Since BBC’s Blue Planet shocked viewers by showing the disastrous environmental effects of single-use plastics and Stacey Dooley’s equally as damning documentary named Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, consumers are becoming more ethically aware. While it is nearly impossible to buy products that are 100% sustainable, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. One way we can buy more consciously is choosing to invest our cash in clothing made from biodegradable textiles.
Biodegradability is integral to the environment. Products that biodegrade are part of the natural cycle. They come from nature and decompose back into nature, enriching the soil and nourishing new life. According to studies, in the UK alone, around 350,000 tonnes of used clothing and 370,000 tonnes of carpets end up in landfills every year.
Comparing natural and synthetic fibres is like comparing apples and oranges. Synthetic textiles are man-made and are created using chemical synthesis to produce fibres like Nylon, Acrylic and Polyester. As they are chemically bonded, synthetic fibres are not biodegradable. According to Down 2 Earth Materials, nylon clothing can take a whopping 30-40 years to decompose in a landfill site.
Unlike synthetic fabrics, natural fibres originate from natural sources like plants or animals and, as a result, are breathable, non-depleting and biodegradable. A prominent example of a natural and renewable fibre is wool. If you are at peace with the fact that wool derives from animals such as sheep, alpacas and llamas, then choosing to invest in this fabric is a clever environmental choice, as decomposition life expectancy is a shorter 1-5 years.
In an article from May 2018, Environmental Fashion Campaigner, Livia Firth reported on Tasmania’s wool production. After meeting with wool farmers, Firth reported that their “careful approach to land conservation and sustainable wool production was inspiring”. While she acknowledged that not all wool production is as thoughtful, she considered it important to shine a light on the companies that are providing a better blueprint for sustainable production. Amongst the controversies of wool production, is the practice of mulesing which still remains an ethical dilemma. Mulesing involves the removal of wool-bearing skin from around the tail-end of the animal to prevent parasitic infections. However, as reported, farming companies are currently looking for kinder approaches to this, for example, using painkillers when performing the necessary procedure. For Firth, it still poses as a justifiable predicament as although “it is not a nice practice, but when done properly, it can save a sheep’s life”.
Like many other textiles – natural or synthetic, wool has a slew of environmental foibles due to the increasing demand of fast-fashion. In larger production, pesticide use, greenhouse gas emissions, the washing, dyeing and treatment of the wool are the areas that can leave a tainted and unsustainable footprint. However, Firth was convinced that, when compared to the evils of synthetic fibres, wool came out on top because man-made materials shed microplastics each time they are washed and as a result they are not compostable.
When stripped back to basics, wool can be a planet-friendly fibre. Sheep are part of the planet’s natural carbon cycle, consuming the organic carbon stored in plants and converting it into wool. As a result, 50% of wool’s weight is that of pure and organic carbon. In addition, woolen textiles are not only the most recyclable but, if cared for, age well, meaning that they are an investment and, therefore, more likely to be treasured and worn for longer than a synthetic textile. Finally, woolen textile products tend to be washed by hand, less frequently and at lower temperatures, resulting in reduced water usage.
If you are an environmentally conscious consumer who is looking to invest in a quality textile with a relatively green footprint then wool, with its warts and all, may be a really good option.