The difficulty with discussing what makes sustainable materials sustainable is that there is no set definition, legislation, or concrete set of guidelines for creating a sustainable material. This movement towards a better fashion industry was born out of a desire to keep people safe and combat the depletion of our earth’s precious resources.
Sustainable fashion has become a buzzword or even called “just a trend,” yet it stands for more than that. Sustainable fashion helps to describe clothing which supports the planet’s healing. Therefore the term “sustainable materials” often refers to materials which do not harm the planet, maybe even benefit it. In a perfect world, all materials and brands labelled as sustainable would be positively impacting the planet every step of the way. However, it’s impossible to be an absolutely perfect company, or for a material to have zero impact on the environment. For now, materials considered to be sustainable conserve resources in some way, omit harmful chemicals, and create very little impact at the end of their lifecycle. Sustainable materials must change the tide of the destruction that traditional fashion has caused.
Raw Sustainable Materials
Materials need to start their sustainable journey at the source. Materials derived from natural resources must be first be grown and harvested sustainably in order to be considered. This can include how much water a crop needs in order to thrive, what chemicals are involved, and whether or not it benefits the environment where it grows. A sustainable material should come from a crop that does not require harmful pesticides, GMOs or other chemicals known to damage the planet and persons harvesting it. Many brands working towards sustainability utilise organic cotton for this reason; because it guarantees the omission of these toxic chemicals. Some companies opt for hemp because it requires far less water than cotton (organic or conventional) and often doesn’t need any type of pesticide. And others focus on using materials grown in ways that strengthen the soil and ecosystem around it. Regenerative farming is a growing way some are creating materials which not only cause less harm to the planet, but actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and conserve resources.
Sustainable Production Processes
A material is only as sustainable as its process. The fashion supply chain involves so many steps to produce a finished garment that an originally sustainable material could become environmentally damaging if not properly processed. From fibre to fabric, a material must be carefully crafted in order to stay sustainable. Are the machines used to spin the fibre into yarn energy efficient? How much water is required to turn the raw material into a cloth? Are there toxic chemicals used in the dyeing and treatment of the fabric?
All of these elements must come together during the production for a material to be considered sustainable. Another way to maintain sustainability is to forgo machines altogether and utilise artisans to produce fabric, like the ikat technique used in many MATTER pieces. Through the use of renewable or clean energy to power the process, natural dyes, handmade textiles, and water-recycling systems, the raw material can be turned into an equally sustainable textile, ready for a life as a garment.
Sustainable Consumer Uses
To complete the lifecycle of sustainable materials, consumers must take care of the finished product well. These materials must be durable and long-lasting, giving customers a chance to wear the completed garment for years to come. By doing a bit of research on how to properly care for clothing, customers have the ability to extend the life of them and help maintain a material’s sustainable status.
While it’s always important to read your care labels, washing on cold, hand washing, hang drying, spot cleaning, using natural detergents and cleaners are all sound options. In addition, finding a local tailor, picking up a few hand sewing skills, or learning to up-cycle can be incredibly beneficial. A sustainable material demands that the finished wearable product be revered like the valuable possession it is. Only when each eco-friendly crop is efficiently turned into a textile, lovingly made in a lasting garment, and taken care of by each owner, will a material be truly 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.