Sustainable clothing

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Sustainable clothing refers to fabrics derived from eco-friendly resources, such as sustainably grown fiber crops or recycled materials. It also refers to how these fabrics are made. Historically, being environmentally conscious towards clothing meant (1) buying clothes from thrift stores or any shops that sell second-hand clothing, or (2) donating used clothes to shops previously mentioned, for reuse or resale. In modern times, with a prominent trend towards sustainability and being ‘green’, sustainable clothing has expanded towards (1) reducing the amount of clothing discarded to landfills, and (2) decreasing the environmental impact of agro-chemicals in producing conventional fiber crops (e.g. cotton).

The "three pillars" of sustainability bounded by the environment (earth, life)

Under the accordance of sustainability, recycled clothing upholds the principle of the "Three R’s of the Environment": Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, as well as the "Three Legs of Sustainability": Economics, Ecology, and Social Equity.

Through the utilization of recycled material for the manufacturing of clothing, this provides an additional realm of economic world profit. Sustainable Clothing will provide a new market for additional job opportunities, continuous net flow of money in the economy, and the reduction of raw materials and virgin resources. Source reduction or reducing the use of raw materials and virgin resources can ultimately reduce carbon emissions during the manufacturing process as well as the resources and carbon emissions that are related to the transportation process. This also prevents the unsustainable usage of extracting materials from the Earth by making use of what has already been used (i.e. recycling).


Cotton, also known as vegetable wool, is a major source of apparel fiber. Celebrated for its excellent absorbency, durability, and intrinsic softness, cotton accounts for over 50% of all clothing produced worldwide. This makes cotton the most widely used clothing fiber.[1] However, growing and processing this particular fiber crop is largely unsustainable. For every pound of cotton harvested, a farmer uses up 1/3 lb of chemical, synthetic fertilizer.[2] As a whole, the US cotton production makes up 25% of all pesticides deployed in the United States. Worldwide, cotton takes up 2.4% of all arable lands yet requires 16% of the world’s pesticides.[3] Furthermore, the cotton hulls contain the most potent insecticide residues. They are often used as cattle feed, which means that consumers are purchasing meat containing a concentration of pesticides.[3] The processing of cotton into usable fibers also adds to the burden on the environment. Manufacturers prefer cotton to be white so that cotton can easily be synthetically dyed to any shade of color.[4] Natural cotton is actual beige brown, and so during processing, manufacturers would add bleach and various other chemicals and heavy metal dyes to make cotton pure white.[5] Formaldehyde resins would be added in as well to form "easy care" cotton fabric.[5]

Bt cotton[edit]

To reduce the use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals, companies have produced genetically modified (GMO) cottons plants that are resistant to pest infestations. Among the GMO are cotton crops inserted with the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene.[6] Bt cotton crops do not require insecticide applications. Insects that consume cotton containing Bt will stop feeding after a few hours, and die, leaving the cotton plants unharmed.[7]

As a result of the use of Bt cotton, the cost of pesticide applications decreased between $25 and $65 per acre.[8] Bt cotton crops yield 5% more cotton on average compared to traditional cotton crops.[8] Bt crops also lower the price of cotton by 0.8 cents per pound.[8]

However, there are concerns regarding Bt technology, mainly that insects will eventually develop resistance to the Bt strain. According to an article published in Science Daily, researchers have found that members from a cotton bollworm species, Helicoverpa zea, were Bt resistant in some crop areas of Mississippi and Arkansas during 2003 and 2006.[9] Fortunately, the vast majority of other agricultural pests remain susceptible to Bt.[9]

Micha Peled's documentary exposé Bitter seeds on BT farming in India reveals the true impact of genetically modified cotton on India's farmers, with a suicide rate of over a quarter million Bt cotton farmers each year due to financial stress resulting from massive crop failure and the exorbitantly high price of Monsanto's proprietary BT seed. The film also refutes false claims purported by the biotech industry that Bt cotton requires less pesticide and empty promises of higher yields, as farmers discover the bitter truth that in reality Bt cotton in fact requires a great deal more pesticide than organic cotton, and often suffer higher levels of infestation by Mealybug resulting in devastating crop losses, and extreme financial and psychological stress on cotton farmers. Due to the biotech seed monopoly in India, where Bt cotton seed has become the ubiquitous standard, and organic seed has become absolutely unobtainable, thus cooercing all cotton farmers into signing Bt cotton seed purchase agreements which enforce the intellectual property interests of the biotech multinational corporation Monsanto.[10]

Alternative fiber materials[edit]

Organic cotton[edit]

Organic cotton is grown without the use of any genetically modification to the crops, without the use of any fertilizers, pesticides, and other synthetic agro-chemicals harmful to the land.[11] All cotton marketed as organic in the United States is required to fulfill strict federal regulations regarding how the cotton is grown.[12]

Naturally colored cotton[edit]

Cotton is naturally grown in varieties of colors. Typically, cotton color can come as mauve, red, yellow, and orange hues.[4] The use of naturally colored cotton has long been historically suppressed, mainly due to the industrial revolution.[4] Back then, it was much cheaper to have uniformly white cotton as a raw source for mass-producing cloth and fabric items.[4] Currently, modern markets have revived a trend in using naturally colored cotton for its noted relevance in reducing harmful environmental impacts. One such example of markets opening to these cotton types would be Sally Fox and her Foxfiber business—naturally colored cotton that Fox has bred and marketed.[13] On an additional note, naturally colored cotton is already colored, and thus do not require synthetic dyes during process. Furthermore, the color of fabrics made from naturally colored cotton does not become worn and fade away compared to synthetically dyed cotton fabrics.[14]


Soy fabrics are derived from the hulls of soybeans—a manufacturing byproduct. Soy fabrics can be blended (i.e. 30%) or made entirely out of soy fibers.[15] Soy clothing is largely biodegradable, so it has a minimal impact on environment and landfills. Although not as durable as cotton or hemp fabrics, soy clothing has a soft, elastic feel.[16] Soy clothing is known as the vegetable cashmere for its light and silky sensation.[16] Soy fabrics are moisture absorbent, anti-bacterial, and UV resistant.[16] However, soy fabrics fell out of public knowledge during World War II, when rayon, nylon, and cotton sales rose sharply.[17]


Hemp, like bamboo, is considered a sustainable crop. It requires little water to grow, and it is resistant to most pests and diseases.[18] The hemp plant's broad leaves shade out weeds and other plant competitors, and its deep taproot system allows it to draw moisture deep in the soil.[19] Unlike cotton, many parts of the hemp plant have a use. Hemp seeds, for example, are processed into oil or food.[18] Hemp fiber comes in two types: primary and secondary bast fibers. Hemp fibers are durable and are considered strong enough for construction uses.[19] Compared to cotton fiber, hemp fiber is approximately 8 times the tensile strength and 4 times the durability.[19]

Hemp fibers are traditionally coarse, and have been historically used for ropes rather than for clothing. However, modern technology and breeding practices have made hemp fiber more pliable, softer, and finer.


Bamboo fabrics are made from heavily pulped bamboo grass. Making clothing and textile from bamboo is considered sustainable due to the lack of need for pesticides and agrochemicals.[20] Naturally disease and pest resistant, bamboo is also fast growing. Compared to trees, certain varieties of bamboo can grow 1–4 inches long per day, and can even branch and expand outward because of its underground rhizomes.[21] Like cotton fibers, bamboo fibers are naturally yellowish in color and are bleached white with chemicals during processing.

PET plastic[edit]

PET plastics are also known as Polyethylene terephthalate(PETE). PET's recycling code, the number within the three chasing arrows, is one. These plastics are usually beverage bottles (i.e. water, soda, and fruit juice bottles). According to the EPA, plastic accounts for 12% of the total amount of waste we produce.[22] Recycling plastic reduces air, water, and ground pollution. Recycling is only the first step; investing and purchasing products manufactured from recycled materials is the next of many steps to living sustainably.

Clothing can be made from plastics. Seventy percent of plastic-derived fabrics come from polyester, and the type of polyester most used in fabrics is polyethylene terephthalate (PET).[23] PET plastic clothing come from reused plastics, often recycled plastic bottles.[24] The Coca-Cola Company, for example, created a "Drink2Wear" line of T-shirts made from recycled bottles.[25] Generally, PET plastic clothing are made from recycled bottles as follows: plastic bottles are collected, compressed, baled, and shipped into processing facilities where they will be chopped into flakes, and melted into small white pellets. Then, the pellets are processed again, and spun into yarn-like fiber where it can be made into clothing.[26] One main benefit of making clothes from recycled bottles is that it keep the bottles and other plastics from occupying landfill space. Another benefit is that it takes 30% less energy to make clothes from recycled plastics than from virgin polyesters.[27]

Kombucha (SCOBY)[edit]

Burnished by a grant from the US. Environmental Protection Agency, associate professor,Young-A Lee and her team are growing vats of gel-like film composed of cellulose fiber, a byproduct of the same symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast (abbreviated SCOBY) found in another of the world's popular "live culture" foods: kombucha. Once harvested and dried, the resulting material has a look and feel much like leather.[28] The fibres are 100 percent biodegradable, they also foster a cradle-to-cradle cycle of reuse and regeneration that leaves behind virtually zero waste. However, this material takes a long time to grow about three to four weeks under lab-controlled conditions. Hence mass production is an issue. In addition, tests revealed that moisture absorption from the air softens this material makes it less durable. Researchers also discovered that cold conditions make it brittle.[28]


Qmilch GmbH, a German company has innovated a process to produce a textile fiber from casein in milk but it cannot be used for consumption. Qmilk fiber is made from 100% renewable resources. In addition, for the production of 1 kg of fiber Qmilch GmbH needs only 5 minutes and max. 2 liters of water.[29] This implies a particular level of cost efficiency and ensures a minimum of CO2 emissions. Qmilk fiber is biodegradable and leaves no traces. In addition, it is naturally antibacterial, especially against the bacterial strains, Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa and is ideal for people that suffer from textile allergies.[29]

Fabrics made from Qmilk fiber provide high wearing comfort and a silky feel.The organic fiber is tested for harmful substances and dermatologically tested for the wearer’s skin and body compatibility 0% chemical additives.[29]


S.Café technology involves recycling used ground coffee beans into yarns. A piece of S.Café fabric is made with less energy in the process and is able to mask body odour. In addition, S.Café yarn offers 200% faster drying time compared to conventional cotton, with the ability to save energy in the process.[30]

S. Café coffee grounds come with numerous microscopic pores, which create a long-lasting natural and chemical free shield for yarn or fiber, reflecting UV rays and provide a comfortable outdoor experience.[30]

Recycled clothing[edit]

In addition to promoting a sounder environment by producing newer clothing made with sustainable, innovative materials, clothing can also be donated to charities, sold into consignment shops, or recycled into other materials. These methods reduce the amount of landfill space occupied by discarded clothes. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's 2008 Report on Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States defines clothing as non-durable – generally lasts less than three years – textiles. In 2008, approximately 8.78 millions of tons of textiles were generated, 1.45 millions of tons were recovered and saved from landfills resulting in a rate of almost 17%. The EPA report also states that the amount of MSW being "Discarded" is 54%, "Recovered" is 33%, and "Combusted with Energy recovery" is 13%.[22] Approximately two-thirds of clothing materials are sent to landfills, making it the fastest growing component of waste in the household waste stream. Within the last five years, textiles disposed of in landfill sites have risen from 7% to 30%.[31]


People can opt to donate clothing to charities. In the UK, a charity is a non-profit organization that is given special tax form and distinct legal status.[32] A charity is "a foundation created to promote the public good".[33] People donating clothing to charitable organizations in America are often eligible for tax deductions, albeit the donations are itemized.[34]

Clothing donations[edit]

Generally, charitable organizations often sell donated clothing rather than directly giving the clothing away. Charities keep 10% of donated clothing for their high quality and retail value for the thrift shops.[35] Charities sell the rest of the donations to textile recycling businesses.[35]

Examples of charitable organization[edit]

The following is a list of few charitable organizations known for accepting clothing donations.

  • Salvation Army

An Evangelical Christian-based non-profit organization founded in 1865, United Kingdom.[36]

  • Goodwill Industries

A non-profit organization founded in 1902, United States, at Boston, MA. Originally started as an urban outreach [37]

  • United Way

A non-profit organization originally named Charity Organization Society, established 1887, United States. Currently a coalition of charitable organizations.[38]

  • Oxfam International

A non-profit organization founded in 1942, United Kingdom. Formerly Oxfam Committee for Famine Relief. Originally established to mitigate famines in Greece caused by Allied naval blockades during World War II.[39]


There are "charities" that are actually for-profit organizations. These organizations are often multibillion-dollar firms that keep profits accrued from selling donated clothing.[40] Monetary donations are given for public goodwill, but only at relatively few percentages.[40] For example, Planet Aid, a supposedly non-profit organization that collects donated clothing, reportedly gives only 11% of its total income to charities.[40] Such organizations often use drop-off boxes to collect clothes. These drop-off boxes look similar to their non-profit counterparts, which mislead the public into donating their clothes to them.[41] Such public deception prompted backlash, one example where a mayor called for the city's removal of for-profit clothing donation bins.[42] To search for reputable charities, see Charity Navigator's website.[43]


In layman’s terms, a clothing consignment shop sells clothes that are owned not by the shop’s owner but by the individual who had given (or consigned) the items to the shop for the owner to sell.[44] The shop owner/seller is the consignee and the owner of the items is the consignor. Both the consignor and the consignee receive portions of the profit made from the item. However, the consignor will not be paid until the items are sold. Therefore, unlike donating clothing to charities, people who consign their clothes to shops can make profit.

Clothing Swapping[edit]

Clothing swapping can further promote the reduction, reuse, and recycling of clothing. By reusing clothing that's already been made and recycling clothing from one owner to another, source reduction can be achieved. This moves away from usage of new raw materials to make more clothing available for consumption. Through the method of clothing swapping,an alternative resource for consumers to ultimately save in regards to money and time is provided. It reduces transportation emissions, costs, and the time it takes to drive and search through the chaos of most clothing stores. Swapping clothes further promotes the use of sustainable online shopping and the internet as well as an increase of social bonds through online communication or effective personal communication in "clothing swap parties". The EPA states, that by reusing items, at the source waste can be diverted from ending up in landfills because it delays or avoids that item's entry in the waste collection and disposal system.[45]

Examples of online clothing swapping websites include:

  • Swapstyle – Offered in the U.S., Australia, and Europe. A fee is required to become address certified. Posting pictures of the donation items is also required. The sale price is set by the individual who is making the donation. A feedback method is encouraged in the form of "positive tokens".[46]
  • Rehash – Allows for exchange of clothes and textbooks. Users must create an account. Descriptions and posting of pictures is required of your clothing items that are being donated. Bids on items can be made and then further discussion with your bidder or "Rehasher" is necessary in order to decide on how swap will be conducted.[47]
  • Dig N’ Swap – A free clothing swap site. It does not provide quite as extensive of a selection as the others. Only requirements are to search, bid on items, and then negotiate a swap.[48]
  • thredUP – Mainly directed toward kids' clothing. Does not require you to upload pictures of the clothes being donated or deal with subscriptions. It is more closely referred to as a "clothing lottery" because new users pay $12.50 versus the usual $25.00 for 3 envelopes. The focus of the swap is mainly on shirts.[49]
  • Closet Infinite – Only available in Singapore. Members are required to make a 6-month subscription which allows them access to borrow from the entire inventory of donated clothes.[50]

Textile recycling[edit]

According to an ABC News report, charities keep approximately 10% of all the donated clothing received.[35] These clothes tend to be good quality, fashionable, and high valued fabrics that can easily be sold in charities’ thrift shops. Charities sell the other 90% of the clothing donations to textile recycling firms.[35]

Textile recycling firms process about 70% of the donated clothing into industrial items such as rags or cleaning cloths.[35] However, 20-25% of the second-hand clothing is sold into an international market.[35] Used jeans collected from America, for example, were sold to low-income customers in Africa for modest prices.[51]

Production Methods[edit]

Examples of textiles that have used the AirDye process.

3D Seamless Knitting[edit]

3D seamless knitting is a technology that allows an entire garment to be knit with no seams. This production method is considered a sustainable practice due to its reduction in waste and labor. By only using the necessary materials, the producers will be more efficient in their manufacturing process. This production method is similar to seamless knitting, although traditional seamless knitting requires stitching to complete the garment while 3D seamless knitting creates the entire garment, eliminating additional work. The garments are designed using 3D software unlike traditional flat patterns. Shima Seiki and Stoll are currently the two primary manufacturers of the technology. The technology is produced through the use of solar energy and they are selling to brands like Max Mara.[52]


Zero-waste design is a concept that, although has been prevalent for many years, is increasingly being integrated into production. Zero-waste design is can be used through multiple industries but is very applicable in developing patterns for garments. The concept of zero-waste pattern making is designing the pattern for a garment so that when the textile is cut, there is no extra fabric going to waste. This means the pattern pieces for a garment fit together like puzzle pieces in order to use the entire amount of fabric provided, creating no waste in this step of production.[53]


Traditional methods of dyeing textiles are incredibly harmful towards the earth’s water supply, creating toxic chemicals that effect entire communities.[54] An alternative to traditional water dyeing is scCO2 dyeing (super critical carbon dioxide). This process creates no waste by using 100% of the dyes, reducing energy by 60% with no auxiliary chemicals, and leaving a quarter of the physical footprint of traditional dyeing. Different names for this process are Drydye and Colordry.[55] Another company called Colorep has patented Airdye, a similar process that they claim uses 95% less water and up to 86% less energy than traditional dyeing methods.[56]

See also[edit]


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