Published 2019-05-21

This post is also available in Swedish

Mistra Future Fashion’s ‘bibles’ on difficult fibre choices

An organic cotton t-shirt is not automatically better than one made of conventional cotton or any other material. To conclude which garment is the best, more parameters must be considered.
This is one of the conclusions in two reports from Mistra Future Fashion.

It is well known that clothing and textiles affect the environment. Many people therefore have a desire to find alternatives with as small negative effects as possible. One way is to choose organic cotton or garments made from recycled material. None of this is wrong, but neither is it certain that the environment will ultimately improve as a result.

To know this, more parameters must be taken into consideration.

Mistra Future Fashion is trying to put the record straight in two reports titled Possible sustainable fibres on the market and their technical properties (‘Fibre Bible, Part 1’ and Environmental impact of textile fibres — what we know and what we don’t know (‘Fibre Bible, Part 2’).

Both reports are extensive but, as the titles suggest, unclear points still remain.

However, the main message is that a t-shirt of organic cotton is not automatically better than one produced from conventional cotton, or any other material.

‘To calculate the total environmental impact of a garment, you can’t just look at material. Just as important are the resources that were used to produce the garment,’ says Sandra Roos, one of the researchers who co-authored the reports.

In practice, this means that a garment in a given material can be both good and bad for the environment; what determines the overall picture is the nature of the entire production chain.

The study also examined whether new ‘sustainable fibres’ are genuinely better from an environmental point of view. The conclusion is that data are currently insufficient to assess the matter.

‘Without reliable data, there’s a risk of investments in new fibre technology not being made where they would bring most environmental benefit. There’s also a risk of new and better fibres being undervalued in decision processes because of data gaps about established fibres. This concerns data on environmental impact as well as on technical properties, which we also show data on in our new report,’ says Gustav Sandin of RISE, co-author of Fibre Bible Part 2, which examines the environmental impact of various fibres in detail.

These reports are the most comprehensive analyses of available data so far regarding textiles’ total environmental impact. Transparency in the production chain is a more important sustainability issue than the type of fibre used in the garment, the report authors argue.

‘To me, it’s clear from the results presented in these two reports that there’s still room for optimisation and development of existing fibre processes for greater sustainability,’ says Åsa Östlund, former Programme Director of Mistra Future Fashion.

Åsa Östlund, former Programme Director, Mistra Future Fashion

In her view, these reports can provide support to purchasers of textiles by giving them insight into how environmental impact depends on such factors as land and water use, electricity mix, process efficiency and chemical recovery within and among fibre types.

‘Fibre Bible Parts 1 and 2 contain very valuable data for technical support. As further development, it would be good if we produced a third Bible aimed at consumers and/or designers. That should explain to the general reader how fibre selection and different production methods for our garments have various environmental impacts.’

Download the full reports:

Fibre Bible, Part 1
Possible sustainable fibres on the market and their technical properties

Authors: Desiré Rex, Sibel Okcabol and Sandra Roos, RISE

Fibre Bible, Part 2
Environmental impact of textile fibres — what we know and what we don’t know

Authors: Gustav Sandin, Sandra Roos and Malin Johansson, RISE