How Sustainable Are Sequin Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
The sparkling sequins worn at glamorous parties and prestigious events (like the Olympics) are hard to miss. Yet, one might overlook the fact that these fabrics embellished with shiny and often plastic-based coins come at huge environmental costs. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are sequin fabrics?
The sustainability of sequin fabrics ranges from unsustainable to fairly sustainable, depending largely on the raw materials. The commonly found sequin fabrics are made with fossil-based plastics, which have serious adverse environmental impacts due to energy demand and pollution.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of sequin fabrics used for clothing items. Then, we will evaluate their sustainability, their potential, and their shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with sequin fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Sequin Fabrics
Sequin fabrics are embellished with shiny and colorful fabric decorative ornaments—which are called sequins. Both the fabrics and the sequins can be made from various materials. However, it is overwhelmingly common today to find sequin fabrics on the market made with plastics derived from fossil fuels.
While artificial materials synthesized from petrochemicals are not sustainable materials for sequin fabrics, there are alternative raw materials with lesser environmental impacts.
“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”Oxford Dictionary
To understand the sustainability of sequin fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method for evaluating the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of sequin fabrics!
In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothing items and accessories made with sequin fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of sequin fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of sequin fabrics||Sourcing fossil-based plastics—the common raw materials for today’s sequin fabrics—is unsustainable. It leads to the depletion of nonrenewable resources, acceleration of climate change, and environmental pollution. |
However, the sourcing stage of sequin fabrics can be sustainable when raw materials are recycled from waste, such as discarded PET bottles, and/or if they come from organically cultivated fiber crops like cotton.
|Manufacturing of sequin fabrics||Manufacturing sequin fabrics is generally unsustainable. The manufacturing process of sequin fabrics using fossil-derived feedstocks is generally energy-intensive and high-polluting. High energy demand can have serious knock-on ecological impacts when fossil fuels are the main energy sources at manufacturing locations.|
|Transporting of sequin fabrics||Transporting sequin fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with sequin fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Fossil-based plastic sequin fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels are extracted to various processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills.|
|Usage of sequin fabrics||Using plastic-based sequin fabrics is generally unsustainable. Washing plastic-based clothing items contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. Sequin clothes are often treated as an outfit for special occasions, leading to them being underused before being discarded, which intensifies plastic waste problems.|
|End-of-life of sequin fabrics||The end-of-life stage for plastic-based sequin fabric is unsustainable because they are not biodegradable.|
Overall, we can say sequin fabrics are on a spectrum from unsustainable to fairly sustainable, depending on the raw materials used to make the sequins and the backing fabrics.
However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, whether a dress or a bag, depends on more specific factors, including:
- the sourcing of raw materials
- the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage
- the distance and mode of transportation
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy sequin fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Sequin Fabrics
Sourcing fossil-based plastics—the common raw materials for today’s sequin fabrics—is unsustainable. It leads to the depletion of nonrenewable resources, acceleration of climate change, and environmental pollution.
However, the sourcing stage of sequin fabrics can be sustainable when raw materials are recycled from waste, such as discarded PET bottles, and/or if they come from organically cultivated fiber crops like cotton.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Sequin Fabrics
The popular raw materials sourced to make sequin fabrics are fossil-based thermoplastics, which include PE (polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and PET (polyethylene terephthalate).
A common combination for sequin fabric is a polyester backing embellished with PVC sequins. It’s important to note that:
- Polyester fabrics are made from PET fibers.
- PVC sequins are made from polyvinyl chloride film.
On top of that, there is a wide variety of possible (though less popular) materials for sequin fabrics, including the following:
- Sequins can be metal-based (e.g., silver), animal-based (e.g., galvanic gelatin), microbial-based (e.g., algae), or plant-based (acetate).
- The backing fabrics can be made with protein fibers (such as in silk) and cellulose fibers (such as in cotton or rayon).
In the following sections, we will focus on sequin fabrics made with fossil-based thermoplastics, as these are the most commonly-found sequin fabrics of today’s fashion. Whenever relevant, we will point you toward more sustainable alternatives not only in sourcing but also in manufacturing, transporting, using, and disposing of sequin fabrics.
How Do the Fossil-Based Thermoplastics Sourced for Sequin Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing fossil-based thermoplastics for sequin fabrics is not sustainable. Virgin plastic production from fossil fuels depletes nonrenewable resources, accelerates the climate crisis, and pollutes the environment.
Sourcing Virgin Fossil-Based Thermoplastics to Make Sequin Fabrics
The adverse environmental impacts of sourcing virgin fossil-based thermoplastics are associated with extracting and refining fossil fuels, such as crude oil or natural gas. These include the four following impacts:
- Depleting nonrenewable resources: It takes millions of years and requires certain geological conditions to turn dead plants into fossil fuels, and the current depletion rate makes replacement not realistically feasible.
- Demanding significant amounts of energy: Extracting petroleum, for example, requires heavy fuel-guzzling machines and complex drilling operations to access oil reservoirs deep underground.
- Emitting greenhouse gases and exacerbating the climate crisis: GHG releases from burning fossil fuels to meet the energy demand as well as from the production of thermoplastics themselves, for example, in the case of nylon.
- Causing pollution and habitat destruction: More specifically, fossil fuel extraction and refinery are reported to pollute air and water bodies, degrade and destroy habitats, kill off marine species in massive numbers, and disrupt wildlife in various other ways.
Sourcing More Sustainable Plastic Polymers to Make Sequin Fabrics
There are two more sustainable pathways to make sequin fabrics—the sparkling sequin coins and the backing fabrics—from plastics. They include:
- reprocessing plastics from waste, such as from discarded PET bottles or throw-away nylon fishing nets, to use for both sequin and fabric manufacturing, and
- using bio-based plastic, such as PET made with corn-based ethanol, to manufacture both the sequin and the fabric elements.
Sourcing Sustainable Alternative Raw Materials to Make Sequin Fabrics
There are materials more sustainable than plastics, which can be used to make sequin backing fabrics and the sequin coins they are embellished with.
- Regarding sourcing raw materials for sequins, bio-based materials have been developed to offer more sustainable alternatives to plastics. Examples are algae and wood with polymer structures that reflex the light. Both wood and algae are renewable resources with (excellent) carbon sequestration potential.
- Regarding sourcing raw materials for the fabric backing, some bio-based textile materials have much fewer adverse environmental impacts than plastics. These include organic cotton and lyocell.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Sequin Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Though it is always good to know the starting point of your clothes, this is no simple task when it comes to tracking down the origin of sequin fabric’s fossil-derived raw materials.
There are two reasons for this:
- The supply chain of fossil derivatives is extremely complex.
- A certain type of plastic can be made in many factories using various ingredients depending on manufacturers and desired properties.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Sequin Fabrics
Manufacturing sequin fabrics is generally unsustainable. The manufacturing process of sequin fabrics using fossil-derived feedstocks is generally energy-intensive and high-polluting. High energy demand can have serious knock-on ecological impacts when fossil fuels are the main energy sources at manufacturing locations.
In the following section, we will look into manufacturing the typical plastic-based sequin fabric. When it is relevant, we will point you toward more sustainable alternatives.
How Sustainably Are Fossil-Based Plastic Sequin Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The manufacturing process of sequin fabrics made with fossil-based plastics includes these steps:
- Make plastic-based fabric backing: The standard procedure to produce plastic-based fabrics, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, involves the following steps:
- weaving or knitting
- Make sequins from plastic film: The tiny sequin coins are punched out of plastic sheets, which are also made via the polymerization of fossil-based feedstocks. What remains is a lot of waste to be discarded.
- Attach sequins to the plastic-based fabric backing: The sequin coins are attached to the fabric backing. This can be done by gluing, heat bonding, or stitching.
Let’s now dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage:
Manufacturing Plastics Is Generally Energy-Intensive
Generally, making plastics from fossil fuels has a high energy demand as polymerization is energy-intensive. Other mechanical processes (such as extrusion, spinning, or weaving) use machines that need power.
High energy usage in manufacturing leads to elevated carbon emissions if the energy generation depends heavily on fossil fuels.
Manufacturing Plastics Is Generally Polluting
Making plastics often involves synthetic chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment.
Let’s look at the example of PVC, a common material used in sequin coins:
- Manufacturing PVC releases toxic phthalates, which are associated with many health problems. Specifically, phthalates have been found to damage the reproductive system in both males and females.
- Dioxin, a by-product of PVC, is the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals and is a known human carcinogen.
- PVC production releases mercury into the environment.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Sequin Fabrics
Transporting sequin fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with sequin fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Fossil-based plastic sequin fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels are extracted to various processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills.
For example, in the life-cycle of sequin clothes, transportation typically occurs:
- from petroleum and natural gas mines where raw materials are extracted to the manufacturing locations where sequin coins and backing fabrics are made and put together,
- from the sequin clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers and/or physical shops,
- from sorting centers and/or physical shops to the consumer’s home, and
- from the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling and/or disposal.
Traveling Distances of Sequin Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for sequin fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that mining, refining, sequin making, fiber and fabric processing, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents.
Here are some example scenarios for transporting polyester-based sequin fabrics:
- Ethylene manufacturers source petroleum and/or gas mined in the Congo Basin and produce the molecule in South Korea before selling it to polyester manufacturers to be turned into sequins and fabrics in India. Polyester-based sequin clothing items are shipped to the US to sell to consumers.
- Fossil fuels are mined in Alberta, Canada. Ethylene is made in the Netherlands and sold to companies in China to be turned into polyester-based sequin fabrics and garments. These garments are then sold worldwide.
You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing sequin fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the mines and are made closer to your home.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Sequin Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of sequin clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- large container ships
- freight trains
- long-distance trucks
- short-distance delivering vans
There are also various types of transportation vehicles used that have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter.
Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes—for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing—are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
As a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering sequin clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Sequin Fabrics
Using plastic-based sequin fabrics is generally unsustainable. Washing plastic-based clothing items contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. Sequin clothes are often treated as an outfit for special occasions, leading to them being underused before being discarded, which intensifies plastic waste problems.
A major sustainability issue with using plastic-based sequin fabrics is the microplastics released into the environment due to washing the material.
According to a study, polyester fabrics washed in domestic washing machines released about 490,000 tiny synthetic particles per wash. Plastic-based textiles, including polyester, nylon, acrylic, and others, are responsible for around half a million tons of plastic microfibers shed into the oceans annually as these fabrics are washed. At sea or in other water bodies, these microplastics cause harm to fish that ingest them and numerous animals (including us humans) further up the food chain.
Another problem with using party-designated sequin clothes is that they often get discarded soon after a festive season or even after one party. Oxfam quoted a shocking figure of 1.7 million pieces of sequin clothes being disposed of after one Christmas season. According to a survey done by this organization, women wear a sequin clothing item on average only 5 times before casting it aside.
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Sequin Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for plastic-based sequin fabric is unsustainable because they are not biodegradable.
Materials made with fossil-based plastics are not biodegradable. Polyester, for example, could take up to 300 years to degrade completely.
In comparison, bio-based materials such as silk, cotton, or wood—which can be used to make bio-based sequins—are fully biodegradable. Consequently, using bio-based materials instead of fossil-based plastics would lead to a more sustainable end-of-life stage.
How Circular Are Products Made of Sequin Fabrics
In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.
“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”Ellen MacArthur Foundation
It is possible to use plastic waste, such as discarded PET bottles, to make recycled polyester for sequin fabrics.
How Can You Buy Sequin Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying plastic-based sequin fabric is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- OEKO-TEX®: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals).
- STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
- Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): The Textile Exchange RCS was originally developed as an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled input and chain of custody. (For sequin fabrics using recycled plastics)
- The Global Recycled Standard (GRS): The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. It can be used for any product with more than 20% recycled material. (For sequin fabrics using recycled plastics)
Some certifications that are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are:
- B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts.
- Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
Where to Buy Sustainable Sequin Fabrics
We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that the common sequin fabrics made with fossil-based plastics are generally unsustainable. The most significant reasons are as follows:
- Manufacturing this variety of sequin fabrics is dependent on fossil fuels for raw material and for process energy.
- Fossil-based plastic production uses toxic chemicals, which could have adverse health impacts on exposure (for both factory workers and end users) and pollute the environment.
- Washing plastic-based fabrics releases microplastic into marine environments, causing harm to wildlife.
- Conventional fossil-based sequin fabrics are not biodegradable and, thus, take up space in landfills for a long time (i.e., centuries).
However, researchers and manufacturers have found ways to make sequin fabrics more sustainable, including:
- recycling plastics to reduce pressure on extracting more fossil fuels,
- using organic, bio-based materials, or
- manufacturing in locations with high shares of renewable energy.
As a consumer, you can look for these indicators when buying clothing items made with sequin fabrics.
Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics
It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint
The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces the Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management
The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).
Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
- Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
- In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted.
When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown.
Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:
- Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often.
- Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items.
Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages the Sustainable Management of Forests
Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards.
When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change.
Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals
The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like hemp or hemp. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.
Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives.
Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, hemp or hemp; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry.
Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers
Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours.
When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.
Sequin fabrics are generally unsustainable as they are commonly made with fossil-based plastics. Fossil-based plastic production is energy-intensive and high-polluting. Washing clothes made with plastic materials contributes to microplastic problems in marine environments. Also, conventional fossil-based plastics aren’t biodegradable.
To make using sequin fabrics somewhat more sustainable, follow these steps:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled sequin clothes.
- While using sequin clothing items, maximize the number of wears between washes, and keep them as long as possible.
- At the end-of-life of your sequin garments, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
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