Greening up your closet can be overwhelming. The more I’ve learned about sustainability, the more I have seen that the choices are not always clear cut and it can be very confusing. So if you are feeling overwhelmed, that is reasonable!
Let’s take a look at the beginning of all textiles: the fibers. Here are the questions to consider when considering the fiber:
- How much pollution did its production create? How much water was used?
- Is it created from a plentiful and renewable resource?
- What is the agricultural impact? Does it benefit the environment?
- Is it economically viable?
- Did it travel all over the world before it got to you?
- Is it durable?
- Would you wear it and make good use of it?
- Is it biodegradable?
Hemp is a versatile fiber that requires no pesticides and little water. It renews the soil with each growth cycle and out-produces other fibers in terms of output per acre, by a long shot. Hemp fibers are longer, stronger, and more absorbent than cotton. Clothing made of at least 50% hemp can effectively block the sun's UV rays.
Hemp production in the USA is still in its infancy, due to the 60+ years of it being outlawed, so currently, most hemp that you purchase comes from China. However, China also has the mills and infrastructure, meaning the fiber doesn’t have to travel globally before it is turned into fabric. By creating a demand in the US for hemp fabric, you can help domestic growth and development.
On the flip side, it requires a lot of labor to prepare it for textile use. Also, some people find it scratchy, so it is often mixed with other fibers in order to make it softer.
Linen is made from the flax plant and requires fewer pesticides and water than traditional cotton. It's lightweight and breathable, making it perfect for warm weather clothing. Linen is also versatile and can be used for everything from bedding to clothing.
It is very similar to hemp and has many of the same benefits. Additionally, it is easier to find than hemp. This is a good fiber to look for as your dip your toes into sustainability, as you can often find linen garments from your favorite brands, and you can stick with it as you find more ethical and sustainable brands as well.
I recommend linen as a way to develop a more sustainable wardrobe. You can make “better-than” choices by finding linen garments as alternatives to conventional cotton or polyester, just by reading labels, even if you haven’t researched the brand’s ethical or other sustainable practices. This is one of my favorite beginner's choices, especially for warm weather clothing.
Organic cotton is grown without harmful chemicals, making it better for the environment than conventional cotton, and healthier for the farmers. It's softer and more breathable than conventional cotton. It is a labor-intensive crop, so having traceability and accountability that comes with certification means less negative impact on the people producing it.
Cotton is popular in any clothing you wear against the skin, due to its softness. If it’s going to be next to your skin, you will benefit from the reduced toxic chemical exposure that organic cotton will give you.
However, cotton is a water-intensive crop, even when organically grown. And cotton production in this country is long associated with human rights abuses, as well as in other countries, which still continues today around the world.
If you do nothing else, avoiding conventionally grown cotton is a great way to simultaneously avoid pollution and exploitation. Thrifted clothing made from cotton is at least better. However, it’s abundance is due to fast-fashion’s overproduction, and even second hand creates a secondary demand.
Wool and alpaca are both grown raising animals in ways that have the potential to improve the environment, especially if they are raised with that goal in mind. See this article from Fibershed. They can also support small and mid-sized farmers, as well as traditional weaving practices. They are durable and practical fibers, especially in cold climates. At the end of their life cycle, the garment is then biodegradable as are the other fibers listed thus far.
You can find various wools under these names: marino, alpaca, lambswool, cashmere, mohair, camel hair and Qiviut. Angora comes from rabbits.
The most obvious dilemma here is the question of the conditions the animals are raised under. It may be difficult to trace the source of the wool. All the horrors of factory-farmed animals are also true for factory-farmed animals raised for their fur.
Find sources of wool that came from small farms. Alpaca is less likely to be factory farmed if you don’t know the answer. If you are a knitter, if is often easier to find sources of humanely raised animals for your yarn vs trying to figure out where the wool came from in your store-bought garment. Once you buy wool, try to keep it, wear it and repair it for as many years as possible. Its durability makes that possible.
Rayon is made from plant materials that aren’t in fiber form already. It is then chemically processed to form it into fibers. Because it is plant-based, it is biodegradable. The sustainability score depends on what plant it is from and what happens to the chemicals used for processing. The benefit is that it is better than a petroleum based product, like polyester, but it is more chemically intensive than plants that grow usable fibers. So let’s take a look at the best ones.
Recycled polyester can mean different things.
One possibility is that it is made from post-consumer plastic bottles. It reduces waste in landfills and provides a product for plastics to be recycled into.
Another possibility is that it is recycled from pre-consumer textile waste. During the process of cutting fabric, there are always scraps. Mills that take these scraps and make them into new fabric are keeping those scraps out of landfills and utilizing a resource that already exists in contrast to new production. The recycled polyester in the EcoPetites line is from this source. Most of the time, when you read “recycled polyester” on a label, this is the source, unless otherwise specified.
Thirdly, polyester from post-consumer clothing can be recycled, but this is mainly for stuffings and fillers. Clothing you discard rarely makes it to this level. Most of it ends up incinerated or in a landfill, where it will take centuries to biodegrade.
Polyester does have advantages, though. It is colorfast and durable. Having some polyester in the fabric can help it last longer. The threads used to sew your clothing together, regardless of the fiber content, are predominantly polyester and nylon for durability.
When purchasing from brands using polyester, look for recycled and/or OEKO-TEX certifications. For example, while my wardrobe is mostly natural fibers, my bras are not. But my current favorite for sustainability is Negative Underwear. Read about their ethics and sustainability here.
Just avoid fast fashion made of all polyester– that is the end of the spectrum at its worst.
Where to start?
In conclusion, there are plenty of eco-friendly fibers to choose from, each with its unique benefits. If this is too much to absorb, here is a great place to start:
- No 100% polyester/rayon/nylon unless recycled or certified.
- When in doubt, shop linen and hemp.
- Buy from small brands, producers and artisans.
- Avoid conventional cotton.
OK, I hope this helps you along on your sustainable fashion journey!
Wondering why I am so against conventional cotton? Read my WHY here.