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Can the use of alternative textiles be the answer to sustainable fashion?

Fast fashion vs sustainable fashion are two consumer and lifestyle choices that have polarised the industry of late and created a blame culture of sorts. Regardless of whether they can co-exist, the need to be more responsible and caring towards the environment is clear. Small steps starting with more responsible material choices at the start of the creative process is certainly a way forward. Meenal Malhotra examines the argument.

Fashion is socially, economically and environmentally important industry and a form of expression. As per 2014 data, the fashion apparel industry is valued at 3 trillion dollars accounting for 2% of the world’s GDP and employs 57.8 million people. Though the fashion industry contributes significantly to the GDP, it is the second highest polluter after oil industry. About 25% of the world’s chemicals are used for textile production.

The fashion industry needs to transform in terms of changing consumer’s relationship with the garment and taming excessive consumption. Fast fashion has phenomenally changed our world, with clothes becoming cheap, swiftly produced and distributed in alarming quantities. The chaos created by fast fashion has made sustainability a requisite to the fashion world. Due to the rapidly changing environment, sustainability is slowly becoming the most crucial topic of the fashion industry.

Sustainability should become inherent with fashion. It should be a compulsion and not an option.

With designers producing six collections a year and fast fashion brands rotating new stocks every month, sustainable fashion is an oxymoron for now.

However, trends are changing slowly. In time, sustainability would become inherent in fashion. It should be a compulsion and not an option and constitute the entire fashion process from raw materials to end product. Addressing the issue properly means that it cannot be applied partially to select parts of the manufacturing process. With numerous environmental changes happening with every passing day, fashion consumption needs evolving too.

Mirroring this need, many ethical movements have emerged of late namely, Slow Fashion, Alternative Textiles, Responsible Innovation, Cradle to Cradle, Sharing Economy and Transparency. All the movements are interlinked with each other. One without the other is superfluous and all ultimately will prove beneficial if our consumption patterns change. ‘Alternative Textile’ is my chosen movement.

Alternative Textiles

While there are three factors that affect sustainability: environmental, social and economic, it is the environmental factor that is the most crucial element in encouraging the use of alternative textile.

The Eco Fashion Movement first surfaced in the 1970’s as a part of the hippie revolution. They emphasised on self-sufficiency, natural textiles and dyes. Supreme importance was given to handcrafted designs and establishments were formed to end poverty.

Since then, eco-fashion has been on the minds of people in the fashion industry. In the 1980’s, Katherine Hamnett introduced t-shirts for fortifying the connection between clothing options and socio-political messages. Martin Margiela launched his first collection that featured recycled materials.

The more prominent eco-fashion movement emerged in the 1990’s when the use of pesticides being used in raw materials came to light. Several companies, most importantly Esprit (the company started in 1970’s as a hippie culture movement) launched its first eco collection, where all the raw materials were ethically produced.

The 90’s was the era when the reality of the sweatshops was exposed and factory compliances became important. Giorgio Armani introduced hemp into his collections. Since then using ethically and ecologically made raw materials is cardinal and forms the core of the eco-fashion industry.

‘Alternative textiles’, is in a way, the root of sustainability without eco-friendly materials, the entire life cycle of the garment would have no importance.

Let’s look at the macro factors affecting the textiles industry.


With climate changes taking place, raw materials production will have a setback, affecting the small-scale producers.

Hence, it’s crucial that raw materials production be done in an ethical manner – without the use of pesticides. Then, land remains productive and not barren.

Replacing the use of chemical dyes with natural will not only help improve the environment but also the health of the workers handling these dyes and involved in the process of production.


Using eco-friendly materials will have a huge impact on the economic conditions too. When raw materials are produced following a natural process, even though the quantity will be limited, the quality will remain high.

It is important to note that while the natural process of producing raw materials is likely to take longer thereby resulting in higher product cost, the materials being natural and eco-friendly, would be longer-lasting. The wear and tear will be relatively less.

Automatically, a higher cost would also mean consumption would go down, thereby slowing down the fast fashion movement. As a by-product of the economic effect, since consumption will be less, the dumping in the landfills will reduce and the expenses of saving the environment will reduce drastically.

In the UK alone, £140 million worth of used clothing is disposed of every year.

Almost 67% of carbon emission of the entire supply chain happens in the raw material production and initial stages of processing, making the industry, the second largest polluter.


Climate change imposes many challenges which need to be addressed. To alleviate these impacts and adapt to the detrimental conditions, we as a society need to change the business models of competition and consumption.

The fashion industry should make it a priority across its supply chains to measure and monitor the impact their activities have on the environment.

Almost 67% of carbon emission of the entire supply chain happens in the raw material production and initial stages of processing, making the industry the second largest polluter. Therefore, the process of raw material production remains to be of utmost importance.

The quality of the raw materials is significant in ensuring that the standard of the end product is up to mark. A majority of raw materials used in fashion is procured through agriculture.

Ironically, agriculture bears the brunt of climate change. Poor environmental factors giving rise to conditions like scarcity of water, temperature fluctuations and so on.

It leads to the formation of a vicious circle where the quality of the raw material is dependent on the climate conditions it is yielded in. This, in turn, makes the supply chain’s base i.e. raw material production, most vulnerable.

The analysis of some of the raw materials such as cotton, cashmere, wool, leather, silk and vicuna will show how the environment is being affected.

Organic cotton is produced without the use of any pesticides, fertilisers or weeds, a limited amount of water is used and doesn’t pose risk to the farmers.

alternative textile organic cotton


Cotton: The foremost non-agricultural crop cultivated for approximately 5,000 years is the most commonly used fabric in the fashion industry, with 60% of all the garments made from cotton. Though cotton cultivation covers only 4-5% of the agricultural land, it uses a significant amount of water and pesticides.

Water irrigation is a major hiccup in developing countries like India and Pakistan from where the majority of the cotton is sourced. Known for using copious amount of water, areas producing cotton are already witnessing acute water shortage. Although cotton is most resilient to changing climates, extensive use of pesticides used to grow it in large quantities go against the concept of sustainability.

Chemicals in pesticides are hazardous not only for the health of the farmers but also, often result in barren lands thereby cutting off the source of income for several families that produce cotton for a living.

Another major drawback is the lack of education and awareness imparted among farmers in developing countries. The pesticides used in cotton production have also been found in the majority of cotton garments, the end product which eventually will prove harmful for the person wearing the garment and even for landfills when it is dumped.

To overcome the adverse effects of cotton, organic cotton can be used.

It is produced without the use of any pesticides, fertilisers or weeds. Crop rotation is used for organic farming which keeps the soil healthy and natural sprays are used for pest control. A limited quantity of water is used.

Since no chemicals are utilised, the health of the farmers is not at risk. They earn more as expensive chemicals are ignored and governments pay subsidies to promote the growth of organic cotton. With the emergence of organic cotton, the farmer is enabled to grow a better-quality crop and once the harvesting is complete, they are able to grow other crops in its place to earn their livelihood.

Organic cotton as an alternate textile can negate the hazardous implications of cotton on the environment. Despite the fact that the process is time-consuming, in the coming years it will prove beneficial.

Other plant-based fibres such as banana fibre, coconut fibre, nettle, bamboo and hemp are also becoming popular for clothing as they are produced in an environmentally friendly manner.

Wool: Wool is obtained from sheep’s fibrous hair. The use of wool started approximately 6,000 years ago. Wool is the most versatile fabric for colder terrains as it can soak water up to 30% of its own weight and provides warmth. Due to the growing demand, the process by which wool is obtained has become harsh.

Sheep are reared by a process called mulesing which is a very painful process for the animal. They are given hormones so that the shedding of wool becomes easy. Proper grasslands are not available for grazing and after the wool is reared, chemical dyes are used which further negatively impact the environment.

Even though wool is not a big contributor to the overall textile production, the pollution rate caused through the process of its production remains notably high, thanks to the use of pesticides to fight lice and blowflies on sheep, shrink proofing, dyeing and scouring (process to remove grease from wool).

An alternative to wool could be organic wool which can help counter the effects of wool production. Countries like UK and Australia have taken initiatives to rear the sheep on organic farmlands. The wool thus obtained without harming the animal and using organic dyes and processes, can make it sustainable.

Brands such as Tom Cridland, are promoting the use of organic wool. Recently they launched a 30-year sweatshirt. Here Today Here Tomorrow, a UK based brand that uses 100% organic wool from Nepal. A campaign for wool was launched with Prince Charles as its patron to promote organic wool. Such initiatives will help in promoting organic fabrics which will reduce the negative effects on the environment.

Cashmere: Made from goat’s hair, cashmere production is greatly dependent on perfect temperature, water availability and the grasslands that serve as nourishment for the goats.

Majority of the cashmere is produced in China and Mongolia. Due to changing climatic condition, in 2010 over 9 million livestock died due to winter storms. The quality of cashmere has also dropped over time due to unfavourable climate conditions. This, in turn, affects the livelihood of the farmers, who, to protect against harsh conditions, increase the size of their stocks resulting in overgrazing and ultimately land degradation. The raw fibre is transported to China through various torturous routes where the animals are ill-treated.

To overcome this, designers such as Stewart and Brown have taken initiatives like making frequent visits to Mongolia, where the majority of the cashmere is produced. The co-op provides the labourers with all the resources necessary for goat rearing. They use only organic cashmere for their garments which saves the livelihoods of people and encourages ethical buying.

Leather: The most detrimental effect leather has is the way it’s treated in order to make it workable and commercially viable. The leather is obtained from the skins of animals such as cattle, sheep, lamb and goats.

Water scarcity, increasing heat and degradation of pastures adds on to it. Furthermore, tanning processes of leather which demand heavy usage of chemicals can prove unhealthy for the labourers and the environment, as mostly the chemicals are drained into water bodies and canals, without adequate protection.

With the advent of new technologies, natural leather materials such as pina-tex (pineapple leather), muskin (made from mushrooms), vegetable leather tanning are available and are being used by designers such as Clarks, UGGS, Melvin-Hamilton to name a few. Such inventions can have a huge impact on the environment resulting in lower water pollution.

Silk: Silk is obtained from growing silkworms under perfect temperatures. Majority of the silk comes from India and China. These countries are not equipped to handle climatic changes thereby threatening the survival of worms.

The process of making silk has become unethical with time. Due to high demand, silkworms are treated with heat to get better-quality threads which shorten the lifespan of the worm. Moreover, synthetic dyes are used for colouring which again pollutes the environment.

Ironically, silk, in its natural form, remains biodegradable.

Vicuna: Vicuna belongs to the camel family. Its hair is considered the most expensive animal fibre in the world.

It is only found in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and places at an elevation of 3500-5200 meters above sea level. These areas are at a high risk of climate change such as droughts. This impacts the livelihood of the communities that are totally dependent on vicuna as they do not have adequate social, financial or technological resources.

By helping these communities, we can save the endangered species and produce a high-quality sustainable material with no harmful effects on the environment.

Oil-based synthetic fibres

Lycra: Heavily used in contemporary fashion as a stretch material, lycra is comfortable to wear. But it is not recyclable and is a major pollutant in landfills. The only solution is to re-use the fabric for a long time which seems to be a serious problem with the ever-changing fashion industry.

Polyester: One of the most used fabrics these days, polyester has overcome cotton as well. The fabric is light, easy to dry and needs no ironing. The only negative is that it needs regular washing as it retains odour. But the fabric is long lasting and can be recycled as well.

Patagonia, a clothing company have become pioneers of recycled polyester in collaboration with a Japanese company, Teijin. Such initiatives have encouraged brands such as Marks and Spencer to use recycled polyester. Such fabrics will help the environment and slow down its degradation.

Other materials such as recycled and blended fabrics also have been introduced. However, they are durable only when produced in smaller quantities.

Technological eco-fashion

Fabrics with Nanotechnologies are under experimentation. With the use of protective Nanoscale coatings, the garment can launder itself which can prove revolutionary in the future. These textiles will require less washing and will be biodegradable as well.

The scales of consumption have reached levels where technology will prove redundant. For fashion to be truly sustainable controlled consumption is primary.


Eco-labelling can be introduced to make the consumer aware of their purchases. Labels such as sustainable, organic, fair trade, ethical, bio-degradable, can help consumers make intelligent choices. No stringent criteria are there for labelling the garments. Most of the textile standards are determined by private organisations such as soil association, fair trade mark and butterfly mark.

Introducing alternative textile is just one and a relatively small step in creating a sustainable environment. The way the textile is used at a later stage also determines greatly the textiles burden on the environment.

Though the raw material production is responsible for 67% of pollution of the entire supply chain, it is paramount to note that the increase in production is a result of increased demand and consumption.

The scales of consumption have reached levels where technology will prove redundant. For fashion to be truly sustainable controlled consumption is primary. The focus should be shifted to the quality of production rather than quantity.


The crux of the issue, to a great extent, lies in consumerism; it is the major hindrance in attaining sustainable fashion. The infinite hunger for buying goods and replenishing wardrobes has become a major problem.

Fast fashion with low prices, instant off-the-runway designs entwined with store experiences entices people to buy more which is paradoxical when talking about environment protection.

There is also an imbalance in the rate of purchase of garments and its use. Often, clothes are donated to charities and from there it goes to the second-hand clothing industry to be dispersed across the world to be finally dumped in landfills.

The demand and desires of the consumers need to be in check for moving towards a sustainable environment. That said, it need not come at the cost of compromising on fashion consciousness since quality is a prime and non-negotiable factor.