Unpacking The Impacts Of Summer Fabrics, From Hemp To Silk

by: Rosie Dalton | 3 months ago | Features

This is the season of spring cleaning, which means not just clearing out the unnecessary clutter in our wardrobes and purchasing new pieces where needed for summer, but also re-assessing the impact that our summer wardrobes have – and making informed choices based on those impacts.

Fabrication is an important starting point here, because the materials that a garment is made from actually account for a large percentage of that garment’s overall impact. Which is why we’re looking at the impacts of five common summer fabrics – cotton, hemp, silk, bamboo and recycled PET.



Image: organic cotton crop via Kowtow. Image source.

Cotton is one of the most common fibres for summer clothing, but when grown conventionally, it can be problematic for both people and the planet. Taking up just 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land, conventional cotton accounts for a disproportionately large 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides, according to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). When grown this way, conventional cotton has also been found to be harmful to human health, because of the toxic chemicals used. There are more responsible alternatives, however, including recycled cotton and organic cotton – which is designed to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and also helps to replenish soil fertility and maintain biodiversity.


Image: hemp crop via Patagonia. Image source.

Industrial hemp has been used as a clothing fibre for thousands of years and is now rapidly replacing cotton as one of the most popular fabrics for summer basics. Fast-growing, hemp requires very little irrigation and does not require the use of toxic chemicals like herbicides and pesticides. Which makes it less toxic for the farmers that tend these crops and garment workers that handle these fibres – especially when it has been grown organically. In general, hemp is also considered kinder to the earth, because it does not need much land to grow and actually adds biodiversity back into the soil, returning 60-70% of the nutrients it takes.


Image: peace silk being spun. Image source.

Silk is a luxurious fibre that is often used for fancy summer dresses, but there are certain issues around the impact that silk has on people, the planet, and the worms that create it. There have been some reports of child slavery in the Indian silk industry, for example. While Good On You points to the problematic practice of boiling silkworms inside their cocoons, to prevent any tearing of the silk strands. There are, however, some more ethical alternatives to conventional silk, including Ahimsa (or ‘Peace’) silk, which allows the moth to evacuate before the boiling process. So, where possible, choose OEKO-TEX-certified organic silk, or Ahimsa silk by Cocccon which is GOTS-certified, to minimise your impact.


Recycled PET

Image source.

Recycled PET is often used in summer swimwear and athleisure garments today. It is generally considered a more sustainable alternative to its virgin counterpart, because manufacturing virgin PET generates significant emissions of toxic chemicals (including nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, benzene). And PET takes a long time to break down naturally in the environment. Recycled PET (or RPET), on the other hand, not only offers an opportunity to extend the lifecycle of these raw materials, but also results in a lower energy consumption and reduced environmental impact. As with all synthetic materials, though, RPET can shed tiny microplastics, which are harmful for our planet and particularly for our oceans. So it is important to always use a GuppyFriend when washing synthetic summer fabrics.



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It is common to see bamboo in our summer tees and underwear now. But bamboo is a nuanced fibre and there can be significant disparities in the environmental impact of this material – depending on whether it is grown in a conventional or closed loop system. Bamboo can be quite a sustainable crop, as Good On You points out, because it is fast-growing, requires no fertiliser, and self-regenerates from its own roots. However, this fibre is only sustainable if it is grown and harvested in a sustainable way, then turned into a fibre using a closed loop system. This is because one of the most popular methods for processing bamboo (i.e. turning it from cellulose into a silky soft fibre) involves a highly intensive chemical process – one which creates a lot of toxic waste if those chemicals are released into the environment, rather than being recaptured. 

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