An estimated 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed globally every year. Considering this insatiable demand for new clothes, we as consumers need to look at more than just a garment's price tag. By seeking information about the people who made your clothes, the working conditions they were crafted in, and the materials they're made of, you can start to make choices that are a little easier on the planet. To start, here's a quick overview of the most common fabrics you'll find in wardrobes and where they stand in terms of sustainability:
As a fabric, hemp is breathable, warm, moisture-wicking, antibacterial, and can be easily blended. It’s a very durable fabric that becomes softer with washing and wear, and it’s biodegradable at the end of its life. Beyond that, the hemp plant doesn't require a lot of water, and it can produce two to three times more fiber per acre than cotton. It actually replenishes the soil it grows in rather than extracting its nutrients. All this is to say that from a sustainability perspective, hemp is the best option we have.
Linen has become a favorite eco-friendly staple recently, and for good reason. It’s made from flax and has been lauded for hundreds of years due to its durability.
As a fabric it’s breathable, durable, lightweight, absorbent, antimicrobial, moth-resistant, and cool (as in it lowers your body temperature in summer, as opposed to cotton). In terms of sustainability, it requires far less water than cotton and doesn’t require any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Bonus: It's biodegradable, too.
While cotton is a natural fiber that can biodegrade at the end of its life, it is also one of the most environmentally demanding crops there is. The cotton industry now uses 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and 10 percent of the world's pesticides. According to the World Health Organization, in developing countries 20,000 individuals die of cancer and miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton. Cotton crops also require a huge amount of water to grow (think nearly 700 gallons for a T-shirt), which in turn places a substantial strain on the environment. We're seeing the toll that a lack of water can play in areas like South Africa and California.
Yes, there is a burgeoning organic market for cotton, but that doesn't solve the water issue. And although organic cotton isn't grown using pesticides and herbicides, it often comes at a premium many people can't afford.
Bamboo is a natural fiber made from the bamboo plant. The fabric is silky in texture, incredibly durable, and has moisture-wicking properties. More than that, bamboo requires very little water and no fertilizers or pesticides to grow and is biodegradable.
However, it has a dark side. The process of turning bamboo into fabric is very chemically intensive, and it produces a fair amount of waste. This makes bamboo much less sustainable than you might think at first glance.
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.
Polyester is a cheap, widely used synthetic fiber that is made from petroleum—the same substance that creates the plastic water bottles and takeaway boxes we use. It's a wrinkle-resistant and durable fabric that dries quickly...but it can take up to 200 years to decompose. While polyester can be recycled, breaking it down requires yet another chemical process.
By 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than sea life. Statistics like this make me think that there's no reason for our clothes to pump more plastic microfibers into our environment, and I'm sure you'll agree.
It is worth mentioning, though, that recycled polyester, or rPET, is now being used more often, especially in activewear, swimwear, and outerwear. rPET is made from post-consumer recycled plastic such as water bottles, containers, and secondhand polyester garments. The use of rPET reduces the use of oil, reuses waste, and cuts out the need for the virgin polyester industry.
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.