Hi there! Welcome to my blog. Today I’m going to be talking through some of the most common materials that our clothes are made from. Several of these you may have heard of but some are new to me too! I hope this helps you get a brief overview of the different options out there, and what to look for when shopping sustainably.
It’s one of the most common natural materials in our clothes and is light & breathable which makes it versatile. The problem with conventional cotton is that it’s a very thirsty plant. It takes around 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton which would get you a single t-shirt (WWF). It also is grown with many pesticides which is harmful to both the people and the planet.
Certified Organic or Recycled cotton is your best bet aside from shopping second-hand. You can check out my post all about certified organic cotton here.
As denim is made from cotton, the above applies here too. Another big issue with denim is the dyes which are generally made using harmful chemicals. These chemicals are causing issues for the workers themselves and the local communities as many of them leach into near-by waterways. Something I recently discovered within the denim industry is Sandblasting. This is one way to give jeans that washed-out and distressed look. It’s achieved by blasting sand at the denim however there are big risks of the sand particles becoming lodged in workers lungs.
If you’re buying your denim new, look for certified organic cotton, companies which promote circular fashion, renting and mending.
Hemp is quickly becoming a favourite in sustainable fashion as it’s quick-growing, doesn’t require pesticides. It uses about half the amount of water as cotton and half the space! The problems start to arise when manufacturers begin to turn the plant into fibers. It can be done more sustainably but it’s cheaper and faster to chemically spin the thread. There can also be issues with the dyes used, but this should be made clear on the brands website.
Overall, try to avoid hemp being greenwashed – the company should be clear about their whole production process. I think hemp is one of the best options if it’s really grown and processed sustainably.
Related: 10 Tips For Second-Hand Shopping
A summer classic which is biodegradable when un-dyed. It’s made from flax which is a historically useful plant. Flax is grown with less water and pesticides than cotton and we use most of the plant in other ways too. If you’re looking for a bright white linen then this requires a harsh bleaching so stick to it’s natural colours for a lower environmental impact.
The one downside is that it can be quite pricey, so look second-hand or see it as an investment.
Another fast growing plant which doesn’t require the large amounts of water, land, pesticides & labour that cotton does. Like hemp, the issues are with the processing of bamboo into thread. This process uses a lot of toxic chemicals which aren’t good for the workers dealing directly with them and 50% of harmful waste that the standard method uses goes directly into the environment as it can’t be contained.
In my opinion, there are better eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics to buy than bamboo. I’m sure you can find some actually sustainable garments made from bamboo, but generally the process is not great.
Semi-Synthetic & Manmade Fibers
Viscose / Rayon
Viscose is made from the cellulose/wood pulp of trees and plants like bamboo, eucalyptus, beech, soy and pine. It’s then chemically treated to produce a more liquid like substance that can then be spun into thread. This material is very commonly used in fast fashion items and is typically grown in an un-sustainable way which is water and energy intensive. The chemical processing releases toxic chemicals into the air, environment and waterways which can cause birth defects and other conditions in those working in or living near to the factories.
Lyocell / Tencel
Tencel (the brand name for Lyocell) is similar to viscose in that it’s made from cellulose/wood pulp. The brand claims to only take it’s wood from sustainably managed forests and uses a closed-loop production process. This means that the chemicals are used several times and 99% of them are retained, meaning they’re not leaching into the environment. The manufacturing uses a lot of energy though, which is the biggest downside.
Econyl is made from recycled nylon waste aka plastic. Fishing nets and wasted fabric are both used in the closed-loop production process which uses less water. The best thing about this fabric is that it’s taking plastic from our oceans and using it to make wearable items.
My issue with recycled plastics is that they can still leach micro-plastics into our oceans. I wrote a guide to micro-plastics that you can check out here, to find out more about those hidden pollutants.
Polyester / Nylon / Acrylic / Polyamide / Elastane
These are all oil-based materials made from plastic. If you’re buying new, it’s best to avoid all of these! Sequins, faux fur & most vegan leathers are also plastic and so not great – try to only buy those if you’re really going to treasure and wear them.
This isn’t a full list but it covers some of the most popular fabrics that are used by both high street and sustainable fashion brands. Were you shocked by any of this? Do you have any great sustainable fabrics to recommend? Please let me know in the comments!
If you’d like some more regular content around ethical & sustainable fashion, responsible travel & low-impact living – then follow me on Instagram here.
Bye for now!