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Exploring New Materials: The Search for Sustainable Fashion


Photo Gallery: The Problem with Cotton Photos

Do you know how bad your jeans are for the environment? Or how many chemicals are needed to produce a pair of leather shoes? Luckily, there are some more environmentally friendly options available.

What are you wearing right now? Cotton trousers? A cotton shirt? Or perhaps cotton socks with a few synthetic fibers woven in? If the answer is "yes," then you're just like many others. Cotton is Germany's favorite material, with poll after poll showing that around 80 percent of Germans prefer wearing it over any other material.

There's just one hitch: Cotton is a particularly thirsty fiber. The production of just one pair of jeans devours around 10,000 liters (2,650 gallons) of water. A UNESCO report found that around 80 percent of that water is used for the cultivation of cotton. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the British government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded: "Cotton is the most water demanding fiber, outstripping the water demands of all other fibers."

These issues are further compounded by chemical pollution, a factor many manufacturers are currently trying to reduce through the production of organic cotton.

Swiss brothers Markus and Daniel Freitag aren't convinced. Their firm Freitag is well known for its bags made from recycled truck tarpaulins. There is even one in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"We had actually only been looking for good trousers for the workers in our factory," says Daniel Freitag. They needed to be durable and sustainable. "But we quickly noticed that a good pair of trousers requires good materials. And good materials need good fibers."

Fibers from France, Pants from Poland

And so the brothers decided to develop their own pants. It took four years before a specimen was finished -- and the new pants were made of familiar materials: linen and hemp. "What we're doing is actually not at all innovative," says Freitag. "Really this is all going back to the future."

The two plants are grown in Europe and don't need much water, with rainfall sufficient for linen and hemp to grow. The trousers were entirely produced within 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) of Zurich -- and not from 10,000 kilometers away in Asia. The fibers come from France, and are then spun by an Italian firm in Tunisia before being woven in Italy and sewn into trousers in Poland.

Yet this comes at a price, both at the checkout counter and in terms of comfort. The hemp-linen jeans are around twice as heavy as cotton trousers, they absorb more water and take longer to dry. Plus, they cost €190 ($212).

"We're very close to the absolute limit in terms of price", says Freitag. The majority of the money goes towards personnel costs, but the material itself is also expensive, he says. "To a certain degree this is a luxury organic product. But when I see a €5 T-shirt, I have to ask myself: Who's paying for the rest?"

The Freitag brothers aren't the only designers foregoing popular but environmentally unfriendly materials in the search for sustainable fashion.

The Swiss firm Freitag is best known for its bags made from old truck tarpaulins. But the company's founders also sought to make robust trousers for their workers without relying on cotton -- and a French flax field provided them with a solution. This machine processes the harvested straw.

As this picture shows, thread is subsequently produced. Flax only needs rain water to grow, while cotton typically needs to be watered at great cost. In Italy and Tunisia, the flax thread is interwoven with modal and hemp fibers and then dyed.

Textile workers in Poland stitch together the trousers. European production comes at a price, however: One pair costs €190.

"We're at the absolute limit when it comes to the price", says company head Daniel Freitag. He sees his product as an example of how to forego cotton and mass production.

This is what the jeans look like after a week on the compost pile. According to the company, they should completely decompose -- except for the buttons, which have to be removed prior to composting.

A new idea could then turn this compost into tights. Thanks to a process currently being developed by researchers at Germany's University of Hohenheim, chicory root could be used as the basis for future synthetic materials. The root is a by-product of chicory cultivation and could replace crude oil in plastic production.

This bag is also designed to return to the earth at some point. With the exterior made of compressed coconut fibers, the bag contains no leather and only small amounts of cotton.

The interior is constructed from rubber, which makes the bag waterproof. The Dutch firm reWrap produces the bags in a workshop in Amsterdam.

The handle is made from walnut and polished with beeswax. Just like the buttons on jeans, the handle is screwed on. The screws must be removed before decomposition. Only the inner lining is made of cotton, but it is organically grown.

Despite being almost the same color and pattern as the bag, this is in fact a shoe made of cork. "It's actually not really a material very suited to shoemaking," says Pedro Lima of Ultrashoes. His shoes are available on the German market under the name of Fairticken.

When cork is thin enough for shoes, it breaks quickly -- but otherwise it is too thick for shoe production. That's why the shoes used to be strengthened with plastic. "The result was that we got a shoe that looked natural, but was actually mostly made of plastic," says Lima.

Meanwhile, the company has made progress. Instead of plastic, it uses organic cotton to make the cork tougher. The tapering is made from recycled plastic bottles while the soles are made from old car tires.

When it comes to bags and shoes, leather is often the material of choice. But production, especially in Asia, is highly problematic. Five-hundred kilograms (1,100 pounds) of often extremely dangerous chemicals are needed to produce 250 kilograms of leather. To dehair and make durable leather out of wet skins requires them to be soaked in chemical baths for days.

Furthermore, the cows that must be killed for the leather need to be bred and fed. This requires feed, and the food requires farmland.

But There Is Another Way

There are also some traps that consumers can fall into when it comes to environmentally friendly clothes. Earlier shoe models produced by the Portuguese firm Ultrashoes looked natural, but actually contained plastic. Cork does grow in Portugal and therefore is right out the front door, but it doesn't have the correct properties for shoe construction and as such was strengthened using manmade materials. "Today we are able to use organic cotton," writes Pedro Lima of Ultrashoes. "And we're relying more and more on upcycled materials."

The idea of using chicory root for the production of synthetic materials likewise presents a challenge, namely that of ensuring that clothing is sustainable throughout its lifetime. While using chicory roots instead of plastic eliminates the reliance on crude oil, nylon stockings are nevertheless still a strain on the environment once they reach the end of their life.

It's a different story when it comes to Freitag trousers or a bag manufactured by reWrap, which is partially made with compressed coconut fibers. Once they are no longer used, they should simply decompose into compost. And those who don't want to wear their clothes anymore but aren't prepared to let them decompose can still simply swap them.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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1. Who cares?
marawilliamson 03/25/2016
When Obama states that global warming is the biggest world problem and people stress about jeans, I start to lose the will to live. It is not imaginary global warming that is driving us insane, it's political correctness.
2. Time to get out a needle and thread and start repairing?
Hatchet Green 03/25/2016
Time to get out a needle and thread and start repairing those old battered jeans? The solution that we have adopted here is to just keep 'em going for as long as possible; keep repairing; and keep finding workarounds to squeeze some further life out of cotton clothing. It ain't pretty but it is fine for workwear. If you are after a good cut and clean clothes that are not a mosaic of patches though, it looks like it could be a while before you can honestly claim that your wardrobe is truly ecologically-friendly.
3. Hogwash
pcarnogursky 04/10/2016
Earth has an abundance of water, the area of oceans exceeding that of land. Water evaporates, then rains back on Earth, and not one drop can be lost within his eternal cycle, regardless of the transformations people put it through its exploitation for drinking, coocking, washing, farming, manufacturing and all other uses. If it took 10000 litres (and I doubt the accuracy of such claim) to made the pair of jeans I am wearing (and I have 10 oher pairs in the closet), and it now contains zero litres of water, it means that the water used for growing the cotton and in the manufacuring process is now somewhere in a river, flowing back to the ocean. If, ultimately, it would only take one liter to make my jeans, the 9999 litres "saved" would still be approximately where they are now, just the detour through the farm irrigation and manufacturing use would be skipped, but not one drop of water (or any other element present on Earth for he last four billions years) can be ever destroyed (or created). Same for the cows. They were not bred just for the leather, it is their milk and meat they can thank for being raised. When they're slaughtered for their primary purpose, their hides are used to make all those leather products Der Spiegel seems to despise. If there wouldn't be demand for such use, the cowhides would be burried in landfills, rotting and decomposing into their fundamental organic compounds and elements, and geting ready for the next cycle in Nature. Please stop writing such biased and distorted articles. If you calculate the water needed for Freitag trouses, to grow coconuts for their fibres and for all the other manufacturing and transporation stuff, perhaps it would add up to "only" 9995 litres. Big deal.
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