What’s in a fabric? Shopping mindfully starts with understanding the materials that go into our clothing and selecting those that are good for us and the planet. But that’s easier said than done. Choosing an eco-friendly fabric is complex—there are pros and cons to each one. And fiber choice is only part of the equation.
When looking at the sustainability of a fabric, there are four things to keep in mind:
1. How the raw material (fiber) is extracted
2. The process of producing the textile
3. Dyeing, printing, washing and finishing
4. The textile’s end of life
Natural fibers are sourced from plants and typically have a lower environmental impact. Look organic fabrics where minimal chemicals are used in the production process. GOTS-certified fabrics are those that are made using high standards in production.
Traditional cotton uses a lot of water, pesticides, and chemicals to be produced. Organic cotton is harvested with low to no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds. The growth of organic cotton also creates a biodiverse crop, meaning that other crops can flourish alongside them, aiding in soil fertility.
Hemp is one of the most versatile plants on the planet. It doesn’t require a lot of water or any pesticides, can produce two to three times more fiber per acre than cotton, and naturally replenishes the soil that it grows in.
Linen also comes from a very versatile crop: the flax plant. Linen uses minimal water and doesn’t require any fertilizers or pesticides; it can even grow in poor-quality soil. Plus, every part of the plant can be used, so nothing is wasted. One caveat: its production. Traditional linen is produced in a way that pollutes waterways (retting) and uses harmful chemicals, while organic linen does not.
While silk is a natural fiber, there are ethical questions about the process of actually extracting the fiber—it requires boiling live silkworms. The production of peace silk waits until the cocoon has been shed naturally.
Qmonos is a synthetic spider silk that is created through the fusion of spider silk genes and microbes. It is said to be stronger than steel, tougher than Kevlar, while also being very lightweight, incredibly elastic, and entirely biodegradable. No spiders are farmed or harmed in the manufacturing process.
Piñatex is a vegan leather alternative made from pineapple leaves. As Piñatex is made from a food byproduct, it reduces food waste and helping the farming communities that grow pineapple.
TENCEL® is made from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus trees don’t require any toxic pesticides, and only need a little water. Plus, the chemicals used to produce TENCEL® are managed in a closed-loop system, meaning they are recycled which reduces dangerous waste.
Recycled v. reclaimed fabrics
Recycled fabric and reclaimed fabric often get confused or lumped together, but they are very different. Recycled fabric is made up of fibers that have already been used and are then broken down and turned into a new fabric. Reclaimed, or deadstock, fabric is material left over from production, vintage fabric, or any other unused fabric that is bought secondhand.
Econyl is fabric made of 100 percent regenerated nylon that comes from synthetic waste, such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets. This waste is cleaned and shredded, depolymerised, polymerised, transformed into yarn, and then remade into textiles. This regeneration system forms a closed-loop, uses less water, and creates less waste than traditional nylon, while being the same quality as virgin nylon. However, washing Econyl still sheds microplastics and is not decomposable.
Virgin polyester is one of the least sustainable fabrics. But recycled polyester uses PET from plastic water bottles and breaks them down into fibers. This process uses nearly half the amount of energy as creating virgin polyester and keeps plastic out of landfills. But it also sheds microfibers and is not decomposable.