10 Eco-Friendly Clothing Materials You Must Know To Have A More Organic Wardrobe
Posted by FABIANA GONZALEZ
The textile industry is one of the most carbon-intensive manufacturing sectors and is among the largest emitters of climate-change-causing greenhouse gases. It is also one of the most polluting industrial sectors. To incorporate conscious living throughout your daily life, the first step is awareness: buying garments made from sustainable clothing materials is one way you can leave a smaller footprint as a consumer. This list of fabrics is not only environmentally-friendly and produced using more ethical methods, but in most cases even better for your health and comfort.
Why are sustainable clothing materials important?
Globally, the fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of human-driven total carbon emissions. The negative impact on the environment and the people involved in making garments makes it one of the most polluting industries in the world.
While touted as being more durable, many clothing fabrics are treated with chemicals to make them last longer, keep them stain-resistant, or change their textures. This impacts the wearer of the garment, as well - many of the dyes used in the production of apparel contain harmful heavy metals and other toxic chemicals that can also cause serious allergic reactions in some people. Even the source of clothing materials can be a concern, as some clothes are unethically manufactured, as is the case with apparel manufactured in sweatshop conditions.
Synthetic materials are harmful for the environment because they take a longer time to degrade, and most of them are made with petrochemical materials, which are non-renewable resources. They are also responsible for harming your health when you inhale tiny toxic particles released during the manufacturing process. Sustainable fabrics are defined as materials that are produced and/or break down in environmentally-friendly ways, or are ethical in regard to workers and animals. Using eco-friendly clothing materials to create conscious fashion helps reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing, preserves natural resources, and lowers the amount of waste generated throughout the process.
Organic cotton is cotton cultivated without using agricultural chemicals or transgenic technology. Regular cotton is farmed using genetically modified seeds which are more resistant to pests; however, when these pests naturally build immunity to the modified cotton, more pesticides are necessary. Organically grown cotton produces less carbon because it requires less energy and fuel to produce, the lack of fertilizers and pesticides mean zero water contamination occurs, and it is kinder on the skin because there’s no risk of chemical irritation.
ECONYL is a regenerated nylon fabric made from recycled nylon collected from oceans and landfills, including industrial waste, clothing fabric scraps, and abandoned fishing nets. As the CEO of Aquafil (the group behind ECONYL), Giulio Bonazzi says, the planet’s resources are so limited that it’s important to look at how existing landfill waste can be repurposed. One of the key sustainability benefits of ECONYL is that it can be eternally recycled without quality degradation.
Plant and fruit leather
‘Vegan leather’ is an eco-friendly buzzword purported to be more sustainable and ethical than animal leather. However, traditional vegan leather is often made from polyurethane, a plastic material which is not recycle-friendly. In recent decades, the popularity of truly vegan materials like cruelty-free leather made of biological products like plants or fruit has increased, such as Piñatex (made from pineapple leaves and resin), Apple Eco Leather made from apple juice waste, cork leather, mushroom leather, and even recycled plastic leather (VEJA has already made sneakers using this eco-friendly fabric)
Hemp, cultivated for its bast fibre, is non-toxic and naturally pest-resistant. It is also very carbon-efficient, as it requires little to no fertilizer or pesticides to grow. Organic hemp is extremely durable and lasts much longer than many other organic fabrics when exposed to the elements. It is also naturally fire-resistant and even has antimicrobial properties, making it an ideal material for many uses. Hemp also requires very little maintenance compared to many other fabrics, making it highly desirable for making garments.
Bamboo makes a comfortable and highly earth-friendly clothing material because it grows quickly due to its ability to adapt to different climates easily. Environmentally-friendly fabrics made from bamboo plants are also soft and have a luxurious texture. They are very comfortable to wear and have thermal regulating properties, which makes them ideal for activewear. Bamboo fabric is also inherently hypoallergenic, making it a good choice for people with sensitive skin.
Another eco-friendly clothing fabric is lyocell, which is made from wood pulp, a renewable resource. Made from natural cellulose fibre from trees instead of petrochemical-based materials. It is smooth and soft, with a drape-y feel, and has similar qualities to silk, an added benefit is that it's hypoallergenic and antibacterial, making it ideal for sensitive skin and allergies.
By-products from the food industry
Fabrics derived from by-products from the food industry are eco-friendly because they are widely available, biodegradable, and can often be reused. Examples of these biodegradable materials include chaff (the outer husk of seeds), sunflower husk, rice husk, and peanut shells. They are non-toxic, biodegradable and made from renewable materials. These abundant by-products can be used to make knit fabrics, woven fabrics, or mixed materials.
Modal is often made by mixing recycled natural materials, i.e. cotton, bamboo, or linen with other environmentally-friendly fabrics. It's an ideal fabric for those who have allergies or sensitive skin as it is made from organic materials. As we've seen with organic cotton, this quality also makes modal more self-sustaining and easier on the earth. Modal fabric is often compared to silk due to its smooth feel and look, making it a good option for those with allergies to silk.
While it doesn't count as vegan, since it is technically an animal product, peace silk, also called Ahimsa Silk (meaning 'non-violent'), is silk that has been produced without cruelty to silkworms. With traditional silk, silkworms are killed with boiling water when harvesting the silk fibres. Ahimsa silk is made without pesticides and chemical dyes, making it gentler for people with material allergies, and the silkworms are left to complete their full metamorphosis into butterflies.
Eco-friendly fashion can also be as simple as buying pre-loved garments, making your own clothes out of recycled fabric scraps, and supporting brands that use recycled textiles. This way, the clothing you’re buying is more sustainable because no additional resources were used in the manufacturing of it, versus buying a new piece for your wardrobe from fabric that was produced for the purpose of becoming apparel. Another way that clothes made from recycled fabrics are more environmentally-friendly is that less accumulative waste ends up in landfill, meaning less chemical leaching from textile decomposition.
Handmade fabrics are an environmentally-friendly clothing fabric because they are often made from organic materials. Non-natural textiles release microfibres when washed, which eventually end up in water treatment systems, farms, and in our bodies, where they’ve been found to potentially cause cancer. Handwoven clothing materials are made from such natural sources like bamboo, bananas, milk cellulose, corn starch cellulose, straw, and eucalyptus. Another benefit of handwoven fabrics like ethically sourced wool is that they are typically made by artisans, not machines, which means smaller output. Small batches can mean less waste.
What are the least sustainable clothing fabrics?
Polyester is a highly non-sustainable fabric as it is made from non-renewable petrochemical feedstocks, is not biodegradable, and is difficult to recycle. Manufactured using toxic chemicals, polyester can be hazardous to workers if not handled correctly. Even though it does not shed, it can collect dust and allergens like other synthetic fabrics.
Commonly used in fast fashion garments, acrylic is not an eco-friendly material for clothing because it's made with petrochemicals and emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when it is manufactured. Additionally, it is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled. Acrylic is also known to have low durability, so clothes made from this fabric need to be replaced sooner than other fabrics. Acrylic is an artificial fabric, which means that it is a man-made material that does not occur naturally.
Conventional cotton is made from a non-renewable source (cotton seeds have to be cultivated). It takes a lot of water to grow cotton, making it a very thirsty crop. (Indeed, clothing manufacturing is the third-largest industry consumer of water). Cotton is also a synthetic fabric made from chemicals, which makes it less environmentally friendly than natural fabrics. It’s difficult to recycle or upcycle cotton fabric because it’s made of synthetic materials. Pesticides used in the production of traditional cotton also pollute the environment it's grown in.
The manufacturing of nylon requires non-biodegradable chemical dyes to achieve the desired colours as well as high heat during the manufacturing process, which leads to emission of greenhouse gases. Nylon also requires non-recyclable materials for its production and is made from petrochemicals, a non-renewable resource. Moreover, nylon is a synthetic fabric and is not biodegradable. Additionally, nylon may exacerbate skin allergies.
Another material commonly used to make fast fashion apparel that is not eco-friendly is viscose, which is made from synthetic materials derived from petrochemicals. The manufacturing process involves high heat, heavy chemicals, and a toxic solvent that is potentially dangerous to workers and the surrounding environment. Viscose is not biodegradable, so it will sit in landfills for decades or centuries before it breaks down.
Animal leather, especially cow, sheep, goat, and alligator leather, is obtained through slaughtering the animal it came from. Furthermore, it requires a lot of water and energy to process raw animal skins into finished leather. Tanning requires a lot of chemical energy, which pollutes the environment. Furthermore, most leather is not biodegradable; it takes 10–15 years for a cow hide to decompose.
In short, sustainable clothing materials are fabrics that have low global impact, are non-toxic, and have a smaller environmental footprint than conventional materials. They are also better for the people who produce them and the environment that they are produced in. When checking garment labels and choosing between different fabrics, it’s important to research their production methods and environmental impact to determine which one is a sustainable choice.
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