The sustainability of textiles

When choosing a piece of clothing, what makes me buy it? How can I evaluate its quality and the impact it has on the environment? A factor that is certainly important to consider but at the same time difficult to fully understand is definitely the material it is made of. When studying the fabric of a fashion product, there are many factors to take into consideration, since the work needed to produce it is so much, and consequently so much weight it can have on the sustainability of the finished product. In order to better understand the various factors involved, it is important to understand all the issues related to the sustainability of textiles.


Cotton, for example, is a textile fiber that being natural may seem like a simple choice to have a sustainable product, but it actually presents multiple factors to consider.

Such material requires, both during the cultivation of the plant and during processing, the use of large quantities of water and chemicals that are potentially dangerous for the environment and health. According to WWF, it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed for a single T-shirt. The cotton plant is typical of warm and sunny areas, thus requiring large quantities of water during the growth period. Moreover, in order to have a high performance production, cultivations are often treated with dangerous chemical substances. These products cause intoxication of the cultivation soil as well as the fiber itself.

Cotton production brings with it a problem linked not only to the environmental resources it uses but also to ethics, an essential factor in evaluating the sustainability of textiles fibers. In fact, the market that develops around it is often linked to the exploitation of land and people in economically weaker areas of the world. For example, one of the most widely used cottons for fashion is that grown in India, where high competitiveness often leads to underpaid workers and suboptimal cultivation methods.

Cotton plants in fruit
Cotton and GMO seeds

In the specific case of India there is also the problem of importing seeds from America, which gives the sellers of these seeds great financial power, especially after the introduction of GMO seeds. These particular seeds are modified to better resist the weather but are only usable for the period of one flowering. In this way the sellers ensure a continuous return to the market by the farmers. The latter instead find themselves having to sustain a constant expense that they are not always able to balance.

In our evaluation of the sustainability of textiles, it is important to consider the life cycle of this product as a natural fiber. Cotton has a very short decomposition time after use, especially when compared to artificial fibers. Thanks to this, its impact after use is very low.


Like cotton, wool also has a shorter decomposition time at the end of its life than that typical of synthetic textiles. Moreover, wool does not require excessive quantities of water in the phase preceding spinning as it derives from animal fleece. Depending on sheep breeding, however, there is a great risk of creating intensive breeding. This term indicates the act of accelerating the growth of animals through the use of hormones, so that the sheep can reach adulthood as fast as possible and bring more wool. Demonstrating an interest in the animal related only to how much profit it can bring, this method leads to problems for the eco system on several fronts.

As well as intensive growth, another problem that occurs with wool, especially from Australian sheep, is the one related to muelesing. This practice, although carried out for the good of the animal, results in great suffering for it. Also in this case the problem arises from trying to select through the selection of species only those sheep that can give as much wool as possible, without considering the health problems that could result.

Merino wool fleece

On the other side of the coin, wool has a long life and excellent performance characteristics, making up garments capable of lasting a long time. These factors therefore indicate that the best use of wool is to produce controlled quantities through breeding methods that take the best care of the animal and its environment.


Continuing in this study on the sustainability of fibers, we come to evaluate flax fiber. From the point of view of sustainability, this material is extremely interesting. As it requires small quantities of water and chemical substances, its cultivation can be inserted without great alterations in the ecosystem. These rules also apply to the processing of yarn and fabric. As reported by European Flex, the cultivation of flax requires zero irrigation (rainwater is enough) and very few fertilizers or chemicals.

Flax also helps in the reduction of carbon because every hectare of land cultivated in this way retains 3.7 tons of CO2.

The main problem presented by flax is unfortunately about the quantity produced, because of the limited cultivation of this plant. Having a cultivation cycle of one year and requiring particular weather conditions, it is not cultivated as much as cotton. For this reason it has a much lower impact on the environment but at the same time a much lower availability.


Most of the materials currently used in the fashion field are human-made and can originate from petroleum but also from natural materials, usually vegetable. In the case of viscose, for example, the starting point is cellulose obtained from the wood of trees. It is reduced in chips and then becomes a pulp to be spun. Viscose is an interesting meeting point between natural and artificial fibers.

Derived from tree trunks, it often runs the risk of depending on intense deforestation activities. This reality is always linked to a need for intensive production that does not leave sufficient space and resources for cultivation that follows nature’s timing. The result is an uncontrolled and dangerous exploitation of existing natural resources.

Polyester padding

As can be seen from the previous paragraphs, a major problem related to the sustainability of textiles presented by natural materials is the exploitation of animals and land for intensive growth. Faced with this problem, humans have tried to industrialize in order to find a solution. A striking example of this is the use of polyester padding.

Here we find ourselves in front of a product made to prevent the realization of goose feather padding. In order to avoid the breeding and killing of birds for the mere purpose of creating down and padded garments, materials derived entirely from petroleum have been developed.

These materials clearly present all the critical points linked to plastic materials and the difficulty of dealing with their end-of-life treatment. At the same time, however, it is necessary to consider the type of product in which they will be used, which tends to have a very long life and is less tied to seasonality. Often, in fact, these types of padding are mostly used in technical and performing garments, designed to last over time.

Polyester wadding
Vegan leather

Another example of this principle is vegan leather. In this case, it is important to create a distinction between those derived from polymers and those derived from the recovery of natural material. The latter is a very special and innovative material, the result of an upcycling study.

By using natural waste as raw material it is not reduced to a single type but at the moment various prototypes are being developed. Often deriving from food industry waste, an interesting example of vegan leather can be found in “Whineleather” deriving from fibers and oils extracted from grape pomace. This material therefore creates products that not only reuse waste materials, but once they reach the end of their life they also have fast decomposition times. As a problem, however, the time and method of production are too long for the current demand, producing still small quantities of this material.

Wine lather

It is therefore possible to understand how behind each material there is a world of problems, qualities and work that widely influence the final product. Every process applied, every step carried out has causes and involves consequences, each of which can guide my choice and decision towards it.

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