by Elena X. Wang
We all know that natural fabrics are better than synthetic fabrics, but how much better, and what are the sustainably produced alternatives?
Natural fabrics are made from renewable resources because they are either plant-based – cotton, linen, hemp, and so on – or animal-based, such as wool, cashmere, alpaca, and silk. Most synthetic fabrics, on the other hand, are made entirely from non-renewable crude oil, though an increasing array are chemically produced from wood or bamboo pulp.
While a cotton tee is environmentally preferable to a polyester tee, industrial cotton nonetheless wreaks havoc on the environment: soil degradation, freshwater and ocean water pollution, farm worker exposure to chemicals…you name it.
Similarly, while a wool sweater is better than a rayon sweater, overgrazing due to wool production and desertification linked to cashmere pose serious environmental challenges.
This is where sustainable fabrics come into the picture. Below, we discuss the inspiring range of alternatives available today.
Sustainable Plant-Based Fabrics
- Certified organic cotton is grown without toxic chemicals and forced labor. Look for this conscious cotton option certified through organizations such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Oeko-Tex.
- Linen is a superb natural-fiber alternative to cotton. One of the oldest fibers in the world, it is easy on the soil and full of amazing natural properties: it’s anti-bacterial, non-allergenic and static-free.
- Hemp is in the same fiber family as linen, and wins the award for being the least water-intensive of all natural fibers with the highest fiber yield. Read more about hemp here.
Sustainable Animal-Based Fabrics
- Sustainably produced sheep wool comes from sheep raised on organic farms that are treated humanely. Look for certifications such as GOTS and the Responsible Wool Standard.
- Peruvian alpaca wool is super soft and silky, so it’s perfect for sensitive skin. These alpaca are bred on small ranches in the Peruvian mountains, grazing in wide-open spaces and sheared once a year.
- Organic silk is pesticide-free and cruelty-free, which means that silk caterpillars are allowed to emerge naturally from their cocoons rather than being killed.
- Recycled natural fabrics are made from re-sewn, over-dyed or felted secondhand clothing. Major apparel companies such as Patagonia and Eileen Fisher are pioneering this zero-waste technology through their “Common Threads Initiative” and “Remade” programs.
- Recycled polyester fabrics, usually made from recycled plastic bottles, are also on the sustainable spectrum. The recycling process does require energy, but at least we’re not pumping new oil out of the ground to make that material. Check out Pittsburgh-based Thread and Zurich-based Freitag, which also just pioneered compostable fabrics!
Some Notes of Caution
- While vegan ‘leather’ is marketed as a cruelty-free alternative to leather, savvy consumers are now aware that vegan leather typically includes heavily polluting petroleum products. Luckily, other options abound,including cork, waxed cotton, recycled or renewable natural rubber, burlap and hemp. Cork is an especially fabulous alternative, as cork bark can be harvested over and over again, helping to prevent deforestation and desertification.
- Bamboo is likewise promoted as a sustainable fabric. As discussed above, however, bamboo fabrics are a type of synthetic fabric that requires nasty chemicals to produce. Again, natural fabric alternatives are always better – and, of course, sustainable natural fabrics best!
- With all fabrics, be aware that the dyeing and finishing process can still involve toxic chemicals that are discharged into waterways, so check for low-impact, non-toxic dyes. When in doubt, ask the brand!
Here’s to a healthier closet!
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