Sustainable Textiles: The Long Road Ahead

January 4, 2023

 Responsible for almost 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions, the fashion industry’s sustainability crisis has forced brands to search for alternatives to fabrics reliant on vast quantities of water and petrochemicals. Thus, bio-based fabrics and regenerative fabric farming methods have risen to the forefront of the sustainable fashion conversation. However, with new materials priced at extortionate levels and a lack of transparency within the production line of supposedly sustainable fabrics, it seems that widespread use of sustainable fabric might still be out of reach. 

The sustainable textiles market has seen some innovative discoveries in recent years, with brands like PANGAIA gaining sartorial notoriety for their use of organic cotton and various bio-based fabrics, as well as their clean and classic loungewear designs. PANGAIA really seems to be the pinnacle of sustainable fashion, down to their biodegradable packaging that can be fully composted in 24 weeks. The fabrics that they use are undoubtedly ingenious, from their own CFiber technology, which incorporates wood pulp and seaweed powder to create a totally sustainable fabric, seaweed being a regenerative source, reliant on ocean water instead of scarce fresh or ground water sources. Some garments are also treated with their PPRMNT oil treatment which, with its antimicrobial finish, reduces the need for frequent washing, cutting down on household water usage. Their FLWRDWN material is used as a down-fill in their outerwear products, a mixture of wildflowers, grown by NGO’s that support habitat conservation, a maize based biopolymer, and an aerogel for flexibility. 

PANGAIA’s website itself admits that there are shortcomings with some of their fabrics, but their long-term commitment to improving the quality and affordability of sustainable fashion is exemplified in their partnership with Japanese Biotech firm Spiber, who have previously worked with North Face to launch a collection of designs made with their signature ‘Brewed Protein’ fabric, made in a fermentation process to be a sustainable alternative to silk or cashmere.

Overall however, the innovation of sustainable fabrics is still costly. Spiber’s collection with North Face priced a Parka at $1357, and their new collaboration with PANGAIA, the NXT-GEN hoodie, is an eye-watering £340. Siber’s recent expansion into North America however, and their new agreement with farming giant ADM to incorporate regenerative farming practises in the manufacture of Brewed Protein in a new facility in Iowa, shows a step in the right direction for increasing the production of the material and decreasing its cost. 

In the meantime, however, affordable sustainable fabrics are hard to come by. For a while, it seemed that sustainably sourced cotton could be a widely available and cheaper alternative to conventionally grown cotton, and with cotton taking up 30% of all fibre used in textiles, this was a promising step in the right direction for affordable sustainable fabric. Organic cotton is a sustainable, non-GMO natural fibre, grown in a regenerative matter without pesticides, and with a vastly reduced need for water. Brands rushed to pledge their allegiance to the booming organic cotton market, with Primark and H&M pledging that all cotton used in their clothing would be sustainable by 2030. However, organic cotton has recently come under fire in an article by the New York Times that references Crispin Argento, managing director of the Sourcery, a consulting firm that aids brands in sourcing organic cotton. Argento estimates that between one half and four-fifths of cotton that is being sold as ‘Organic Cotton’ from India does not meet organic cotton’s standards, a statistic rendered yet more significant considering India is supposedly the largest producer of organic cotton in the world. 

As the New York Times’s report points out, the Global Organic Textile Standard, which so many brands use as a guarantor to ensure the authenticity of their organic cotton, does not perform its own inspections, which only occur once a year, and are far from comprehensive. And yet, a lack of transparency in production and attention to the cotton certification process are not organic cotton’s only hurdles. Fraudulent certification can also be attributed to lower crop yields associated with organic cotton farming that cannot satisfy its current demand. This is leading to what Arun Ambatipudi, executive director of the non-profit Chetna Organic, that supplies cotton farming training to farmers, has called ‘a lot of cheating’. And the demand for organic cotton is on the rise, the textile exchange finding that the demand for organic cotton will grow 84% by 2030. Furthermore, not only is demand for organic cotton outgrowing its supply, but prices are soaring, with former Marks & Spencer CEO Steve Rowe claiming a 40% price increase in organic cotton. 

So, when it comes to affordability and transparency, it seems that the industry has a long way to go. It is the continued interest of the consumer, however, that forces brands to invest and innovate, and points to a brighter future for the sustainable fashion industry. Amongst depressing instances of green washing by fast fashion brands, a culture of innovation led by brands like PANGAIA gives us hope for fashion’s regenerative and sustainable future. 

Izzi Lovatt