Sustainable Fabrics 101!
Last week I may have shocked you with some statistics about the fashion industry and its waste. A big part of making a habit of choosing sustainable, ethical clothing is supporting brands that choose to create pieces made from sustainable fabrics. Hopefully, you took some time to look at the clothes you have in your closet and see what types of materials were in most of your clothing and who made them. I’ll be the first to say that many of the clothes I’ve accumulated throughout the years are blends of polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex, and cotton. This includes clothes that I bought from fast fashion companies like Forever 21 and H&M but also secondhand items that I got at thrift stores. I also saw a lot of 100% cotton and 100% wool.
So how do you know what to look for? So does 100% of natural materials always mean it’s good and synthetic materials always mean it’s terrible? What should we consider when buying secondhand items made with unsustainable materials? Does sustainable fashion mean you can’t be fashionable? We’ll explain it all here!
Read below or hit one of the links above to listen!
What are sustainable fabrics?
The Good Trade defines sustainable fabrics as fabrics “often made from natural or recycled materials, aiming to reduce harm either through the production process, fiber properties, or overall environmental impact.”
When I first started hearing about sustainable fabrics, I pictured hippies in hemp hoodies and those outlandish outfits people put together from discarded plastics or bags to prove a point. But I realized that sustainable fashion and sustainable fabrics doesn’t rule out looking stylish. Even style icons like Sarah Jessica Parker, Rosario Dawson, Olivia Wilde, Emma Watson, Zendaya, and Leonardo Dicaprio (to name a few) rock sustainable fashion.
It’s no secret that sustainable fashion is growing in popularity – and people are finding new ways to style old pieces mixed with new sustainable fashion brands in their wardrobe. A quick search on Tik Tok or Google will bring up a slew of ways people are styling thrifted or vintage pieces, pieces from their wardrobe differently, and even sustainable brands that give the style of more popular fast fashion brands but are better for the planet.
So, what fabrics are they using? And are they really sustainable? Some companies greenwash – saying they use biodegradable or sustainable fabrics. Still, in reality, they may use a ton of resources, dye with harsh chemicals, or use materials that don’t break down in nature.
If you know what to look for when shopping for something to add to your wardrobe, it reduces the chances that you will be duped by companies claiming they are sustainable, increases your confidence in your clothing decisions, and makes you value your choices that much more.
Let’s start with natural materials first.
Beginning with the fabric we all know – cotton. I mentioned last week how much water and pesticides are used to create traditional cotton, which also contributes to wastewater pollution.
The next step up is organic cotton – which has proved controversial. As it stands, organic cotton is produced without any chemicals and uses less water. According to a report by the Textiles Exchange, organic cotton uses 91 percent less water than conventional cotton because it is typically rainfed instead of needing to be heavily irrigated. So a cotton t-shirt that might take 715 gallons of water to make would only take 64 gallons. The controversy comes from the uncertainty of the scaling of organic cotton – as only 1-2 percent of cotton production globally is organic.
When looking for organic cotton – make sure it is certified (Better Cotton Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic). Organic cotton certifications ensure that the environment is taken care of and that the cotton farmers are treated ethically and paid fairly.
Then you’ve got recycled cotton – which saves cotton from landfills and reduces the need to produce virgin cotton. However, it can’t be recycled many times as the fibers are too short, and it usually has to be combined with other recycled materials to make a quality end product. And, since it is post-industrial cotton, it’s almost impossible to certify its origin or call it organic.
Organic and recycled cotton are two options better than traditional cotton – but we can do better.
Next up on our natural fibers list is Hemp. Hemp is growing in popularity but has a bad rep because it is the same species of cannabis plant as its cousin, referred to as marijuana. But don’t worry – hemp won’t get you high. It’s one of the oldest natural materials used for fabric. What makes hemp so sustainable is that it doesn’t require any chemicals to grow; it grows quickly (earning it the name weed), requires minimal land and water, and its leaves drop before harvest – returning many of its nutrients to the soil.
It has many, many uses, including fabrics and textiles. No wonder the word canvas was based on Latin cannabis hemp!
As with any of these natural materials, organic is still the best way to go.
Making our way to linen – which in contrast to hemp usually evokes feelings of romance and lightness. Linen is made from fibers of the flax plant. Flax fibers are another of the oldest materials used to make fabric – dating back at least 34,000 years. It has many of the same sustainability properties as hemp but can be produced with lower processing costs which is why you typically see it used more often than hemp.
Another type of linen is Bamboo Linen – which at first might seem like a go-to sustainable option but is pretty misleading. We know bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth. It requires little water and effort to cultivate. However, it still can be grown and harvested unsustainably, and the processes to turn bamboo into a linen fabric are use extremely intensive and use harsh chemicals. Bamboo can also be used for rayon, which is an extremely chemically intensive process and creates hazardous waste that is hard to capture. So if you’re looking at buying clothing (or bed sheets) with bamboo – make sure that the company is transparent about the supply chain.
And thankfully, Organic Cotton, Hemp, and Linen (if not blended with other materials) all decompose if given the proper conditions – unlike their synthetic counterparts, which we will talk about soon.
Wool And Leather
And I can’t talk about natural materials without addressing leather and wool. I will be as straightforward on this as I can without making myself sick.
Both the wool and leather industries practice unethical treatment and slaughtering of animals. Animals bred for their wool are slaughtered when they stop producing viable wool and then used for their meat. And animals are killed strictly for their skin to make leather. Current practices unnaturally overbreed, mutilate, and mistreat these animals, making it ethically unacceptable.
But even on the environmental side – FAO reports that
“Twenty-six percent of the Planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production. Livestock contributes to seven percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions (representing 14.5 percent of all human-induced emissions) through enteric fermentation and manure. In developed countries, 90 percent of cattle belong to six breeds, and 20 percent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction.” “The water footprint of raising cattle for leather is 17,100L of water per kg of leather.” And FAO reports that “approximately 300 kilograms of chemicals are used per ton of hides in the (leather) tanning process.”
These chemicals are significant polluters and are a major risk for human welfare. And with wool, intensive scouring and chemical processes are used to remove the fatty sheep oil and prepare it.
We clear and degrade our land, reduce biodiversity, emit greenhouse gas emissions, treat them poorly, and then kill them.
If you’re going to buy either, make sure it is secondhand or recycled and doesn’t actively contribute to animal and environmental harm to the planet.
If you want to read about the wool and leather industry for yourself, check at the links below:
So if you’re not going with natural materials – what’s the deal with synthetic?
The dirty facts
Synthetic fibers are man-made from chemical mixtures and processes – mainly from fossil fuels. These include Rayon, Nylon, Polyester, and Acrylic. Besides Rayon which we mentioned earlier, these synthetic materials are made from petroleum. In other words, they are plastics.
Ethical consumer reports that “Plastic-based or synthetic fibers account for about two-thirds of all textiles. The majority of this is polyester (about 65%), followed by nylon and acrylic.” They’re cheap to make, which is why many companies who don’t have sustainability top of mind utilize them. They’re made to be easy to dye, wrinkle-free, stretchy, and last longer.
To create these products is water, chemical, and resource-intensive. And the fact that it lasts longer isn’t good for the environment. These products release plastics during production, wear, and end of use. They don’t biodegrade – and stay in our environment, continuing to wreak havoc.
Research shows that
“As much as 0.19 million tonnes of microfibres from the production and normal use of synthetic textiles, particularly domestic laundry of clothing, has been estimated to enter the marine environment alone annually.”
This includes microplastics from new and secondhand synthetic clothing. This wash-off and the breakdown of these plastics from synthetic clothes contribute to primary microplastics polluting our ocean.
One way to prevent this, other than to prioritize sustainable fabrics, is to wash less often, only wash full loads, and utilize products like a microfiber filter, Guppy Friend or Cora Ball.
But even if you use these products, the saved particles will still go to a landfill as most clothes do. Plastic Clothing is not recycled often. One of the troubles with recycling textiles is that they are blends of multiple fabrics.
BBC reports that “One group of researchers led by Carol Lin, a chemical engineer at the City University of Hong Kong, has developed a technique for recycling fabrics made from cotton and polyester blends by feeding them to fungi. The fungi Aspergillus niger – which typically forms a black mold on grapes – produces an enzyme that can break down the cotton into glucose that can then be turned into syrup. They claim that the remaining pure polyester fibers can then be reused to make new clothing. Poly-cotton blends are now among the most popular fabrics for use in cheap clothing, commonly used in t-shirts, shirts, and even jeans.”
So we’re seeing these fabrics everywhere, but there is plenty of innovation within the fabric space that will hopefully lead to a more promising future.
- Tencel/Lyocell: Tencel/Lyocell is a fabric you’ve likely already seen on clothing racks. Like Rayon, it is a cellulose material made from plants. However, it is reported to be more sustainable in its sourcing and manufacturing – although it still takes many chemicals to treat the pulp and uses chemical dyes to color.
- ECONYL: Econyl is a replacement for Nylon. They take waste in the form of fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and more to create an infinitely recyclable fabric. Although it is still plastic – it’s a step forward.
More inventive options that I found include:
- SCOBY: SCOBY is a term you may have heard of if you’re a kombucha drinker like me. It’s a living culture, now utilized to make 100% biodegradable vegan leather.
- MYLO UNLEATHER: Mylo UnLeather is made from mycelium mushrooms. This leather is being prototyped by fashion giants like Stella McCartney, Adidas, Lululemon.
- Piñatex®: Continuing on the leather train – Pinatex is a certified b-corp that makes a leather like textile from the “waste leaves of the pineapple plant. These leaves are a by-product from existing pineapple harvest, so the raw material requires no additional environmental resources to produce.”
- Qmonos: No spiders are harmed in the making of this next fabric. Qmonos is synthetic spider silk, “developed through the fusion of spider silk genes and microbes. Good on You reports that “The fiber is said to be five times stronger than steel, the toughest fiber in nature while being very lightweight, more flexible than nylon, and entirely biodegradable.”
- Deadstock: You might even see Reclaimed Deadstock which is leftover fabric from manufacturers and can include many of these different types of materials. It saves and reuses textiles otherwise bound for a landfill.
Other things to look at are that they used environmentally friendly dyes and inks (like vegetable-based). This information is harder to find, but hopefully, the brands you’re looking at are transparent about it on their website.
Good on You is a fantastic site that I use all of the time that rates fashion brands based on their sustainability and ethical practices on a scale from “avoid” to “not good enough,” “it’s a start”, “good,” and the best rating “great.”
Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. It’s about the entire lifecycle of the fabric. This was not an exhaustive list of fabrics, so if you see something on a tag and aren’t sure – ask yourself: Is it ethical and sustainable in how the material was grown, spun, knit/woven, dyed, finished, made into garments, and transported? Again, the brand should be transparent about this information and if they aren’t that’s a red flag.
To make this easier, remember that the best fabrics options are the ones that have already been created. Choose from your closet or secondhand if you can. And have hope that there are more innovative options that we will continue to see hit the market as the demand for these types of sustainable fabrics increases.
Something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on, I ask you to take the time to choose the clothes you choose to put on and share with the world every day – wisely and mindfully. I’ll leave you with a quote by Mahatma Gandhi
“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness”
To find out what book we’re reading this month in the Hello, Neighbor! Bookclub join the Facebook Group!
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