Fabrics - 14 Fabrics and Their Environmental Impacts

Updated: Dec 12, 2019


Organic Basics pieces shot by @worldchangerco

When shopping with a conscience, it’s hard to keep straight all the materials that apparel brands are deeming “sustainable.” You may have just been trusting their advice and planning to do the real research later. The demand for sustainable materials is growing fast, and if you don’t know why then Google it (or Ecosia it). In short, you’ll learn that the fabrics most commonly found in our clothing today are huge contributors to problems like ocean pollution, deforestation, contaminated water supplies, air pollution, drought, animal cruelty and more. That’s overwhelming, I know. To save you time and research we’ve curated a list of textiles, recapped their impact, and labeled them with a Not Bad!, Depends... or a No Bueno. To start it off, here’s an innovative, unique material made by sustainable clothing brand, Organic Basics:

SilverTech™ - Not Bad!

A high percentage of pollution from our clothing comes from washing. That’s why Organic Basics created SilverTech™. This material is made with real silver, but not nano-silvers that can come out in the wash. It is a polymer fibre blended with organic cotton, covered in a fabric treatment made from silver. The resulting fabric is odor-controlling and heat regulating so it stays fresh and won’t have to be washed as often. Shop products made with SilverTech™ HERE and find products made from TENCEL™ and organic cotton too.

Cotton - Depends…

When a material is as often used as cotton, you better believe there’s gonna be some dirty details in its production process. You can make a bet the process includes deforestation and worker abuse. This is the sad case for cotton, and the demand for cheap cotton is rising every day. Cotton uses an alarming amount of water (around 400 gallons of water to make a t-shirt and 1,800 gallons for a pair of blue jeans) and chemicals to be grown and processed. In fact, this cash crop is the most pesticide-intensive crop that exists. Herbicides and pesticides get into the ground, polluting the soil and water around it with cancer-causing chemicals, so workers and people who live near cotton fields are being affected by chemical poisoning. If you are a fan of how soft and breathable your cotton clothing is, switch to organic! Farmers who grow cotton organically save money by cutting out pesticides and save their land by handpicking instead of using large machinery. Since organic cotton often uses natural spinning oils and natural dyes, it is overall a great sustainable option.

Rayon/Viscose - No Bueno

Rayon, aka viscose, is made with wood pulps from trees and grasses like eucalyptus, beech, pine, bamboo, soy and sugar cane. Sounds okay right? Clothing brands who practice greenwashing might try to make you think so. Viscose factories are actually highly polluting, and according to an article from The Guardian, 30% of the pulp for viscose is taken from endangered and ancient forests. The chemicals used in production are highly toxic and about 50% of the waste ends up escaping into the environment. A company called LENZING™ offers viscose created in a less harmful way. They use lyocell, a fibre made by dissolving pulp (aka "cellulose). LENZING™ is doing its best to make this a closed-loop process that is as environmentally friendly as possible, and uses only sustainably produced wood. This company is now even creating material out of recycled textiles too. So unless that rayon is LENZING™ branded, don’t buy it!

Bamboo - No Bueno

Another common case of greenwashing, clothing brands will market themselves to be sustainable because they are using bamboo fabric. Bamboo fabric is prized for being extremely soft, and the fact that bamboo is a type of grass that grows easily in many regions makes it seem like a great option. Bamboo is a sustainable material in its raw form, but in the form of fabric it is just another type of rayon. This means it must go through the same chemical-intensive process as listed above. On another note, most bamboo is grown in China, a country lacking labor laws and safety regulation. Avoid bamboo fabric unless it was produced with the lyocell process, also explained above.

TENCEL™ - Not Bad!

This one you may have seen advertised before for sustainable clothing. H&M has now integrated TENCEL™ into its Conscious Collection! This is actually a brand created by LENZING™ that makes lyocell and modal fabric. It is made the same way as rayon, but in a closed-loop process so that the chemicals involved are captured and reused. TENCEL™ fabric is mostly made from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees, it’s super soft, and it blends well with other materials. If you don’t own a piece of clothing made with TENCEL™ yet you’re kind of missing out.

Hemp - Not Bad!

Hemp is arguably the most sustainable fabric that exists. The cannabis plant is a superweed, “super” because it grows easily, it naturally reduces pests, and it returns much of its nutrients into the soil. This means no pesticides, herbicides, or excess water needed. It’s best to only shop hemp from sustainable brands though, because there are still farms using chemicals on hemp to make cheap hemp tees and products. If you didn’t already know, hemp is a different type of plant than marijuana and has only a slight trace amount of THC. Spinning hemp into fiber has been around for thousands of years to make commodities like rope, paper and clothing. Not only is it a superweed, it’s a superfood rich with protein and omega-3’s. Because of its many uses and sustainability, farmers and environmentalists have been making a ‘joint’ effort to legalize the growing of the hemp plant in America.. I had to.

Wool - Depends…

Wool is temperature-regulating and moisture-wicking, and not all kinds are scratchy. Sustainable shoe brand Allbirds claims its wool runners to be the world’s most comfortable shoes, and says their process uses "60% less energy than materials used in typical synthetic shoes.” The concept of using wool to create fabric could be innocent, but it most certainly is not. Because of its high demand, countless sheep are being brutally beaten and killed for this luxurious fibre. Unless there is proof from a company that the wool in their product is ethical, you must assume it is not cruelty-free (even from farms in the US). You can read this article from PETA to convince you to be extra careful about this. Allbirds sources its wool through ZQ Merino, the world’s leading ethical wool. Typical wool production will also use lots of chemicals and water, another reason to shop only sustainable and ethical wool.

Polyester - No Bueno

Polyester is plastic. Plastic doesn’t breakdown and it ends up in our ocean and environment, harming plants and animals. It is technically called polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and producing it requires tons of water, chemicals and fossil fuels. Not only does the resulting product end up in our environment, this process creates toxic byproducts that pollute our air and water as well. Plus, sure it might be stretchy, but polyester is not breathable and it isn’t best for our skin. Avoid this material unless it is recycled polyester.

Recycled Polyester - Depends…

Recycled Polyester may have polyester in the name, but it is not the same material. The manufacturing process uses much less energy than virgin polyester, and it is made from trash that would end up in landfills and in our environment. Though only about 9% of plastic on our earth is recycled, there is plenty available to make clothes. It takes only 5 plastic bottles to create an XL t-shirt! Like most fabrics, recycled polyester can be made irresponsibly. There is a chemical way of producing it, but the mechanical way doesn’t require chemicals or tons of water. Because of the inconsistent coloring from the trash used, bleach and chemical dyes are commonly used to correct the color, but again this can be avoided. Another problem is that microplastics can be easily released into waterways when washing recycled polyester, but luckily there are washing bags that can capture most of these microplastics. Overall, recycled polyester is a sustainable substitute for virgin synthetic materials and can be a great way to use the crazy amount of plastic building up on the earth.

Modal - No Bueno

Modal is just another type of rayon, processed with the same toxic chemicals. It is made from wood, commonly beech trees. People love modal because it is a High Wet Modulus (HMW) rayon, meaning it has a higher wet strength and is more absorbent than cotton. It also is soft and doesn’t gray over time like cotton does. The high demand for modal is causing it to play a great role in deforestation. LENZING™ (mentioned earlier) produces a sustainable modal using the lyocell process. Their modal is carbon neutral, making it a great option to shop. Otherwise, modal should be avoided.

Silk - No Bueno

Silk has been adored for thousands of years, yet still most people are unaware of the way silk is harvested. Silkworms do become moths in the wild, but in silk production 3,000 of them are gassed alive inside their cocoons to create one pound of silk. You can read more about the process from this PETA article. Because silk is extracted from the cocoon, it is extremely difficult to produce a cruelty-free silk. Don’t shop silk unless it is the rare mulberry silk that’s processed extracting the silk from the cocoon after the moth has left it. This is called Ahimsa Silk and was invented in 1991 in India. You can shop this special silk from The Ethical Silk Co.

Linen - Not Bad!

Linen is a beautiful fabric made from flax that actually gets stronger the more you wash it. Many other factors make it very sustainable. It is biodegradable, it often isn’t dyed because of its nice color, and the flax plant doesn’t need as much pesticides or water to grow. Because flax seeds can be sold separately and it takes on average 60% less water to grow than cotton, flax is a great cash crop for farmers. Linen is also magical because it doesn’t absorb bacteria and it dries much quicker than cotton! This fabric definitely is a favorite.

Leather - Depends…

Last, but certainly not least to say about the negative impact of leather. The mistreatment of animals, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic tanning process, and worker abuse from leather production makes it one of the most harmful materials in fashion. But hold up, if leather is a byproduct of the meat industry then will banning leather actually decrease the amount of deforestation, emissions and animal cruelty? This is a heated topic, and the way Ecocult puts it is a great view of the pro-leather side. This article argues that cow leather truly is a byproduct that would otherwise be thrown away or burned if not purchased, and exotic leathers such as snake and crocodile are taken from areas that protect these animals’ habitats and health in order to keep the industry going. This debate aside, that still leaves the tanning problems. Probably because vegetable-tanned leather isn’t as flexible and water-resistant, 80% of leather is still chemically tanned. These chemicals are so harmful to workers that most have been banned by America and Europe, but there is no regulation from the countries we commonly import leather from. According to Good On You, 300kgs of chemicals is used for every 900kgs of animal hides, and these chemicals get into waterways causing disease in surrounding communities. Fortunately these problems have been exposed for quite some time now, and many brands are purchasing only vegetable-tanned leather. Some of this leather is made in sustainable factories with water recycling systems and carbon reduction goals. So overall, leather can be tanned responsibly, there will be leftover hides as long as there’s a demand for meat, and if you don’t want any of your money going to the meat industry there are plenty vegan leathers to choose from (just make sure they aren’t plastic!) Here’s a list of vegan leathers that are good for the earth.

Hope this summary helped, here's a list of sources used for this post that you can check out to research more on your own!

Mochni, Treehugger, Organic Consumers, Fashion United, and Textile Today

Questions? Comments? Feel free to comment below or email us at info@worldchangerco.com

#sweatshopfree #reduceplastic #plastic #buyingorganic #sustainable #livingecofriendly #sustainableshopping

World Changer Co. Sustainable Shopping Guide

created by Rosalie Roberts

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