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A Guide to Sustainable Fabrics

by Emily DeLong

24 April 2017

The world of materials is vast and confusing. There are so many different materials out there these days — so many that it can be hard to keep all of them straight (like what's the difference between polyester and nylon, or rayon and modal?) Figuring out which ones are good for our planet and which ones aren't just adds to the confusion.

I created a guide to all (okay, some) of the types of materials out there, including what they're made out of and whether or not using them is an environmentally friendly choice. For those fibers that aren't recommended, I've provided adequate substitutes (such as switching out modal for Tencel or cashmere for alpaca). Hopefully next time you're out shopping, this article will make you better-equipped to know which fibers to look for and which to avoid.

Before we get into the guide, I wanted to detail a few things I used to determine whether or not a fiber is sustainable. There are a lot of nuances in the world of sustainable fibers — for instance, a fiber like bamboo may be sustainably grown but then unsustainably processed — and my recommendations are by no means indisputable. These are some of the things I consider, both as I source fabrics for Margu and when I'm out shopping, when I'm looking at the environmental impact of a material:

Resources — i.e., what the material is made of. Some materials (known as natural materials) come from natural, renewable sources, such as cotton, linen, hemp, and silk. Other materials (known as synthetics) come from synthetic, non-renewable sources, such as polyester and nylon, both derived from petroleum. Other materials yet (known as semi-synthetics) come from natural sources such as wood but are processed with chemicals during production, placing them somewhere between natural and synthetic.

Pollution — i.e., how the creation of a fiber affects our land, air, and water. Sometimes pollution occurs at the beginning of the production process (such as pesticides used on cotton farms polluting lakes, streams, and groundwater), and other times it occurs near the end (such as the polluting chemicals used on bamboo stalks to turn them into fabric).

Water Usage — i.e., how much water it takes to produce a fabric. Just like pollution, water usage occurs at may different stages of the production process and includes the water used to grow the plants of natural fibers as well as the water used to create, process, and dye fibers in a factory.

Biodegradability — i.e., how long it takes for a material to decompose. Natural fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, and silk, are on the high end of biodegradability (not that you should be throwing your clothes out; do try to swap/recycle/donate them!). Synthetic fibers, such as polyester, take virtually forever to decompose.

Finally, a few guidelines for navigating the world of materials:

  1. Get in the habit of checking the inside tags of garments when you go shopping. (It may seem weird at first if you don't already do this, but believe me, it starts to feel normal and gets addictive.) Knowledge is power!
  2. Seek out these materials: Organic cotton, linen, hemp, silk, Tencel, raffia, wool, alpaca, post-consumer recycled plastic.
  3. Try to avoid these materials when you can: Polyester, poly-blends, nylon, viscose (rayon), acrylic bamboo, non-organic cotton, cashmere.
  4. Keep in mind that no one material is perfectly sustainable, and that there are always trade-offs with every choice you make. Breaking the rules once in a while is okay, especially when you're buying something you love and know is going to last you a long time.

 

The Guide

Alpaca

Type: Natural (animal-based)

Pros: Warm, soft, hypoallergenic, the most reliably sustainable wooly fabric, mostly produced on sustainable farms in South America, biodegradable, recyclable, Alpaca emit low amounts of greenhouse gases, requires little water to produce, is produced on areas not suitable for food production

Cons: Not suitable for warm weather, not vegan

Comes from: Alpacas

Recommended: Yes

 

Bamboo

Type: Semi-synthetic

Comes from: The bamboo plant

Pros: Soft, moisture-wicking, breathable, hypoallergenic, biodegradable, bamboo is a sustainable wood source

Cons: Most bamboo fabric production involves unsustainable chemical solvents (polluting air and water and endangering factory workers) to break down the bamboo plant, prone to shrinkage

Recommended: No — substitute with cotton, Tencel, or linen instead

 

Cashmere

Type: Natural (animal-based)

Comes from: Goats

Pros: Soft, luxurious, biodegradable, recyclable, is produced on areas not suitable for food production

Cons: Increased demand and overproduction is causing rapid desertification of pastures in Mongolia, expensive

Recommended: No — substitute with alpaca or wool instead

 

Cotton

Type: Natural (plant-based)

Comes from: The cotton plant

Pros: Biodegradable, recyclable, breathable, good for all seasons, organic

Cons: Requires a lot of water to grow, non-organic varieties use a lot of pesticides to grow, production of cotton means less farmland available for food production

Recommended: It depends, as not all cotton is created equal — the general rule is to seek out organic cotton and to avoid conventionally grown cotton unless you're desperate

 

Hemp

Type: Natural (plant-based)

Comes from: The cannabis plant

Pros: Biodegradable, exceptionally durable, requires minimal water and pesticides to grow

Cons: Is often coarse and thick, so often not the best choice for garments close to your skin (unless blended with another fiber like organic cotton)

Recommended: Yes

 

Linen

Type: Natural (plant-based)

Comes from: The flax plant

Pros: Breatheability makes it the perfect warm-weather material, uses minimal water and pesticides to grow, biodegradable, recyclable, no waste footprint as the entire plant is used in production

Cons: Prone to wrinkling, not the best for cold weather, can be expensive

Recommended: Yes

 

Modal

Type: Semi-synthetic

Comes from: Wood pulp, mostly from beech trees

Pros: Soft, water-absorbent, inexpensive, biodegradable

Cons: Although derived from a natural source, the chemicals (and subsequent chemical runoff) necessary to turn the wood pulp into modal make the fabric not-so-environmentally friendly, not to mention the often-unsustainable forests the wood comes from

Recommended: No (unless the manufacturer is touting that it is sustainably sourced and produced) — substitute with cotton, silk, or Tencel instead

 

Nylon

Type: Synthetic

Comes from: Petroleum

Pros: Strong, inexpensive, relatively low greenhouse gas footprint, often made from the byproducts of the oil-refinement process

Cons: Not biodegradable, flammable, dependent on a non-renewable resource, microfibers released during washing pollute waterways

Recommended: No — substitute with Tencel, silk, cotton, or recycled polyester instead

 

Polyester

Type: Synthetic

Comes from: Petroleum

Pros: Inexpensive, recyclable, wrinkle-resistant, UV resistant

Cons: Not biodegradable, flammable, dependent on a non-renewable resource, microfibers released during washing pollute waterways

Recommended: No — substitute with Tencel, silk, cotton, or recycled polyester instead

 

Raffia

Type: Natural (plant-basd)

Comes from: The raffia palm tree

Pros: Strong, durable, biodegradable, takes dyes well, raffia palms trees are sustainably sourced

Cons: Due to its rustic nature, it is better-suited for use in upholstery, shoes, and handbags than clothing

Recommended: Yes

 

Silk

Type: Natural (animal-based)

Comes from: The cocoons of silkworms (most of which feed off the leaves of mulberry trees, although other varieties feed off different types of trees)

Pros: Soft, luxurious, strong, biodegradable, less water and fewer pesticides needed to cultivate than cotton

Cons: Expensive, no organic certification process, not vegan, industrial processing can result in wastewater contamination

Recommended: Yes — seek out wild (tussah) silk or peace silk for the most environmentally friendly (and potentially vegan, depending on where you stand) option

 

Spandex (aka Elastane or Lycra)

Type: Synthetic

Comes from: Petroleum

Pros: Stretchy, inexpensive

Cons: Not biodegradable, derived from petroleum, lax environmental standards in production can result in pollution

Recommended: It depends — you definitely don't want to go out and purchase an entire wardrobe comprised of spandex, but spandex in small quantities (less than 5 percent of a fabric's fiber content) is a common thing in garments like jeans and can help make clothing more stretchable and comfortable

 

Tencel (aka Lyocell)

Type: Semi-synthetic

Comes from: Wood pulp, mostly from the eucalyptus plant

Pros: Soft, silky, biodegradable, processed in a "closed-loop" system which contains chemical waste and runoff, made from sustainably sourced forests, hypoallergenic

Cons: Slightly expensive, prone to shrinkage

Recommended: Yes

 

Viscose (aka Rayon)

Type: Semi-synthetic

Comes from: Wood pulp

Pros: Silky (when it was first invented it was known as "artificial silk"), soft, inexpensive, biodegradable

Cons: Although derived from a natural source, the chemicals (and subsequent chemical runoff) necessary to turn the wood pulp into viscose make the fabric not-so-environmentally friendly, not to mention the often-unsustainable forests the wood comes from

Recommended: No — substitute with Tencel or silk instead

 

Wool

Type: Natural (animal-based)

Comes from: Sheep

Pros: Warm, breathable, biodegradable, recyclable, long-lasting, requires little water to produce, is produced on areas not suitable for food production

Cons: Not as guaranteed to be sustainable as alpaca (large-scale production can lead to overgrazing similar to cashmere), post-processing/dyeing in countries with lax environmental regulations can result in polluted waterways, not vegan

Recommended: Yes, but alpaca is often better

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