Sustainable Fabrics A-Z: Which Clothing Materials Are Ethical?

ethical fabrics

The fashion industry always seems to be proclaiming the next revolutionary sustainable fabrics: confusingly, some of these trending materials are organic, natural fibres; some are synthetic; and some are even made of the very materials we’ve been told are terrible for the environment, like plastic bottles. So we’ve done some digging to discover which are the truly ethical and sustainable fabrics.  

A quick caveat: if you discover that your favourite material doesn’t have quite the clean bill of health that you’d thought, resist the urge to bin it! Rather than restocking your wardrobe, the most sustainable thing you can do is take care of the clothes you already have, so they last a long time, and you can ultimately buy less. When you do buy, try to buy second hand first!

That said, let’s review the most commonly-used fabrics from A-Z:

Bamboo 🐼

Bamboo is often marketed as one of the most sustainable fabrics in the world—but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, making it highly renewable: some species can even grow three feet in a single day. It’s also naturally pest-resistant and has such a big root network that it doesn’t need to be replanted, meaning it can be grown without chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

But although the plant can certainly be grown sustainably, whether bamboo is an ethical fabric depends on production process used to make it:

Bamboo rayon: This is the most common type of bamboo fabric. In an intensive process, the bamboo is cooked in chemicals known to be a risk to human health (like carbon disulfide), which harm workers and seep out into the environment.

Bamboo linen: In a much more sustainable process, bamboo linen is made by crushing the bamboo to break it down with its own enzymes instead of chemicals. However, this method is more labour intensive, expensive, and produces a coarser fabric than silky soft bamboo rayon.

Cotton ☁️

Fluffy, white, natural cotton seems like it must be super sustainable—but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Just some of the many social and environmental problems associated with cotton production are:

  • Extremely high water consumption (2700 litres to produce a single cotton t-shirt)
  • Heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers
  • Issues with child labour and forced labour

🙋 What about organic cotton? Because organic cotton hasn’t been genetically engineered, like conventional cotton has, it produces a smaller yield—which means farmers actually have to use more land and water to grow it. And although it’s grown without chemical pesticides or harmful fertilisers, it does allow for the use of natural and synthetic pesticides in moderate amounts: natural pesticides like Rotenone, which has been linked to Parkinson’s Disease in farm workers.

Although organic cotton isn’t necessarily vastly more sustainable than regular cotton, it’s certainly preferable to it, as organic cotton at least eschews the chemicals most harmful to workers and the environment. Organic certifications to look for include the Soil Association badge, and Global Organic Textile Standard: to ensure the producers have been treated fairly, check for a Fairtrade certification.

Down 🦆

Down is the layer of fine, fluffy feathers that lie next to skin of geese and ducks. Soft and warm, it’s used in winter coats, bedding and pillows.

It’s usually a byproduct of the meat industry, so the argument could be made that it’s better to use it than to waste it—but, often, the animals are plucked alive to get their down, causing them pain and distress. Undercover footage acquired by PETA shows goose farm employees tearing hunks of feathers from the birds, causing bloody wounds which are then sewn together without anaesthetic.

This practise isn’t confined only to unscrupulous fast fashion suppliers: live plucking is so widespread that even ethics-conscious Patagonia has inadvertently supplied down from birds that had been plucked alive, as well as fattened for foie gras.

A Responsible Down Standard has been developed, but yet another PETA investigation has highlighted the difficulty of ensuring it’s enforced across the supply chain.

Econyl 🥅

One of the latest darlings of the sustainable fashion world, Econyl recycles synthetic waste like industrial plastic, waste fabric and fishing nets to create a nylon yarn. They do this in a closed loop production process, which means much less water is used and much less waste is created than in traditional nylon production.

But it’s still made from plastic: which means that, every time it’s washed, it sheds microplastics that end up in the ocean, in the bellies of marine life, and then in our own bellies—the health effects of which are still unknown.

Econyl is an inspired response to the problem of plastic pollution, and certainly preferable to traditional nylon; but make sure you wash any Econyl fabric with a microplastic-capturing bag or ball, in a full load at a low temperature and spin speed, and never on a delicate wash!

Fur 🦊

Many people don’t know that the majority of fur comes from fur factory farms, where thousands of animals are held in cages for the duration of their lives: common slaughter methods are suffocation, gassing and anal electrocution.

It’s important to note that the picture isn’t quite as bleak as groups like PETA paint it. Thanks to the “Welfur” farm inspection programme, many European fur farms raise relatively healthy, well-adjusted animals—but the fact remains that the animals are slaughtered as soon as possible (not to mention the conditions in fur farms in places like China).

Some fur on the market does come from wild animals like beavers, coyotes and racoons: some argue this is more humane, as the animal has lived in freedom—but the traps used to catch them can cause severe pain and stress.

Although the fur lobby promotes it as a renewable and biodegradable material, factory farming fur—like any kind of factory farming—has a big environmental impact: the carbon footprint of one mink skin is the same as that of the average Finn, and a fox skin three times that.

🙋 What about fake fur? Fake fur should theoretically be an ethical way of getting fur’s fluffy warmth: but there have been multiple cases of real fur slipping into the supply chain unnoticed.

Hemp ☘️

Like bamboo, hemp is a fast-growing plant that needs little water and no pesticides to grow. And every part of the plant can be used: the outer stalk to make textiles, its woody core for paper, the seeds as vitamin supplements. Hemp enthusiast Morris Beegle has even succeeded in making a guitar out of hemp.

But hemp has long suffered from the fact that it’s visually and taxonomically identical to cannabis (amazingly, companies are still unable to promote hemp product on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook)—as well as the outdated idea of hemp clothing as uniformly coarse and brown.

Hemp is also similar to bamboo in that although it’s a sustainable crop, the sustainability of the fabric depends on the process used to make it: if a garment carries the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, it’s less likely that harmful chemicals were used in its manufacturing process.

Leather 🐮

Leather is generally thought of as a byproduct of the meat industry—but, because selling animals’ skins can be very profitable for farmers (unlike selling meat!), it’s probably more accurate to think of it as a coproduct.

Most of us are aware of the ethical issues with industrial animal agriculture, as well as its destructive impact on the environment: it’s responsible for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all forms of transport combined.

But that’s not all: the leather tanning process uses many dangerous chemicals, pumping carcinogens like chromium out into the water table (the river which flows through Bangladesh’s tannery district was declared “biologically dead” in 2010).

Suffering respiratory disorders, skin diseases and cancers, tannery workers are acutely affected by the chemicals, as this Vice investigation shows:

🙋 What about vegan leather? Some vegan leather is made from PVC, which Greenpeace has labelled “the single most environmentally damaging type of plastic;” polyurethane (PU) is almost as bad. But there are vegan leathers available based on natural fibres like pineapple, apple, seaweed, mushroom and banana!

Linen 🌧️

Derived from the flax plant in a process that can produce zero waste, sturdy linen needs no irrigation, herbicides, pesticides or fertilisers when grown in its ideal environment (i.e. rainy Northern Europe).

What’s more, it’s fully biodegradable when not dyed: as the fibre is so dense, to get a white colour it has to be heavily bleached, so stick to natural colours.

European linen is a super eco friendly fabric: look for GOTS or Soil Association certifications to ensure hasn’t been treated with harmful chemicals at any point.

Nylon 🩲

The first fabric to be made in a lab, 80 years later nylon still makes the stretchy items of clothing in our wardrobes, like tights, swimwear and activewear: and it’s a catastrophe for the environment.

Nylon is actually a type of plastic, derived from oil. So not only is it a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry that’s driving us towards catastrophic climate change, but also:

  • The chemical process which turns it into a fabric demands a lot of water and energy
  • It isn’t biodegradable
  • It sheds microplastics with every wash

Polyester 🏭

Polyester is the most common fabric in the clothing industry: another fibre derived from plastic, it’s also one of the most polluting.

Polyester has all the devastating environmental impacts of nylon, and, what’s more, because it’s particularly tricky to stain, it requires special dyes to colour it. These dyes, disperse dyes, don’t decompose easily, and so they enter the environment, damaging the health of workers and wildlife.

Ditch virgin polyester and make the switch to recycled polyester—but wash with a microplastic capturing bag to minimise plastic waste.

Qmonos 🕷️

Qmonos is a synthetic spider silk, made by fusing spider silk protein “with a marriage of bioengineered bacteria and recombinant DNA”: so no spiders are harmed in making the material!

The producer of Qmonos, Japanese company Spiber, collaborated with North Face in 2015 to produce the “Moon Parka”, a jacket for extreme environments with an entirely biodegradable shell: although, sadly, it’s just a prototype for now!

Rayon (AKA Viscose) 🌳

Rayon, also known as viscose, is a semi-synthetic fibre that’s marketed as a sustainable alternative to cotton or polyester. But is this false advertising?

Rayon is typically sourced from fast-growing, regenerative trees, like bamboo: so it can be sustainably sourced, and it’s biodegradable. But this wood is often turned into fibres in an intensive process that uses toxic chemicals like carbon disulfide: a volatile, flammable liquid linked to heart disease, birth defects, and cancer in textile workers and people living near factories. Much of the hazardous waste from this process can’t be reused, and is released into the environment.

Lots of people champion Austria-based Lenzing, who make a type of rayon branded as Tencel (using a lyocell process), as a sustainable producer. Lenzing do use a closed-loop manufacturing process, meaning most of the waste is recovered and can be used again. But as recently as July 2018 the Changing Markets foundation found that Lenzing still had a way to go on sustainability: particularly in the use of EU Best Available Techniques, and renewable energy in their factories.

Silk 🐛

Silk is made from the cocoon of a silkworm: to unravel the cocoon, the worms are boiled alive inside it.

This sounds brutal: but as well as the lingering question of whether insects have the neurological structures necessary to feel pain, it’s complicated by the fact that silkmoths have become domesticated over thousands of years of silk production, and cannot mate without human assistance.

Like any animal-based fibre, silk also has a high environmental impact because of the energy, water and fertiliser demanded by the manufacturing process.

Vegan silks, like Ahimsa silk, which allows the moth to leave the cocoon before it’s boiled, are available.

Spandex (AKA Lycra, Elastane) 🚴‍♀️

Spandex (also known under the brand name Lycra) is another petroleum based fabric, with all the attendant environmental problems that brings (see: Nylon; Polyester).

Worse, Lycra is made by Koch brothers’ subsidiary Invista: the Koch brothers have been “the primary sponsors of climate change doubt in the United States” since the concept was introduced to the world by James Hansen in 1988.

Tencel (AKA Lyocell)

See: Rayon (AKA Viscose)

Velvet 👩‍🎤

Velvet isn’t actually a fibre or yarn, but a type of fabric structure: it can be woven from any type of yarn! Traditionally woven from silk, fast fashion velvet is now most commonly made from polyester.

Wool 🐑

Wool is another natural, renewable, biodegradable material that isn’t as ethical as you might assume.

Once again (see: Down), PETA have exposed how brutal the sheep shearing process can be, even in the UK, documenting how sheep are punched, kicked, and left to die.

And, just as with down, even Patagonia have found cruelty within their supply chains: so even if these practises aren’t the norm, as farmers and shearers argue, they’re certainly insidious and pervasive.

It’s possible to shear sheep in a way that’s mutually beneficial for the animals and the farmer, but any kind of mass production involving animals is bound to throw up ethical and environmental issues: if you must buy wool, look for the Responsible Wool Standard.

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