New report compiles and analyses all available data on the environmental impact of textile fibers, concluding that differences between specific suppliers of textile fibres are often greater than differences between fiber types or between production methods. Transparency throughout the production chain is therefore a more pressing issue than fiber content. The results are presented in two new reports, The Fiber Bible Part 1 and Part 2. 

A t-shirt made of organic cotton or recycled material is not always more sustainable

The data suggests that the common separation into “good” and “bad” fibers, based on generic classifications of fiber types, is too simplified. A much more nuanced view is warranted, in which the separation rather is done between producers with or without appropriate environmental management, and poor or better uses of the fiber, accounting for the environmental performance throughout the life cycle of the final textile product. In other words, an organic cotton t-shirt is not automatically more sustainable than a conventional cotton t-shirt – organic is a good start but you have to consider the entire life cycle of a garment.

Dr Sandra Roos, RISE, explains why the life cycle perspective should be considered when measuring sustainability:

“When calculating the total environmental impact of a garment, one can not only consider the material used in the garment itself, but also what resources have been used to produce the garment. Even though the garment could be made from recycled fibers, the factory may have used fossil fuels for electricity supply, thereby increasing the garment’s total environmental impact.”

It is important to stress that fiber production  relies on energy and materials other than the fiber feedstock, for production of heat, electricity, fertilizers, pesticides, feed, dissolution chemicals, catalysts, and more – these secondary flows are often larger, on a mass basis, than the raw materials used as fiber feedstock.

Future sustainable fibers

At present, the most sought-after natural fiber is cotton, however conventional cotton fibers need to be replaced since pesticide use and irrigation during the cultivation contributes to toxicity and water stress. There is a range of different so called “new sustainable fibers” on the market promising to replace for example cotton. Nevertheless, the results show that there are no fibers neither on the market today nor developed in lab scale that have the technical feasibility to match the properties of conventional cotton.

Furthermore, researchers state that it can be misleading to classify new innovations as “sustainable” since there is a lack of data to assess the entire life cycle. Dr Gustav Sandin at RISE says that the lack of data is a disadvantage when investing in future sustainable textile fibers.

“Without such data, there is a risk that investments in new fiber technologies are not made where there are greatest potential gains. There is also a risk that new and better fibers are, in decision-making, undervalued and unappreciated in relation to established fibers for which data on environmental performance and technical properties are available.“

Fiber Bible, Part 1

Possible sustainable fibers on the market and their technical properties
By Desiré Rex, Sibel Okcabol and Sandra Roos, RISE

Fiber Bible, Part 2

Environmental impact of textile fibers – what we know and what we don’t know
By Gustav Sandin, Sandra Roos & Malin Johansson, RISE