Sustainable & ethical fabrics
What are truly sustainable and ethical fibres? What does it need for a fibre to be both environmentally friendly while also being ethical and vegan?
You might already know that the fashion industry is one of the leading polluting industries in the world. The production and distribution of garments combined with 21st century’s consumerism contribute to the pollution of water, air and soil. Besides consuming more mindfully, choosing sustainable fabrics is one of the most important things we can do to make our closet more eco-friendly.
But there are many debates about which fabrics are the most sustainable options. And if you prefer your clothes to be vegan too, choosing the right fabrics might be an even more challenging task for you. The aim of this guide is to give you a compact overview about all the different materials out there and which ones are the most sustainable options, while being vegan.
Natural vs. Synthetic Materials
First of all, it’s important to differentiate between natural and synthetic materials. Natural fabrics, such as cotton, silk and wool, are made of animal or plant-based fibres and occur naturally, while synthetic fabrics are produced entirely from artificial products to create fabrics like polyester and nylon. Synthetic fibres are more durable and cheaper than natural ones, however, they take a huge toll on the planet since they are made from petroleum products and require complex processing. In 2017, the most used fibres were synthetic (64.2%), followed by cotton (24.1%). Cotton is starting to gain popularity, since most people believe that “natural” equals “sustainable”.
Surprisingly, both fibres have similar environmental impacts. Both natural and synthetic materials start out as factory plants and undergo multiple chemical procedures that are often toxic to humans and the environment. Cotton also requires an enormous amount of water and land to grow – in fact, it takes about 2,700 litres of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt.
The only real difference between cotton and polyester regarding their eco-friendliness, is that cotton is biodegradable, which means it will decompose quicker, while synthetic materials will only start to decompose after 30 years in the landfill.
Semi-synthetic fibres are man-made, but they are made from natural raw products (usually wood or bamboo) that have been modified and partially degraded by chemical processes. Examples of semi-synthetic fibres include rayon, also known as viscose, and modal. Whether semi-synthetic fibres are sustainable really depends on their production and farming of the used plants, which is why it’s important to look out for certificates and transparency. Generally, semi-synthetics a lot better for the environment than petroleum-based fabrics, and they are also biodegradable.
There are ongoing discussions about how sustainable and animal-friendly the production of animal-based fibres is.
Wool & Other Animal Hair
On the one hand, animal hair is natural, rapidly renewable, recyclable and also biodegradable. It is also extremely durable, so it is generally worn longer than other textile materials. Wool products also tend to be washed less frequently at lower temperatures which is better for the environment.
On the other hand, the washing and dyeing of animal hair often includes toxic chemicals and uses a lot of energy and water. In addition, the animals used for wool (sheep, goats, alpaca, etc.) require water and feed, while emitting methane, which contributes to global warming.
What definitely can’t be forgotten are the several animal-cruelty issues taking place in the wool industry, including tail docking and dehorning.
Silk is spun from the long threads which make up the inner cocoon of a silkworm. Silk producers usually boil the cocoon with the silkworm inside, which makes silk a non-vegan fabric. Silk can be a low-waste and sustainable product, since the worms feed on the leaves of the mulberry tree, which is easy to cultivate, and the worms are often consumed, as they are a popular snack across many Asian countries.
Still, the boiling of a living being is something many people don’t agree with. Luckily, new technologies have helped create vegan silk alternatives such as Ahimsa silk (aka peace silk) or soy silk. If you opt for these options, look out for OTEX and/or GOTS certifications.
Truly Sustainable and Ethical Fabrics
So now that we’ve covered the basics, we can tackle the real question: what are truly sustainable and ethical fabrics?
organic & recycled cotton
While conventional cotton is one of the thirstiest and most chemical-intensive crops to grow, organic cotton has a much lower impact on our planet. It uses far less water and the crops aren’t treated with harmful toxins. When opting for organic cotton, make sure it is GOTS-certified. If available, recycled cotton is a great option. Recycled or upcycled cotton is made using post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste and can help reduce water and energy consumption while keeping cotton garments out of landfill.
Organic hemp is grown all around the world and requires very little water, no pesticides and it even naturally fertilises the soil it grows in. It keeps you cool in summer, and warm in winter and gets softer every time you wash it.
Organic linen requires minimal water and pesticides, and even grows in poor-quality soil. Every part of the plant is used, so nothing is wasted. When untreated (i.e. not dyed), linen is also fully biodegradable.
TENCEL® aka Lyocell
Viscose, Modal and Lyocell are all semi-synthetic fibres, made from plants. They’re all variations of a fibre called viscosein Europe, or rayon in North America. The differences are only very subtle du to slightly varying manufacturing processes. Lyocell stands out because it is made using an organic solvent which is more environmentally friendly. The Austrian firm Lenzing make their Lyocell, branded as TENCEL®, from sustainably managed forests and the chemicals used to produce the fibre are managed in a closed-loop system.
Econyl consists of recycled synthetic waste such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets from the ocean. It is a nylon yarn that is produced in a closed-loop system, uses less water, and creates less waste than the traditional nylon production. It’s important to note that the washing of Econyl sheds microparticles, which is why Econyl is best for seldom-washed products like shoes and bags.
Piñatex is not only a cruelty-free alternative for leather, it is also natural and sustainable.
As Piñatex is made from pineapple leaves, it reduces waste and helps the farming communities that grow the fruit!
What all this means
After reading all this information you might be confused what to look for in clothes from now on. The following eight tips may help you with this:
look at the tag
It’s the only way to ensure that your clothes are made from an environmentally friendly fabric.
Their production affects the environment negatively and they aren’t biodegradable.
quit blended fibres
Blended fibres are made from mixing two or more different materials together. They can’t be recycled, as there is no technology to separate the fibres yet.
opt for organic
Organic Cotton, Organic Hemp and Organic Linen are amazing fabrics that are both sustainable and vegan.
Great fabrics include TENCEL® aka Lyocell, Econyl and Qmonos. Always be sure to check certifications.
Instead of silk, choose soysilk or peace silk. Instead of leather, choose cork, apple leather or piñatex. Instead of new wool, choose second-hand or recycled wool.
Opt for pre-loved items, especially if you do want to buy silk, wool or leather.
Don't throw clothes away
Clothes release toxic gas when they decompose in landfills. Instead, donate, sell or swap your clothes, when you don’t want to wear them anymore.
Knowing about sustainable and ethical fabrics is an important step. But after all, it’s also important to remember that the most sustainable clothes are the ones you already own. It’s also important to make sure the fabrics have been produced in a way that’s fair for the garment workers. I can recommend the website and app Good On You – they rate brands regarding their sustainability, fairness & animal-friendliness.
As complicated as it might seem to find clothes made from truly sustainable and ethical fibres, it is absolutely worth it. Caring more about where your clothes come from will ensure you value and appreciate them more, and will ultimately give you a whole new perspective and approach to fashion.
If you are looking to quit fashion that is not sustainable and ethical, make sure to have a look at my fair fashion posts.