How Sustainable Are Wood-Based Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Wood is a material preferred by most environmentally-conscious consumers. And understandably so, because wood’s renewability and biodegradability are superior to materials like fossil-based plastics. Yet, not all wood comes from the same forests. The world of sourcing wood can be murky, and turning wood into textiles can be chemical-intensive. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are wood-based fabrics?
Wood-based fabrics are on a spectrum from unsustainable to sustainable. This depends largely on the manufacturing process, particularly chemical and energy usage. Sourcing wood pulp as a raw material is generally sustainable (with a few exceptions) because wood is renewable and carbon negative.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of wood-based fabrics used for clothes and household items. Then, we will evaluate their sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with wood-based fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Wood-Based Fabrics
Wood-based fabrics can be highly sustainable when durable, breathable, and biodegradable textiles are made with wood from sustainably-managed forests. However, not all wood-based fibers are made equally because some manufacturers still depend heavily on fossil fuels for energy while using and releasing a significant amount of toxic synthetic chemicals.
“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 wood-based fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate 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 wood-based fabrics!
In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with wood-based fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of wood-based fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of wood-based fabrics||The sourcing stage is generally sustainable. This is largely thanks to the carbon sequestration potential of trees. Also, wood-based fabrics are made from renewable plant materials, especially when the wood comes from fast-growing, low-input tree species in well-managed forests or farms. However, there are legitimate concerns over the traceability of timber and the association between sourcing plant material to make textiles and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.|
|Manufacturing of wood-based fabrics||Manufacturing wood-based fabrics is generally unsustainable, though there are some exceptions. Wood-based fabric production is typically energy and chemical-intensive. That could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials.|
|Transporting of wood-based fabrics||Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with wood-based fabrics. This is because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Wood-based fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials for wood-based fabrics are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfill.|
|Usage of wood-based fabrics||Using wood-based fabrics is generally sustainable. Because these fabrics are made with cellulose fibers, they don’t shed microplastic during the usage stage. Some wood-based fabrics, such as lyocell and modal, are breathable and durable—two telltale signs of sustainability.|
|End-of-life of wood-based fabrics||The end-of-life stage for wood-based fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.|
Overall, we can say that wood-based fabrics are on a spectrum from highly sustainable to not very sustainable. The actual environmental impact of a particular product, whether a dress or a pair of yoga pants, depends on more specific factors, including:
- the sourcing of the wood
- the manufacturing processes
- the distance and mode of transportation
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy wood-based fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Wood-Based Fabrics?
The sourcing stage is generally sustainable. This is largely thanks to the carbon sequestration potential of trees. Also, wood-based fabrics are made from renewable plant materials, especially when the wood comes from fast-growing, low-input tree species in well-managed forests or farms. However, there are legitimate concerns over the traceability of timber and the association between sourcing plant material to make textiles and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Wood-Based Fabrics
Wood-based fabrics are made with one type of fiber or a blend of several fibers based on plant cellulose from trees or tree-like species.
There are various wood-based fibers: some have a long history, while others are recent developments. The following is a nonexclusive list of wood-based fibers:
- lyocell, sometimes referred to as TENCEL™
- cupro, or cuprammonium rayon
Generally, the production of wood-based fibers uses wood chips which are turned into wood pulp using various chemical and mechanical processes, such as the kraft pulping process.
The wood feedstocks come from various sources, including:
- trees in natural forests
- trees in planted forests
- waste from the forest floor
- pre-consumer and post-consumer cellulose-based waste
The environmental impacts of sourcing wood as a raw material for textiles depend largely on the sources, as we will discuss in the following section.
Despite the large varieties in feedstock and production, wood-based fabrics all have one thing in common: they are made with cellulose fibers regenerated during manufacturing. This sets them apart from textile materials using natural cellulose fibers like cotton, linen, hemp, jute, ramie, and kapok.
In the next section, we will discuss the impact of sourcing wood pulp, in both virgin and recycled forms, as the main raw material for wood-based fabric. Note that organic or synthetic solvents are also used in making wood-based fabrics, but we will discuss those agents in the manufacturing stage.
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Wood-Based Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing wood for wood-based fabrics is generally sustainable. Wood is typically a renewable resource, especially in managed forests. Trees capture carbon dioxide as they grow, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Furthermore, using cellulose-based waste as a raw material for wood-based fabrics lowers the environmental impacts by reducing strain on land and water resources.
The Carbon Sequestration of the Fiber Crop Is Climate Beneficial
As trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis.
The carbon stored in wood (the raw material) is transferred to wood-based fiber, resulting in wood-based fiber, in some cases, being close to carbon neutrality (life-cycle carbon emitted is somewhat equal to carbon stored during forestry).
For example, the three generations of wood-based fibers made by the Lenzing AG company have the following carbon balances (per tonne fiber, cradle-to-factory gate):
- Viscose:—0.25 t CO2eq / t fiber
- Modal: 0.03 t CO2eq / t fiber
- Lyocell: 0.05 t CO2eq / t fiber
Virgin Wood Is Typically Renewable, Low-Input Material
Wood is a renewable resource, provided that sustainable forestry management practices are in place.
Wood like eucalyptus or bamboo have quick renewal rates because these trees grow relatively fast. Eucalyptus wood can be harvested as a raw material for wood-based fabrics after a decade. Bamboo grows even faster and is ready for harvesting within three to five years.
Also, trees like beech, birch, and pine—common raw materials for wood-based fibers— require little to no irrigation, fertilizers, or pesticides.
Using Cellulose-Based Waste Reduces Strain on Natural Resources
Planting trees, though beneficial, takes up land and, in some cases, water resources that can be used for crops like food or fuel. Consequently, recycling discarded cellulose-based waste, such as wood scraps from various industries or used cotton clothes, takes the pressure off these resources.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Wood-Based Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Though wood-based fabrics can use virgin wood chips from any tree, some plants are more likely to be picked as raw materials for wood-based fabrics because of their growth rates and adaptability.
Here are three common plants used as raw materials for wood-based fabrics and their whereabouts:
- Eucalyptus trees are native to Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and surrounding islands. They have also been grown in plantations throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical regions, including California and Hawaii in the US.
- Beech trees grow natively in the US and Europe. They can be grown in sustainably-managed forests across temperate climates. This means that trees are cut down according to planned harvesting rotation, with new trees planted to replace them. Sourcing beechwood from, for example, FSC-certified forests as raw materials for wood-based fabrics is generally sustainable.
- Bamboo can grow in many places, from hot regions in Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America, and southern areas of the US to colder places in the US and the UK. Two giant bamboo species with huge application potential are ‘Moso’ bamboo, which grows mainly in China, and ‘Guadua’ bamboo, which is native to countries in Latin America.
The Traceability of Virgin Wood Stock in Wood-Based Fabrics Is Key
The association between this raw material and deforestation is a serious concern in wood-based fabric sourcing.
A report from Changing Markets pointed out the association between sourcing raw materials for some types of wood-based fibers—rayon fibers—and deforestation in ancient or endangered forests, which have huge ecological costs and environmental implications. The report specified that Canada, Indonesia, and Brazil — all countries with endangered and ancient forests — provided around two-thirds of China’s 2010 dissolving pulp imports for viscose, 75% of which was then manufactured into viscose fabrics.
Ancient, old-growth forests stock a significant amount of carbon, house many endemic animal species, and provide invaluable income for indigenous peoples. Losing these forests means accelerating the climate crisis, reducing biodiversity, and affecting the livelihood of indigenous peoples.
On the other hand, managed forests planted exclusively for feedstock do have some ecological benefits. These include the following:
- Forestry management encourages the cycle of regeneration.
- Actively-managed planting, thinning, and harvesting enhance biodiversity and resilience while maintaining functional ecological conditions.
- Compared with cotton fields, which provide raw materials for cotton fabrics, planted forests generally have higher biodiversity because forests can support more wildlife and create conditions for developing plant and mushroom species in between rotations.
Cellulose-Based Waste Tends to Come From Various Locations
A way to avoid cutting down trees is to source cellulose-based waste from the forest floor or further downstream during manufacturing, trading, and consumption. The challenge with these sources of wood pulp is that they vary. It is not always possible to source locally or trace back to the origin of the waste.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Wood-Based Fabrics
Manufacturing wood-based fabrics is generally unsustainable, though there are some exceptions. Wood-based fabric production is typically energy and chemical-intensive. That could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials.
How Sustainably Are Wood-Based Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The manufacturing of wood-based fabrics diverges in technology and chemicals that are used. Still, wood-based fabric production typically involves the following steps:
- Prepare the pulp (harvest wood, cut it into penny-sized pieces, and grind the pieces into a pulp).
- Dissolve the pulp using a solvent—made with synthetic chemicals, organic compounds, or ionic liquid. (The recent development of Spinnova’s wood-based fiber uses a mechanical process to reform the wood fiber without any harmful chemicals.)
- Process the solution.
- Spin to create thread-like forms—the wood-based yarn.
- Wash, bleach, finish, dry, and weave the yarn into wood-based fabrics.
Let’s now dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage:
Manufacturing Wood-Based Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive
Both wood pulp production and fiber production require significant energy.
- Energy is needed to operate machines to harvest, cut, and grind.
- The dissolving step is generally fuel-hungry.
For example, the following table compares the energy needed to produce three types of wood-based fabrics: viscose, modal, and lyocell (all made by Lenzing AG) and cotton (made in the US and Canada).
|Manufacturing Energy GJ/tonne fibers||106||78||101||55|
|Compared to the cotton baseline (times)||1.92||1,42||1.84||1|
In this life-cycle assessment, all wood-based fabrics have higher energy requirements in manufacturing than cotton, roughly from 1.5 to 2 times higher.
It is important to note that in some integrated manufacturing sites, the by-product of wood pulping can be used for energy needs in fabric manufacturing.
For example, Spinnova’s first commercial factory produces carbon-neutral surplus heat as a by-product that is then fed into the local district heating network. Thanks to the extra energy made without additional carbon emissions, Spinnova’s wood-based fiber production saves more carbon dioxide than it emits.
Conversely, in many manufacturing sites, fossil fuels are still used as the main energy source, contributing to multiple environmental impact categories, including an elevated global warming impact and worsening air pollution.
Manufacturing Wood-Based Fabrics Can Be Chemical-Intensive
One key step to producing wood-based fabrics is when the wood pulp must be dissolved—a process that varies according to the type of textile fiber. The various methods of dissolving wood pulp have significantly different environmental impacts.
A conventional route is to use chemicals that react to the cellulose in the wood, change the wood pulp while undergoing side reactions, and, thus, form other compounds. In addition to the desired cellulose-based solution, these reactions typically create toxic compounds that either emit directly into the air or stay in the wastewater and waste residue, which can not be recovered.
- In viscose production, at least three chemicals are used to dissolve the wood pulp: caustic soda (or sodium hydroxide), carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid.
- Caustic soda, carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid are all toxic chemicals that could potentially cause serious harm to the environment and workers.
- Sulfuric acid is a corrosive substance, destructive to the skin, eyes, teeth, and lungs. Severe exposure can result in death.
- Carbon disulfide has been linked to higher levels of coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions, and cancer, both in textile workers and residents in the vicinity of wood-based factories.
- Caustic soda production is associated with freshwater aquatic ecotoxicity and terrestrial ecotoxicity.
- The side reactions during viscose production form other sulfurous compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide and different kinds of mercaptans.
- About 25–30% of the carbon disulfide used in viscose production is estimated as not being recovered.
- For every unit of staple viscose fiber (tonne), 300–600 units (tonnes) of wastewater and toxic waste residue are released.
Another route to dissolving wood pulp is to use a direct solvent that does not change during the dissolution procedure and, thus, can be recovered and recycled, lowering the inputs and the adverse environmental impacts.
Lyocell is an example of a wood-based fabric made via this route. Lyocell manufacturers use the organic solvent NMMO, which is less harsh than caustic soda, carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid. Also, this solvent can be recovered and recycled almost fully in a lyocell closed-loop production system, significantly lowering the environmental impacts of this stage.
The following are some examples of other wood-based fibers that don’t use harsh chemicals in the pulp-dissolving step and/or emit a large quantity of toxic waste. The production of these fibers (and lyocell) are generally more sustainable than viscose production.
- Ioncell-F: Use an ionic liquid as a solvent that can be recycled at 99%.
- Spinnova: Refine wood pulp in a mechanical process without any harsh chemicals.
- Tree to Textile: Use and recover a cold alkaline solution as a solvent, avoiding carbon disulfide and sulphuric acid.
Chemicals can also be used in dyeing and other finishing procedures of wood-based fabrics, causing increased toxicity, hazards, pollution, and waste and, consequently, increasing the environmental impact of textiles. For example, leftover dyes in wastewater when there is no adequate wastewater treatment affect light transmission and, therefore, photosynthesis by aquatic plants, reducing aquatic animal and plant biodiversity.
However, manufacturers can improve the sustainability of production by opting for eco-friendly or less harmful substances to dye and finish wood-based fabrics.
Where Are Wood-Based Fabrics Usually Manufactured
The various types of wood-based fabrics are produced in many regions. Still, Asia Pacific dominates the market for wood-based fibers, especially with the largest producers in China and India.
Other big producers of wood-based fabrics are located in South Africa, Brazil, Austria, and the US.
Energy Usage at Rayon Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country
One of the main sustainability issues with producing wood-based fabrics in China and India is the dependency on fossil fuels for energy generation. Only 9.31% of the primary energy in India comes from renewable sources. The percentage is higher in China (14.95%), yet still relatively low compared to, for example, Brazil (46.22%) or Austria (46.22%).
According to Our World in Data, the share of renewable energy in primary energy varies significantly among wood-based manufacturing locations, which has a big implication on the environmental impact of a specific piece of fabric.
Waste Treatment at Wood-Based Manufacturing Locations
Because of the high usage of (toxic) chemicals while manufacturing some wood-based fibers, waste treatment at wood-based facilities is a matter of concern, especially when factories in some countries lack transparency and regulations.
For example, the Changing Markets Foundation reported in 2017 that fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Marks & Spencer were linked to highly polluting factories in China, India, and Indonesia, where they make viscose and modal fibers—two types of wood-based fabrics with similar production processes.
The organization raised concerns about the devastating impact of wood pulp production on forests, people, and vulnerable animal populations.
In brief, as a consumer, it is important for you to find out where the wood-based fabrics are made, and not just where your clothes are sewn together.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Wood-Based Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with wood-based fabrics. This is because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Wood-based fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials for wood-based fabrics are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfill.
For example, in the life-cycle of wood-based clothes, transportation typically occurs:
- from forests to the wood-based fiber and fabrics manufacturing location(s),
- from the wood-based fabric 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 Wood-Based Fabrics Vary
It is uncommon for wood-based fabrics to have raw materials grown, processed, sewn, and sold in one town, country, or even continent.
Here are some scenarios for transporting wood-based fabrics:
- Wood-based manufacturers can source beechwood grown in the US, process it into wood-based fabrics and clothing in a nearby factory, and then sell wood-based textile products around the US to consumers.
- Others might ship eucalyptus wood from forests in Asia to European factories and US consumer markets.
- Bamboo can be grown in China, transported to a factory in the immediate vicinity for dissolved pulp manufacturing, then to Canada for fiber manufacturing before being shipped worldwide to end users.
You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing wood-based fabrics that travel a shorter distance from forests and are made closer to your home.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Wood-Based Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of wood-based clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- large container ships
- freight trains
- long-distance trucks
- short-distance delivering vans
And these various types of transportation vehicles 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.
For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering wood-based clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your wood-based items.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Wood-Based Fabrics
Using wood-based fabrics is generally sustainable. Because these fabrics are made with cellulose fibers, they don’t shed microplastic during the usage stage. Some wood-based fabrics, such as lyocell and modal, are breathable and durable—two telltale signs of sustainability.
Some types of wood-based fabrics are durable. Clothes made with, for example, modal fabrics will last through years of wearing. Specifically, modal garments can withstand more washes and dry cycles than cotton. Using a durable textile material is sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, there is no need for more resources to make a new one).
Another environmentally favorable property of some wood-based fabrics, such as lyocell and viscose, is their breathability. Clothes made with wood-based fabrics don’t start smelling too quickly, meaning fewer washes are needed. Because washing during the usage phase is one of the main sources of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing, breathable fabrics tend to be more sustainable.
The washing, drying, and ironing requirements for wood-based fabrics vary depending on the manufacturing techniques and the presence of other fibers. However, modifying some laundering habits will generally reduce the environmental impacts of using wood-based clothes and household items. Possible changes include:
- wash wood-based fabrics less often,
- switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers,
- do cold washes with appropriate detergents, and
- use energy-efficient washing machines.
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Wood-Based Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for wood-based fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.
Wood-based fabrics are 100% cellulose, making them a biodegradable material. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options:
It takes about six to eight weeks for wood-based fibers like viscose, modal, and lyocell to decompose. On the other hand, synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, or acrylic will take hundreds of years to degrade.
How Circular Are Products Made of Wood-Based 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
Regarding regenerated cellulose fabrics, there have been incentives for recycling materials and energy in closed-loop manufacturing processes.
Since 2000, new technologies have emerged to produce cellulose fibers to keep harmful toxins from being released into the environment. Such closed-loop systems have excellent control to minimize the emission of gases to the environment and recover the solvent carbon disulfide up to 90–95%. Later technologies also improve the recovery of other resources (water and energy) used in manufacturing.
Additionally, there are many developments involving recycling cellulose-based waste to create new wood-based fabrics. Some examples are as follows:
How Can You Buy Wood-Based Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying wood-based products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications.
- Forest Stewardship Council: An FSC certification ensures that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.
- Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners.
- USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certification identifies products made from plants or other renewable materials.
- 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.
- Ecolabel: Ecolabel is the official European Union voluntary label recognized worldwide for certified products with a guaranteed, independently-verified low environmental impact. The label requires high environmental standards throughout the entire life-cycle: from raw material extraction through production and distribution to disposal. It also encourages companies to develop innovative, durable, easy-to-repair, and recyclable products.
Some certifications 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 Wood-Based Fabrics
As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, not all wood-based clothes are made equally sustainable.
Wood-based clothes can only be sustainable when the raw materials come from sustainably managed forests (where harvesting rotation allows new trees to grow and replace cut-down trees). In addition, the sustainability of wood-based fabrics depends on the following:
- energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing
- chemical controls during manufacturing
Consequently, you want to buy wood-based clothes from brands that are transparent about their raw materials and committed to reducing energy usage and emissions. Here are some examples of sustainable brands (in alphabetic order):
- Amour Vert
- Armed Angels
- Brava Fabrics
- CASA GiN
- Eileen Fisher
- Groceries Apparel
- LA RELAXED
- Organic Basics
- Paneros Clothing
- People Tree
- TAMGA Designs
- The North Face
- The R Collective
- Threads 4 Thought
- Whimsy + Row
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 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 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 wool or silk. 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, wool or silk; 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.
Wood-based fabrics are on a spectrum from highly sustainable—such as the case of lyocell manufactured in a closed-loop process and Spinnova produced without harmful chemicals in a climate-positive process—to not very sustainable, like viscose made with uncertified wood.
To find sustainable wood-based fabrics, you want to trace the fibers’ origin to certified forests. Also, manufacturing processes matter. You want to check if your chosen brands are committed to reducing fossil-based energy and recycling fibers.
To make using wood-based fabrics even more sustainable, follow these steps:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled wood-based textile products.
- While using jute clothing and household items, maximize the number of wears between washes, and keep them as long as possible.
- At the end-of-life of your jute products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
- Science Direct: Life-cycle assessment (LCA)
- MIT SMR: Strategic Sustainability Uses of Life-Cycle Analysis
- European Environment Agency: Cradle-to-Grave
- Science Direct: Cradle-to-Gate Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Viscose Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Modal Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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- Spinnova: The Climate-Positive Textile Fibre
- Tencel: TENCELTMx REFIBRATM technology
- Science Direct: Handbook of Process Integration (PI)–Minimilisation of Energy and Water Use, Waste and Emissions
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- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Birch Wood? Here Are The Facts
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Beechwood? Here Are The Facts
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Is Pine Wood? Here Are The Facts
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- Science Direct: Sustainable Fibres and Textiles | The Textile Institute Book Series
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? All You Need to Know
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Linen Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Ramie Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Kapok Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Research Gate :Life Cycle Assessment of man-made cellulose fibres
- Britannica: Eucalyptus
- Britannica: Beech
- ONETREEPLANTED: 8 AMAZING BAMBOO FACTS
- Changing Markets: DIRTY FASHION: CRUNCH TIME | WHERE DOES THE INDUSTRY STAND ON STAMPING OUT DIRTY VISCOSE
- The Guardian: Deforestation for fashion: getting unsustainable fabrics out of the closet
- Forbes: Fashion Fabrics Made From Wood Are Set To Double In Volume: What Does This Mean For Forests And Emissions?
- Springer Link: The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment – Land use impacts on biodiversity in LCA: a global approach
- European Forest Institute: Plantation forests in Europe: challenges and opportunities
- European Forest Institute: Wood-based textiles & modern wood buildings – Environmental impacts beyond climate change
- SPINNOVA: Sustainability
- Walter de Gruyter: Pulp and Paper Chemistry and Technology Wood Chemistry and Wood Biotechnology (Volume 1)
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Rayon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)| Sulfuric Acid
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: CARBON DISULFIDE–HEALTH EFFECTS
- Science Direct: Resources, Conservation and Recycling | Environmental impact assessment of man-made cellulose fibres
- Science Direct: Journal of Bioresources and Bioproducts | A review on raw materials, commercial production and properties of lyocell fiber
- Science Direct: Sulphuric acid
- ACS Publications: Recycling of Superbase-Based Ionic Liquid Solvents for the Production of Textile-Grade Regenerated Cellulose Fibers in the Lyocell Process
- Lenzing: Technologies
- Aalto University: Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems | Ioncell-F
- Tree to Textile: Home
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- Science Direct: Bioresource Technology | Kinetic modelling and simulation of laccase catalyzed degradation of reactive textile dyes
- Mordor Intelligence: WOOD-BASED FIBERS MARKET SIZE & SHARE ANALYSIS – GROWTH TRENDS & FORECASTS (2023 – 2028)
- The World in Data: Renewable Energy
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- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Biomass Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Changing Market Foundation: Home
- Changing Market Foundation: Dirty Fashion
- Time for Change: CO2 emissions for shipping of goods
- Nature: Scientific reports | The contribution of washing processes of synthetic clothes to microplastic pollution
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Polyester Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Good on You: Material Guide: What Is Modal? And Is It Sustainable?
- Tencel: TencelTM Modal
- Springer Link: The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment: Statistical analysis of use-phase energy consumption of textile products
- SEMANTIC SCHOLAR: Biodegradation of Three Cellulosic Fabrics in Soil
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Acrylic Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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- Birla Cellulose: Closed-Loop Technologies in Viscose Process
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- Infinited Fiber: Beautiful inside and out.
- SODRA: ONCEMORE
- Circulose: Home
- Forest Stewardship Council
- Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification
- BioPreferred: WHAT IS THE BIOPREFERRED PROGRAM?
- OEKO-TEX: Certification according to STeP by OEKO-TEX®
- European Commission: EU Ecolabel
- B Corp Certification: Home
- C2CCertified: Home
- Amour Vert
- Brava Fabrics
- CASA GiN
- Eileen Fisher
- Groceries Apparel
- LA RELAXED
- Organic Basics
- Paneros Clothing
- People Tree
- TAMGA Designs
- The North Face
- The R Collective
- Threads 4 Thought
- Whimsy + Row
- European Parliament: The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographic)
- Science Direct: The challenge of “Depeche Mode” in the fashion industry – Does the industry have the capacity to become sustainable through circular economic principles, a scoping review
- Science Direct: Carbon Footprint of Textile and Clothing Products
- European Parliament: Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry
- European Parliament: What if fashion were good for the planet?
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- McKinsey: Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula
- Forest Stewardship Council: Home
- Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss
- Our World in Data: Renewable Energy
- Peta: Animals Used For Clothing
- The Guardian: Child labour in the fashion supply chain