Is Cork Sustainable?
The end of fast fashion
The fashion industry is on the brink of change. In the last few years, we have seen fast fashion dominate the world of fashion; however, every day, more individuals worldwide are becoming aware of sustainability. This has applied pressure to the designers and fashion companies to use more renewable and natural resources. Cork is one natural material, unfortunately not being used to its fullest potential.
Cork is the next big thing in the fashion industry! Cork as a material has many properties from being versatile, renewable to biodegradable. The fibres have been used for a variety of differently purposed from bottle corks to now fashionable statements.
By exploring Cork, we can further explore how it can replace materials in fashion, i.e. vegan leather, synthetic materials and faux leather. Using cork as a sustainable material can help increase our contribution to sustainability on the planet.
Cork is a very versatile material; a sustainable resource harvested from living cork trees that are totally unharmed during the process.
Cork Oak trees - Quercus suber (evergreen) or Quercus occidentalis (deciduous) are ready to be harvested at around 20 years of age, although the first harvest tends to be of an inferior quality. The cork is then harvested every nine years up to a maximum age of around 150 years. Cork trees ususally grow to a height of 12m to 18m with a trunk circumference of around 2m to 3m. They are found mainly in the western Mediterranean, Portugal and mainland Spain, with Portugal producing half of the world's cork harvest.
What is cork?
Cork is actually made up of a honeycomb of dead cells that form on the outside of the Cork Oak tree.
There are 625 million of these empty cells in each cubic inch of cork, making it four times lighter than water. These flotation qualities make it ideal for use in life preservers and buoys. It also has excellent insulation qualities for sound and temperature. When crushed, it quickly regains its shape. It absorbs neither dust nor moisture and it is resitent to rot and insects.
History of cork harvesting
Cork has been used for over 5000 years. In China, Egypt, Babylon, and Persia for about 3000 B.C. Cork was mainly used for functional purposes like sealing containers, fishing equipment, and domestic applications. They also discovered that cork played a big part in medical purposes, mainly for hair loss treatment.
Today, it is well-known that cork for its use as stoppers in wine bottles stoppers. Portugal is one of the biggest Cork growing countries, being the source for millions of bottle stoppers worldwide. Cork has been used for both fashionable and functional purposes for years; however, it has recently been considered mainstream fashion.
Why is Cork Sustainable
Overall most of us don’t realise that washing one synthetic garment releases about 2,000 plastic microfibers which then enter the ocean and food chain. This ultimately affects the food that we eat and the air that we breathe. 30% of rayon and viscose used in fashion comes from endangered and ancient forests. However, cork is sourced from a natural material, therefore very biodegradable. Cork is derived from tree bark and is one of the most renewable materials.
As well as being renewable cork is biodegradable, which is one of the key factors to consider a material sustainable. Cork will take around 50 - 100 years to biodegrade compared to synthetic materials which can take over 1000 years to degrade.
Vegan and the Eco-friendly Process
Cork is vegan and has not been derived from an animal. Although animal-derived materials are natural fibre, therefore biodegradable; companies that are not eco-friendly often harm animals and add chemicals to their processes.
Cork is relatively sustainable. When the cork is harvested, it doesn't affect the tree at all. The manufacturers will lightly slice through the cork layer of the tree trunk. The cork fibres are then left outside over time which encourages natural changes improving the cork's quality. Additionally, leaving the bark outside also drains the moisture.
Afterwards, the cork planks are then treated with heat and water to remove any additional substances. Water-soluble components are used to change the texture making the cork softer and flexible. The process is extremely eco-friendly and better than most fashionable manufacturing processes.
Strong and Durable
The material is strong and light and can be used as a protective layer; many use an additional protection spray from preventing staining. Cork as a fabric is very similar to leather which is why sometimes cork is referred to as 'Leather' mainly for its tough texture, water resistance, durability and similar characteristics. Cork is great for bags, sandals and jewellery.
Cork is extremely flexible and light, which is great for creating fashionable pieces. Cork has been used to design sunglasses frames to handles on bags. Cork can be bent to form shapes and moulds without losing its properties. Cork is a great natural element like bamboo that has been used for not only stoppers but now, the runway.
Overall, Cork is one of the best materials for not only household products but also fashion. From bags, to dresses, it can also be incorporated within other materials. Finally, cork is now being acknowledged for the eco-friendly process from the beginning stages to the final product.
What is cork used for?
- Floor coverings
- Shoe insoles
- Roofing panels
- Safety helmet liners
- Bottle stoppers
- Bulletin boards
- Golf ball cores
- Baseball cores
There are synthetic materials that can be used to replace cork in some of these applications, but there is no substitute that can be used in as many different applications.