What was the last piece of clothing or home-furnishing you purchased? Do you recall looking at the label inside to see what it was made from? Was it natural fibers cotton, silk, linen or wool or some other man-made fiber?
Over the last several decades the fashion industry has influenced consumer buying behavior towards adopting a disposable clothing strategy. As fashion retailers have been faced with changing market dynamics, such as the emergence of fast - fashion retailers, responding to a rapidly growing number of digitally savvy consumers that can place orders from a variety of devices, driven by the development of 21st century technology. To meet the demand from “want it yesterday” consumers and increased competition for low priced clothing fashion, fashion retailers have turned to relatively cheaper man-made fibers such as Rayon, and low cost and often low quality rapid production options in manufacturing facilities around the world.
These factors have had several consequences: broad accessibility to low cost clothing which lacks durability, perpetuates an orientation towards viewing clothing as disposable and fostering a buying behavior of over consumption and replace rather than repair. As consumers easily replenish their wardrobe by buying a new low-cost item, concerns over the garment’s materials, construction, durability, and environmental impact, has taken a back seat.
Farm + Fiber
Manmade fibers fall into two major categories, oil based synthetics such as Polyester and Nylon, or cellulosic fibers such as Rayon, Lyocell and Viscose, made by dissolving wood pulp in acid. On the spectrum of types of fibers Rayon lies between natural fibers such as cotton, silk, wool and petrochemical synthesized fibers such as nylon and polyester. Producing Rayon fiber is a highly toxic process, where the workers on the factory floor wear gas masks due to the poisonous gaseous fumes emitted during production. Rayon is also known as Acetate, Cupro, Art Silk, Viscose, Lyocell or Tencel. The chemistry in each of these fabrications is slightly different but at the end of the day, it involves dissolving cellulose (plant material) in acid. Tencel is a brand name for a fiber generically referred to as Lyocell, made by an Austrian company called Lenzing.
Lenzing claims that their close-loop process (meaning no emissions to the environment) is better since they recover 99% of the solvents in the manufacturing process. Lenzing also claims that some of the wood pulp comes from sustainably managed Eucalyptus forests in Africa. However as per an FAO report, Eucalyptus trees have extensive roots systems, consume significant water resources during their growth and life cycle, resulting in depleted groundwater supplies with devastating consequences in many affected regions.
Yarn + Fabric
The water pollution caused from the production of viscose and rayon fibers is widely reported. While the process to produce Lyocell fibers appears to be relatively eco-friendly and environmentally sustainable as it can be recycled and easily biodegraded because of its cellulosic fiber, the process of create fabric and clothing from these fibers can utilize the same dangerously toxic chemicals and methods used in conventional rayon based materials. Additionally, as per Lenzing’s standard, a fabric only needs to have 30% Tencel fiber to be labeled as Tencel fabric – so what’s the other 70%?
Garment Assembly + Dyeing + Finishing
Lyocell has two undesirable characteristics, the fabric does not take dyes well, and it can pill. Depending on the manufacturer’s environmentally conscious orientation the use of chemical processes, may not be ecological compatible to transform the Lyocell fibers into fabric and to modify them to accept dyes.
Fast- Fashion demands drive demand for low cost materials and labor resources
In researching the fashion clothing market, we have noticed that the use of rayon is very prevalent in women’s clothing. In fact, our field research has revealed that many garments have rayon as either their primary fiber content or a significant component of their fiber composition. In walking into fast fashion stores, we noticed that the majority of women’s clothing are synthetic with Polyester and Rayon topping the charts. Both of these fabrics are extremely cheap and have undesirable qualities in apparel and home furnishings. Our field research also identified that menswear tends to use better quality fabrics made of natural fibers like wool and cotton. Even in moderately priced stores, men’s clothing tends to use more cotton and cotton blends as opposed to synthetic blend prevalent in women’s clothing. According to Cotton Inc, only 40 percent of women's clothing items are made from 100% cotton compared to 65% of men’s clothing.
Rayon is not a fiber that withstands extensive use and over time the garments lose their shape, color and overall attractiveness unlike organic natural fibers such as silk, wool and cotton which can last for years. Rayon looses 30 to 50% of its strength when wet, and washing rayon causes the fibers to break down. A lot of rayon garments are therefore labeled dry-clean only leading to more chemical usage. Moreover, the perception of most consumers is that rayon based fabrics fall into the natural organic fiber category, and are therefore aligned with their growing environmental consciousness. And although rayon has attributes which are both sustainable and eco-friendly it does not mean it is organic and the perception that it has minimal impact on the environment, as we have outlined above, couldn’t be further from the truth. A recent ocean survey found that rayon contributed to 56.9% of the total fibers found in deep ocean areas.
Encouraging signs that the tide is turning…..
But we are encouraged by signs that the tide is turning where millennials and self-aware consumers of all age groups, aka Perennials, are applying increasing discretion when purchasing a clothing item considering the reputation of the brand, and its sustainability impact. In fact, as evidenced by a 2015 Nielsen Global Survey that polled 30,000 online consumer across 60 countries, there is a growing trend where consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products that have a positive social and environmental impact. So next time you are shopping, make sure to turn over that label and look at the fiber content - your choices matter!
Buy High Quality for Long Lasting Durability
Your fiber choices impact the planet and the people in the supply chain. Clothes and home-goods involve a complex web of production and distribution from materials to final product and every piece has an impact. A fibers impact should be assessed based on the product, over its full life cycle considering multiple metrics, from water footprint and the toxicological profile of all chemicals used in production, the impact on people involved in manufacturing, and the potential to recycle or upcycle. Our advice - make an informed choice that yields the least negative impact to society, and the environment, and go for long-lasting durability!