One thing that became clear as I’ve continued learning about sustainable fashion is the fabrics that make up our clothing matters. Understanding the production and manufacturing process of the fibers in today’s clothing plays an important role in building a cohesive/sustainable wardrobe filled with pieces that will last for years. Most of our clothes are made from natural fibers, synthetic fibers and or a combination of both. With some of the environmental concerns that are caused by the fashion industry such as water pollution in developing countries and the increased use of chemicals throughout the production process, it’s important for consumers to understand the process that goes into making the clothes we wear. In today’s post, I put together this beginner-friendly guide to understand the differences between fibers that make up our clothes. What criteria make a garment sustainable and what types of fabrics should we avoid?
Natural & Animal Fibers
One of the most common materials used in today’s clothing. Cotton is very durable, lightweight keeps us cool and very breathable. Cotton production requires a lot of water and uses an estimated 6% of all pesticides more than any other major crop. According to Textile Exchange
, a cotton t-shirt made of conventional cotton would use 2168 gallons of water and 9,910 gallons for a pair of jeans. Choosing organic cotton can offset those figures as it uses less water in its production and avoids the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers. Look for clothes labeled GOTS-certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) or OCS (Organic Content Standard) the two leading organic certifications for clothing. It’s your indicator to ensuring these fabrics have been traced from start to finish and highly regulated.
A textured, ancient fiber that’s been used for thousands of years and made from the flax plant. Linen is used strictly for warm-weather wear. It’s light, breathable and absorbs moisture much better than cotton. Linen is both cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather. It is among other bast fibers such as hemp, jute, and ramie which are produced from the inner bark portion of the stem of certain plants. In certain environments, flax plants can be grown without fertilizer and planted in areas where other crops are unable to thrive. If done using sustainable practices, linen can be produced without polluting waterways or the use of harmful chemicals.
Silk is produced from the saliva of silkworms that feed on the leaves of mulberry trees. A single silkworm can spin almost three thousand feet of usable silk thread while making a single cocoon. Silk is soft and durable but also retains heat well, but it is pricier than most natural fibers. While silk is generally less environmentally damaging than other fabrics, it becomes problematic due to the traditional manufacturing process of boiling silkworms alive to gather the cocoons and extract the silk. Ahimsa Silk or Peace Silk
is an alternative to traditional sourced silk and is made without killing the silkworm. Ahimsa meaning “nonviolence” is part of Buddhist philosophy, stating that humans should refrain from inflicting suffering on others including non-human and non-animal life. Cocoons are all allowed to hatch, and breed and the silk are processed from the hatched cocoons.
Wool is a gorgeous, durable, animal-based natural fiber that has the capacity to resist odors, wrinkles, and stains. Wool is raised in about a hundred countries on half a million farms with Australia, China, and New Zealand together producing half of the world’s wool products. There are different types of fibers that all encompass the wool category such as cashmere (goat), alpaca, angora (rabbit), and mohair (angora goats) but sheep’s wool makes up 95% of the wool market. Like leather, wool has a higher than average global warming footprint due largely to methane released by sheep. Wool lasts longer than most other fibers and quality wool pieces more than pay for themselves over time when properly cared for.
Leather has been in use for thousands of years as a means to keep us warm. It is incredibly durable, versatile and improves over time with age and wear. Leather can be made from the hide of almost any animal including pigs, sheep, goats, snakes, and crocodiles but is most commonly made from cows. Cow leather is considered a by-product of the beef industry though there is an on-going debate on this matter. Cows are a major greenhouse gas emitter and the amount of deforestation that occurs to make room for cattle grazing contributes to the climate crisis we’re currently facing. Leather today is mass-produced and preserved using a multitude of harsh and sometimes hazardous chemicals. There are means to buying more sustainably sourced leather as more companies are doing their part to partner with groups that certify and audit leather tanneries. As a result, there’s been a bit more transparency of how the leather is sourced. Check out the Leather Working Group
to find a list of members.
Synthetic & Semi-Synthetic Fibers
Polyester is by far the world’s most dominant fiber accounting for more than half of all global output and more than 80% of all synthetics. Polyester and rayon are found in abundance because they are cheap and easy to make, much cheaper than natural fibers. It is the staple fabric for fast-fashion retailers and without it, there would be no fast fashion. Polyester is produced through a process of refining crude oil or natural gas and breaking it into chemicals and creating a polymer that is spun into fibers. The primary ingredient in polyester is PET (polyethylene terephthalate) the same ingredient found in plastic bottles and because of that, polyester doesn’t easily biodegrade. The increased use of polyester and other plastic fibers has added to the problem of microplastics finding its way into our water stream, a problem perpetuated by the use of washing machines as these fibers’ breakdown. You can opt for recycled polyester which saves around 60% of energy consumption while reducing the need for virgin polyester.
Nylon is an extremely versatile man-made synthetic fiber and is used for a multitude of things such as making fabric, rope, carpets, stockings, and parachutes. Its benefits are that it’s resistance to shrinkage, wrinkles and abrasion however it lacks stability, does not absorb water well and poor in resistance to sunlight. Nylon is a thermoplastic – a plastic polymer material that becomes pliable or moldable at a certain elevated temperature and solidifies upon cooling. It also requires more energy to manufacture and is 3 times more energy-intensive than cotton to produce
. It is not a biodegradable product and its results in the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has a significant contribution to global warming.
Spandex aka Lycra is another synthetic fiber made from Polyurethane (PU). It is commonly used in swimwear, lingerie straps, yoga pants, socks, athletic apparel, and more. Spandex is known for its exceptional elasticity and the name spandex is an anagram of the word “expand”. Some people are prone to allergic reactions to spandex from the chemicals used in the processing of the material. Spandex poses great difficulty when it comes to recycling or downcycling, as it clogs up shredding machine.
As the third most commonly used textile fiber in the world, Viscose Rayon is a type of semi-synthetic fiber that’s crafted by chemically dissolving wood from eucalyptus, beech or bamboo trees, and the chemical pulp is formed into a fiber. It is commonly used in dresses, lining, shirts, jackets, and other outerwear. It is an alternative to cotton or polyesters and a cheaper more durable option to silk. High volumes of harsh chemicals such as bleach are used in the manufacturing process which has devasting impacts on workers, local communities and the environment. The increased production of viscose has been linked to being a contributing factor in the rapid depletion of the world’s forests.
Other forms of viscose rayon include:
- Lyocell a more modern and sustainable viscose rayon made from sustainably managed eucalyptus forests and recycles the chemicals it uses in a closed-loop system.
- Modal a durable more machine washable type of viscose-rayon
- Bamboo which is similar to linen
Produced by Lenzing as an alternative to viscose rayon. This fabric is made using sustainable wood from controlled certified sources instead of bamboo or eucalyptus. Nearly all chemicals used in its production is recovered and reused causing 50% less emission and taking up half as much energy and water https://goodonyou.eco/material-guide-viscose-really-better-environment/
A sustainably produced leather alternative made from pineapple leaves and is a byproduct of the fruit industry. It was developed for use as a sustainable alternative to both mass-produced leather and polluting synthetic materials.
Mylo and Mycoworks are both a faux leather made from mycelium, a network of thread-like cells that make up mushrooms. This fiber grows in a matter of weeks without the material waste of using animal hides. It is biodegradable and has a soft, supple, warm feel. It’s also durable and abrasion-resistant.
Take a look at your closet and sift through the labels of some of your clothes. What type of fibers are most of your garments made from and do these fibers fit the need? Gaining an understanding of that will help you introduce items into your wardrobe that are made from better quality materials and made to last! Try to avoid garments made from synthetic or semi-synthetic materials as they pose the most harm to people and the environment. Elect for garments made from natural materials such as cotton, linen, wool or leather. These materials last longer, far more durable, and can be made using sustainable practices.