1. Bamboo—Bamboo is a hardy, highly renewable grass and is generally grown with few chemical inputs. The fabric also has natural antibacterial properties, breathes and is biodegradable. However, toxic chemicals may be used to turn the plant into fabric. The Federal Trade Commission mandates that companies using this process label their products bamboo-based rayon.fabric is among the most environmentally friendly clothing materials you can buy. Because bamboo is biodegradable, highly sustainable, and in no need of pesticides, it’s a wonderful alternative to typical cotton fabrics. Clothing produced with bamboo is breathable, antibacterial, and comfortably soft on your skin. Industrial hemp fabric is a great resource for eco-friendly clothing as well, and for similar reasons: It requires no pesticides, and its production requires less energy than that of cotton. Hemp fabric is also known to block the sun better than cotton.
2. Organic cotton—More than 25 percent of the world’s pesticides are used in conventional cotton production. Organic cotton is grown without toxic, synthetic chemical inputs. Look for natural dyes or colored cotton to further reduce the amount of chemicals dumped into our ecosystem.
Keep in mind organic cotton is becoming more widely available, too—especially as people awaken to the damage pesticides cause, not only by ingesting conventional produce but by wearing clothes laden with this common ingredient. Buying organic cotton not only reduces the number of toxins you breathe and expose your skin to, but can lessen the amount of pesticide chemicals released into the water supply when washing your clothes. Other good fabric alternatives to look for are silk, flax, wool, and tencel (made from sustainable wood pulp).
3. Industrial hemp—Hemp is rapidly renewable, requires little or no pesticides, grows without fertilizer, requires minimum attention, doesn’t deplete soil nutrients and is easy to harvest.
uch like bamboo, hemp is seen as one of the most eco-friendly materials. It is a high-yield crop, improves the soil quality, and can be grown without herbicides or pesticides. It is also extremely versatile as the fabric it produces can be durable and strong – therefore suitable for backpacks – or soft and supple – ideal for clothing. It too is believed to be anti-bacterial and hypoallergenic. In addition, the manufacturing process is straight-forward and requires no chemicals or high-tech machinery.
The only downside to hemp production is the cross-over with marijuana, also produced from the hemp plant. While in the United States it cannot be grown, it is produced in Asia, Europe, and soon Canada too.
4. Recycled polyester—This fiber is made from cast-off polyester fabric and soda bottles, resulting in a carbon footprint that is 75 percent lower than virgin polyester. Recycled polyester contains toxic antimony, but some companies are working on removing it from their fabrics.
5. Soy cashmere/silk—This fabric is made from soy protein fiber left over after processing soybeans into food. The soy may be genetically engineered unless noted on the label.
6. Tencel—Tencel is made from natural cellulose wood pulp and is fully biodegradable. It uses Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood pulp and less-toxic chemicals in a closed-loop process.
7. W00l—Wool is renewable, fire-resistant and doesn’t need chemical inputs. Look for chlorine-free wool from humanely-treated animals. Organic wool is increasingly becoming available: it is produced using sustainable farming practices and without toxic sheep dips.
Even these choices are not clear-cut, says The Nature Conservancy. These types of fabric represent positive change, but have drawbacks. Clothes production in general has environmental impact, including:
- Energy—It takes agricultural energy to produce natural fibers and mining or processing for synthetic fabrics. Energy also is needed for production, processing and shipping of the fabric and finished product.
- Toxic chemicals—Pesticides, dyes and bleaches and chemical processing are used for fibers like bamboo or rayon
- Land/natural resources—Natural fibers can require large areas for production and synthetic ones typically require petrochemicals.
- Water—Nearly all fabrics require some water use during production, with cotton requiring the most.
The way you use clothing can make an enormous environmental difference—as much as the type of fabric, The Nature Conservancy says.
Since all textile manufacturing has a fairly hefty impact, wearing what you already have for a longer time is one of the best and easiest things you can do to make your clothing more eco-friendly.
Other ways include buying used clothes, recycling what doesn’t fit and repairing damaged clothes rather than throwing them away.
When most people think of linen, they probably picture bedsheets and tea towels, but linen is an ancient sustainable fabric made from the stem of the flax plant that is fantastic for fashion products, too. It is hardier than cotton (and requires way less water to grow!), naturally moth resistant, and gets stronger with every wash. Being an organic fabric, it is breathable and when untreated, entirely biodegradable!
It is a fantastic option all year around as it warms you in winter and cools you in the warmer months.
NOTE: Avoid pure white linen as it has to go through intense bleaching to end up like that – look out instead for its natural colours of ivory, ecru, tan and grey.
The controversial material is often considered unsustainable due to the fact that it comes from animals. It also is usually made using highly toxic processing and tanning methods.
That said, The Leather Working Group is currently working to provide resources for more sustainably sourced leather that is naturally tanned with environmentally friendly agents and dyed using natural vegetable dyes that don’t end up further polluting our waterways.
Designers are now playing around with recycled leather, and there are plenty of new “plant-based” leather innovations coming into play like Pinatex and mushroom leather that are a lot more sustainable, so watch this space.
Acrylic is a synthetic, manmade alternative to wool. While it’s lightweight, soft, and cheap, it pills easily and isn’t super breathable. As a synthetic, acrylic cannot biodegrade. It also cannot be recycled and requires toxic chemicals and a lot of energy to create.
So there you have it! Ultimately, fashion and our use of textiles go hand in hand. So while choosing what fabrics you wear is important for the environment and sustainability at large, what’s more important is to consume less and buyer better quality pieces—ideally ones that are made out of natural fibers like hemp, linen and organic cotton that can biodegrade at the end of their life.
Check out these five clothing brands that are championing more sustainable production practices.
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