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Classifying a Fiber as ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ is Too Simplistic, Report Says

Fiber content isn’t the be-all and end-all of sustainability, claims a new two-part report that sifts through the data about the environmental impact of fibers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a T-shirt made from organic or recycled cotton may not even be the most eco-friendly option.

The problem, according to Sweden’s Mistra Future Fashion, a research program revolving around the circular economy, is that the industry is too caught up in the binary between “good” versus “bad fibers, even though the differences between specific suppliers of fibers are often greater than those between fiber types or production methods. While fiber makeup is often a central consideration for brands and retailers, transparency throughout the production chain should present the “more pressing issue.”

“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,” Sandra Roos, a researcher at Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE), said in a statement. “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.”

Taken collectively, such “secondary flows” are often larger and more consequential than the raw materials used as the fiber feedstock, Roos added. Fiber categorizers should therefore take a “much more nuanced” approach that makes divisions between producers based on the appropriateness of their environmental management or  “poor or better” uses of the fiber.

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Case in point? “Viscose produced with nearly closed chemical loops and renewable energy can be among the best alternatives, while viscose produced with irresponsible chemical management and coal power can be among the worst,” Roos said.

At the same time, it’s unlikely that one or a few fiber types alone can “constitute a future sustainable fiber supply,” the report noted. Because fiber diversity “enhances sustainability,” it’s crucial that claims about a fiber’s sustainability are not exaggerated, simplified or framed as a panacea to the exclusion of all others.

Gustav Sandin, another researcher at RISE, says characterizing innovative new fibers as “sustainable” without the life-cycle assessment data to back them up can be misleading and, ultimately, self-detrimental.

“Without such data, there is a risk that investments in new fiber technologies are not made where there are greatest potential gains,” Sandin said. “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.”