The fashion industry's supply chain is immensely complicated. When big clothing retailers and brands design their collections, it is difficult for them to oversee every single step of production, especially when many stages of production are outsourced without their knowledge. With that being said, understanding the environmental impact of fabrics is a great way to start understanding how your clothes can make a difference. So, we've compiled a list of fabrics in alphabetical order for you to better understand your clothes. Please note that this list only discusses the eco properties of each fabric and does not take into consideration the ethical production of clothing, so while some retailers, such as H&M, use fabrics like organic cotton, there is likely no assurance that the fabrics are ethically sourced, fair trade or processed with non-toxic or conventional dyes.
ALPACA [Eco] / Fun fact, alpaca don't require insecticides to be injected into their fleece, don't require antibiotic treatments, don't eat much, and are fairly self-sufficient (which makes them much more environmentally friendly than a lot of their goat friends). Alpaca wool is also very long-lasting, wrinkle/frame-resistant, and extremely durable (so expect to have any alpaca wool pieces for a very long time).
BAMBOO [Eco] / Although easy to grow without pesticides and quick to replenish itself, bamboo fabric processing is extremely toxic. Some claim that bamboo is antibacterial, which has yet to be scientifically proven. Therefore, although the growing of bamboo is environmentally friendly, just beware that the manufacturing of bamboo does raise environmental and health concerns. However, there are now newer methods which produce organic bamboo fabrics without the use of toxic chemicals.
CASHMERE / Known for its incredible softness, cashmere fibres come from combing out the under-hairs of Kashmir goats, a breed native to the Himalays but now are raised worldwide. From an eco-perspective, cashmere is long-lasting and highly durable. However, cheap cashmere has become popular and unfortunately is produced by treatment with chemicals and carcinogenic dyes. Cashmere may also be blended with other fibres, such as non-sustainable polyester. Regardless, a truly green cashmere piece will likely be an lifelong investment.
HEMP [Eco] / Hemp is a high-yield crop that is easily grown without the use of any chemical pesticide, and is versatile in that it can be blended with other fabrics. Hemp, however, is not very well regulated which means there's very little monitoring of the chemicals the crop may have come in contact with when it was grown or manufactured. Furthermore, the claim that hemp is antibacterial (this claim has also been made for bamboo) has yet to be authenticated.
COTTON (Inorganic) / Uses more pesticides than any other crop in the world, which has severe impacts on both the environment and cotton farmers. These pesticides can also affect local eco-systems and remain on garments long enough to irritate consumers' skin. Inorganic cotton also requires more water than organic cotton from irrigation due to poor soil quality. In fact, one conventional cotton t-shirt represents 2 700 litres of water and 1/3 of a pound of chemicals. Conventional cotton also accounts for 10% of all agricultural chemicals, and 25% of all pesticides usage each year. Low-yield crop.
COTTON (Organic) [Eco] / While water usage is still quite high for organic cotton and it is still a considerably low-yield crop, its production is much safer for cotton farmers due to its lack of toxic chemical treatment. Its production also promotes and enhances biodiversity and biological cycles by maintaining healthy soils and environmentally friendly farming practices. In order for cotton to quality as organic, there are specific procedures and regulations for producing and handling organic crops that differ in each country.
LINEN [Eco] / Made from flax, Linen is a crop that requires very little pesticides. Linen is also a bit wrinkly and thus does not require energy from ironing. This fabric is the most green when in natural shades or dyed with natural dyes. However, one thing to watch out for are non-sustainable linen blends or cheap, chemical treated linen garments (which you will often find at fast fashion retailers).
NYLON / Made from petrochemicals which are very polluting to the environment. Nylon is non-biodegradable and releases nitrous oxide when manufactured (which is a greenhouse gas that is 310 times stronger than carbon dioxide and causes global warming).
MODAL / A variation of rayon, modal is a high-yield cellulose biodegradable fibre made from beech trees and is known for its high wet strength and extra softness. Modal is wear resistant and can be machine washed and tumble dried without shrinking. Modal also absorbs 50% more moisture (perspiration) than cotton and released it into the air quicker, and therefore remains odor-free and requires less energy from washing than conventional cotton garments. However, like many other fabrics, modal can be dyed with harsh chemicals (many containing heavy metals) that are routinely flushed into the developing world's waterways. Lenzing Modal®, on the other hand, is made from sustainably harvested beech trees and is bleached with an environmentally friendly method.
POLLYCOTTON / All pollycotton (especially bedlinen), plus all 'permanent press', 'easy care' or 'crease resistant' cotton fabrics are treated with the toxic chemical, formaldehyde.
POLYESTER / Made from polluting petrochemicals as well. Non-biodegradable and will last a very long time in landfills. However, although it still requires heavy processing, companies are now finding ways to create polyester out of recycled plastic bottles or even recycled polyester fabric. This fabric is greenest when it is vintage.
RAMIE [Eco] / One of the oldest natural plant fibers (it was used in ancient Egypt!), Ramie can be harvested up to 3-4 times a year and requires significantly less water than other crops like cotton. Ramie is naturally resistant to bacteria, mildew and molds, and are able to grow healthily without the use of toxic herbicides or pesticides. Ramie is also one of the strongest natural fibers (up to 8 times stronger than conventional cotton), is highly absorbent, and stain resistant.
RAYON / Known as "artificial silk," rayon is a biodegradable and versatile fiber with the same comfort properties as natural fibers that is easily dyed in a wide range of colours. Rayon is produced from renewable cellulosic plants (such as pine trees, bamboo and beech trees). However, rayon manufacturing processes are generally not considered environmentally friendly, as a range of polluting chemicals and heavy metals are employed.
RECYCLED/UPCYCLED MATERIALS [Eco] / By re-using and upcycling existing materials and fibers, suppliers minimize waste and extend the life of the material by preventing it from heading to the landfill. By reducing the need for more raw materials, suppliers who use recycled materials also reduce energy consumption and pollution caused during fabric manufacturing.
SILK / Although inherently natural because it is made by silk worms (and not chemical-based synthetic processing), there is a drawback. In the production of silk processing, silk worms are generally thrown into a vat of boiling water once their hard work is complete. However, in the case of peace or vegan silk, this kind of silk is made from the worm casings gathered only after the moths have emerged and moved on. Many silks are also dyed with toxic chemicals.
SOY FABRICS [Eco] / Soy fabric is made from the byproducts of soy oil processing and is a good option for bras and underwear because of its soft and silky texture. Soy fabrics can be certified organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly depending on its processing and sourcing. However, watch out for soy blends, which include polyester and inorganic cotton.
TENCEL [Eco] / Otherwise known as Lyocell, Tencel is an extremely gentle fibre made from the wood pulp of Eucalyptus trees that it is both biodegradable and recyclable (fun fact: eucalyptus grows quickly without pesticides, fertilizers, genetic manipulation or irrigation). Producing tencel involves less energy, water usage, and fabric than other conventional fabrics, and doesn't get bleached as well. Tencel's manufacturing process is an extremely environmentally friendly process unlike that of other wood-pulp based fibers (rayon and modal). Tencel, like some of the other wood pulp-based fibers, also absorbs excess liquid (perspiration) at a rate of 50% more than cotton and quickly releases it into the atmosphere. In doing so, tencel's moisture management does not give bacteria a chance to grow and remains odor-free for multiple wearings (much longer than cotton). This means fewer washings, which allow you to save on energy and water costs. Furthermore, Tencel is naturally wrinkle-free. However, not all tencel fabric is made from sustainable wood, and can also be dyed with high-chemical dyes.
VISCOSE / Artificial fabric made from wood pulp. During its manufacture, the wood pulp is treated with toxic chemicals, such as sulphuric acid and caustic soda.
WOOL (Non-Organic) / Scouring (washing) and processing wool is a very taxing process, in which millions of litres of water are used and harmful detergents and chemicals contaminate the environment (more information to come). Although wool is a renewable and durable fabric that comes from sheep, which are generally environmentally low-impact and self-sufficient animals, heavy environmental repercussions and animal cruelty result when wool is mass produced. Sheep are capable of easily overgrazing, especially in sensitive environments, and are generally dipped in toxic insecticides to ward off ticks and lice. In the past ten years, the textile industry, along with animal ethics groups, have lobbied against the wool industry, taking a stand against the unethical treatment of sheep. This has resulted in the increased production of both organic and ethical wool.
WOOL (Organic) [Eco] / Although each country maintains their own standards of "organic wool", typically organic wool is made according to the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS; see below). Furthermore, livestock should be managed according to organic or holistic principles, and the processing of raw wool should use newer, more benign processes versus harmful descaling and scouring chemicals.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4