3. How to switch to low impact materials including renewable, regenerative and recycled materials

Most of us have no idea about the impact of a cow on the planet and how it becomes our favourite bag, about the health of the soil that grows the cotton for our favourite t-shirts and jeans. Consumers and brands are often unaware of the impact of the materials they use. The carbon footprint of different materials varies greatly. A polyester shirt has more than double the carbon footprint of a cotton shirt. Brands are waking up to the fact that as much as 70% of the footprint of their products are at the material stage and shifting to low impact regenerative and recycled fibres and fabrics.
Safia Minney with a group of cotton farmers in India.

Fossil fuels and Fashion

The fashion industry is propped up by fossil fuels which are responsible for 89% of global GHG emissions. Two thirds of fibres and materials are produced with fossil fuels as are the dyes used to colour, print and finish them. Even the so-called natural fabric of conventional cotton is grown with heavy use of fossil fuel derived fertiliser and pesticides. The fibres, fabrics and garments are then ginned, manufactured and stitched in oil, gas and coal-powered factories. We need to cut overall production and switch to low impact materials and renewable energy-powered factories and distribution.

Many fashion companies report that 70% of their carbon footprint is from the raw materials they use. The fashion industry must reach real net zero carbon (not relying on carbon offsetting, capture and other unproven technologies) by 2030 or soon after through rapid emissions reduction. In addition to a shift to low impact materials the industry must stop using virgin synthetic fibres and instead use recyclable, biodegradable materials.

The industry should use natural materials produced through the principles of regenerative organic agriculture, favouring small scale and local producers.

This will radically promote soil health, restoration of ecosystems, biodiversity and carbon drawdown. Switching to low impact fibres and production in your supply chain could also mean adding products made by carbon-neutral handcraft textile methods. All materials should be independently recognised or certified where possible.

Regenerative agriculture, fibres and fabrics

To find out about low impact materials, look at Sustainable Angle and visit their Future Fashion Expo. Another leader in the space is Textile Exchange. Textile Exchange develops, manages, and promotes a suite of leading industry standards, as well as collects and publishes critical industry data and insights that enable brands and retailers to measure, manage and track their use of preferred fiber and materials. They have some great tools available such as the Global Fibre Impact Explorer and Leather Impact Accelerator.

Two thirds of fibres and materials are produced with fossil fuels.

Air pollution from industry representing decarbonising the fashion industry

What is regenerative farming?

Regenerative agriculture is farming using a set of principles where practices consistently restore the quality, health and resilience of the soil, water, air, ecosystems, and biodiversity. It recognises the link between agriculture and natural eco-systems. Often it means going back to more traditional, small-scale methods of farming that are now being proved to help flood and crop resilience. The term regenerative agriculture was coined by the Rodale Institute in the 1980s together with the Soil Association, they have championed organic agriculture, organic cotton and other fibres over the years. 

Fibres, farmed alongside foods through regenerative farming practices protect land from contamination by pesticides and insecticides. They also actively work to improve soil live matter, the biota that live within it, ecosystems and habitats promoting biodiversity and resilience. Regenerative farming also helps reverse climate change through carbon drawdown and an improved water cycle. In doing so, crops are healthier and problematic pests are reduced because natural eco-systems that keep them in check are restored. Small scale farmers are the stewards of the land and their sustainable farming knowledge should be respected and supported. This is how we farmed until the introduction of fossil fuel-derived fertilisers and pesticides in the late 1930s.

Organic cotton removes the use of toxic chemicals and uses significantly less water than conventional cotton as soil health is promoted. Brands are moving towards GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified cotton (GOTS the leading organic textile standards) and supporting their farming suppliers to transition to GOTs.

Emerging brands are also working with other low impact materials such as flax, linen, hemp and other low impact plant fibres.

Consumption can be reduced through the circular economy one aspect of which is recycling clothing and footwear. For this to happen, we need to design using fewer materials and blends. (See 4 – Circular Economy). 

Who’s taking Action? 

Adopting better buying practices and / or buying organic and regenerative certified fibres and fabrics are a good place. Don’t forget to check how farmers and worker’s rights, pay and working conditions are protected.

Just like the food industry, fashion isn’t far behind when it comes to promoting regenerative agriculture. The North Face, Burberry, Timberland, Patagonia, Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher have all invested in regenerative agriculture. The Kering luxury group was co-founder of the  Regenerative Fund for Nature aimed at adopting regenerative practices across one million hectares of crop and rangelands.

The brand Chloe is aiming to achieve 50% of production of low-impact materials in 2021. Its target is 90% low impact materials by 2025.

If you’re a buyer in the US, take a look at Patagonia’s Organic certification here.

Fibreshed is a great resource. A non-profit, global organisation focused develops equity-focused on regional and land regenerating natural fibre and dye systems. Its work expands opportunities to implement climate beneficial agriculture, rebuild regional manufacturing, and connect end-users to the source of our fibre through direct educational offerings. It is transforming the economic and ecological systems that clothe us to generate equitable and climate change ameliorating textile cultures.

The EU strategy for sustainable textiles (EU strategy for sustainable textiles (europa.eu)) is intended to help the EU shift to a climate-neutral, circular economy where products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable and energy-efficient. To find out more about sourcing sustainably and responsibly produced materials go to The Sustainable Angle’s 10th Future Fabrics Expo on 28-29 June 2022.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Higg Index is an industry self assessment standard relating to environmental and social sustainability throughout the supply chain. In response to concerns raised by the Norwegian Consumer Authority, the SAC is pausing the consumer-facing transparency program globally. SAC is undertaking an independent, third party review of the Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI) and improve quality and accessibility of data.

Why fashion needs to act now

Materials have a significant impact in the overall emissions associated with garments and textiles. Around 10% of Levis Strauss emissions are associated with cotton cultivation and 31% with fabric production (sciencebasedtargets.org). The footprint of cotton is mainly associated with the use of water, pesticides and fertilisers. Toxic chemicals in pesticides and fertilisers are also responsible for significant pollution as are the chemical dyes that are used in fabric production and finishing.

Monocrop agriculture, as well as the chemicals used, degrades soil health and reduces its ability to sequester carbon from the air. Because almost half the land that can support plant life on Earth has been converted to croplands, pastures and rangelands, soils have actually lost 50 to 70 % of the carbon they once held. (‘Soil is miraculous’) How regenerative agriculture could transform fashion | Euronews)

Two hands in soil around a seedling.

The footprint of cotton is mainly associated with the use of water, pesticides and fertilisers.

Materials produced from animals, including wool and leather, typically result in habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. Intensive farming has low standards of animal welfare. However, provided animals are treated humanely and do not graze in highland areas that would be best left to rewild and draw down carbon, materials like sheep’s wool in the UK, is far better than using synthetics materials.

However important the shift away from virgin synthetics to low impact materials and regenerative agriculture, there is also an urgent need to cut resource use by 75%-95% so as to redesign the fashion industry to operate within planetary boundaries.

Suggested reading:

Harm in the Guise of doing Good – Fibreshed

Beyond Organic: Brands That Use Traceable Cotton and Support Regenerative Cotton Farmers – Ecocult


Safia Minney taking photo of organic cotton farmers.