When was the last time you turned down a dress that made you look great and feel even better, simply because it was constructed with a questionable poly-blend?
We get it.
Our clothes can define us or show off our personality.
Yet we’re not educated on what those clothes are made of, and why that matters, or if it matters at all.
It matters — As you learned in our last blog post, sustainability is no laughing matter so for those of us learning to balance our interest in fashion with conscious consumption, an awareness of materials and their environmental impacts can guide us toward more sustainable purchasing decisions.
It’s estimated that each year we consume 80 billion pieces of clothing. Clothing is made of materials. Producing this volume of materials year after year strains the planet, both in terms of the natural resources use and environmental impacts like pollution and waste.
Let’s take a closer look at the three broad categories of materials: natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic, and a few of the high-level environmental issues involved with each.
Natural fabrics exist in nature and come from the same place our food does: farms. Like our food, natural materials can come from plants or animals.
Plant-based materials, including cotton, linen, hemp and raffia, are the fruits and vegetables of our wardrobe. They can be organic and farmed in a cooperative, or they can be grown using chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Animal-based materials, like wool (from sheep), silk (from silk worms), cashmere (from goats) and alpaca are the protein of our closets. When it comes to animal-based products, the way that farm animals interact with the land has significant environmental implications.
Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, don’t exist naturally but are made in factories. Synthetics are created through an industrial manufacturing process in which petroleum, a fossil fuel, is extracted from the earth and mechanically transformed into fibers for clothing. The resulting fiber, although soft and even silky, is actually a plastic. In fact, polyester is made of the same exact material used to make plastic bottles: polyethylene terephthalate, or PET! Therefore, as we mentioned in our last article, these materials shed microplastics when being washed and then drained into our oceans.
Semi-synthetic materials have a natural source, but require processing to transform that natural source into a fiber that can be used for clothing. These include rayon (aka viscose), modal, lyocell (aka TENCEL®) and bamboo.
So what do we do with this information?
1. Know your materials.
Let’s make this easy. Here are the materials from best to worst for sustainability purposes. This should make life a little easier when eyeing that potential new dress.
Cheat Sheet (Best to Worst in Sustainability)
Organic Linen, Wool, Hemp, Alpaca
Linen comes from the flax plant. The plants go through a process called “retting” to help separate the fibers. Growing flax requires less water than cotton, produces very little waste, requires fewer pesticides (organic requires none) and is highly durable making it one of the most longest-lasting materials.
Linen is absorbent, breathable, and stronger than cotton. The fibers are porous, and it’s great at keeping you cool in the summer but it can also be insulating in colder temperatures. It’s not very elastic, though, and is known for holding wrinkles.
Hemp, like linen, is derived from the flax planet. It bears the nickname of weed as it is a densely growing plant that literally chokes out any competing plants. This means harsh chemical herbicides are not necessary. Hemp also naturally reduces pests, so no pesticides are needed. It also returns 60-70% of nutrients it takes from its soil and requires little water to grow.
Alpaca have a really light environmental footprint. They eat and drink very little and tread softly on the ground. If you choose alpaca that’s fair trade or from a cooperative, you also support development in Peru’s remote alpaca growing communities.
Long baby alpaca swing coat Coming soon!
Wool is tough, wrinkle-resistant, resilient (which means good at retaining its original shape), and it can “absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture before feeling damp” (Dress Well Do Good). It holds colorful dyes easily, without use of chemicals.
Organic Cotton, Cashmere, Silk, Tencel, Lyocell, Recycled/Reclaimed Fabrics
Cotton, although a natural fiber, is one of the most environmentally intensive materials in our closets, for a few reasons. First, cotton needs a lot of pesticides and fertilizer to grow. It’s one of the world’s most pesticide-intensive crops. Second, cotton consumes a lot of water. It takes around 700 gallons of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s roughly equivalent to 40 showers-worth. Third, most cotton is grown using genetically modified seeds. We tend to think of genetic modification as a food issue, but cotton is one of the world’s major genetically modified crops. GM crops present a host of environmental issues, including soil and water pollution and threats to biodiversity. Because cotton is the second-most common material in our clothes after polyester, these environmental issues are significant due to the scale at which we cultivate cotton.
Organic cotton is a more sustainable option as well because it is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and using non-GM seeds.
It’s probably been a while since you thought about the eating habits of goats. Well, in Mongolia, one of the world’s top producers of cashmere, overeating goats are severely altering the ecosystem. When goats graze, they pull grasses from the root, whereas sheep and alpaca only eat the grass at the surface, preserving the root system.
When land is overgrazed, the soil can’t store water or nutrients so it becomes unhealthy, which slowly transforms previously fertile land into a desert. Due in large part to overgrazing for cashmere production, 90% of the land in Mongolia is experiencing some form of this transition to desert land. To be clear, it’s not that cashmere is inherently unsustainable, it’s that these unprecedented volumes of cashmere production are. So, until cashmere can be produced more sustainably (this company is trying), choose alpaca instead.
Silk originated in the 27th century, BCE, in China. Since ancient times the fiber has been cultivated from silkworms which subsist completely on the leaves of mulberry trees. This process can have be low impact because mulberry trees are resistant to pollution and easy to grow. However, many criticize the production of silk for its harsh treatment of the silkworms. Most traditional manufacturing process boil the silkworms alive to gather the cocoons, which create the fiber.
Ahimsa, or Peace Silk is a great alternative to this! Instead of killing the worms, Peace Silk produces wait until the cocoon has been shed naturally. Lastly, it is again important to be wary of companies that take the natural material and use toxic chemicals to break it down into fiber, or to dye the fabric a different color.
Tencel and Lyocell are made from natural fibers, or sustainable wood raw materials. Requires less water than cotton and is anti-bacterial, machine-washable, biodegradable, and as soft as silk. Given that over 70 million trees are cut down annually to make wood-based fibers (30% of which come from endangered/ancient forests), eucalyptus-based Tencel is a much more sustainable option than wood-based rayon.
However, the chemical processing that is required to turn the fiber into fabric can be toxic. Great news…harm is mitigated by the use of closed loop processing, which recycles the chemicals rather than releasing them into the environment.
Recycled fabric and reclaimed fabric are often confused or lumped into one category, yet the definitions are very different. Recycled fabric consists of used fibers which have been broken down and turned into a new fabric. Reclaimed, or deadstock, fabric is material leftover from manufacturers, vintage fabric, or any other unused fabric that is bought secondhand.
Most manufacturers and large brands end up with relatively small amounts of fabric which they can’t use anymore. Designers who choose reclaimed fabric are helping to save these rolls of fabric from landfills, especially those utilizing zero waste techniques. Creating clothing with reclaimed fabric is a great way to combat more textile waste, but it is not decreasing the overall demand for new textiles. Therefore, while it is great to support companies using reclaimed fabric, it is also important to seek larger change!
Bamboo, Conventional Cotton, Rayon (aka Viscose)
Once the plant is broken down, the bamboo pulp is essentially put into a huge vat with tons of chemicals, becoming one large chemical soup. So, the processing of turning this natural fibre into a garment is what makes it extremely toxic, and unsustainable. Especially when these chemicals, most often times are dumped right back into the environment.
So in the case of bamboo, we either want to:
- Look for fibres like modal and tencel, which are similar to rayon and bamboo, but without the use of toxic chemicals, or
- Look for garments made in closed loop production facilities. This means that instead of dumping the toxic waste, the company is actually keeping it inside the factory, treating and reusing it.
According to Fashion For Good, conventional cotton production accounts for one sixth of all pesticides used globally, impacting farmers and local communities with harmful chemicals – a claim that is bolstered by figures from the World Health Organization, which show that in developing countries approximately 20,000 individuals die of cancer and suffer miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton.
While rayon, or viscose, is made from natural origins and can be biodegradable, it is processed with chemicals. If the fabric mill processes and disposes of the chemicals properly, the wood it is derived from is sustainably sourced, and manufacturers are careful in processing it can be a good eco-friendly fabric to use.
Polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, blended fibers
While these plastic-based fibres do not require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they do negatively impact the environment in other ways.
Multiple studies have shown synthetic fibers to make up a good share of microplastics found in waters and are widely implicated as the source of pollution. In fact, it’s been suggested that more than 4,500 fibers can be released per gram of clothing per wash, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation.
Microfibers are so tiny they can easily move through sewage treatment plants. They do not biodegrade and bind with molecules from harmful chemicals found in wastewater. They are then eaten by small fishes and plankton, concentrating toxins and going up the food chain, until they reach us. The consequences on the human body have yet to be researched and revealed.
Not only are synthetics not biodegradable, they all rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning this fashion industry staple is dependent on fossil fuel extraction.
Blended fibers are those made from mixing two or more different materials together. For example, jeans are very often comprised of a blend of cotton and elastane, which makes the jeans a bit stretchier. Challenge… clothing made of blended fibers cannot be recycled, because the technology doesn’t exist to separate the fibers yet. Because we are producing, consuming and turning over such a high volume of clothing, recycling fibers is an important way to reduce our use of virgin raw materials. So whenever possible, favor clothes made exclusively from a single material (i.e. 100%).
2. Read the tags
I know, you just got used to reading labels on your food and now on your clothes? It’s an extra step in life, but what only can take each of us a second can lead to millions of lives and positive changes in our environment.
Don’t be fooled. Unfortunately, some lines claim to be sustainable that are not in actuality so the onus, for now, is on the consumer. Look for certifications such as Lenzing (for Tencel and Lyocell), Organic, ISO, Fair Trade and Global Textile Alliance and look for trusted retailers of sustainable lines like ShopNorthAuthentic.
3. Choose well, buy less
By choosing well and buying less, you’re helping to avoid the unsustainable over-production of fibres at a cost to the environment and the world’s most vulnerable people.
Hope this helps make your life a little easier.