “it is plausible to assume that all bamboo rayon is processed like conventional rayon unless otherwise stated,” aka with lots of chemicals.While a few brands have utilized non-toxic methods to create what is known as bamboo linen, this is a very expensive fabric and largely uncommon within the industry.

On the bright side, there are companies working hard to create environmentally-friendly processes for tree-based fabric. Lenzing, based in Austria, has gained popularity for it’s invention of the lyocell system which utilizes a closed-loop cycle to keep pollution at bay. This process is also employed to make their signature Tencel® which comes from eucalyptus trees. As the industry continues to move in a more sustainable direction, can standards be implemented to hold more suppliers and manufacturers accountable for their processes? Is widespread, nontoxic viscose and bamboo processing possible?

Recycled Polyester

As the world wakes up to the global plastic pollution problem, more companies are trying to find creative ways to combat it. Sustainable brands Girlfriend Collective, Mara Hoffman and Patagonia have all adopted recycled polyester in some or all of their collections. These endeavors have been seemingly revolutionary, an appealing way to turn literal trash into treasure. However, some have wondered if the “new plastics economy” is too good to be true.

In 2018, founder of Slow Factory, designer, advocate, and writer Céline Semaan Vernon reported on Everlane’s new puffer jacket for MOCHNI. In the article, Céline explains that a jacket made from plastic water bottles may seem forward thinking and sustainable, but microplastics are detrimental to our environment. Many brands have jumped at the chance to use polyester in this more-acceptable form and adapted their messaging as criticism has risen. Some have pointed to consumer products like GuppyFriend™ Washing Bag (sold on the Patagonia website,) Cora Ball, and domestic machine filtration attachments (like this one sold on the Girlfriend Collective website,) which work to capture microfibers at home. Still, until we have streamlined microfiber filtration systems in all washing machines, any products containing synthetics will continue to contribute to the plastic particles raining down on us. Can we find a sure-fire way to reel-in microplastic pollution?

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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