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How Sustainable Is The Fabric In My Clothes?

‘Fast Fashion’ has definitely been one of the buzz words of the last few years. But I do still think that people do not really consider the clothes that they buy and wear to be a part of the ecological issues facing the planet that we live on.

How to Buy Clothes That Are Built to Last - The New York Times
How Sustainable Is The Fabric In My Clothes?

Have you ever asked yourself  ‘How sustainable is the fabric in my clothes?’ As a keen sewist and someone who makes my own clothes, I have always been aware of the fibres in the fabric that I buy, and have definitely got certain fabric types that I prefer to sew with. However, another important consideration for me is where my cloth is made and how eco friendly it is. 

As a planet, we seem to have found ourselves with a clothes consumption habit. Do you want to know which fabrics are the worst for the planet? And which cloth you should be demanding that the fashion industry use in their products?

Well read on, because in this post I am going to discuss which fabrics you should be looking for, which to avoid at all costs, and which ones you may think are environmentally sound, but actually are not! Here is your guide to choosing clothes that are better for the planet.

How Sustainable Is The Fabric In My Clothes?

‘Fast Fashion’ has definitely been one of the buzz words of the last few years. But I do still think that people do not really consider the clothes that they buy and wear to be a part of the ecological issues facing the planet that we live on.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about how environmentally unfriendly the fashion industry is. A lot of the mass produced clothes that we buy are made in Asia, China and underdeveloped countries. Labour is cheap, and there are not always the best working conditions and practices. Plus, the fabric the clothes are made from is also produced in these areas. The clothes may not be ethically made nor eco friendly.

Do you know how your clothes have been made?

Why Cloth Consumption Is Such A Bad Habit

In recent years, and particularly over the past year during Coronavirus, people have made more purchases of clothes from online sellers than ever. Profits from some of the cheap clothes producers have hit record highs.

But a sad side effect of this is that as a planet we are throwing away more clothes than ever. It is estimated that £140 million of clothing goes to landfill each year! And a lot of clothes makers have little consideration for the ecological effects of their production methods. They just want to make the most profits.

So as consumers, what can we do to try and slow down this clothes consumption habit we have found ourselves in? Well, certainly we should be starting to look at how sustainable the fabrics that we buy are. How sustainable the fabric is in our clothes.

And what we can do as consumers to drive the clothes manufacturers to produce more of what is better for the planet. So –

  • which fabrics should we be buying?
  • what fabrics should we stop buying?
  • which fabrics should we limit? and
  • which fabrics seem ecologically sound, but really are being ‘greenwashed’?

The Clothes Fibres To Definitely Avoid

It is easiest to start with this group. Most of them are probably the most obvious. And we should definitely stop buying clothes if we see these fabrics on the label.

Polyester, Nylon and Acrylic

Made with plastic fibres from a petroleum base, these fabrics won’t degrade for between 20 to 200 years. And they use very harmful chemicals in their production.

Plus, washing these fabrics releases microfibres at each wash – polluting the oceans and getting into the food chain. Avoid buying new fabrics that contain these fibres. And avoid polyester blends – poly cotton, polyester jersey etc.

Consider buying recycled polyester from plastic bottles or nets – but there is still the problem of microfibres being released when washing.

PVC

PVC and fake leather are made with a heavy chemical process. A lot of plastic is made to coat the fabric fibres, and there are usually phthalates in the product. As such it is the most unsustainable fabric.

Velvet

Velvet used to be made from silk fibres, but now is mostly made from a mix of synthetic and natural fibres, usually polyester based.

Even real silk is not sustainable (see below) So unless you know that it is vegan silk velvet, it is best to avoid. 

Glitter Or Sequinned Garments or Cloth

It may seem obvious, but cloth that has glitter or sequinned cloth has added plastic pieces. In the case of glittered fabric, this plastic releases so many more microfibres when washed, so needs to be avoided at all costs!

Fur and Leather 

From an ethical point of view, fur and leather can never be seen as an environmentally friendly choice, even as a by product of the food industry. There are many arguments in place about how moving to a plant based diet would be so much better for the planet.

Fake Fur

But as well as avoiding the real thing, fake fur should be avoided. It is made of plastic. 

Fleece

As with polyester, PVC and nylon, fleece is made with PET plastic. And it releases a whole load of microfibres when washed. 

You can buy recycled fleece – but again this does release microfibres.

Silk

Silk may be a natural product, made from the secretions of the silk worm. But the intensive way that it is harvested, and the killing of the silk worm in the process certainly mean that the production of this highly prized luxury fabric is certainly not a sustainable process. 

Furthermore, the working conditions of those producing a lot of the fabric in developing countries tends to be very poor, with almost slave labour practices. 

Cashmere and Angora Wool

Cashmere is made from goat wool, and angora from the fur of Angora rabbits or goats. The resulting fibres are often mixed with sheets wool to produce a blended product.

Whilst you may think of these both as natural fibres that do not involve killing the animals to produce, in actual fact the production of these fibres often involves cruel and unethical practices. Especially in the Chinese producing factories.

The animals are kept in cramps and unhygienic conditions, and treated very poorly. Definitely unsustainable from an ethical point of view.

Clothes Fibres To Be Wary Of – They May Seem Green Or Natural – But They Are Not!

Although these clothes fibres are natural, they certainly aren’t sustainable fabrics, and so it is better to limit your consumption of these, or definitely buy recycled or organic versions.

Greenwashing has become another buzz word over the last few years. Greenwashing is when the clothes manufacturer tries to make out that they are using natural and ethically produced cloth or partaking in greener recycling methods. But actually the cloth or products aren’t much more eco friendly than their fast fashion comrades. 

So what clothing fibres seem natural or green, but may not be that sustainable really? It is certainly worth taking a closer look when buying these fabrics.

Cotton

As a natural fibre, you would think that cotton would be incredibly sustainable. But you would be wrong.

Most cotton is intensively grown, with a lot of toxic pesticides and workers in poor conditions. Then the fibre and resulting cloth is chemically treated and produced in factories with poor ethical working and pay conditions. 

Furthermore, the water needed to create cotton garments is highly intensive. One pair of jeans needs up to 20,000 gallons of water to make. A single t-shirt can take 3000 gallons of water to produce. This just is not sustainable.

Yes, you can buy Oeto-Tek organic cotton, which is GOTS certified (Global Organic Textile Standard),  but at the end of the day, it is better to buy recycled cotton.

Denim

Similarly, denim is also cotton, so has the same chemical, pesticide and highly intensive energy consumption issues, making it just as unsustainable as cotton. But it has the added process of often needing to be sandblasted during production. This process is high risk and is often carried out by workers in poor conditions. Making denim just as unsustainable.

Again, look for denim with GOTS certification. Or buy recycled.

Viscose / Rayon

Viscose (or rayon) is made from the wood pulp of fast growing beech, pine, sugar cane and eucalyptus plants. So again you would think that this is a great sustainable fabric source.

But harvesting this wood is also the cause of a lot of deforestation in the areas that produce it. So look for viscose from sustainable forest sources. FSC certified. If it does not have this guarantee or mark, then it probably is not from a sustainable source.

Wool

Again, you think wool and you think about sheep who are still alive after being sheared. It is a natural, breathable fibre.

But the production of wool does have some environmental effect on the planet and ethical impact on the animal. Controversial shearing practices and whether the sheep are treated well mean that wool is not necessarily as sustainable an option as you may think.

I would consider buying reused, recycled or preloved wooden products. And looking after them well.

Bamboo

One of the biggest supposed eco friendly revolutions of the past few years has been rise of bamboo incorporation into fabrics. It seems very eco friendly.

However, a lot of the production of bamboo for the clothing industry comes from China, so we know very little of whether it is grown sustainably. We do not know how energy efficient its production is, or whether the workers producing it are treated ethically, fairly or even paid properly.

Peace Silk

Peace silk may seem more sustainable and eco friendly, as the silkworm is not killed during production of the fibre. But the production of this cloth is still very energy and emissions intensive, so it thus cannot be classed as being a sustainable fabric source.

Modal

Modal is a very popular fabric now. It is a semi-synthetic viscose material that is soft and drapes as well as viscose. It can be made with 100% Tencel, which is a sustainable fabric (see below). But it is often also mixed with less environmentally friendly fabrics. So it is best to take a close look before purchasing clothing made of this. Make sure it is 100% Tencel Modal.

So – What Fabric Fibres Should I Be Buying?

Choosing these fabrics are a great way of making the clothes in your wardrobe more sustainable. The materials used to make them are manufactured or grown healthily.

They are good for the economy, and less waste and emission producing. Their manufacture tends to involve more ethical production methods, with workers being paid a living wage and having good working conditions. And so all round they benefit the planet rather than stripping it of energy and resources.

Maybe if you have a favourite brand it is worth asking them if they can produce clothing using these fabrics in the future?

Linen

Linen is made of fibres from the flax plant, and this material has been around for centuries. As an organic fibre, it actually requires minimal water and pesticides to grow a strong plant. It grows even in poor soil. The resulting cloth is strong, cool, resists moths and is fully biodegradable, particularly when no synthetic dyes have been used. It is an amazingly sustainable fabric source.

Hemp

Like linen, hemp has also been used for hundreds of years. And like linen, the hemp plant needs little water and pesticides to grow well. It also can grow in poor soil; even fertilising the soil in which it grows! It too is incredibly sustainable as a natural cloth making fibre.

Nettle, Jute and Rame

Nettle, Jute and Rame are also plant based cloth fibres. Like hemp and flax, they are very fibrous plants that grow in poor conditions and are strong fibres, and are perfect for producing sustainable crops for cloth making. I am sure that we will see a whole lot more of these in cloth production in the future.

Tencel

Tencel is made with cellulose fibres, a wood pulp. It requires less water and energy to produce. It is antibacterial and wicks water away from the wearer, so it is great for active wear..

Piñatex®

Pinatex is made by Ananas Anam – and is a vegan leather alternative made by the natural byproducts of pineapple harvesting methods for the food industry.

The faux leather is made using pineapple leaf fibres. And the company also have a very ethical relationship with the communities involved in the growth and harvest of pineapples.

Econyl

Econyl is made by Italian company AquaFil. They are regenerating industrial synthetic waste such as fishing nets and waste fabric into a new nylon fibre. It takes less waste and energy to produce the new plastic, so hence this is more sustainable. However, the resulting fabric does still shed micro plastics, so it is best washed in a Guppyfriend Bag

Vegan Silk

Unlike real silk and peace silk, vegan silk is microsilk – a man made made material that is spun from natural based fibres. it is made by Bolt Threads who also make Mylo – a sustainable leather substitute that is made from mycelium, or a fungus type material.

frienRecycled Cotton and Denim

Recycled cotton and denim are definitely the best and only true sustainable versions of this fabric. Recycling cotton is relatively easy, and needs reduced water and emissions. And means less cotton going to landfill.

Recycled Polyester, Recycled Fleece And Recycled Plastic Products

A lot of manufacturers are now using recycled polyester, recycled plastic bottles and fishing netting. But do be aware that these still release microfibres of plastic when washed. So it is best to use a Guppyfriend wash bag that catches the plastic particles.

How Do You Check What Fibres Your Cloth Is Made From?

  • Read the label in the clothing.
  • Ask the seller of the cloth what the fabric is made from. If they cannot tell you, walk away.
  • If buying online, check the description well for the full fibre content. Sellers should be able to tell you this.

And How Do I Make The Clothing In My Wardrobe More Sustainable?

I am not saying at all that you should throw all the clothes in your wardrobe away. But that in future we all need to buy a little more responsibly and buy smarter. 

Only by voting with our dollars and pounds will we get the clothes manufacturers to change their ways. If we all stopped buying the mass produced, cheap and unenvironmentally unfriendly trash that is being produced in favour of more sustainable clothing and methods, then it would make a massive impact on the planet.

So how do I make the fabric in my clothes more sustainable?

  • Buy less clothes , choose well and make them last.
  • Buy used, preloved clothing. You can visit one of the thrift stores in Lebanon, TN if you want to purchase pre-owned clothes.
  • Look after your clothes when washing them.
  • Mend clothes rather than throw them away.
  • Recycle or donate your clothes if you do not want them
  • Consider up cycling clothes into other things when they are worn. and
  • Compost whatever fabric you can – natural fibres will all compost down. Find my guide to composting here.

If you are buying cloth to sew into clothes, do ensure that the cloth that you buy is sustainable too. Maybe consider buying deadstock fabric – fabric that would normally be going to landfill anyway, but is being sold off.

By Steve Clark

Hi! I am Steve Clark, a marketing manager at a thrift store. I Have been working in the thrift store industry for the last five years.

2 replies on “How Sustainable Is The Fabric In My Clothes?”

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