A Deeper Look Into Sustainable Vegan Textiles

Written by guest writer Summer Edwards, edited for content and clarity by Bead & Reel

More and more conscious consumers are looking to veganism as a way approach their diet and lifestyle in a way that is cruelty-free and environmentally just. Even if you haven't made the commitment to a completely vegan lifestyle, you can still make a positive difference by choosing vegan cruelty-free fashion. Yet, avoiding animal fibers or skin does not always guarantee that your choice is ethical, nor does it always guarantee that your choice does no harm to animals or the environment. For this reason it is important to also know which vegan textiles are genuinely sustainable options - textiles that avoid polluting habitats and harming wildlife and ecosystems. 

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NATURAL FIBERS

Cotton

Cotton is so ubiquitous because it is so versatile.

Cotton alone is not a sustainable or harmless choice for your wardrobe. Cotton is considered the world's dirtiest agricultural crop, and is responsible for 16% of the world's insecticide use. The hazardous chemicals used on cotton crops are a threat to water supplies in regions where cotton is farmed and many of the toxic chemicals used on cotton crops are harmful to fish, birds, bees and other wildlife. I was astounded to learn that one of the commonly used cotton pesticides - aldicarbis capable of poisoning a human being with a single drop absorbed through the skin. This toxic chemical is used substantially in the US, and in many other countries across the world as well. The chemicals used on cotton also poison farm workers, particularly in developing countries, where worker protections are lax. In addition to this, forced labour and child labour is also a significant issue in the cotton industry.

For these reasons, it is important that you choose certified organic cotton, which ensures that toxic chemicals are not used, that high standards of environmental protections are in place, and that safe working conditions are in place. Organic cotton lasts much longer than conventional cotton, and is much softer. For an even better choice, the cotton can also be Fair Trade certified. 

It is possible for some cotton to be a reasonably good choice, even if not organic. Cotton that is produced in a traditional manner may be far lower impact. For example, Ethiopia is one of the world's oldest cotton producing nations, and although their cotton is not certified organic, most of it is still produced in the chemical-free way that it has been produced for thousands of years. Similarly, you can find Peruvian cotton which has been traditional grown and can be considered sustainable. With cotton like these, you need to do your research to know that you a making a good choice. 

LINEN

Linen is perhaps my favorite sustainable textile as it can be farmed and produced with very low impact and has been grown and produced traditionally in Japan and across Europe. The beautiful textile is one that seems to grow better with age, softening with wear. Linen has been used by humans for a very long time - there are archaeological remains of linen from 8000BC from the Swiss lake area, and the Japanese decorative mending tradition Boro was inspired by the beauty and longevity of this textile.

However, some modern linen is more harmful that it should be. As a general rule of thumb, linen produced in China has been grown with agro-chemicals and the processing is also higher impact, whereas European and Japanese linen is produced in more natural and low impact methods. For the lowest impact, choose organic linen or good quality linen from European or Japanese mills.

A linen garment will last for years, and soften beautifully with age. You will get many years of wear out of a good quality linen garment. Even more if you are game enough to get creative and try out some decorative mending techniques for yourself.  

HEMP

Hemp comes close to linen for me as one of my favorite sustainable textiles. As an amateur textiles artist and a sustainable textiles nerd, my love for hemp (and also linen) says a lot about their beauty and sustainability. In fact, in Japanese tradition, there is no distinction between hemp and linen. Their production methods, finished qualities, and their low impact on the environment are very similar. 

Hemp can be grown on marginal land, so unlike cotton, it doesn't displace food crops. The deep root structures of the crop also protect the soil against erosion. Like linen, hemp can be grown without agro-chemicals. Hemp also has the highest yield of all natural textiles, with up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton. Hemp has been much maligned in the US, and the cotton industry used its relationship to marijuana to push out it's production.  However the sustainability benefits of hemp have seen it come back into favorite particularly because the hemp crop for textiles does not actually produce THC in sufficient quantities to be cultivated for drug use.

Hemp is becoming much easier to access this beautiful natural textile, and I highly recommend seeking it out for your sustainable vegan wardrobe. It is commonly blend with other plant fibres, particularly organic cotton, to improve its strength. 

Natural Garment Care & End-of-life

All of these textiles are hard-wearing and can be washed in a normal wash. If you have outdoor space, the best way to dry these textiles is on a washing line, not in a dryer. As with all clothing, they will last much longer and have a much lower ecological footprint that way. Many hemp, linen and organic cotton garments will need a light iron to remove creases before wearing. 

With all of these natural textiles, at the end of their useful life they can be safely composted. They will break down in just a matter of months and will enhance the quality of the soil. If you are lucky enough to have a backyard, pop them in your compost pile. If not, cut them up for cleaning rags and use for as long as possible, before discarding them with your food waste. If these garments go to regular landfill, they will not break down properly and will produce excessive methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. As much as possible, we should try to avoid this. 

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SEMI-SYNTHETIC FIBERS

This group of textiles is known as the semi-synthetics because they are manufactured from natural materials, but these materials are transformed into fabric using a process that involves chemicals. The final product is biodegradable and is thus often touted as a sustainable choice. But the origin of the natural materials, the nature of the manufacturing process, and the nature of the chemicals used determines whether a textile is genuinely sustainable or not. 

Lyocell

Lyocell is probably one of those textiles that you have seen written on labels and wondered what it was. I remember wondering about it when I first started to become more committed to sustainable fashion. I remember asking a sales attendant once about what it is and they could not answer me (actually, that may have been the pivotal experience that led me to become a bit of a nerd on the topic of sustainable textiles!).

Lyocell is one vegan textile that is a very sustainable choice. It is made with woodpulp and manufactured using chemicals that are considered low impact, and the process of manufacturing is closed loop (this means that the chemicals are captured and reused continuously, rather than released as waste water). The final product is non-toxic and biodegradable. 

Some lyocell can be derived from plantations using GM eucalyptus crop. If you are concerned about GM, you can avoid this entirely by choosing a trade-marked version of lyocell called Tencel. This certified textile is guaranteed to be made from sustainable managed forestry that does not contain GM. 

Modal

Modal is another fabric that is very similar to lyocell. It manufactured from woodstock using a closed loop chemical process, and the chemicals and continuously reused in the manufacturing 'loop' rather than released as waste. Just like lyocell, it is fully biodegradable, and also suitable for natural and low impact dyes. 

So, in general, modal is a very sustainable choice for your vegan wardrobe. However, there is a significant amount of modal in the fashion supply chain which is made with woodstock that is obtained through deforestation. This is such a critical issue that the Rainforest Action Network is running an advocacy campaign on the issue. As a rule of thumb, modal garments that are manufactured in Indonesia, China and elsewhere in Asia are likely to be made with Indonesian woodstock. Deforestation is Indonesia's biggest contribution to climate change, and cannot be ignored as a sustainability issue. But is also cannot be ignored as an animal rights issue, with many Indonesian rainforest animals on the critically endangered list due to habitat loss. To avoid this in your fashion choices, look for modal that has been made in Canadian or US textile mills. Many US and Canadian made brands will use sustainable modal. 

Bamboo

Bamboo is a complicated case in sustainable fashion, and most bamboo in the fashion system cannot be considered sustainable. But it could be an ideal sustainable vegan textile, if some changes were made to production. So let's look at the issues.

The reason that bamboo has a reputation for being a eco-friendly choice comes down to it's benefits as an agricultural crop. Bamboo can be grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. It grows quickly, easily and prolifically on marginal, rain fed land. This means that is does not take land away from food crops, and it does not put pressure on natural water resources. Bamboo as a wood product is a highly sustainable material to make homewares, furniture and flooring out of. 

However, it is when bamboo is processed into a textile that the complications arise. The majority of bamboo is the fashion supply change is viscose. Unlike modal and lyocell, the process to manufacture viscose is not closed loop. A significant amount of polluting chemicals is wasted in the process of producing viscose, and in these chemicals can often be released untreated into waterways. For this reason, bamboo viscose is far from ideal if you are concerned about sustainability and about animal habitats. 

Bamboo is frequently used by eco conscious brands, and it is far superior to many vegan textiles on the market however it is generally a textile that I prefer to avoid if there are better options available. However, if you are choosing between conventional cotton or bamboo, then bamboo is the better option. But if you are choosing between bamboo and modal or lyocell, I would recommend choosing modal or lyocell. 

There is some good news when it comes to bamboo for textiles. A small amount of bamboo lyocell is on the market. This combines that sustainable closed loop process of lyocell, with all the benefits of bamboo as a crop. Sadly, I haven't yet found any fashion brands who have embraced this fabric. I have only found one company- a sustainable bedlinen brand called ettitude - that uses bamboo lyocell currently, but I hold high hopes for the potential of bamboo lyocell to make it's mark on sustainable vegan fashion. 


Semi-Syntehtic Garment Care & End-of-life

These textiles are reasonably hardwearing and can be washed in a standard washing machine. If possible, line dry your washing to reduce your energy use. Each of these fabrics is well suited to natural dyes. But these dyes fade more quickly. If you have chosen a garment which has been colored using natural dyes, hang them inside or in the shade to dry. 

Finally, when your garments do wear out, these fabrics are all biodegradable. You can pop them in the compost when they have reached the end of their life. If you don't have access to composting facilities (either industrial, or in your own or a community garden) then try to reuse them as cleaning cloths, face washers or even dish cloths to extend their useful life and keep them out of landfill. 

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RECYCLED SYNTHETIC FIBERS

We can often find that vegan fashion companies rely heavily on synthetics to produce their cruelty-free fashion. However, synthetics are petroleum based and contribute heavily to climate change and the pollution of air and waterways with toxic chemicals. According to a 2013 study by Deloitte for the Danish Fashion Institute, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil. Synthetic textiles carry a great deal of the responsibility for this.

Toxic chemicals are needed to process oil into the variety of synthetic textiles, creating significant air and water pollutants in the process. For example, nylon production results in the emissions of nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas. In Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys author Kate Fletcher refers to a study which estimated that the global warming contribution of a single nylon plant in the UK during the 1990s was equivalent to 3% of the nations carbon dioxide emissions. Similarly, worldwide, over 70 billion barrels of oil are used each year to manufacture polyester, the most popular synthetic fabric

Synthetic textiles also require the most harmful chemical dyes, further contributing to the environmental impact of these textiles and the endangerment of wildlife and habitats. Water pollution is such a critical environmental issue, that Greenpeace International runs a global campaign Detox My Fashion to fight against the toxic impact that fashion has on waterways, particularly in textile manufacturing hubs such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh. 

Furthermore, a study from 2011 found that fibers that are shed when synthetic fabric is washed may be the biggest source of ocean microplastic pollution worldwide, which can be found in small fish and has the potential to move up the food chain to larger animals. This has obvious implications for the health of our ocean animals and the animals that rely on fish in their diet.  

Due to these serious issues with synthetic fabrics, it is important to avoid all synthetic fabrics when, in most cases, a reasonable natural fibre alternative is available. However, occasionally synthetic fabrics are required for particular garments, such as swimwear, pantyhose, or waterproof jackets. In these cases, we have access to recycled nylon and recycled polyester so we can make the sustainable choice that takes care of the ocean ecosystem. 

Recycled Nylon & Recycled Polyester

Currently the only way to use synthetic fabric in a sustainable way is to seek out recycled nylon and recycled polyester. Recycled nylon is often made from rescued ocean waste, and recycled polyester is often made from recycled plastic bottles. Sometimes, post-consumer waste (old clothing) is also used, which diverts clothing from landfill. Occasionally, you will also find eco-conscious designers who use remnant fabric (fabric waste that is left over from conventional fashion production- either as off-cuts, or as excess rolls in warehouses that would otherwise go to waste). 

Synthetic Garment Care & End-of-life

Sadly, nylon and polyester do create microplastic pollution when you wash them. For products like handbags, this won't be an issue. But unfortunately, synthetic fabrics retain sweat and smells and often need to be washed after every wear. If possible, try washing less frequently, but only if the garment doesn't smell already. Unlike natural fibers, which can benefit from airing out, synthetic fabrics do not breath, they encourage you to sweat more, and they retain the odors. So frequent washing is unavoidable for anything that is worn directly on your skin. 

Recycled nylon and polyester garments will last a long time, as the fabrics are hard-wearing. When your garments are worn out, investigate whether you have access to a recycling center that will take them. Nylon and polyester and infinitely recyclable. As plastics, they will not breakdown and should be diverted from landfill if possible. 


If you enjoyed getting an insight into the your sustainable vegan textile options, you will get a lot out of my Guide to Sustainable Textiles - a 60 page guide to all the sustainability considerations for textile choice in your wardrobe. At only $9, it gives you all the information you need to be able to make sustainable choices when shopping for your wardrobe. 


Photos by Benita Robledo