In comparison, synthetic fibres consume a significantly lower amount of water (about one hundredth), but a significantly higher amount of energy.
Petrochemical fibres made from fossil fuels – such as polyester, nylon and acrylic – are the backbone of fast fashion. Yet a big problem with such products is that they don’t easily decompose.
As they slowly break down, petrochemical fibres release microplastics. These not only contaminate the environment, but also enter the food chain and pose health risks to animals and humans.
You may have also come across blended fabrics, which are produced with a combination of two or more types of fibres. But these pose challenges in sorting and recycling, as it’s not always possible or easy to recover different fibres when they’re combined.
Non-traditional fibres: a potential game changer
Amid the overconsumption of traditional fibres, several global fashion brands have started to adopt new fibres derived from seaweed, corn, and mushroom. This includes Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, Patagonia, and Algiknit.
Other emerging natural fibres include lotus, pineapple and banana fibres. Lotus fibres are extracted from the plant stem, banana fibres are extracted from the petiole (the stalk that connects the leaf and stem), and pineapple fibres are extracted from pineapple leaves.
The process of extracting fibres from wastes such as orange peels, coffee grounds, and even from the protein of waste milk, has also been well researched, and clothes have been successfully manufactured from these materials.
All these examples of non-traditional fibres are free from many of the problems mentioned earlier, such as heavy resource consumption (particularly fresh water), use of toxic chemicals, and the use of large amounts of energy (for synthetic fibres).
Further, these fibres are biodegradable at their end of life and don’t release microplastics when you wash them.
Meanwhile, there has been tremendous growth in the use of recycled synthetic fibres, which reduces the use of virgin materials, energy and chemical consumption. Recycling plastics such as drink bottles to make clothing is also becoming more common. Such innovations can help lower our dependency on raw materials and mitigate plastic pollution.
What’s more, the selection of appropriate colour combinations during recycling and processing for fabrics can avoid the need for dyeing.