Cotton is one of the most common natural textile fibres. It's soft and highly absorbent, cheap and versatile. As a natural fibre cotton is biodegradable. However, cotton even when organic, is considered an unsustainable and damaging natural fibre. Growing cotton takes a lot of water. Non-organic cotton also relies heavily on fertilizer and pesticide use. Cotton can't be grown close to The Netherlands, so it always has to be imported from far away.
Hemp is a very strong and durable natural fibre. Harvesting requires manual labour, making the material more expensive. Hemp is sturdy and easy to grow. Hemp plants can be grown with little or no fertilizer and pesticides and need little water. Hemp plants have a positive impact on soil quality and can therefore be used in crop rotation. Hemp can be grown locally but still needs agricultural land, which competes with use for food production.
Polyester is one of the most widely used man-made (synthetic) fibres. It is very versatile and can be made to suit a wide range of applications. Polyester is cheap and durable. Polyester is made from polymers (plastic), derived from crude oil. There are currently great concerns about microplastics being shed from polyester clothes when wearing and washing and ending up in the water supply, contributing to the "plastic soup" in the oceans. However, polyester is recyclable and can be made from partially biobased ingredients.
Mycelium are the threads of fungi that you can quickly grow in any desired shape and on all types of natural surfaces. If you dry or heat the threads the fungi will die and a sustainable, lightweight, strong, breathable and hardly flammable material remains. After use, the material is quickly and completely biodegradable. In the future, mycelium is seen as one of the most important substitutes for products made from irreplaceable fossil raw materials such as plastics. It is already being used as a substitute for textiles and leather, which greatly reduces CO2 emissions.
Growing algae is extremely sustainable compared to traditional agriculture. It doesn't need agricultural land and therefore it is not competitive with food production. Moreover, the yield per hectare is high with a very efficient use of water. It also grows on residual streams such as waste water and CO2. Cellulose can be extracted from naturally growing algae to produce a sustainable, naturally degradable textile. However, production is expensive and for good quality textiles other, less durable fibres must be added such as elastomers for the stretch of the fabric.
Jellyfish is resistant to most toxins in the ocean and are not fished for. The number of natural jellyfish predators such as tuna and salmon is decreasing due to fishing. Moreover, the jellyfish reproduces quickly. The result is that there is a large natural surplus of jellyfish that washes up on beaches or collects as waste at the water filters of nuclear power stations. In fact this waste is a high-quality, sustainable raw material that retains its flexibility and elasticity through a special natural treatment of washing, salting, drying and pressing. The result is a material that is comparable to rubber, parchment or extremely supple leather. The jellyfish tissue is flexible, strong and, depending on the treatment, also waterproof.
Woven textiles consist of vertical 'warp' and horizontal 'weft' yarns, that alternately cross over and under each other to form a cloth. Woven textiles are generally strong and not very stretchy. Pattern parts are cut out of a sheet of fabric to make a garment. When making garments out of woven textile, there can be a lot of cutting waste. Zero-waste pattern cutting is possible, but not yet common practise. Not a great choice for a T-shirt.
Knitted textiles are made from continuous strands of yarns that are looped through one another, resulting in a very stretchy fabric. Fabrics can be knitted in sheets, or tubes, or even into 3D shapes. When making a knitted garment, panels or even the whole garment can be produced without the need to cut away parts of the fabric. This saves on material as well as labour when producing the garment. Good choice for a T-shirt.
In non-woven textiles, randomly oriented fibres are interlocked mechanically or bonded with heat or chemicals to form a flat sheet or a 3D shape. Because the fibres are not converted into yarns first, non-woven textiles are less labour intensive than knitted or woven textiles. Nonwovens are used for a wide range of applications. Non-woven textiles can be shaped onto the body to form a garment, eliminating waste. However, nonwovens are not as durable as woven or knitted textiles and are often used for disposable products. Sustainable in production, but possibly not very long lasting.
Growven is a term introduced by ArtEZ Future Maker’s researcher and designer Tjeerd Veenhoven. The term is a combination of ‘grow’ and ‘non-woven’ and used for natural materials that can be formed three-dimensionally by, for example, allowing them to grow in a mould. Because you can design directly on a spatial form, such as the human body, you do not have to deal with residual material. Although it is a sustainable method of production, it is often slow. A great deal of research is still needed on how we can optimally use the growth processes of growvens for textile applications.
Refusing to make new things or to add new material to something is always the most sustainable action. But uncoloured textiles may have few attractive colour options. This certainly applies to polyester. The aesthetic aspect can shorten the use of a garment (be out of fashion) or extend it (timeless design).
Natural dyeing – for example dyeing by microbes – uses natural colouring methods where no toxic substances are used or end up in the product. However, natural colours are not very stable and change quickly due to washing and sunlight. This is seen by the textile industry as a major disadvantage because they want colourfast fabrics. However, discolouration can also have a great aesthetic aspect. Just think of materials that often become more beautiful over time such as leather and copper.
The least sustainable aspect of textile is the finishing: a fabric treatment to give textile certain qualities such as colour. Chemical processes for colouring contain mostly toxic substances that can be harmful to humans and the environment.
There are various options for adding value to a product after its first use. The most important are those from the so-called RE-stairs which runs from sustainable to less sustainable: re-use, re-pair, re-furnish, re-manufacturing, re-cycle and re-cover. Re-use of a T-shirt is therefore much more sustainable than re-cycling, since the latter, for example, requires the use of energy or water for the recovery of usable yarns that are often less in quality than the yarns originally used. Re-cycling is therefore a form of down-cycling.
A material which is rapidly and completely biodegradable is one of the components in the closed loop of the circular economy. It is the most sustainable solution after a product doesn’t have a functional life anymore.
Annually, 124 million kilos of clothing is burned in The Netherlands. It is by far the least sustainable solution. Used raw materials cannot be reused and the combustion process leads to CO2 emissions. Moreover, it is often unknown which toxic substances are released during combustion that can be harmful to humans and the environment.
Sustainability is a widely used but very complex concept. When is something really sustainable? In the Labyrinth of Sustainability installation at Dutch Design Week, visitors are challenged to take steps themselves to design a t-shirt that is as sustainable as possible. But where one step in the process may be very sustainable, another might not be. The most sustainable raw material may exclude the most sustainable production method! How do you come to a truly sustainable T-shirt?
On this website you will find the four steps that are part of the labyrinth (Raw Material, Production Technology, Coloring and After Live).
If you visit the labyrinth at DDW you will see examples projects of contemporary Dutch designers doing research at ArtEZ Future Makers. There is work on display by, among others, Tjeerd Veenhoven, Charlotte van Alem and Aliki van der Kruijs. Labyrinth of Sustainability lets the visitor experience the complexity of sustainable design.