We already put together guides on what might be some of the most eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics, and also what might be some of the least eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics.
In the guide below though, we outline what might be some of the main factors that contribute sustainable, eco friendly, and ethical (animal and human friendly) fibres.
Summary – Factors That Can Impact How Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Ethical Different Fibres & Fabrics Might Be
Lifecycle Stages Of Fibre, Fabric & Product Supply & Production
The lifecycle stages we list in the guide below are:
Sourcing Of Fibre Material
Fibre Production & Manufacturing
Turning Fibre Into Fabric, Or Using It In A Finished Product
End Of Life
We provide more insight and the factors relating to each stage below.
What Indicators Might Be Measured Across The Different Stages?
Just a few of the things that can be measured or assessed might be:
– Environmental Measurables (Eco Friendliness)
Water pollution, air pollution, general waste pollution, carbon emissions, land and soil pollution and degradation, and more
– Management & Usage Of Resources
Water, energy, land, and other inputs required to produce things
– Impact On Animals & Wildlife
Animal welfare standards (preventing animal cruelty in areas such as stopping unnecessary trapping, poaching and killing of non pest species, preventing cruelty against livestock, stopping animal testing, and so on), impact on wild life and their habitats, preserving biodiversity, etc.
– Social Impact
On human health and safety (from chemicals used in processing, and also from pollution and waste), basic rights in the workplace, fair work conditions, quality of life, etc.
* This Guide Is A Starting Point Only & Not Comprehensive
The considerations and factors below might be a good starting point.
But, a full assessment would take into account many more factors and specific details.
Factors To Consider Across The Different Stages Of A Fibre’s or Fabric’s Lifecycle
Sourcing Of Fibre Material
– What material is used as a base material for the fibre?
Is a natural and renewable material like a wood based cellulose used (in the case of a rayon for example), or are compounds derived from non renewable fossil fuels like petroleum used (in the case of polyester for example)?
This is essentially the difference between natural and synthetic fibres (as well as the pulp production, and fibre forming methods used)
Some natural fibre plants can have benefits, such as the claimed benefit of bamboo to contribute to soil health, and the ability of trees (grown for wood cellulose) to produce oxygen and absorb carbon.
But, natural fibres can have their issues too.
Animal based fibres like silk, wool etc. also have potential animal welfare issues to consider
– What are the practices used for producing the base material?
With wood cellulose for example, does the wood cellulose come from sustainably managed plantation forests?
With cotton for example, is the cotton organically farmed, or intensively farmed (intensive farming might include things such as heavy synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use, heavy farm machinery, heavy water use, and lack of care for long term soil health)? Does the cotton use GM seeds or not?
Some flax plants used for some linens can even be hand harvested compared to some flax crops and other types of crops that are machine harvested.
There’s also the difference in impact between mining and refining the fossil fuels and compounds for some synthetic fibres vs farming or growing cellulose for some natural fibres.
Even with farming, different crops will have different agricultural inputs that are used (synthetic nitrogen fertilizers vs animal manure, synthetic pesticide chemicals vs organic pest control, irrigated water vs rainfed water, and the type of and used, as examples), and they will be used at different levels of efficiency when looking at inputs vs total production or yield (which partly be influenced by factors like how fast the plant grows, number of harvests per year, and so on).
Fibre Production & Manufacturing
– What production processes are used for pulp production and/or forming the fibre?
Retting, where fibres are separated from the stem or woody material, is a consideration.
A mechanical retting process (using a machine, water, dew, and enzymes/bacteria), like the one used for some flaxes/linens and some bamboos, can be more sustainable than heavy chemical retting.
Pulp production involves breaking cellulose down into a soluble that can be used to create fibres.
Different processes may use different chemicals, solvents, and be a more efficient process (minimizing waste) compared to others.
In terms of forming the fibre, some fibres might use spinning methods, whilst others may use methods like extruding (synthetic fibres do this).
– What production practices are implemented?
Is the production process an open loop process, or closed loop?
Closed loop may be more sustainable because it might do things such as capturing and re-using water, capturing and re-using chemicals and solvents, and capturing and treating waste water.
– Other fibre treatments
Fibres may also be treated with chemicals like dyes, bleaches, etc. for different traits and appearances
– What happens to other parts of the fibre base material used?
With cellulose from wood for example, instead of throwing away the rest of the wood material, some companies may incorporate waste to energy (or bioenergy) facilities to turn this leftover wood material in energy and co-products.
– Energy used for production
In terms of the off site energy that production and manufacturing processes use, is that energy renewable energy or fossil fuel energy?
– Toxicity of the processes
Are harmful chemicals used, and does pollution lead to toxic natural environments?
Some sources indicate that indirect factors like the type of off site energy used during production, and the toxicity of the production process, are factors that can matter more than the product being produfced.
Turning Fibre Into Fabric, Or Using It In A Finished Product
– Turing fibre into a fabric
Fibres needs to be spun (dry spinning, wet spinning and other spinning methods) into a yarn, or weaved and formed into a fabric
There’s additional resources like energy used to undertake these processes
– Turning fibre into a finished product
Like a textile product for example.
In a finished product, fibres and fabrics may be blended (such as cotton and polyester for example)
Not only do blended products receive a mix of traits, but they also get a mix of two different sustainability footprints from the two different fibres or fabrics that are being combined.
But, some may be 100% one fibre or fabric (such as 100% cotton).
A finished product may undergo further treatment in addition to the fibre treatment process.
– Type of transport used
Land, air, rail or water? Each has a different footprint (carbon footprint, fuel efficiency, etc)
– Total distance transported
Some supply and production chains require many separate trips to send materials and products to different locations for different parts of the supply and production process
Less total distance of transport in the supply and production chain is preferable to get the product to market
For example, bamboo coming from China to the US is going to have a larger transport footprint in general than locally grown cotton
Consumer Usage Stage
– How long the fibre based product is used for
The longer it’s used, the more sustainable it might be, as the production footprint can be averaged out over a longer period of time
– Footprint of the product
Things like washing, cleaning, ironing may add to the footprint of the fibre based
If a fibre based product drops microfibers whilst being washed, this may be a consideration too
– Consumption habits
Are consumer habits trending with higher levels of consumption and fast fashion?
End Of Life Stage
– Can the product be re-used or upcycled?
At both the pre and post consumer stages, some products can be re-used or upcycled
– Biodegradability and compostability of the product
Some products are not are biodegradable or compostable
Some products are biodegradable or compostable only under certain conditions
Some products are biodegradable or compostable under most or all conditions
– Waste management/disposal option used
Is the product sent to landfill, incinerated, or can it be recycled?
Each disposal/waste management option has different pros and cons.
How long does the product take to decompose, and what are the effects of decomposition?
Some take many more years than others
And, some may break down into microfibers, or release chemicals whilst decomposing
Other Miscellaneous Factors To Consider At Different Stages Or Overall
– The entire product lifecycle needs to be considered, and not just one stage
There’s a range of other stages, and factors relating to those stages, that can impact sustainability, other than just the fibre production/supply stage.
oecotextiles.wordpress.com makes this point about weaving in the lifecycle assessment of fibre based products beyond just the fibre production and supply stages:
[Obviously, fibres, filaments and yarns are used to make fabrics]
[Growing and production of fibres has an environmental impact, but so does the weaving process to turn yarns and fibres into fabric.]
… [in 2012] Lenzing does not make fabrics – it sells yarns to mills and others which use the yarns to make fabric and other goods.
[there’s an] environmental impact in the weaving of fibers into fabric, where the water and chemical use is very high – if done conventionally, the environmental burden is devastating and the finished fabric itself probably contains many chemicals which are outlawed in other products.
It’s critically important to look at both the fiber as well as the weaving in order to make a good choice.
– The need to specify the individual fibre producer/manufacturer, and the individual fibre product
Fibres tend to be assessed and described in a general sense, based on the general processes used to make that fibre.
But, to be more accurate in an assessment, the individual fibre manufacturer/producer, and the individual fibre product they produce, should be taken into account.
Not only do different manufacturing practices and processes used by different fibre manufacturers/producers lead to fibres with different profiles and features, such as slightly different end fibre performance traits, but, they also leads to different fibre ratings for measurables such as the sustainability of the fibre for example.
The regulations in place in a country where fibres are being produced may also impact things such as environmental impact of fibre production. Some countries have a history of far more lax environmental, and even human/worker safety regulations than others.
Who makes the fibre, how they make it, and where they make it, can all be variables.
Using one specific example – in the case of lyocell and modal, there are different companies that produce these fibres, and each one has different practices and processes, and therefore different sustainability and environmental footprints.
TENCEL Lyocell Fiber is a specific fibre product made under the TENCEL fiber brand, and under the Lenzing umbrella as a producer/manufacturer of this fiber product.
To get the most accurate sustainability footprint assessment of TENCEL Lyocell for example, it may be best to read the information about the TENCEL Lyocell Fiber product on the TENCEL or Lenzing websites, instead of a sustainability assessment about generalized lyocell elsewhere.
Lenzing’s fibers have their own individual footprint to consider, and these footprints can be compared to the footprints of general lyocell and modal fibre products from other fibre producers/manufacturers.
– What certifications or standards does the fibre or product carry
Certifications and standards indicate that certain criteria has been met across the supply and production of a product.
One example might be an organic certification
Another example might be a certification for basic labor rights
– Transparency of the company producing the fibre or product in terms of the information they give consumers on their website
– Traceability … does the company use any technology like blockchain that can help trace materials through the supply chain?
More On Social Welfare & Criteria To Do With Fibres
Considerations to do with social welfare might include:
Processes and practices that protect the health and safety of workers at various stages of the fibre production supply and production chain i.e. on farms, at forest plantations, in factories and processing facilities where chemicals are used, and so on
Fair working conditions (pay, working environment, hours worked, etc) for fibre production workers
Protection of the health and safety for the end consumer of a fibre product
More On Animal Friendliness & Animal Welfare Of Fibres
Considerations to do with animal friendliness and animal welfare might include:
Whether a product carries a certain animal welfare certification
General practices relating to more humane treatment of animals when producing the product – some materials like Peace silk can be a better alternative than regular silk in terms of reducing or eliminating animal cruelty
Understanding what might be some of the fibres that may have more animal welfare issues than others – silk, wool, down, angora, fur, and leather might all have potential animal welfare issues to consider
Other Factors Not Fully Considered In This Guide
In addition to eco friendliness, sustainability and ethics (relating to the treatment of people, and also animals), there’s also economic and practical considerations that we haven’t comprehensively outlined in this guide.
Economics may include things like employment, profitability, subsidies, etc.
Practical considerations may include things like what a material can be used for, it’s performance, etc
… just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is profitable or even practical to produce
As a more detailed summary, some of those factors might include:
The size of the industry or market of a fibre product
Level of associated employment in a fibre market (in total, and also in rural and more isolated communities)
Cost of production, and profit incentive/profitability for producers
Price the consumer pays
Performance, traits and quality of the final product
Subsidies and government support
Are there any difficult laws or regulations around growing the plant commercially? e.g. hemp has restrictions in the US
Where can the plant be grown? – what growing conditions and climate does it need, what soil conditions does it need, what sort of land does it need (how fertile does it need to be)
If grown as a crop, can the crop be grown alongside or in rotation with another crop to allow farmers to better utilize their land, or to diversify and maximize the products they sell, and also their bottom line for their business? Some natural fibres allow farmers to do this
How far can the plant or source material be transported before losing value? e.g. Hemp loses value the further is moves from where it’s grown
Amount of time and effort to grow and gin/separate the fibre for processing – hemp is labor intensive compared to cotton (can use a decoritator to separate the bast fibre from the hurds)
Is the fibre spinning process efficient? – e.g. hemp spinning is far less efficient than cotton spinning
Can fibre production be scaled? How many producers are there, and what quantities can be produced? What are the barriers to scaling up production, such as trademarks, capital and technology investment, marketing, customer awareness, etc. As one example, TENCEL currently isn’t produced in anywhere near the quantity that cotton is
Are there any barriers to entry to grow the fibre, or produce/manufacture it from a technology, cost, geographic or other perspective? e.g. TENCEL has their own technology and facilities to produce their fibres
Is the fibre important to people’s livelihoods – fibre production with a negative eco impact may continue if it’s important locally to income and people’s livelihoods in a country (like for example in low income regions where cotton uses a lot of water)
Traits and qualities of the fibre – aesthetics, ability to absorb dye, range of colors that can be produced, breathability, durability (how it handles washing, UV resistance). One of the advantages of synthetic fibres for example is that they can be custom engineered or manufactured for certain traits.
Types and number of end applications and end uses for the fibre – suitability for specific or different activities (does it have wide use, or niche use like linen and jute)
Can the fibre be used both by itself, but also blended with other fibres to combine traits of both in a finished fabric or product?
1. Various Better Meets Reality guides and posts