“We have 11 years more to prevent global temperatures from rising…”; we’ve all heard this narrative. It’s time to act. But amidst all the chaos and confusion, sometimes we might not know where to start. How about starting off with something simpler — what we wear.
Our clothes are an integral part of our lives. Therefore, we should pay even more attention to its origins and its environmental impact. Most clothes are made of synthetic fibres such as polyesters. They shed microplastics during laundry and these microfibres are washed into our oceans. Since microplastics are so small and invisible to the naked eye, it is difficult to filter them out. 40% of microfibres that our clothes shed are estimated to enter our oceans and rivers. Often, it is ingested by marine life when released into the ocean. Ultimately, it contaminates our food chain through bioaccumulation. Small preys ingest these microplastics and in turn, big predators consume these small preys, along with the microplastics in their bodies. The concentration of microplastics in bodies increases higher up the food chain. Ultimately, we are the ones who end up eating these microplastics.
In addition, the production of other materials is often unethical and unsustainable. Take cotton as an example. Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop which requires large amounts of water to grow. About 20,000 litres of water is needed to produce about 1kg of cotton and 2,700 litres of water is needed for 1 shirt. This is the equivalent of sustaining a single person with water for about 900 days. Many companies also use chemicals such as pesticides in the production of cotton. These chemicals are then washed into our waterways and they pollute our water sources.
These are just a fraction of the harmful environmental impacts of our clothes. It is unbelievable that our clothes can have such harsh consequences on our environment. Hence, it is vital that we take a closer look at where our clothes come from, how they are made and what they are made of.
If you are wondering which fabric should you then choose when shopping, here are some sustainable fabrics that we can look out for when shopping!
I know what you’re thinking — didn’t you just say that cotton is harmful to the environment? But organic cotton is another story. It is basically our conventional cotton minus all that harmful chemicals and unsustainable practices.
Organic cotton is grown without using any harmful chemicals which helps to keep our water sources pollution-free. It also uses less water compared to conventional cotton. Organic cotton fabrics are very comfortable and breathable, making them great materials for our clothes especially in hot and humid Singapore.
It is still undeniable that cotton, organic or conventional, still requires a water-intensive production process. To obtain the colour that we want, cotton must be dyed using chemicals. A tip from us is to go for natural organic cotton instead. Sure, it’s nice to have colourful clothes in your wardrobe, but do consider the amount of chemical dyes in our water bodies.
Linen is more than just bedsheets and pillowcases. It is a sustainable fabric that is made from the stem of the flax plant. It is a breathable material and naturally moth-resistant, which eliminates the need for all those mothballs in our closets. It is also biodegradable if it is untreated.
However, linen is not naturally white and to get a white linen fabric, it must undergo intensive bleaching processes that use a lot of chemicals. Hence, we would advise opting for more natural colours such as grey and ivory to eliminate such bleaching processes.
Hemp is probably a material that is more unheard of. You’ll be surprised to know that hemp is made from cannabis. However, do not give it less credit than it should. Not only is hemp becoming more popular, but it is also a sustainable fabric because it requires very little water to produce and no chemicals to produce. It is resistant to pests and this eliminates the need for pesticides, keeping our water sources clean. Like linen, it is made from the stem of the plant. Not only is it comfortable, but it is also highly UV-resistant, perfect for Singapore’s sunny weather. Hemp is also known to be resistant to mould. In some places, hemp is used to make “bricks” called hempcrete and can be used to build houses due to their mould and pest-resistant properties.
Nevertheless, it is important to know the origin of hemp because some companies might use chemicals to increase production. While the cultivation of hemp can be sustainable, processing it to a fabric might not necessarily be. To make hemp into a piece of fabric, manufacturers use a method called retting and many companies use chemicals to do so since it is cheaper and speeds up the process. After hemp is processed into a fabric, it might also undergo chemical-intensive dyeing processes. It is no doubt that hemp is a sustainable crop. But we must also ensure that its production process into fabrics has a low impact on the environment!
Surprisingly, silk is manufactured through a low-waste process. Silkworms’ diet consists mainly of mulberry leaves and the mulberry tree is easy to grow and resistant to pollution. After the silk is extracted from the inner cocoons of the silkworms, farmers use the pupae as a snack since it is rich in protein. The outer cocoons are also used as fertilisers or as fillings to stuff pillows. The production of silk does not require any pesticides and takes far less land and water compared to other fabrics such as cotton.
Silk is not only a comfortable and soft material for our clothes, but it also has antibacterial properties. There are some celebrities who are known to sleep with silk masks, pillowcases and bedsheets as these do not retain bacteria. But did you know, the yield for silk is very small? For one pound of raw silk, 2,500 silkworms must be sacrificed. This might not be the best choice for vegans as the production of silk can be a cruel process since silkworms are usually boiled alive to extract their silk.
Bamboo is definitely a controversial fabric. On the surface, it seems like a sustainable material. Bamboo is the fastest-growing grass, growing up to 4cm per hour. Hence, even if we chop it off for our fabrics, it regenerates quickly from its roots. However, the problem lies in the production of the fabric.
Most of the bamboo production is in China where production processes are less transparent. Hence, it is hard to determine if the bamboo was ethically sourced and sustainably grown due to lax production regulations and lack of transparency in the process. In addition, transforming bamboo into a piece of fabric is a tedious process. Bamboo is originally a hard material and it has to go through several chemical-intensive processes that use hazardous chemicals such as sodium hydroxide or carbon disulfide to convert it into the soft fabric we use. These chemicals used are toxic to both the human body and to the environment. Carbon sulfide is known to damage the human reproductive system and it can evaporate into the air or leak into waterways, polluting the environment.
Ultimately, there is always going to be the other side of the coin. While these materials are supposedly more sustainable, they are not without their cons. It does feel frustrating to find out that while you are desperately trying to save the environment in one way, you are hurting it in another. In my opinion, we often make the mistake of separating products or materials into two dichotomies — good and bad for the environment. We fail to realise that in this uphill battle against time, there are many grey areas. There is always a trade-off. But at the same time, we should not be disheartened and discredit our efforts to live more sustainably.
The key is to reduce our footprints on the environment. Other than switching to more sustainable fabrics, we can also adopt other ways to dress more sustainably such as buying secondhand, renting clothes or living a minimalistic lifestyle. It might be impossible to have zero impact on the environment. But if you can reduce the impact and slow down the process towards a total climate breakdown, then it is definitely a step in the right way. At this stage, we do not need 10 people saving the environment perfectly. We need a million people saving it imperfectly.