There is a continuous discussion in the sportswear industry about the sustainability merits of synthetic fibres versus natural. Both have their positives and negatives and we make our decisions based on a large number of factors.
Synthetic fibres are extremely versatile and fit for purpose, they currently make up approximately 60% of all fibres sold for clothing. They’re very hard wearing, great for longevity but also happens to be part of the issue at end of life.
Natural Fibres with excellent technical properties, such as merino wool, are really appealing to us. Merino is naturally biodegradable and can be recycled so it is easier to dispose of at the end of life. But wool (all wool, not just merino) has to be carefully sourced so as to avoid mistreatment of animals and a lot of land is needed to grow the sheep. Added to that, merino is such a fine fibre that it tends to wear quickly.
We continue to investigate other natural fibres that may have an application in our garments. Until then, our guiding principles on sustainability in fabric choices are based on the premise of using synthetic fibres and choosing recycled wherever possible.
All our technical garments are made from synthetic fabrics - we have years of experience in selecting and testing recycled synthetic fabrics.
Polyester and Nylon are incredibly versatile fibres that lend themselves very well to functional sportswear:
- Hydrophobic, meaning they dry quickly
- Hard wearing
- Cheap to produce, with very little land requirements
BUT that’s not to play down the issues with cheap, virgin synthetic fibres in terms of embedded energy and associated carbon emissions, resource use (crude oil and water), and a plethora of chemicals used in the production.
Which is where the recycled fibres come into play. The two fibres we use most of in our garments are:
- Mechanically recycled polyester derived from end-of-life plastic bottles. This saves approximately 60% energy and 94% water compared to a polyester from virgin sources. Garments made from 100% polyester are also recyclable, see our Circularity page for more information.
- Chemically recycled nylon, derived from ghost fishing nets, and end of life carpets. This is a very high-quality nylon and because of the way it is processed it has the same qualities as a virgin nylon.
We also use recycled elastane in some of our garments and are currently investigating sourcing a chemically recycled polyester in our research projects on circularity.
We are currently reviewing the potential for incorporating more natural fibres into our garment range. The two natural fibres that we currently use are organic cotton and Ecovero.
Cotton is a very versatile fabric that we use for hoodies, sweaters, shirts, and children's tees. But the impacts of cotton farming are well documented, accounting for 16% of global insecticide use and 9% of global herbicide use. It’s also a very thirsty plant, requiring 2700 litres of water for a single t-shirt. In order to reduce the impact of our garments we choose certified Organic Cotton. Research by the Soil Association shows that organic farming creates healthier soils, able to retain moisture better and store more carbon, therefore reducing water use and emissions per kg of cotton. Additionally, avoiding pesticides significantly reduces the impact of the farming on the surrounding environment.
Ecovero is part of the viscose family - a type of natural fibre derived from wood pulp that has an incredibly soft feel, is lightweight and makes a fantastic t-shirt material. The downfall with viscose is that processing of wood fibres to viscose requires some fairly unpleasant chemicals, and any release of these can be very damaging to workers health, and to the environment. We have chosen Ecovero as it’s made by Lenzing in a process that is closed-loop and thoroughly audited, meaning it is a much cleaner viscose than others on the market.
A note on microfibres
We are reducing our impact through using recycled synthetic fabrics, but as per Newton’s third law: every action has a reaction. Synthetic fibres have been shown to shed small particles (“microfibres”) when washed, which can be released to the waterways and ultimately to the ocean. There is an increasing awareness of the issues of microfibre pollution, and in ‘developed’ countries the water treatment system is effective at removing most of this microfibre pollution.
However, where these fibres do make it to the ocean they are microscopic so can easily be ingested by marine mammals. Given their high surface area they are prone to trapping toxic chemicals on their surface. These can then bioaccumulate in the food chain and ultimately end up in our food.
Clothing fibres under a scanning Electron Microscope
Many bodies are carrying out research into the microfibre problem (see Patagonia’s microfibre study and the microfibre consortium to name just a couple) and a number of companies (from yarn spinners through to washing machine manufacturers) are working on technological solutions.
In reality it’s going to be some time before microfibre shedding is eliminated. Until then the best way to minimise your impact right now is:
- Buy well, buy once (the cheapest clothing is shown to shed most microfibres, not to mention the impact on labour etc)
- Wash less often, and at lower temperature (shedding less fibres and reducing energy and water consumption)
- Use a front-loading washing machine (shown to shed approximately 5 times less than top loading machines)
- Use a laundry bag for washing your clothes (we’re currently trialling the guppy bag as a means to reduce microfibre shedding)