When buying clothes, our first thought might not always be “where did this fabric come from?” but maybe it should. We know, it is a lot to consider when you are just looking to update your wardrobe but the topic of natural versus synthetic fabrics, and how these fabrics are sourced is an important one.
This is why we teamed up with The Collaborative Store, a conscious lifestyle shop offering a wonderful edit of timeless, high quality pieces that are to be loved and enjoyed for years to come - needless to say, we align very much with their ethos. They have put together a foolproof guide on how to choose the most sustainable fabrics and what benefits they offer.
Why choose natural fabrics?
Generally, natural fibres are good for you and better for the environment. In addition to being environmentally sustainable and renewable, the majority of these fabrics are biodegradable too unlike many synthetic materials. These fibres come from plants and animals and often can be regrown. Naturally derived fabrics are also breathable and durable. Some natural fabrics can also be grown organically, which often comes at a higher cost but have much higher benefits to you and the environment as no pesticides or chemicals are used.
High absorption qualities in natural textiles are a huge plus. The moisture-wicking abilities allow ventilation through the fabric, to pull dampness away from the skin leaving you feeling dry. So, if you are prone to feeling hot, or in particular during the warmer months, fabrics such as cotton and linen will help keep you cool and comfortable.
Natural fibres are also considered to be hypoallergenic. Therefore, we always recommend to stay away from synthetic clothing for people with sensitive skin or babies, or those who suffer from a skin condition, as synthetic fibres may worsen your condition and how your skin feels. Materials such as polyester, viscose and nylon may cause irritation or rash. Those originate from crude oil and undergo (also harmful) heavy chemical treatments.
This is not to say that all natural fabrics are always better than synthetic options. Amazingly, it can take 2,700 litres to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. It takes a lot of energy to grow, manufacture and transport that (non-organic) cotton t-shirt. It is also worth knowing that the most energy actually goes into caring for your item. There are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint however. Prolonging the life of the garment even by 9 months, would reduce its carbon by about 20-30%. If you air dry your garment and skip the ironing that reduces its footprint further and dramatically.
What are the most sustainable fabrics?
At The Collaborative Store, we believe in choosing well and buying less. Our prime focus is on quality, well designed garments that can last a lifetime and do not go out of fashion. We also tend to gravitate towards natural fabrics and fibres that are responsibly sourced and made. Let’s look at some properties and also drawbacks of some of the natural fabrics that are currently available:
Being a natural fibre, cotton is a renewable resource and is biodegradable. The greatest advantage of cotton is its breathability. As we already mentioned, cotton, however, uses large amounts of water and is now available in mostly genetically modified varieties. This type of cotton cannot reproduce, so new crops must be planted every season to keep up with global demand. Additionally cotton production heavily relies on pesticides.
An alternative to regular cotton is, of course, organic and recycled cotton. Organic cotton is chemical free, which is important both for the land, the workers involved in cotton production and the end consumer. Organisations such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO TEX Standard 100 have also been created to ensure environmental and social standards, such as making sure the dyes used in production are organic and testing for harmful substances (respectively) ensuring that no such substances are present.
Left: Laumes Oversized Merino Sweater, ethically sourced & animal friendly wool
Right: Herve Midi Dress knitted in Egyptian cotton, OEKO TEX Standard 100 Certified
Linen is another popular natural fabric; when it is undyed, it is completely biodegradable! The flax plant that it comes from has a diverse range of uses and no part of the plant is wasted. Additionally, a linen t-shirt uses 6.4 liters of water during production, as opposed to 2,700 litres for a cotton shirt. Linen is also highly durable, light, absorbent, and comes in many natural colours. Linen gets better with use and is highly sustainable.
We are massive fans of different wool yarns because of its ability to provide warmth, its breathability, versatility, and the fact that it's also biodegradable. Merino wool is a naturally technical fibre, that keeps you warm in winter and cool in summer. It is also a strong contender when it comes to building up resistance to unpleasant odours. You would find that often all it takes is for you to air your item properly and it is ready to be worn again. This means merino (and generally other 100% pure wool) designs do not need to be washed as much which is also better for the environment.
Of course, wool is an animal-based fibre and it can be difficult to assess where your wool is coming from farms with high animal standards of animal welfare. Mulesing is one of the harmful practices which involves cutting skin from the buttock region of sheep. It is also important that the hair of any animal is combed and the animal is not shaved or sheared, as that may leave cuts, bruises and other injuries on the animal. Lookout for brands that disclose this type of information and confirm they source their wools responsibly and no animals are hurt.
Hemp is a natural fibre that has been used for centuries to produce clothing. It is usually stronger than cotton, is super durable and holds its shape well. It requires less water and less surface, but a lot of energy is necessary in the transformation process.
Silk is a natural fibre spun by the silkworm. It is strong, drapes well and is breathable, hypoallergenic and has a beautiful natural lustre. It is a renewable resource, can biodegrade but silk farms use large amounts of water & energy, and in some cases the producers kill the worms to extract the fibres.
Tencel™ - also known as Lyocell - is a soft to the touch & hypoallergenic cellulose made from wood (usually Eucalyptus). The fabric is easy to care for, super absorbent and versatile. It is used anywhere from dresses to activewear. The wood grows on a limited amount of land, and it does not require much watering, pesticides and insecticides. Also, the non-toxic solvent is re-used indefinitely in a closed-loop manufacturing process. However, it is a man-made fibre and the harvest demands a lot of energy and manpower.
Bamboo is quite like Lyocell, with the difference that it is made from grass and the growth of the plant is achieved without any watering, pesticides or insecticides. It also limits soil erosion and improves the fertility of the soil. In addition, the solvent needed is non-toxic and used in a closed-loop process. Bamboo rayon and bamboo viscose are not the same, as those undergo intensive chemical processes.
Focus on material sourcing
Overall, natural fibres have many great benefits, as mentioned above. However, don’t forget to keep in mind the negative impacts these fabrics can have on workers, the land and animals. When shopping for natural fabrics be on the lookout for the information about how these materials are sourced, brands ethical credentials and accreditations such as the GOTS, OEKO TEX Standard 100, the Fairtrade Textile Standard. Also try to choose better alternatives such as organic cotton, Ahimsa silk, or newer innovative fabrics such as Tencel (Lyocell material made in a closed loop process to limit waste) when possible.
What about conventional synthetic fabrics?
Now let’s consider synthetic materials again. Synthetic fabrics essentially are plastic derived from crude oil & coal, made through chemical processes. They were created as a cheaper and more scalable solution to natural fabrics. Common synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon are harmful to the environment and can be harmful to us. Many of these fabrics are non-biodegradable and consume copious amounts of water and energy during the production process. Additionally, the toxic chemicals used during production can affect the land and water surrounding the manufacturing plants and these chemicals also have harmful effects on workers in these facilities.
This isn’t to say that every single aspect about synthetic materials is bad - they do, of course, have some benefits. Some materials do not crease and are highly water resistant, so they are great for activewear and outdoor gear. In order to mitigate the harmful impact of synthetics, choosing recycled synthetics is a far better option.
All in all, our clothes are made from materials and processes that tend to require the extraction of natural resources and produce some negative environmental impact. It is important to educate ourselves about the sources and impact to help us make more informative decisions.