Many of us who consider ourselves environmentalists have carefully reviewed where we buy our clothes. For example, many consumers are choosing to forgo fast fashion brands in favor of something a bit more sustainable. But something many of us haven’t considered is the fabrics themselves.
Choosing clothes made from certain fabrics can drastically limit waste, emissions and toxicity from the textiles production process. This article will walk you through the best fabric choices you can make in order to have a more sustainable closet.
To compare fabrics, we need to look at two main factors: The resources required to produce the fabric and its ability to complete the biogeochemical cycle once the fabric has outlived its use. In other words, we need to evaluate the full life-cycle of our clothing, including when the raw materials are taken from the Earth, when they become part of our clothing products, and when they return to the ecosystem to complete the cycle. The ideal clothing fabric is one whose entire life cycle is waste-free, non-toxic and carbon-zero. While this may not actually exist, we can aim to get as close to these goals as possible.
Best Fabrics for the Environment
The best fabrics for the environment are likely fabrics you’ve actually heard of! While some fabrics, like polyester and nylon, are made from plastic and have extremely negative effects on the environment, many textiles come from plants. These fabrics, particularly organic fabrics, minimize environmental impacts while also providing a fashionable, comfortable clothing item.
It should be noted that plant-based fabrics are not entirely impact-free. These plants need water to grow, and carbon is emitted from the agricultural processes, fabric manufacturing, and transport of the finished product. However, their environmental impact is much lower than synthetic fabrics as a whole.
Cotton is one of the most popular natural fabrics, and is used in everything from cotton underwear to high-fashion clothing. While many clothes are made from conventional cotton, organic cotton is really where the environmental benefits of cotton come into play.
Organic cotton is grown from non-genetically modified seeds. This makes it costlier than its GMO counterpart due to the more expensive seeds and the additional work it requires. However, organic cotton has restrictions on the pesticides and herbicides that farmers can use on the plant. This greatly improves the environmental impact of organic cotton compared to conventional cotton, which uses around $2 billion worth of pesticides every year.
Organic cotton is also better for climate change. While conventional cotton takes 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide to produce a single ton, organic cotton uses almost 50% less carbon dioxide to produce. This helps reduce the contributions of our clothing to global warming.
As per the WWF, 2,700 liters of water go into making a single t-shirt from conventional cotton. On the other hand, organic cotton needs only 243 liters on average for the same shirt. With almost 70% of global textile fiber coming from cotton, a switch to the organic variety can make a significant difference.
If you are looking for an all-around environmental fabric superhero, hemp is a top contender. With one hectare of hemp absorbing 15 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, the plant’s generous photosynthesis means you have carbon benefits while waiting for your fabric fibers to grow.
Hemp fabric is produced from the long strands that make up the plant’s stalk. Workers separate the fibers from the bark and these strands are then spun together to create a continuous thread. This thread can then be woven into fabric.
Bamboo is a rapidly-growing plant that provides plenty of fibers while needing very little water or fertilizer. It is also resistant to many parasites, meaning it uses minimal amounts of pesticides, if any. This is a great option for an environmentally-friendly clothing fabric, as the low amount of pesticides coupled with its low water needs mean bamboo’s impacts on the Earth are much lower than many other fabrics.
Making fabric out of bamboo calls for crushing the woody part of the plant. Enzymes such as lipase, protease, and amylase are then applied which turn the wood into a soft mass that can be mechanically combed out into strands. These strands are spun into yarn which becomes the raw material for textiles.
Organic linen is as sustainable a fabric as you can produce. The entire flax plant is woven into a fiber, leaving no waste in the spinning and weaving process. Organic linen requires no chemicals or dyes, something that equates to zero water pollution as there is no runoff from production. Like bamboo, flax requires little to no pesticides or herbicides.
How Can I Contribute?
Practices like regenerative agriculture are making the manufacturing of the products we use a more sustainable endeavor. Until all manufacturing harmonizes with the environment, it’s important to choose what we buy carefully.
Seeking environmentally friendly fabrics is a step in the right direction. By preferring brands that abide by strict fabric quality control, we can pressure less ethical, environmental companies to adopt better practices. You can also find clothing items labeled with eco-friendly certifications, such as Okeo-Tex (a sustainable fabric certification) and GOTS (an organic certification).
Treating the textiles we use as valuable parts of our everyday lives rather than disposable items whose only purpose is to give us an endorphin boost will allow us to appreciate nature’s gifts fully. By making the right consumer choices and changing our mindset, we can gradually bring everyone aboard a greener way of doing things.