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Clothing materials explained | What are the most sustainable fabrics?

What material is your clothing made out of and how sustainable is it? Maybe it's polyester, rayon, or the ever-popular organic cotton - the list seems endless, and garments are often a confusing mix of multiple fabrics. How are these materials produced, and which are more sustainable? Does "synthetic" always mean less sustainable?

To dispel the myths, we wanted to shine a light on one of the easiest ways to shop more consciously. Although there is no quick calculation to determine what carbon footprint clothing has, checking the fabric/material is one way to make your shopping habits a little more eco-friendly.

5 Jan 2021

Conventional Cotton vs Organic Cotton

Cotton is a natural fibre meaning it is biodegradable and renewable. However, like most fabrics, it varies in its eco-friendliness depending on growing practices. The chemicals used in the growing of non-organic cotton are environmentally damaging pollutants, making it a less sustainable choice than certified organic cotton. Certified organic cotton is grown in subtropical climates from non-GMO (genetically modified organism) plants, without using synthetic chemicals, therefore protecting the environment from toxic substances.

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Polyester vs Recycled Polyester

Polyester is a synthetic material made from polyethylene terephthalate, which is plastic. Plastic is not a sustainable option due to the limited recycling possibilities and unsustainable source material (crude oil). Many brands have started to use recycled polyester, which is plastic that has been re-spun into polyester threads. This process is more eco-friendly than virgin polyester as it saves the existing material from ending up in landfill and extends the lifespan of plastic. However, it is not wholly sustainable because it has limited recycling options due to the mixing of materials, and the clothing will often release microplastics.

Is Viscose eco-friendly?

Viscose, also known as rayon, sits in the middle as a semi-synthetic (or semi-natural) fibre. Made from wood pulp that has been dissolved and spun into fibres, viscose is durable and often used to emulate silk - it's much more delicate counterpart. Viscose is a naturally derived material, but that doesn't necessarily give it the 'green' light. The chemicals used in producing viscose can be toxic, with much of the tree wasted when extracted from the wood pulp. The fast-fashion industry has caused a boom in demand for the fabric, which has led to deforestation and unsustainable production practices. Leading designer Stella McCartney, has begun to source viscose in a much more sustainable way.

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Tencel/Lyocell Sustainability

Much like the above, Tencel is also a form of rayon made from wood pulp. However, unlike viscose, the chemicals used in the process are 99% recycled meaning the environmental impact is much less. It is fully biodegradable and uses little energy and water when compared to other fabrics.

Sustainability of Linen

Linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics in production and requires less water than most materials. When untreated, natural linen is biodegradable, and luckily untreated linen comes in a variety of beautiful neutral shades, meaning dyes are not needed. Organic linen can offer beautifully colourful fabric without the use of toxic dyes. Linen is also naturally antibacterial and brilliant at temperature regulation, making it an excellent choice for the summer months.


How sustainable is wool?

Wool is biodegradable and sustainable, and as long as animal welfare standards are met, it is an ethical and eco-friendly choice. As with other natural fabrics, it is most sustainable when untreated or naturally dyed so as to limit its environmental effects. Wool is also highly durable and due to the naturally occurring oil content, it is slightly water repellent!

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In summary...

Natural materials come up trumps! It would appear that generally speaking, the more natural the fabric, the more biodegradable and renewable that fabric is. Bonus points are given for organically produced fibres as this also cuts down on toxic chemicals that can be damaging to the environment. Some semi-synthetic fabrics such as Tencel/lyocell are changing the game though, its low energy and water consumption competing with more naturally occurring and untreated materials. It may seem like a minefield, but researching materials and their origins can be a great way to shop more consciously.

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