How does sustainability look like on our clothing labels
Currently, our fashion industry is extremely linear: we make, buy, use and dump. We know that to increase the life of our planet, we need to be more responsible with our resources so that we don't use them all up and leave nothing for the future generation. This is known as sustainability.

One way to live more sustainably is to curve the linear set-up of our fashion industry and make it circular. Circularity ensures that we are not wasting resources, we are instead making products with longevity in mind and re-using them or returning them to the earth once their primary function has come to an end.
However, in order to reach this circular goal, we need to produce, buy and waste fewer clothes. In 2015, we produced and purchased 50% more clothes than in the year 2000, but the amount of times garments were worn decreased by 36%. In addition, we throw away 92 million tonnes of textile waste per year. This is the epitome of fast fashion: overproducing clothes so that consumers buy more but value items less, causing us to view our clothes as disposable commodities. These clothes become even more disposable when they're of low quality. This is because they're made quickly, with less durable materials so, inevitably, they'll need replacing sooner.

Consumers try to recycle their clothes but, unfortunately, only 13% of textile waste is recycled and only 1% is turned into actual clothes (12% into items such as cloths, insulation and mattress stuffing). Textile waste is very difficult to recycle for a couple of reasons: when our clothes comprise of a blend of materials (e.g. cotton and elastane) it is difficult to separate them with current technology and, in order to make new clothes out of old clothes, the fibres still need to remain of good quality to do so. Currently, there are two ways in which we separate blends of fibres: chemically and mechanically. Chemical recycling is very costly and challenging but it is better at recovering the raw materials needed to make new clothes. Mechanical recycling is the most common way of recycling textiles. However, this method of deconstructing fabrics made from blends is particularly damaging to the fibres and, as such, their quality is reduced in the process.

In summary, we're producing and wasting more clothes than ever. If there was a time for introducing circularity it is now. Otherwise, the planet will likely become one extremely large floordrobe. Fortunately, one thing we can do as consumers is be conscious of how different fabrics used in our clothes have an impact on their longevity, their recycling potential and their carbon footprint.

Organic cotton, natural fibres, organic materials
Photography by Jeff Hutcheson
Cotton field
What to look for on clothing labels

Durable materials
If we want to buy clothes that last longer, we can look out for clothes made with more durable materials.

Organic cotton
If you've read about how the process of growing cotton is incredibly pesticide-heavy and you're looking for an alternative: enter, organic cotton. Organic cotton is not only grown without pesticides, it is more durable than regular cotton. This is due to the organic cotton fibres being longer and stronger thanks to the lack of chemical damage they are subjected to. However, due to the nature of growing cotton, organic cotton is still extremely water intensive. If you're looking to go the full eco-mile, look out for 'closed-loop cotton' because this type of cotton uses, as the name suggests, closed-loop water systems which waste less water.

As well as being biodegradable (if it's not blended with other materials), wool is highly durable. This is down to the coil-like structure of the wool fibre, meaning that it can stretch but easily bounce back to its original shape which is handy when a garment gets heavy and wet. Plus, in comparison to cotton and other materials like silk, it's remarkably flexible making it less likely to tear which is always peace of mind when you've spent money on something. However, if you're going to go down the wool-route, check out a company's animal welfare policy before supporting a brand, just in case.

Cashmere… the word just exudes luxury, doesn't it? It's an investment piece if there ever was one but this is what treating our clothes with longevity is about: buying fewer items but making these items last longer. Also, given that cashmere's durability is exceptional, you won't be having to buy another cashmere jumper (or any other jumper for that matter) for a very long time. If you are going to delve into the indulgent world of cashmere, look out for long and thin fibres instead of short and thick ones as the former won't pill as quickly as the latter. Also, two-ply cashmere garments are more durable than one-ply, due to the threads being twisted together more tightly. It's a great year-round item to have as well: it'll keep you warm in the winter and cool in the spring, owing to its ability to balance your body temperature. Clever, huh? Make sure you're looking for 100% cashmere, though, as mixing yarns will make the item less durable.

Sustainable fashion, moda sostenibile
Photography by Charles Etoroma
Easier-to-recycle items
Given that we need to start thinking about the life of a garment after its primary function has come to an end, it's wise to be mindful of how easy it is to recycle an item when we buy it. If you want to look out for clothes that are easier to recycle, look for:

Items with less blends
As previously stated, it's currently very expensive and challenging to recycle clothes made from blends. Also, in terms of mechanical recycling, fibres are damaged during separation which means that it is not possible to make good quality clothes out of these recycled fibres. If we start to look at clothing labels in search of their material composition, we can be aware of how difficult it will be for the garment to be recycled at the end of its life. Items made up of 100% of one material is often the simplest way to do this; it doesn't mean it'll be completely straightforward to recycle but it will definitely make it less challenging than a composition of 20%, 30% and 50%, for example.
Sustainable fabrics
By showing that we don't support the use of resource-intensive fabrics, we are creating a demand for materials that are sustainably sourced.

In terms of sustainable materials, you can't get much more sustainable than hemp. From the get-go, hemp actually gives back to the environment by returning 60-70% of nutrients to the soil. It also requires significantly less water (between 300-500 litres) to grow 1kg of hemp compared to 1kg of cotton (approximately 10,000 litres). As for what it's like to own an item of clothing made from hemp, given that it's the chosen material for ship ropes, you'll be hanging onto it for a very long time.

Linen comes a close second to hemp with regards to sustainability: it doesn't need much fertiliser, pesticides or irrigation. Although, you might want to own an iron or rock the crinkled look (which, who knows, might come into style one day).

TENCEL™ Lyocell
Tencel™ lyocell is produced from eucalyptus trees which require little pesticides or water to grow. One really special thing about Tencel™ is that it's produced using a closed-loop system which recovers over 99% of the solvents used and recycles them in the production process. We should be striving for a closed-loop system as a way of manufacturing fabrics because this would take us closer to a circular fashion industry.

What fabrics should we be avoiding?
While it's difficult to avoid popular fabrics, it's useful to know what impact they have on our environment so we can make clothing decisions with our planet in mind.

As we are aiming to reduce textile waste and make our fashion industry more circular, it's good to know which fabrics take a long time to biodegrade. Polyester, acrylic and nylon are three fabrics that can take up to 200 years to biodegrade.

However, it's worth mentioning how some materials, even though they're biodegradable, can still be harmful to the environment. I'm talking about Rayon (aka Viscose). The process used to produce rayon is very chemically-intensive which puts garment workers at risk of severe health problems, as well as polluting the nearby eco-systems when the huge amount of water needed in rayon's production is dumped in the local water systems.

As we've established a few times already, cotton is not a friend to our water supply. It uses ridiculous amounts of water and actually drained the Aral Sea (a once large lake in Central Asia) due to the amount of water used to grow cotton in the area. Cotton also uses enormous amounts of pesticides which causes devastation to the health of surrounding communities and the environment.

So, there are a multitude of fabrics out there which are more resilient, recyclable and eco-friendly than many of the most popular fabrics and blends in circulation. It's so important we consider these options because, as we've learnt, fashion waste hugely impacts our planet. As well as a necessity, clothes are a way to express ourselves and to have fun – so let's make sure that we can continue to have fun for a while longer and protect the planet along the way!

It's a good note to end on that nobody is perfect. We can only do what's within our reach. Ultimately, most of the responsibility to reduce fashion waste lies with brands. They're the ones who can make the changes to the materials used, the emissions released, and the sheer volume of clothing produced. Hopefully, by consumers demanding a more circular system and being more mindful of fabrics, it will pressure manufacturers into rethinking their current practices.
Article by Catherine McAteer
Main photograph by Francois Le Nguyen