A sustainable wardrobe starts with one fiber

Every morning you open your wardrobe, where a jumble of fabrics, colors, buttons, and prints are waiting for you to decide what to wear today. The label of your new sweater was itchy, so you cut it out right away. You will probably be allowed to wash it at 40 degrees. What exactly are all garments made of, or where do they come from? You probably have no idea anymore.

And you are not alone in this. Because little attention is paid to what clothes are made of and how they are produced. While child labor still exists and the textile industry contributes significantly to environmental pollution. Scientists estimate that about 20 percent of all water pollution from industry comes from the production of clothing. And that between 2000 and 2015, the production of clothing has doubled, partly because we wear the same item of clothing much less often.

A cotton field in Uzbekistan. Cotton is one of the most popular materials to make clothing.

David Stanley, flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Fiber: the building blocks of your pants

Can it be done differently? NEMO Kennislink speaks to specialists and asks how you can produce clothing more sustainably in a social way with fair wages and without child labor. There is much more to it than meets the eye.

Just take the material that your sweater, jeans or shirt is made of. This is often more than one type of fabric, for example a mix of polyester and nylon. We call that a blend. “And that is not wise for sustainability. If you want to use less raw materials, you have to recycle more. And if a garment consists of several fibers, this is virtually impossible, ”says Paulien Harmsen of Wageningen Food and Biobased Research, part of Wageningen University & Research. She researched how you can produce clothing in a more environmentally friendly way and wrote the book ‘Textiles for circular fashion’.

You can somewhat compare the fibers to Lego blocks with which you can make garments.

Cheap polyester

If you want to reuse a shirt or pants, you recycle the fibers that make up the garment. You can see those fibers as building blocks and compare them with the toy Lego. You can always reuse the building blocks with Lego. Have you built a house and do you want to make something different? Then you take the bricks apart and make something new. You use those fibers in a similar way with clothing. You take them out of a shirt and then make a new garment with it.

But for that the fibers have to be of good quality and there are several variants in a blend. Then reuse is virtually impossible. As if different types of Lego pieces are all glued together or immediately crumble when taken apart. You can no longer make a good car, lighthouse or prison out of that.

“That’s why you have to make a conscious choice when making clothes: use one and the same fiber as much as possible. The clothing industry doesn’t do that now, because they love to make blends for comfort and price. For example, the price of PET, a polyester, is very low. Because there is a surplus of it and it has good properties for making clothing. You can also easily mix it with other fibers, but it is disastrous for recycling, ”says Harmsen.

How can this be broken? “Due to stricter regulations. Actually, almost anything is allowed in the clothing industry now. Compare it with glass and paper. We are very strict about making and collecting them. But this is not the case with textiles. There, chemicals, water and raw materials are used in abundance in its manufacture and the market is flooded with excess. We hardly recycle clothing. Many consumers prefer to pay as little as possible and change their outfit as often as possible. You can hardly blame them, because it is available. ”

A mix of quality marks

Back to our own wardrobe. When we looked at what our clothes were made of, we immediately saw that Harmsen was right. Almost all of our garments consisted of blends. And we had never thought about that before purchasing. Of course we looked at the price and how beautiful a pair of pants fit, but whether it was made in a responsible way, how environmentally polluting the garment was, we had never thought about it.

According to Maarten Mulder and Krispaal Faddegon (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences), we are not alone in this. They investigate how young people view the problems in the clothing industry and conclude that they experience little urgency to use clothing more sustainably. Price and fit also play the biggest role for them, environmental friendliness is low on the list. Mulder: “It is not really alive and hardly plays a role in their choices. But we also noticed from our research that some want to do something, but don’t know where to start. ”

One explanation for this is that it is unclear to consumers which garments are actually sustainable. While a better-life sticker on, for example, meat products in the supermarket can guide you to a certain extent, this is not so obvious in the textile industry. Faddegon: “There is a proliferation of logos that manufacturers have made up themselves. All kinds of chains have their own green line, but it is unclear what that exactly means. ”

Do you want a greener wardrobe?

  • Buy clothes that consist of one fiber;
  • When purchasing, ask yourself whether you really need the clothes;
  • Check with a quality mark whether it is independent;
  • Sell ​​old clothes if you want to buy something new;
  • You can already recycle clothing, including at the Wardrobe.

Role models

The introduction of a general quality mark is an important step, according to the researchers. So that you know that, for example, you are buying a garment that consists of one fiber and can easily be reused. Faddegon: “In order to get young people to buy clothes more consciously, we want to look at the influence of role models. We or the municipality can say what young people should do, but it should also match their experience. ” Who exactly these role models should be is still to be determined by the researchers.

Not only the material of the clothing and the behavior of consumers play an important role in making more sustainable clothing. Of course it is also necessary for the clothing industry to adapt. “But most fashion companies are really not interested in that at the moment,” says Merunisha Moonilal. As a consultant, she advises companies to make clothing in a more sustainable way and works as a teacher of sustainability, textiles and fashion at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. “Most companies want to make money. Sustainability costs money, but it is still unclear exactly how much. They often simply have no idea what they can do and where to start. ”

Moonilal sums up what is going on if you really want to go green and she taps into a tricky point. “Making clothing in a sustainable way goes much further than the material, use of raw materials and recycling. You also have to look at the wages that employees receive, whether there is child labor and of course at transport, energy consumption and use of chemicals. that you wear consists of all kinds of different parts, which are made by several companies, starting with the cultivation of cotton on the land, for example, after which such a material goes through the entire production chain and thus makes a trip to all kinds of factories, as it were. In one, cotton is spun, then woven and then processed into a shirt. All of these steps involve which chemicals were used, how it was transported, what the CO2 emissions were, the energy and water consumption and how the workers were treated. So a lot happens before your sweater, shoe or pants end up in the store.

Jacket from soda bottles

Is a jacket made of this kind of soft drink bottles sustainable?

Companies often do not know what exactly happened before they happened in the chain. For example, in the textile factory where they sew clothes, they do not know under what conditions the cotton was grown. Moonilal: “When a company proudly reports that their clothing is made of organic cotton, that doesn’t mean anything to me. That’s just one part of a garment. ”

It reminds us of clothes we recently bought. For example, Robert bought a raincoat made from recycled soft drink bottles. That sounded sustainable. “But you don’t know how sustainable it is made and whether it was the most environmentally friendly option. Perhaps it would have been better to reuse those soda bottles in a different way, or it was assembled by children or a lot of water was used in making the jacket, ”says Moonilal.

How do you provide an overview of what exactly is happening in the chain? How do you show the way from sowing to the clothing store? This is possible with a new method developed by Pim Croes at the University of Utrecht. Companies can use this to get started and calculate what a fair price is for their products, such as electronics or clothing. What it costs to make something without child labor and in a sustainable way. In a separate interview with NEMO Kennislink, Croes talks about this method.

We can make clothes much more sustainable if we make them with one specific fiber and then reuse them.

Gaspard & Rosalyn Lorthiois, flickr, (CC0 1.0)

All the researchers we spoke to argue for more awareness among companies, but also among you – people who buy clothes. “We have been buying more and more clothes in recent years. My grandfather used to buy a jacket and he got a lifelong guarantee on it, ”says Moonilal. “That is only sustainable. If we want more sustainable and social fashion, then we need to make people more aware of why this is important. I believe that young people already understand this. The students I teach are very aware of their impact on the environment. I may often sound a bit gloomy, because companies will not change anything quickly on their own. But I am hopeful about creating more awareness, because I see that young people already think a lot more about diversity and also sustainability. They are the future and I therefore look forward to their contribution to more sustainable fashion in the future. ”

Join the conversation!

What are you willing to do or not do for a greener wardrobe? Let us know in the comments below and join the discussion.


  • Harmsen, Paulien and Harriëtte Bos, ‘Textiles for Circular Fashion’, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research (Wageningen 2020).
  • Carr, D. ea, ‘examining overconsumption, competitive consumption, and conscious consumption from 1994 to 2004: disentangling cohort and period effects’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
  • Croes, P., ‘Comprehensive in-supply chain life cycle assessment of the preventative cost-based externalities of products. An assessment methodology as first step to a sustainable and responsible true price economy: “Oiconomy”’ (Utrecht 2021).
  • Rex, D., S. Okcabol en S. Roos. ’Possible sustainable fibers on the market and their technical properties. The fiber bible part 1, Mistra Future fashion, RISE (2019).

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