Like it or not, winter is starting its approach and the falling temperatures are making us wrap up warm. So how can you reconcile cocooning-ready fabrics, or even technical fabrics, and environmental responsibility? Which clothes and which fabrics should you opt for?
This is the ultimate natural fabric for winter, and the one that best protects from the cold. Biodegradable, insulating, heat-regulating, cocooning-ready – we love it.
Wool – a disastrous track record
However, whether it be sheep, alpaca or cashmere wool from goats farmed in Tibet, the environmental impact is catastrophic. Sheep’s wool is one of the five most polluting fabrics to produce.
Sheep are the biggest producers of methane, even ahead of cows. In New Zealand, the third-largest wool producer after China and Australia, 90% of greenhouse gas emissions are down to sheep farming. Sheep and goat farming depletes the soil, even where it does not cause deforestation. Animals are often farmed under poor conditions to meet growing demand. Lastly, wool processing is highly polluting once washing, bleaching, dyeing and spinning are all factored in. Sustainably-managed supply chains exist, but are still few and far between.
Recycled wool – under development
Recycled wool jumpers are starting to make an appearance. However, the feel is still different – the fibres are generally stiffer and not as soft. Even if sorted by colour, recycled wool is a mix of different shades, giving the finished product a mottled look. It is often found in jumpers and coats, mixed with virgin wool or other fibres – silk or recycled PET – to make it more hardwearing and improve its appearance.
Fleece made from recycled plastic – warm, eco-friendly and cosy
This trailblazer has become the standard fabric when it comes to technical, warm, eco-friendly clothing. Made from recycled plastic bottles, it is still often tied up with ski holidays or hiking. A little less so since a great many pyjama sets, bodysuits, throws and onesies are now being made with this warm, cosy fabric that is so soft that it even takes us back to childhood. It takes 27 1.5 litre water bottles to make a fleece jumper, and one tonne of recycled plastic bypasses the use of 700-800 litres of petroleum.
Recycled polyester and PET
The other basic winter garment is the coat, quilted jacket or parka, basically the outerwear garment that protects us outdoors. But let’s be honest, none of them are ecologically satisfactory, whether it’s the polluting wool or cashmere in the coat or the down in the quilted jacket – animal welfare, anyone? The Gore-Tex in the parka and ski trousers is no better. Made of stretched Teflon®, it contains large amounts of perfluorocarbons, which are extremely volatile and contaminating endocrine disruptors. So what should you do?
Admittedly there is not a great deal of choice at the moment, apart from recycled fabrics. You should favour jackets and coats that incorporate as much recycled fabric as possible. This is very often polyester, when it comes to quilted jackets and parkas (so much of it has already been produced that it is better to re-use it than produce it new). But you will also find a few technical jackets made from PET from recycled plastic bottles. And there’s even a ski jacket with a membrane made of bioplastic from castor oil, with the rest of the garment made partly from recycled polyester.
Another use for these recycled synthetic fabrics is making warm underwear. There is a limited number of alternatives to supersede that old chestnut Thermolactyl, or technical fabrics such as Uniqlo’s Heattech. The company is making an effort in terms of sustainable development, but not yet in this thermal underwear line, which is warm and performs well, but is polluting. Some brands (not least in New Zealand, one of the leading sheep-farming countries) use natural fabrics such as merino wool, pointing to their naturalness and animal welfare credentials. Others (not least Odlo, one of the leading players in this segment) offer one or more designs made from recycled fabrics, combining merino wool and TencelTM (a sustainable alternative to viscose).
Fur – either vintage or made from recycled PET
Perhaps some still dream of having a warm fur coat, despite years of fur-bashing and PETA campaigns? To avoid killing animals bred exclusively for this purpose, you can look in your grandmother’s wardrobe, at flea markets or car boot sales for a vintage coat that is not too moth-eaten / shabby and will not cost too much. When it comes to it, if you wear a mink, fox or astrakhan fur coat you will be warm for sure. But you still have to take responsibility for doing so.
So what’s the alternative? synthetic fur. That’s all well and good, but as the name suggests, it is mostly made from petrochemical products (polyester or acrylic). Some manufacturers are starting to develop fur made from natural hemp, maize or nettle fibres. Others make them, again from recycled plastic, or even plastic fished out of the sea. This offering is as yet a limited one, but could gain ground.
So it’s not easy to reconcile warm clothing and eco-friendly clothing in winter. Natural fabrics – essentially wool – are still very polluting, and synthetic fabrics, which are warm and technical, are even more so. So what are the alternatives? Yet again, buying second hand. And when it comes to raw fabrics, there is only one solution: favouring recycled (natural or synthetic) fabrics. But there is still a long way to go.