Sustainable fabrics: which are the best for sale and how to select them
In 2018, the global fashion industry produced 2.1 billion greenhouse gases, 4% of the total, equal to the combined emissions of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Fabrics, in particular, are the elements with the greatest impact, accounting for 67% of the total emissions of the entire industry when we consider raw material production, yarn preparation, fabric preparation and wet processes.
The environmental impact of materials is also one of the main selection criteria for consumers: 75% think that brands should be required by law to protect the environment at every production stage. For the materials, attention is not only concerned with the composition but also with other factors such as, for example, the origin. For a company, knowing which fabrics to select can therefore make a difference both in terms of impact and communication to consumers. Here, we guide you to discover the main criteria for the selection of sustainable fabrics and the most well-known manufacturers in Italy and abroad.
What to consider when choosing sustainable fabrics?
Choosing the raw material. An example: cotton VS polyester
The first consideration is that each material has its impacts and criticalities. Let’s start with a concrete example: it is a widespread belief that cotton, as a fiber of natural origin, is more sustainable than synthetic fibers such as polyester. However, the comparative study Environmental Benchmark for Fibres published by Made-By in 2018 shows how both are high-impact: in a ranking from A to E, virgin polyester is classified as D, while conventional cotton falls into section E. That is because one should not only take into account the textile’s end of life. In addition, the associated greenhouse gas emissions, humans and environmental toxicity, use of energy and water, and land use should be considered too. For instance, cotton requires huge water use, soil, and pesticides that are harmful to the environment and workers’ health. Cotton is also linked to the forced labor in Xinjiang, and some areas of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The first problem with virgin polyester, on the other hand, is that it is obtained from a non-renewable resource (oil) using an energy-intensive process. Normally, it is not biodegradable and will therefore end up in a landfill for years unless recycled. Polyester also loses microplastics, a phenomenon we have discussed here. All this considered, cotton has, unlike common belief, an overall lower performance than polyester in terms of sustainability. Being aware of the criticalities of each material is hence crucial to choose the alternatives with the best social and environmental impact. They are known as preferred and increasingly purchased by large brands, as the report Material Change 2019 by Textile Exchange attests. For conventional cotton, the preferred alternatives are recycled, organic, or Fairtrade. For polyester, recycled or bio-based ones are now available on the market.
How to select sustainable fabric suppliers?
In addition to the raw material, the main selection criterion, as we have said, is to buy only preferred fabrics. That is not always possible precisely because the industry shift is still ongoing, and not everyone – especially smaller suppliers – is still aligned. Consequentially, what are the other fundamental aspects to keep in mind when choosing fabric suppliers to be as sustainable as possible?
If a company does not produce everything internally, its suppliers must check on the environmental and social practices of their subcontractors. Traceability gains importance, therefore, increasingly requested by consumers and essential for determining the sustainability of a company, as we have explained here.
- Presence of certifications and standards
It is essential to verify that producers have environmental and social certifications, a guarantee of greater sustainability. For 80% of consumers, the presence of certifications is a fundamental choice criterion for purchasing. In the certifications section, Cikis periodically considers the best-known ones, analyzing their advantages and limitations.
- Country of origin of the material
It is essential to know the country of origin of the material to verify that all the sustainability criteria, especially the social ones, are respected. Emblematic is the case of Xinjiang’s cotton, condemned by the Canadian Parliament. The United States House of Representatives has also issued an import ban with huge economic consequences for companies.
- Energy management system and percentage of renewable energy:For many materials, one of the production risks is that of intense energy use. These include polyester but also nylon, cotton, and leather. Implementing corrective actions and strategies to achieve or even improve energy efficiency is essential; favoring a conscious usage, without waste. In this sense, it is crucial to use renewable energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Environmental management system
The adoption of an environmental management system provides companies with a systematic framework for the integration of practices to protect the environment, preventing pollution, reducing the amount of waste, the consumption of energy and materials, as well as the sustainable management of pellets to combat the dispersion of plastic granules into the environment. That also allows monitoring of the achievement of legal requirements.
- Compliance with chemical standards:
Closely linked to human, environmental, and worker health, the management of suppliers and the chemical processes used in production are of particular strategic importance. It is, therefore, necessary that the value chain aligns with recognized standards and certifications, such as the ZDHC (or equivalent).
- Percentage of fabric waste:
Usually, about 15% of the fabric goes wasted in the manufacturing process alone. Also counting all the other production phases, textile waste accounts for a huge impact, which companies must pay attention to in order to improve their overall sustainability report.
- Validated health and safety system:
Attention to social value is one of the aspects underlined by the Decalogue on Social and Environmental Responsibility in the Fashion Sector, promoted by the National Chamber of Italian Fashion to trace an Italian path to responsible and sustainable fashion and to encourage the adoption of responsible management models along the entire fashion value chain to the benefit of the country. Effective occupational health and safety management systems are essential to ensure the protection of personnel. Companies must then verify that their suppliers, along the entire chain, also adopt a validated one. Collaborating with suppliers who train their employees on the social risks present along the supply chain is a fundamental part of this process.
Suppliers of sustainable fabrics: some examples
- Aquafil: one of the main producers of synthetic fibers in Italy and worldwide, Aquafil is also a leader in sustainable development. It has created ECONYL®, a nylon thread regenerated from nylon waste.
- Re-Verso™: identification mark of a supply chain made up of different players Re-Verso ™ is a circular economy production system for high-quality wool and cashmere, pre-Consumer, and Takeback. Companies can therefore offer their textile waste, becoming part of the virtuous circuit.
- Mantero: in partnership with Ecotec® by Marchi & Fildi, Mantero has created RESILK®, a fully Made in Italy traceable process to generate a new silk thread from waste and surpluses of unused fabrics.
- Maeko Tessuti & Filati Naturali: producer of natural fabrics since 1998, Maeko stands out for its attention to sustainability and innovation by offering, among others, fabrics generated from pineapple and seaweed.
- Berto Industria Tessile: Italian excellence of sustainable innovation, we interviewed their administrator Flavio Berto in an episode of the podcast Cikis – Business stories of Fashion and Sustainability. Follow us not to miss it!
- Candiani Spa: founded in 1938, Candiani is a pioneer of recycled denim, famous all over the world.
- Smart Shop di C.L.A.S.S.: supported by important partners, in the C.L.A.S.S.‘ eco shop companies can also purchase small quantities of sustainable fabrics.
Why is a list of suppliers not enough?
Choosing the best sustainable alternatives is not an easy matter, particularly as it is often necessary to combine them with company needs and priorities. The reasons that can push brands to modify their operations can be different ranging from the property’s values to responding to consumer requests or buyer’s compliance (e.i. Zalando’s Sustainable Sourcing Policy). In defining a sustainability path, it is also necessary to consider other elements such as the company’s positioning, the long-term strategy, and the requests of the countries of the reference market.
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Dopo esperienze di lavoro in Mango, dove ho sperimentato in prima persona la complessità del sistema produttivo del Fast Fashion, e in una tech Company americana, mi sono dedicata allo studio delle criticità ambientali e sociali della filiera di produzione delle aziende di moda e di come la tecnologia potesse supportarle nello sviluppo sostenibile.