Textiles and sustainability

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Key information

Textiles are all the different types of cloth or fabric that we use. They can make clothes, furnishing and even buildings.

Different textiles can keep us warm and dry and let us express ourselves with different designs and styles.

In this article you can find out about:

  • Natural and synthetic textiles

  • The impact textiles have on the environment

  • How we can reduce the impact of textiles on the environment

  • The advantages and challenges of textiles

This resource is suitable for Sustainability topics for P5, P6 and P7 (Second Level Curriculum for Excellence).

Natural and synthetic textiles

Before the 19th Century, all textiles were made from natural materials such as:

  • animal products (for example leather, wool, fur and even silk)
  • fibres from plants (for example cotton from cotton plants or linen from a plant called flax)

A long time ago, people would dress themselves using natural materials. Lots of us wear natural textiles like cotton, linen and wool today. Some people, such as the Inuit people of Canada still use animal furs for clothing and accessories. (ton koene / Alamy Stock Photo)

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In the 19th Century, new ways were found to turn natural materials into textiles like rayon. This meant that much more could be produced in factories.

In the 20th Century, different textiles were invented, for example nylon, polyester, acrylic and spandex. These are all made from different types of plastic. Instead of coming from plants or animals, these textiles are all made from fossil fuels, mostly oil.

Making clothes out of these synthetic textiles can have advantages and disadvantages:

  • Polyester dries more quickly than cotton and is easier to dye or colour but can become smelly because bacteria grow well on polyester fibres.
  • Acrylic is soft and warm like wool but cheaper to make. However it can cause static electricity to build up and is very flammable.
  • Nylon is thin, strong and water resistant but it shrinks when it gets too hot.
  • Spandex is stretchy and can make clothes for athletes. It isn't breathable, so it has to be combined with other materials to stop you getting sweaty.

All of these synthetic fibres have environmental disadvantages.

Sports clothing has been specifically designed to improve performance. A lot of sports tops are made to fit tightly, which helps increase speed and movement. In rugby and football, it also stops your opponents grabbing your shirt. Technology also means materials are designed to absorb sweat and keep you cool while you perform. (Split Seconds / Alamy Stock Photo)

The impact textiles have on the environment

Synthetic fibres

All synthetic fibres have environmental disadvantages. They all use lots of energy to produce and making them can cause pollution. In fact, 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions are linked to fashion and textiles. They are still mostly plastics, so they don't and even washing them releases tiny pieces of plastic into the water system.

Fast fashion

Lots of clothes made using synthetic fibres are ‘fast fashion’, which means they are made very cheaply, sold at low prices and designed to be worn and look good for a few times before being thrown away. This is a huge waste of energy and material and takes up space as landfill.

Fast fashion creates cheap clothing that is often thrown away after being used for a short time. They are normally made from synthetic textiles so don't biodegrade and end up in landfill waste. (Anneliese Gruenwald-Maerkl / Alamy Stock Photo)

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Plant fibres

Natural materials like cotton also have a harmful impact on the environment. A lot of water is needed to grow huge numbers of cotton plants needed to meet the world demand for jeans, t-shirts and other cotton clothing.

Making a pair of jeans can use 3, 781 litres of water while growing the crops and dyeing the jeans. There are also many bugs and pests that harm cotton plants. So, to tackle that problem, many farmers around the world use chemical , which can damage the environment or human health.

Animal products

Some people think that it is wrong to farm animals for textiles and materials.

We need to think about the impact from materials from animals too. Keeping sheep for wool or cows for leather all takes up land and energy. Unless they only eat grass, then more land and energy is needed to grow and deliver food for them. Cows produce a lot of methane which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

All textiles have an environmental impact. One of the best ways to reduce this is to use less.

Journey of a t-shirt

If you look at the label on one of your t-shirts it will tell you where it has been made. However, this is only part of the story.

In order to make your t-shirt it will have gone on a journey from field to clothes rack. The clothes miles are not just from the place the clothing was made to the place it was bought.

It may have started its journey as a cotton plant grown in India, then sent to China where the raw cotton is made in to material. The material may then be sent to Bangladesh to be made in to a t-shirt, before travelling to the UK where it will be bought.

That may not be the end of the journey, as some people choose to recycle their old t-shirts, they can be sent to developing countries for other people to wear.

How we can reduce the impact of textiles on the environment

To reduce our negative impact on the environment through our clothing choices, we can follow the simple rule of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We can:

  • Reduce the amount of clothes we buy and avoid fast fashion
  • Buy clothes that have been made more locally and that have used less energy and transport to get to you
  • Mend clothes we have so we don’t have to buy lots of new clothes
  • Reuse clothes by repurposing old clothes for new things. Lots of talented and creative people will use the old material from their clothes to make new clothes or other items like bags
  • Swap clothes with friends
  • Donate your unwanted clothes to charity shops so other people can reuse them
  • When finished with the material from our clothes, we should recycle them. Most large supermarkets have clothes recycling points which are easy to use and make sure that material doesn’t go to waste
Mending clothes is a useful skill to learn and makes your items last longer.
You can make something new and exciting from an unwanted piece of clothing.
Swapping clothes with a friend can be fun and you both end up with free new clothing.

The advantages and challenges of textiles

Advantages

  • Having a choice of natural and synthetic materials for clothes means we can choose the way we want to look and express ourselves through our clothing.

  • Synthetic materials have allowed us to design clothes that better meet our needs. For example, better clothes for sport and for lightweight but warm clothes in colder climates.

  • Many types of materials can be recycled into new clothes, furnishings or other products.

  • Designers have now developed the ability to create recycled clothes from recycled cups and plastic.

  • By taking your clothes to a clothes bank or a charity shop, you will be helping other people. Not only will other people be able to wear your unwanted clothes, but you will also be helping raise money for a good cause.

Challenges

  • Cotton is used to make many different things, but in order to grow cotton harmful chemicals are used that pollute the local environment.

  • Jeans are made from cotton and 3, 781 litres of water are used to make just one pair of jeans.

  • We should be aware of how far all our clothes have travelled to get to us. The further they have to travel by boat, plane or road, the worse the impact on the environment.

  • Synthetic materials are made from fossil fuels which are harmful to the environment. Producing them uses lots of energy and water, and can cause pollution.

  • Synthetic materials do not biodegrade which means we have to find other ways to dispose of them.

  • Our clothes are often made in developing countries where working conditions for local people are poor. The amount of money they are also paid can be extremely low.

listenSynthetic materials - Artificial materials that cannot be found in nature. Things like plastic, that can be created by combining different chemicals, can be used to make materials such as polyester, acrylic and spandex that are used to make clothing.

listenNatural materials - Materials that are found in nature and have not been made by humans.

listenFossil fuels - Coal, oil and gas are the three fossil fuels – these are our non-renewable energy sources. They are called fossil fuels because they are made from dead animals and plants. These animals and plants are compressed underground over millions of years and they eventually turn into fossil fuels.

listenNon-renewable - Natural resources that cannot be replaced after they are used are non-renewable. This means that they exist in a fixed amount on Earth. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas are all non-renewable resources.

listenAerodynamics – The study of how air moves around a solid object. Cars and planes are designed to be aerodynamic, meaning air can pass over them so they can move quickly.

listenClimate change - The long-term change in weather patterns (temperature, wind, rainfall etc.) on Earth, including its side-effects, for example increased drought and flooding.

listenCarbon dioxide emissions - The release of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.

listenBiodegradable - The ability of a material to break down and disappear over time. Some materials are dissolved by bacteria or other biological elements. If a material is biodegradable, it means that it can be consumed by microorganisms. It is an important process in ecology and waste management.

Donate or mend clothing

Find out where your nearest clothes bank and charity shop are. The next time you have a clear-out of clothes that are still in good condition but that you no longer want, take them to the clothes bank or charity shop instead of binning them.

If you are going to throw out a piece of clothing that has a hole, rip or other damage to it, try to learn how to fix it instead. Ask a family member if they can help you to mend the clothes or together you might be able to learn using a video on the internet.