How Sustainable Are the Most Used Fabrics and Fibers?

There are two huge things you can do to greenify your closet: buying less and buying smarter.

When it comes to buying smarter, it’s super important to know which materials deserve a place in your sustainable wardrobe.

In this post, we’re going over the most used synthetic and natural materials. Some are more eco-friendly, some are less. Some are ethical, some are questionable.

I think that for the most part we tend to believe that anything that’s natural is sustainable and all those things that we call synthetic or artificial belong in the no-no list. Not only in fashion but also when we talk about food or beauty.

When it comes to the fashion industry, for the longest time I didn’t second guess materials like cotton, wool and silk while giving a dirty look to nylon, polyester and spandex.

I do prefer using natural fabrics to any kind of microplastic-producing synthetic material, but still things are more complex than that and we often have to pay attention to the details: is X material organic? Is it a blend? Recyclable? Recycled? Compostable?

Oh, but if you want to learn about the newest and most innovative materials in the industry, you can subscribe to my newsletter here, where we break down a new fashion innovation every Wednesday. It’s a fun read, I promise 💌

Synthetic materials

There are lots of variations of synthetic materials. The first ones started being widely used in the 1930s and today they make up most of our closets.

They’re made of fossil fuels, which in layman terms means they’re essentially plastic.

Did you know that 342 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce synthetic fabrics? And that washing a load of synthetic clothes can release more than 700,000 microfibers?

Polyester

It’s the most commonly used synthetic fibre, present in somewhere between 65 and 80% of the clothes produced globally.

It’s been becoming more and more common since it was first discovered. In 1980, the volume of global polyester production was 5.2 million tons and by 2014 it reached 46.1 million tons.

It’s highly pollutant but the fact that it’s cheap and easy to dye and manipulate are probably the reasons behind its popularity – and also one of the reasons why fast fashion thrives.

It’s true that it needs less water than some natural materials, but it’s very energy-intensive (recycled polyester requires 30% less energy but still -).

As you may know, polyester can be recycled and reused in fashion, but this is still approx 1% of the polyester we produce globally.

Nylon

Nylon is this stretchier fabric that probably you’ve seen on the tags of your hosiery, swimwear and activewear (even on your toothbrush bristles).

And yes, it’s super practical, durable (excluding those tights that get ruined just by looking at them a bit too intensely) and we owe it a lot, but now we know better than using non-biodegradable, microplastic-producing fabrics for everything.

The production of nylon is really water-intensive and during one step of its production, water is used to cool down the nylon fibers, carrying with it harmful chemicals into the water if not properly treated.

Another bad thing about nylon is that it’s rarely recyclable – this depends on where you live and whether you buy your nylon products from brands with take-back programs.

PVC

We actually talked about PVC in this post about vegan fashion and how it’s one of the most toxic and less sustainable materials.

PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride and it’s a synthetic plastic polymer used in areas as different as construction and healthcare. You can also find it in faux leather, latex clothing and some sports equipment.

It’s the most used alternative to animal leather, but it’s without a hint of a doubt the less sustainable one. There are natural alternatives to PVC like cactus and apple leather.

PU

PU (aka polyurethane) is another material commonly used as an alternative to animal leather – also talked about it here as a more eco-friendly alternative to PVC vegan leather.

It needs less water and energy than PVC and it doesn’t contain harmful chemicals that other synthetic materials do have, but it’s still plastic.

It’s possible and easy to avoid it considering that there are non-plastic alternatives to animal leather with a way inferior carbon footprint (like, have you heard of Piñatex?).

Natural materials

Cotton

If you have read this post with the wildest facts about fast fashion, you already know how much water the fashion industry actually uses.

Picture this: 70% of global freshwater goes towards agricultural use, including livestock and food, and 3% of that water is used to grow cotton. It takes more than 2,000 litres of water to make a cotton t-shirt, and that’s the amount a person would drink over a three-year period.

Another issue with cotton is that a lot of it is genetically modified.

Just in the US, 94% of cotton production is GM. I can go on for days talking about this topic and I have a lot of bad words to say to the people responsible for this, but I think it can be more productive for you to watch the documentary the True Cost if you haven’t already.

The problem with genetically modified cotton is that it’ll thrive only when it’s used along with certain fertilizers and pesticides, almost always sold by the same company that produces the genetically modified cotton seed (often called bt cotton). These chemicals hurt the soil and pollute the water, which sometimes results in ruin for farmers.

The solution? Organic cotton, which thankfully is easier to find and more affordable now than ever before.

Denim

I don’t know what I used to think denim was made of, but turns out it’s cotton woven in a particular way that makes it sturdier. The more you know, amiright.

So here we find the same problems we had simply with cotton – thirsty fabric, commonly GMO – and we add another one: chemical dyes.

I know that “chemical” doesn’t always equal “bad”, but it sure does when they are products that end up in the water and the soil and they’re proven to be toxic for humans.

Another issue with denim is that in most fast fashion brands the denim we find is a blend of denim + elastane or other synthetic fabrics. This means that those jeans won’t be recyclable, won’t be compostable and will release microplastics (and probably they’ll last way less than pure denim pants).

Luckily there are many brands with sustainable jeans made of organic or recycled post-consumer cotton. You can check a few of them in this great post by my amazing friend Teresa Maria.

Hemp

Hemp is a miracle fabric that doesn’t get enough credit. It’s also not that widespread in use because of all the obstacles and stigma that come with cannabis.

But truth is that hemp is not a thirsty plant, it doesn’t strip the soil of its nutrients and doesn’t need pesticides or any other chemical help.

It’s also super versatile, it’s been used for centuries and it protects you from UV rays. Isn’t that cool?

Linen

Linen comes from flax plant fibers – yes. the same flax you use for your seeds.

Linen’s natural colors are all these gorgeous tan tones, broken whites, greys and beiges, which is amazing because that makes it easy to make cute without bleaching or dyeing.

It’s more of a luxury fabric (or known as such) because the time and effort it takes to spin and produce makes the price higher than other more malleable fibers. .

That being said, it’s extremely versatile, practical and comfortable – and looks super cute, you know.

Wool

Now we’re entering a dangerous territory in which ethics are involved. Mass wool production is linked to nasty practices that no one should get behind like mulesing. And of course, this makes wool a non-vegan fabric and more often than not non-cruelty-free textile.

That being said, wool is a very durable and practical fabric that is also biodegradable and renewable, which makes it incredibly eco-friendly.

The carbon emissions linked to wool come mostly from the animal farming and the rest of the process is not that carbon-heavy.

If you want to make sure that your wool is completely sustainable (covering ethical bases and all), make sure that it has ethical certifications that ensure responsible practices, that your wool sweater is 100% wool and not a blend (it would make it impossible to biodegrade or recycle), and that the dyes it contains aren’t environmentally harmful (this one is trickier, we’ll talk about that soon).

Silk

Silk also has this ethical issue because to be produced, silk worms need to be killed. But unlike wool, silk has a pretty large carbon footprint and it’s way more water and energy-intensive.

There’s an alternative that I find fascinating called peace silk (excluding synthetic alternatives, of course), but it’s not too common and it’s a bit tricky to know if actually peace silk or if it’s just greenwashing and it’s hard to prove and certify.

Good news is that there are some pretty cool innovations – we’ve talked about them on my newsletter –, like orange fiber, which is supposed to feel and look silky.

Leather

The carbon footprint of conventional animal leather is really, really high. It’s also really water-intensive and the leather industry is infamous for polluting rivers and underground water reservoirs all over the world with toxic leather tanning dyes.

Leather isn’t ethical, there’s no question about that. If you’re looking for ethical leather you’d have to go with vegan alternatives like the PVC or PU that we talk about earlier or with innovative materials like cactus leather or Piñatex.

Of course, leather clothing has a very long useful life if it’s treated properly, which gives the material a few sustainability points.

My advice? Try looking for certified low-impact leather or buy your leather products second hand.

What do you think?

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