Fashion’s True Cost of Oil

It’s Sunday morning and our ritual is to wake up, brew a cup of Fair Trade earl grey and watch whatever is new on TED Talks – a bit of stimulation and inspiration to start off the new week. Today’s selection of talks included ‘The True Cost of Oil‘ from landscape photojournalist Garth Lenz, who has captured some truly beautiful and disconcerting images of environmental degradation. His most recent project explores the impacts that oil mining has had across Canada, and it really got the brain cells going.

When we think about oil, fashion is not the first thing that springs to mind. Usual associations generally have to do with transport. But little do we know that fashion and oil are much more connected than we would imagine. In fact, can you guess what the fundamental basis of polyester is? Yes, crude oil. And with more than 39 million tonnes of polyester produced for textiles alone every year – that’s a lot more crude oil than we realise. We did some statistical sleuthing and can estimate that for every 1 kilogram of polyester, it uses 1.53 kilograms of crude oil.  Your average t-shirt weighs 0.15kg, which means there’s about 1/4 cup or 223g of crude oil in one 100% polyester shirt. We’re no mathematicians, so please don’t quote us – but it does give you a pretty good picture.

And this is just the beginning, oil is also used in manufacturing processes – turning the fabric into a garment, transport of products – often shipped all over the world many times over and in product packaging, particularly those using plastics.

One of the reasons many clothing brands use polyester is because of its strength and tenacity – i.e. it holds up in the washing machine and doesn’t really need ironing. It also withstands manufacturing processes quite well and can imitate many other fabrics, which means it’s quite versatile as a fabric.

Not only does polyester use a significant amount of crude oil but it’s also energy intensive and is not biodegradable – so once you throw it out, it goes into a landfill forever. Also, beware – a lot of brands tend to blend natural materials with polyester, which means they become unable to biodegrade and off to the dump indefinitely they will go.

The good news is that there are loads of alternatives to polyester that are just as strong, tenacious and versatile but also much more eco-friendly. What you should be looking for when you are shopping is fabric made of cellulosic fibres, meaning plant or plant-based materials. Modal, made from the reconstituted pulp of birch trees, and Lyocell, made from dissolved wood pulp, are two excellent options.  Both of these types of fibres are soft, absorbent, very strong when wet or dry, and resistant to wrinkles. They can be machine- or hand-washed. They drape well, can be dyed many colors and can simulate a variety of textures such as suede, leather and silk. Viscose, often referred to as “artificial silk” is another cellulosic alternative to polyester; however, the chemical process used in its production  is much more polluting than Lyocell or Modal.

Milk fibres are also gaining popularity as they’re perfect for skin sensitivities. Milk fibres share the same pH balance as humans. This synthetic fabric is also biodegradable and renewable making it a much more environmentally friendly. However, it’s not quite as durable or wrinkle-free as Lyocell and Modal.

And there’s also newer and less commonly used (thus far) poly alternatives such as Seacell®, which derives from seaweed and is mostly used in underwear, and Ingeo™, which is made from plant starch and is good for keeping moisture away from skin.

So what are some brands using these alternative fabrics in their collections?

Swedish label – House of Dagmar uses quite a lot of Lyocell jersey which feels like a slightly more robust silk jersey. Love this brand – arty, intellectual chic. And although they don’t market themselves as ethical or sustainable – they almost exclusively use environmentally responsible fabrics and focus heavily on handmade garments using traditional techniques and high-end craftsmanship.

House of Dagmar - S/S 2012 (Photo: Pierre Bjork)

House of Dagmar - S/S 2012 (Photo: Pierre Bjork)

Lemlem, the brand founded by supermodel – Liya Kebede uses a cotton/lycocell woven blend. This means the fabric is entirely biodegradable. The brand was borne out of  Liya’s desire to promote and create a market for traditional weavers of her native Ethiopia – thereby helping “to preserve the art of weaving.”

Lemlem - Handmade in Ethiopia

Lemlem - Handmade in Ethiopia

German label, Mademoiselle Chi Chi uses milk fibre for its entire collection. The fabric is the first in the world to be manufactured without the use of any chemicals. It feels a lot like silk and can be washed just like any other fabric.

Mademoiselle Chi Chi

Mademoiselle Chi Chi

Japanese designer, Ryota Shiga was the recent winner of textile manufacturer Lenzing and Tencel ® Award  at The Ethical Fashion Show in Paris and uses Modal material in much of the collection. And it looks absolutely luxurious too!

Ryota Shiga - S/S 2012

Ryota Shiga - S/S 2012

On your next shopping excursion – whether online or in the store – make sure you look closely at the label and think about its true cost of oil!


4 responses to “Fashion’s True Cost of Oil

  1. Great reminder of the true tales behind the seams. And not only are natural fibers generated from resources that move away from a direct association with oil, they are also biodegradable, reducing further build-up in landfills.

  2. thanks for the info…I am a seamstress and had no idea what those fabrics were made of!

  3. Pingback: Sloth weekly round up «

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