Clothes today are made from a wide range of different materials. Traditional materials such as cotton, linen and leather are still sourced from plants and animals. But most clothes are more likely to be made of materials and chemicals derived from fossil fuel-based crude oil.
There are nine major types of raw materials commonly used in clothing today.
The source of synthetic fibers and fabrics is the fossil fuel crude oil. It is estimated that 62% of all fibers used in the fashion industry are made from a synthetic material – mainly polyester, but also nylon, acrylic, polypropylene and elastane. The global synthetic fibers market is predicted to grow 7.39% CAGR over the period of 2021-2025.
One of the oldest used fibers and the most important non-food crop in the world is cotton. Currently, cotton makes up around 24% of all fibers use globally – about 26.2 million tonnes – but its share of the market is declining due to competition from synthetic alternatives. Cotton production is particularly important for farmers in lower-income countries, where approximately 350 million people are involved in its cultivation and processing.
These materials begin as cellulose extracted from a natural resource (such as bamboo or trees) that is then crushed, pulped and transformed into fibers using a similar process to the one for making polyester. The most common cellulosic fabric is viscose, prized for its silk-like qualities (rayon, the first type of viscose fabric invented, was created to mimic silk). Around 6.5 million tonnes of man-made cellulosic fibers are produced each year for the textile market with a share of six percent of the total fibers production volume. This share is expected to grow by around 8.1% per year to 2025. Major processing centres for cellulose are China, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan and Indonesia.
A traditional fibers, particularly in colder climates, wool has a tiny, and decreasing, share of the world market (around 1%). About 1.155 million kilograms (kg) of clean raw wool raw wool per year are produced from a global herd of around 1.177 billion sheep. This roughly equates to just under one wool sweater per person per year for everyone on the planet. These figures include wool textiles used for items other than garments – such as furniture or carpets.
An ancient, highly prized fabric, silk is mostly derived from the thread produced by the domesticated silkworm species Bombyx Mori. Around 0.11 million tonnes of silk were produced in 2020 (about 0.10% of total fibre)2 in more than 60 countries, but the bulk of production is concentrated in a handful: China, India, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam3. Compared to other natural fibres, silk is incredibly valuable and commands a price of around $15 per kilo, making the value of production around $3.03 billion per year.