The material mix is one of the biggest drivers of a fashion brand’s environmental footprint and comes with implications for climate change, waste and biodiversity. Across segments it can determine up to two thirds of a brand’s impact on water, energy and land use, as well as its air emissions and waste.67 The choice of materials has to be assessed holistically with social implications and the intended use and end of use of a product in mind, including its ability to be recovered, reused or recycled back into a quality product. While comparing impacts across fibres is important, it is also relevant to understand the properties of each individual fibre and replace it with a preferred option.
At first sight, natural fibres appear superior from a sustainability perspective. Natural plant fibres, such as cotton, are renewable and biodegradable, under the right conditions. Based on local conditions as well as practices in water stewardship, conventional cotton production can be a driver of water consumption in the supply chain.
Natural animal fibres, such as wool, leather, down and silk offer unique qualities, but their production can entail force feeding, live plucking and unethical slaughtering practices, while the rising number of vegetarian and vegan consumers strengthens the business case to protect animal welfare.68 Animal farming can have a large environmental impact because of its land use and climate effects.69 For leather production, the heavy use of chemicals for tanning is particularly hazardous.70
So, what about synthetic alternatives? Some man-made fibres look promising: fibres such as polyester typically require less water than natural fibres, are often highly durable and can be more easily recycled. Still, most existing synthetic fibres are not biodegradable and rely on fossil fuels and chemicals for production. When laundered many synthetic fibres shed micro fibres that account for up to 35% of microplastic pollution in the oceans.71 However, much more research is needed on this topic across fibre groups and the true extend of the impact is still unknown.
Deciphering the environmental, social and ethical impact of raw materials remains a complex undertaking. The picture is muddled further by the diversity of calculation methods applied. There is a general lack of data on the environmental impact across all fibre types and debates on how to weigh the different trade-offs within existing fibres remain. It will take a major innovation push to improve existing materials and to develop new materials that are less resource intensive. When developing new fibres and solutions, their potential to be circulated back into the fashion cycle has to be considered.
Recent years have seen encouraging developments around a more sustainable material mix in collections,72 a heightened focus on recycled materials and emphasis on creative innovation for the development of more sustainable materials. There are new fibres including those made from, e.g. agricultural and food waste or wood pulp. Yet, a number of these, if scaled, could come with similar impacts as conventional materials in which the process of monocropping could further soil depletion.73, 74 In addition, bio-synthetics are gaining stronger traction due to the use of renewable resources and potential to mitigate climate change compared to petroleum-based counterparts. In the long run, the use of biosynthetic fibres can also reduce risks associated with oil price instability.75
A rising number of companies and local governments have taken a stronger stance on fur, implementing more stringent standards on animal welfare. Nevertheless, much more must be done to raise industry standards to ensure that no animals suffer in the production of fashion.
The issue of microplastic pollution has risen on the industry’s agenda, drawing increased attention from brands, regulators, media and academics. Interest in innovation to mitigate the release of micro fibres through sustainable materials has increased. While some collaborative efforts and policy measures76 are underway, industry implementation of advances is needed to accelerate large-scale change.
We encourage fashion industry leaders to trace and evaluate the environmental and social impact of the materials they use and to shift their material mix towards low-impact materials. Therefore, the common use of industry-wide standards is crucial to enable joint definitions and targeted actions. Ongoing efforts of the EU in collaboration with value chain representatives aims to develop a common methodology for accessing the environmental footprint of apparel and footwear production in the framework of the Technical Secretariat for the European Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint project expected to reach results in 2022.77
Companies must be aware of trade-offs since purely switching their materials mix will not solve all environmental or social issues. Brands need to move away from the reliance on one fibre, instead considering fibres as a diverse array of properties that can suit multiple applications. Moving away from mono-cropping towards diversified fibre usage will help rebuild soil health and natural biodiversity.78, 79
As a whole, especially brands relying on natural fibres need to consider switching from harmful to less harmful materials and to look to regenerative agricultural practices which seek to restore the nutrients and carbon-capture capabilities of soil. Industry players together with relevant stakeholders play an integral part in stimulating the supply of more sustainable materials.
Frontrunners should work collaboratively with raw material suppliers, manufacturers, researchers and industry associations to reduce the negative effects of the current production of existing fibres and further develop the implementation of industry standards for animal welfare. Brands leading the way are encouraged to invest in regenerative agriculture80 and utilise traceability tools to enhance their understanding of the potential ramifications for climate, circularity and biodiversity, illuminating consequences such as deforestation and pollution.