As a lover of fashion, I am constantly looking online and in my local stores to find new items to love. Lately I’ve been asking myself though, what are my clothes made of? I found myself learning about the devastating effects that the clothing industry has on our eco- systems. This is how I got into learning about eco- friendly fabrics. When it comes to sustainable fashion, it’s good to start at the very basics of any clothing item, the material it’s made from.
There are a lot of great options for eco-friendly fabrics but for this article I decided to filter it down to the best options. In this article you will read:
Why is the clothing industry so damaging
The clothing industry is responsible for employing over 75 million people. (1)The industry has more than doubled in the last 20 years. While people now buy up to 60% more clothing items than in 2000, we throw away our clothes much quicker than ever before. This is where the name ‘’fast fashion’’ finds its origin.
From all fabrics used in clothes, up to 85% ends up in landfills within a year. As a lot of fabrics are made of plastic (about 60% of all our textiles). Washing these fabrics results in 500 tons of microfibers ending up in our oceans.
With the water needed for processing most fabrics, you can provide 5 million people. To give you an example, for 1 kilo of cotton, you need 20000 liters of water. The amount of water used in the industry is so large, it has already caused a literal sea to dry up almost entirely. The process of dying fabrics is one of the main causes for water pollution. Unsurprisingly, about 20% of all polluted water comes from the clothing industry. The clothing industry is responsible for 35% of all microplastics in the ocean.
The fashion industry is also responsible for emitting large amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon. As the industry is still growing, it is now expected that the emission rate of the industry will grow from 10% today, to a terrifying 25% in the next 25 years.
Besides the environment, the circumstances in the industry of most textile workers are dire. The pay is usually extremely low and the working days are shockingly long. In the industry it is common to use many chemicals for the processing of textiles. These chemicals are often toxic to humans and can cause serious health issues. (2)
What fabrics to avoid
Polyester (polyethylene terephthalate) is made from oil. This is a non- renewable source. The fabric is basically made from plastic and therefore not biodegradable. Processing polyester requires the use of toxic chemicals. These can be harmful for the textile workers and when washing the fabrics, can lead to water pollution.
In the process of turning nylon into a usable fabric, several chemicals are used that make the fabric non- biodegradable. The textile is similar to polyester and is made from oil. During the processing of nylon, the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is released. While washing the fabric, microplastics are released into our waters.
This fabric is made from fossil fuels, a non- renewable source. Just like nylon and polyester, it is non- biodegradable. Burning the fabric can even lead to the release of toxic fumes. The processing is energy- costly and requires several toxic chemicals. Also, the fabric usually doesn’t last very long.
Rayon or viscose, is a manufactured regenerated cellulosic fiber. It is derived from wood pulp. Although this material can be sustainably harvested, this is rarely the case. Sadly, a third is harvested from endangered ancient forests each year. Over 150 million trees are cut down for the production of rayon. Breaking down the pulp and turning it into fiber requires chemicals that are harmful to the employees. These chemicals also cause air and water pollution. The fabric is hard to recycle.
As described above, cotton processing requires a lot of water. Maintaining the cotton plants also involves a lot of pesticides that can be harmful to the environment.
What defines an eco- friendly fabric
When making my list for the best options for eco- friendly fabrics, I researched each fabric for the following aspects:
- What is the source of the fabric and is this a renewable source;
- What is required to process the raw materials;
- How long does the fabric last;
- What are the end- to- life prospects of the fabric?
Eco- friendly fabrics
Hereby my list of the best eco- friendly fabrics. While going through the list it is important to keep the following in mind: There is no such thing as a complete ‘’eco- friendly fabrics’’. There are just ‘’more sustainable fabrics than the alternatives’’. As I believe it is important to be realistic, I will go into the pros as well as the cons per fabric.
- Organic cotton
Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton requires less amounts of water. While processing organic cotton, no chemicals are used. The plant is grown without any pesticides. The fiber is breathable and lightweight. In comparison to conventional cotton, organic cotton is more durable and a stronger fabric overall. Organic cotton is biodegradable. It is off all fabrics the easiest to decompose. It takes between 5 weeks and 5 months for the fabric to decompose completely.
Although organic cotton uses a lot less water in the processing phase than conventional cotton, it still uses quite large amounts. This eco friendly fabric is also still on the expensive side.
Hemp is made from the hemp plant. This plant is known to not only be pest resistant, it also extracts greenhouse gasses from the air. The plant also has the incredible ability to fertilize the soil it is planted in. It can be grown anywhere in the world. The hemp plant does not need a lot of water and is a high yielding crop. This means it produces a lot of materials per plant. The fabric is very durable and strong. It can resist fire. It also does not require a lot of maintenance. The fabric is recyclable and biodegradable.
The only drawback is that the fabric is still quite expensive. The prospects for this sustainable material are looking good though as this eco friendly fabric is gaining popularity.
The fabric linen has the same qualities as Hemp does for it is lightweight and
Breathable. The fabric also is made from a plant, the Flax plant. This plant requires little water to grow. It is also almost completely naturally pest resistant. The flax plant can be used in its entirety so no parts go to waste. Unlike hemp however, the crop is not high yielding unfortunately. If the material remains untreated, it is very biodegradable. The fabric is also 100% recyclable.
Linen wrinkles easily and is often recommended to be washed by hand. Also, the flax plant cannot grow everywhere but mainly does well in Europe. This Eco friendly fabric is for this reason expensive.
- Tencel Lyocell
This is a relatively new fabric on the market. The fabric is made from renewable raw material wood by an Austrian company. The process of growing these materials cost about 50% less water then conventional lyocell. Creating the fabric is also energy friendly. The company has created a closed loop system. This basically means that the solvent is recycled. The material is soft and breathable. The fabric itself is biodegradable and it is recyclable.
I could not really find a lot of drawbacks of Tencel Lyocell. It is a great eco friendly fabric.
Econly is in essence a fabric completely made from recycled materials. It uses synthetic plastic waste materials extracted from our oceans. The fibers of Econyl are just like nylon and have the same qualities. The processing of Econyl doesn’t require much water. The material is ideal for swim- or activewear.
A downside to washing this material is that it still emits microplastics into the ocean. However, there is a good solution for this problem. Simply put your Econyl products in a Guppyfriend washing bag before putting it in the washing machine. (3)
Econyl is just like nylon and polyester essentially made from plastic, and therefore not biodegradable.
- Recycled fabrics
I made this a category because I think it’s important to state that the best eco-friendly fabrics are those that have already been made. Today there are many brands that create beautiful clothing items from recycled materials. The most recycled fabrics are cotton, wool, polyester and nylon. Those last two are as you might have read already, not considered sustainable fabrics. However, when recycled, there is no longer need to extract and process the material again. Extending the life cycle of a fabric is always the best way to go.
Labels in clothing
When it comes to buying a new piece of clothing, I encourage you to have a look at the label first. Now, I myself did this with some of my clothing items at home and came to find that I didn’t really know what I was looking for. How do you read from a label whether your item is ‘’sustainably’’ made?
When you look at the label on your clothes you will most likely see the following
- Washing instructions;
- Drying instructions;
- Ironing instructions;
- Bleach instructions.
What else is on a clothing label can differ in each country as the requirements vary.
When it comes to sustainability, here are a few things to look out for:
Cradle to cradle certification: Scores a brand on its commitment to a circular economy. It also considers the reductions of the use of dangerous chemicals. It looks into the efficiency in the use of resources and the reuse of materials. Lastly it checks into the energy usage and social responsibilities.
Global organic textile standard (GOTS): This certification is about creating a global standard for the processing of organic fibers.
Fair trade certification: This means that the product has literally been fairly made and fairly traded.
On the label you will often find information about the materials of the item. For recycling purposes, it is best to look for products that exist for 100% out of 1 material. Of course I also encourage you to check the label to see whether your product is made with a eco- friendly fabric. An important note on this subject is that greenwashing is a widespread phenomenon. Greenwashing is when a company falsely brands an item as sustainable. I encourage you therefore to do your research on what clothing brands are actually sustainable.
What to do next?
People are buying more and more clothes. The fashion industry is a major contributor to many environmental problems. The time to act is now.
When it comes to eco friendly fabric, the best you can do is buy recycled clothing or clothes made from recycled fabrics. If you want to buy something new, I encourage you to check the label and pick only items made with eco- friendly fabrics. Look out for any certifications. I encourage you to do your own research into sustainable fashion. There are many amazing brands out there, working hard to make a difference in the fashion industry. They are the bright future.