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Fabrics - 14 Fabrics and Their Environmental Impacts

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

sustainable fabrics textiles

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!