As you probably know, the fast fashion industry is super unsustainable.
And by fast fashion, we mean something like fast food: cheap, poor quality, in large quantities, and fast. The more pieces made and bought the better, and the faster these pieces break down the better – so that then you, the consumer, can buy even more!
Aside from poor treatment and working conditions of factory workers, many clothing materials are horrible for the planet. Many of our typical “natural” sources are often super unsustainable or unethical.
On the other hand, the production of synthetic fibers emits a ton of carbon. Even washing synthetic fibers causes them to shed microfibers, which contributes to microplastics in our waterways.
The first source of action we recommend is to BUY USED, or upcycling clothing that you already own. But we also know that’s not always realistic when trying to keep up with the latest trends. Sooooo we can at least help by avoiding fast fashion and opting for more sustainable fabrics (“make materials matter!”) when we purchase new clothing.
This post is meant to be a guide for that: helping you find the best options, and what to look for on the label to cause the least harm possible to the planet, animals and people!
We’ll start off with a list of the most sustainable fabrics and materials, then show you what to avoid.
Most Sustainable Fabrics/Materials:
1. Natural Organic Textiles
These natural, organic textiles are truly the best option when it comes to choosing a good, sustainable fabric. Since they are grown organically, we know they weren’t drenched in pesticides or chemical fertilizers and are fully biodegradable. They also don’t require any new technology or scaling as they have already been established in the industry.
Hemp is a variety of Cannabis plant that is grown specifically to produce fiber. There are soo many benefits to growing hemp, it’s difficult to list them all! Like bamboo, it grows super quickly and doesn’t require a lot of space. It’s also super hearty and doesn’t need pesticides or very much water to thrive, like other industrial plants. But you know what’s even better? Unlike linen or cotton, hemp actually gives nutrients back to the soil (our topsoil is in trouble people!) and is basically zero-waste as every part of the plant can be used.
Linen is a lightweight and absorbent textile made from flax
It’s much more durable so it lasts longer (that means buying less!) and more environmentally friendly than cotton.
Linen also uses very little water and requires little energy to process.
Bamboo linen looks just like linen but is made from — you guessed it! — bamboo. As mentioned before, bamboo is able to grow super quickly and in a small area of space, requiring no fertilizer to do so. It is also relatively pest resistant and can withstand rather extreme weather conditions.
Even though bamboo regenerates from its roots (it doesn’t need to be replanted) – awesome for sustainability – it can also be invasive, which is bad for biodiversity where it’s picked from.
When we say organic cotton, we mean ORGANIC cotton. Regular cotton is actually horrible for the environment (see why below).
Recycled cotton is truly the best way to go though, because you’re reusing something that already exists instead of creating something new.
2. Sustainable Semi-Synthetics/Eco-Textiles
Semi-synthetics and eco-textiles are textiles made from plants or other natural sources that have been modified (broken down and reconstructed) to create a fiber.
Lyocell, specifically TENCEL certified lyocell, is a great textile made from the cellulose extracted from eucalyptus tree pulp. TENCEL certified ensures that it was harvested sustainably and made in a “closed loop” process where the chemicals used in production do not get released into the environment.
There are also other varieties like bamboo lyocell and Modal, which is essentially beech tree lyocell.
Ecovero is a modified viscose in the rayon family, but has a much lower environmental impact, and is produced under strict environmental standards.
The fibers are derived from sustainably sourced wood and pulp, and are certified by the EU Ecolabel (this certification demonstrates environmental excellence, and is based on strict sustainability requirements for the entirety of the life cycle, from raw material to production, and even distribution and disposal).
Ok, ready for a super cool one??
Qmonos, a synthetic made from fusing spider silk genes and microbes, is basically something out of a sci-fi movie. Not only is it super lightweight and flexible, but it’s also reported to be five times stronger than STEEL. And don’t worry — no spiders were harmed in its production.
So many sectors in the food industry are trying to reduce their waste and instead, turn it into textiles! Be cautious though, as they may be coated in petroleum-based resin or require toxic chemicals during production.
Some awesome examples include Piñatex, made from pineapple leaf fiber; Apple Eco Leather, made from waste of the apple juice industry (apparently it’s super durable & waterproof!); Woocoa a vegan wool made from hemp, coconut fibers, & mushroom enzymes; Brewed Protein, or protein fiber from fermenting plant-derived biomass; Scoby Leather, made from dried kombucha cultures; and S.Cafe, or yarn from ground coffee beans — just to name a few! And more are constantly being created.
3. Recycled Synthetics
Next, we have our recycled synthetics, which can still shed plastic fibers when washed, but ultimately keep plastics out of landfills. (You can avoid this with a Guppyfriend Washing Bag!)
Econyl is recycled nylon made from landfill and ocean waste (again, reuse and clean up instead of creating something new!)
It’s made of old clothing, fishing nets, and industrial plastic waste.
It’s like the TENCEL-certified semi-synthetics, produced in a “closed loop” system.
Recycled polyester — the most common type of plastic on Earth.
rPET is often made from food & drink containers (this is why it’s important to rinse your recycling!)
4. Ethically/Humanely Sourced Animal-Derived Fabrics
We wouldn’t typically advocate for non-vegan materials, but we decided to include these that are ethically and humanely sourced for people who do not have access to other options or rural communities that depend on them to survive. When searching for sustainable options, these should be the last resort.
There are many types of wool, including regular sheep’s wool, Merino (another type of sheep), alpaca, cashmere (from goats), camel, yak, and Angora (a type of rabbit).
If you buy wool, make sure it’s not industrial scale, but instead, from small farms where no animals are harmed. The idea is that we aren’t trying to “harvest” these animals, but rather live with them in harmony and reap the wool as a byproduct of the relationship.
Make sure to always check the person you are buying from – many animals end up in the slaughterhouse as part of this industry, and only a very tiny proportion actually treat these animals as pets, and share their fuzzies with us.
But we still want to avoid creating a demand for wool — raising livestock uses a decent amount of natural resources! — so recycled is really the way to go.
No silkworms are harmed — they are bred under natural conditions & allowed to become butterflies after silk harvesting.
The amount of usable silk is drastically reduced as the moths are allowed to naturally break out of their cocoons, which causes damage as the fibers are cut short.
Peace silk involves longer production time and lower yield — but it’s worth it! (f**k instant gratification!!!)
Least Sustainable Fabrics/Materials:
1. Petroleum-Based Synthetic Fibers/Synthetic Blends
We are so not into these, because they use unsustainable fossil fuel petroleum and become plastic (contribute to plastic pollution, microplastics in the ocean, toxic burnoff during manufacturing).
So basically, what we are saying is, they are plastic… just like plastic bags.
Petroleum-Based Synthetic Fibers
Some of these include Polyester, which uses a TON of petroleum oil in manufacturing. It’s also super low quality and is really good at shedding microfibers; nylon, which needs a large amount of water/energy during production; and acrylic, which relies on highly toxic chemicals to be produced.
If a textile is mixed with petroleum-based synthetics, then it is considered a synthetic blend.
Even if it’s mostly cotton, everything is mixed and cannot be broken back down into separate parts, so it’s wasted! Of course we are not into these either…
2. Animal-Derived Fabrics
Animal-derived fabrics are typically very unsustainable. Their fabrication often causes harm to or requires the death of the animal, and their large scale production uses soo many natural resources and creates greenhouse gases and other pollution.
Not only do animals have to die for leather to exist, but both the process and their lives leading up to it are extremely unethical and unsustainable.
Because most leather comes from India and China, and because the
slaughter of cows in India is only legal in a few states, cows killed for leather have to go through “death marches” – literally marches for hundreds of miles to a state where slaughter is legal. Investigations found that workers break cows’ tails and rub chili peppers in their eyes to force them to keep walking after collapse and exhaustion. Once they get there, they are often still alive when they are skinned. Many animals are killed specifically for leather, and are not a byproduct of the meat industry.
Plus, tanning, or the process of turning skin into leather, requires a ton of energy and very dangerous chemicals for the planet and for human health. And… just like animal agriculture is terrible for the environment, so is leather production: methane, water use, deforestation, fossil fuels – all of these are produced in the production of leather.
It makes sense that in order to turn a living animal into something you can wear, a ton of chemicals have to be used. Not only are we impacted by these as we wear it – workers, including children, soak animal skins in toxic chemicals, and of course it impacts their health, increasing their cancer risk. Even populations who live nearby to tanneries are exposed.
We know these details are terrible to read and witness. However, because most of us are not often exposed to these images and information, it’s important to know it and not participate.
Wool might seem like a great option since its “harvest” doesn’t require the animal to die. Unfortunately, many sheep, alpaca, goats, etc. are poorly treated regardless (the infamous side effect of industrial farming) and often harmed during the shearing process, simply due to carelessness and a lack of respect from their farmworkers.
Many are even heartlessly subjected to mulesing, or the removal of skin around their tails, to prevent feces and other moisture from attracting flies and parasites. The process is extremely painful, as the animal is often not given painkillers, and has even been found to be ineffective, as the wound often becomes infected and attracts flies anyway.
The regular process of retrieving silk kills the worms!
Cocoons are boiled, steamed, or baked with live caterpillars inside – so, so sad!
The silk industry is also Infamous for poor treatment of workers and child slavery.
3. Semi-Synthetic/Plant-Derived Fabrics
Even though these are made of plants, their manufacturing process is so bad.
Rayon is another name for viscose, which takes sustainable cellulose (from plant cell walls) and dissolves it using toxic chemicals and a ton of water.
The manufacturing process is so toxic that it can cause death for workers. Even the EPA is concerned.
And because it’s made from wood pulp, it is a contributor to deforestation.
Traditionally, cotton uses a LOT of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, water & land.
Fertilizers & pesticides pollute water (creates unsafe drinking water.. Like we need more of that in the world!)
The production also Degrades soil quality (eventually leads to exhausted fields and more land use/habitat destruction upon relocation) — again, we should be more worried about the condition of our topsoil!! (goodbye nutrients)
Child labor & slavery is also common in this industry.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read? Here’s a little summary for ya..)
The fashion industry is soo wasteful. You can do your part and “make materials matter” when you shop for clothes. Check out our fabrics pyramid for guidance!
Check out these additional resources for more: