How To Choose Strong, Durable Fibres For A Lasting Wardrobe and What Fabrics To Avoid
How sustainable are our clothes? Well, a lot of it comes down to what they are made from. Materials - fabrics - are one of humanity’s oldest technologies, but most of them chew up enormous amounts of resources as they are transformed from “animal, vegetable, or mineral” into the clothes, shoes, and accessories that we wear.
The life cycle of fabric uses countless resources, from oil, land, and water, to pesticides, chemical agents, and dyes.
Just think: how is it possible that fluffy cotton, knobbly wood, and gooey oil end up as the smooth, soft, colorful fabrics that feel good on your skin and brighten up your day?
And then there are all the hands that manipulate those fabrics before they end up in yours. No matter where you are on your #ethical #fashion #journey, becoming informed about the #impact of what your clothes, shoes, and accessories are made of is a fantastic tool to have in your (ethically made) belt.
With new materials going into production all the time, and industry standards shifting for ones that have been around forever, we know it can be overwhelming trying to figure out which ones are up to scratch ethically and are worth investing in as a conscious consumer. We have done the detective work for you and written guides to a vast selection of fabrics that you can find on the shelves and in your wardrobe and compiled them here in our (hefty, yet helpful) ultimate material guide.
! Choose materials based on your values
Of course, materials are not the only issue a brand should be addressing. For example, a brand using organic cotton but not addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain, textile waste, or labor rights issues is far from best practice, but using the most sustainable materials is a good base on which to build.
A note on ‘natural’
Before we begin, let’s clear up one common misconception. For the most part, so-called ‘natural’ fibers are neither natural nor necessarily sustainable. As we’ll learn below, conventional cotton production is one of the most environmentally harmful agricultural activities around. And that’s before we even look at how the cotton is transformed into cloth!
Be mindful of brands greenwashing by claiming their clothes are “all-natural” when that doesn’t necessarily mean they are taking any steps to source fabrics that are made with people, the planet, and animals front of mind.
We’re listing here the fabrics derived primarily from plants. But see our note on ‘natural’ above—very few of these materials are routinely turned into clothing without a range of often chemical-intensive industrial processes, some more than others.
This fast-growing crop is having its time in the limelight as an apparently eco-friendly option. While the crop itself is easy to grow, requiring little water and no pesticides, the processes used to turn it into a usable fabric vary on the sustainability front. While mechanically-made “bamboo linen” is inherently more sustainable, the resulting fabric is coarse, not suitable for the soft, intimate products for which bamboo is most in demand, and not that widely available.
Most bamboo fabric on the market is grown and processed in China using the viscose process. There are two issues that need to be addressed: ensuring the bamboo is grown in a sustainable way and avoiding the release of harmful chemicals used in production into waterways. It is now considered bad practice in the industry to not have robust chemical management and waste treatment, which means the bamboo fabric can be likely a safer bet than conventional cotton or polyester.
Bamboo fabric has a lot of potential as an eco-friendly option. So as long as the brand is transparent about cultivation and processing, it can be a good choice. Otherwise, consider TENCEL™ Lyocell which is made using a 99% closed-loop system, meaning chemicals are captured and reused.
Soft, light, and breathable, cotton is a fiber often associated with quality clothing and can be found in many wardrobe staples such as jeans and t-shirts. It has the advantage of being entirely biodegradable. However, conventional cotton (GMO and otherwise) is an extremely thirsty crop, one that has the highest market share of insecticides measured by sales, and one that is often associated with child slavery and forced labor. The process of turning cotton balls into soft or shiny colored cloth uses a vast array of chemical processes for treating, dyeing, printing, and finishing.
Organic cotton addresses many of the problems of conventional cotton. It’s grown without the use of pesticides, from seeds that have not been genetically modified. Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and the use of fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land stays fertile much longer than land which is hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan than otherwise. Organic cotton is overall much better than regular cotton for the planet and people, including you!
What to avoid:
Avoid traditionally farmed cotton and opt instead for recycled cotton or organic cotton, specifically with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. Not only is it organic, but the GOTS system certifies a brand’s entire supply chain, following its practices—including the dyeing stage—and addresses a range of labor rights issues to be sure high standards of ethics are being maintained throughout the production process.
Denim is made from cotton, which is known to be one of the world’s thirstiest crops. While cotton takes up 2.4% of agricultural land, it accounts for more than 11% of global pesticide use. Pesticides can be highly toxic and create a hazardous working environment for cotton farmers. As for “distressed” denim, the look is achieved through a controversial technique called sandblasting. The process poses significant health risks to workers as the fine dust particles can lodge themselves in people’s lungs.
Denim production can have serious social and environmental consequences. However, this is not the way it has to be. There are sustainable denim brands, both big and small, that are committed to people and the planet. The best way to reduce the footprint of your denim purchase is to look for jeans made from certified organic cotton. Most brands will proudly promote this on their websites and tags.
Linen is one of the most biodegradable and stylish fabrics in fashion history. It is strong, naturally moth resistant, and made from flax plant fibers, so when untreated (i.e. not dyed) it is fully biodegradable. Linen can withstand high temperatures, and it absorbs moisture without holding bacteria. In fact, it is actually stronger when wet than dry and becomes softer and more pliable the more it is washed.
Linen is one of the most sustainable options on the market—just be sure to purchase garments in its naturally occurring shades of ivory, ecru, tan, and grey, and especially avoid bright white linen which has to go through an intensive bleaching process. Go for organic linen, one of our top-ranked materials, to ensure no harmful chemicals were used in production.
Cashmere is one of the rarest and most luxurious fibres in the world. This exceptionally silky material is said to be three times as warm as wool and is known to be long-lasting. However, cashmere is not as sustainable as you might think: the goats this fabric comes from are the first to pay the price of cheap cashmere production. As they have very little fat, shearing them too early mid-winter means they can freeze to death. Cashmere production can also have a social impact—there’s growing concern about the working conditions of cashmere goat herders.
The increased demand for cashmere has meant herd sizes have increased, driving the desertification of Mongolian grasslands. And climate change is exacerbating these impacts: the changes in temperature in Mongolia has meant poor quality cashmere as goats need to be sheared in a narrow range of temperatures.
Our verdict: Buy recycled or second hand cashmere if you must have it.
Traditionally, fur was worn as a source of warmth and protection. For centuries, animals were killed for meat, with their pelts providing a practical and durable material that would keep people safe from the elements. In the 20th century, fur became a regular feature of luxury fashion, when Hollywood stars appeared draped in exotic pelts. Since then, fur has been marketed as a measure of wealth and glamour—expensive and desirable. As fur’s popularity grew, fur farming became big business. At the same time, the animals involved became commodified—opening the door to inhumane practices, like being skinned alive. For many of us, wearing fur is simply cruel, and to be avoided at all costs. Campaign groups such as PETA have long highlighted the inhumane practices of fur farms.
While second hand fur is available, it still perpetuates the idea that it is okay to wear the bodies of our fellow earthlings. Numerous brands and countries have banned the farming and distribution of fur products, so don’t stay stuck in the past on this one.
An ethical consumer motivated by the interests of animals would avoid any new product made from fur.
From James Dean to Prada, punk to professional, leather has earned staple status in many wardrobes. But despite their longevity and versatility, leather garments and accessories are unlikely to be an ethical investment. Leather is the skin of animals, the most common being livestock, but it can also be sourced from pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles, snakes, stingrays, seals, emus, deer, fish, kangaroos, horses, cats, and dogs. Aside from the obvious issues with animal welfare, leather production has negative impacts on the environment and workers, too. It requires more water and land than almost any other material, and the tanning process involves extremely harmful chemicals like chromium 6 that end up in waterways and labourers’ bodies.
There are many innovative materials emerging designed to mimic the qualities of leather, from pineapple leather to cork to upcycled rubber. While the full environmental impact of these new materials has not been fully assessed, they are certainly preferable to “faux leather” made from PVC, or likely the more common vegan or “faux” leather made from PU. While PU has significant environmental impact, it’s a better option than other synthetics like PVC.
Depending on your personal ethics go for second hand or recycled leather or avoid it altogether.
Silk is spun from the long threads which make up the inner cocoon of a silkworm. The fibres are in fact saliva, produced by the worm to insulate itself until it is time to transform. The raw silk threads are harvested and then reeled together for commercial use. The silkworms are killed during the process of extracting the silk. There have also been reports of the abuse of child slaves in India in silk production, so checking sources is important.
For those who want to avoid animal silk for its negative impacts, one vegan silk innovation that is worth looking out for is vegan spider silk! Microsilk is the trademarked name of a lab-made spider silk produced by California-based company Bolt Threads. It is a synthetic fabric, but one which requires no land or chemicals to produce—only water, yeast, sugar, and a pinch of DNA.
When it comes to buying silk or its alternatives, check sources to ensure that you don’t buy into exploitation or environmental destruction.
Wool, a natural breathable fibre that comes from sheep, is a great renewable resource with plenty of benefits, from biodegradability to stain resistance. However, the impact on the planet and the animals is significant. There is controversy over the practice of mulesing the sheep (cutting away skin to reduce flystrike, usually done without anesthetic). Until a humane mulesing process becomes common we recommend against sheep from mulesed wool. Industrial-scale livestock grazing can also increase land clearing and degradation, though more holistic land management methods for grazing livestock animals are gaining popularity and support.
Wool lasts well and so it’s always worth looking out for pre-loved or vintage wool items to ensure the garment gets a longer, useful life.
Look for clothes made from recycled wool, resale and vintage items, or wool certified by the Responsible Wool Standard, ZQ Merino Standard, or the Soil Association Organic Standards.
The significant ethical and environmental impacts of the fur industry have caused a shift in the industry towards fur-free, which is great news. But the look of fur is still, unfortunately, in vogue, and the mass-produced faux fur alternative is far from eco-friendly. Faux fur is generally made from plastic-based materials (hello, microfibres) and that automatically speaks to negative impacts on the planet, but even more shockingly, it has come out that since fur is in such high demand, a significant amount of faux fur products actually contain real fur!
What to avoid:
Steer clear of this harmful material. If you must have it, look out for second hand options, but seriously consider a completely different material—you don’t have to buy real or faux fur to make a bold statement with your outfit!
Fleece is a synthetic insulating fabric made from a type of polyester called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or other synthetic fibres. It is very comfortable due to its lightweight and anti-perspiration qualities, making it ideal for outdoor and activewear. Unfortunately, fleece is made from non-renewable resources and needs an extra chemical coating to make it windproof and/or water-resistant—not great for the environment. Eco-fleece, using recycled PET plastic, can be seen as a better option saving its primary ingredient—raw petroleum—as well as energy. It also potentially reduces the number of bottles in landfills.
Synthetic fibres, recycled or not, pose a problem as they are not biodegradable and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides.
Fleece, especially when it is used infrequently washed clothing, is one of the main shedders of microfibres on the market. If you opt for eco-fleece, you should learn how to care for it so minimal shedding occurs.
What to avoid:
As far as possible steer clear of fleece.
Polyester is a common plastic derived from oil with a wide application that includes and extends beyond the fashion industry. The majority of polyesters are not biodegradable, meaning that the polyester fabric shirt you bought last season will not decompose for 20 years at best and 200 years at worst, depending on conditions. What’s more, polyester is, in part, derived from petroleum—and the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest polluter.
In the past few years, the sustainable fashion sphere has been introduced to recycled PET plastic. Recycled PET plastic is usually made from recycled plastic bottles or fishing nets. Buying recycled PET plastic means you’re minimising waste and cutting out the fossil fuel industry, but it doesn’t erase the issue of microplastic pollution.
What to avoid:
Avoid virgin polyester. Consider buying recycled PET plastic products, especially for products that don’t require frequent machine washing like shoes.
The word “velvet” refers to the structure of the fabric, not the actual fibre or material used. You can recognize velvet thanks to its short pile, raised loops, tufts of yarn that cover its surface. Velvet can be woven from any type of yarn. While in the past it is traditionally woven from silk, today cheaper materials are commonly used alone or in combination, such as cotton, linen, wool, or synthetic fibres. The fashion industry, and especially fast-fashion retailers, mostly replace silk or other plant-based materials with polyester.
What to avoid:
If you really want a velvet item in your wardrobe, we recommend shopping second hand, in order not to increase the use of new plastics or silk. Alternatively, try and look for velvet made out of a modal rayon which is made from sustainably harvested beech trees and eco-friendly processing methods.