When we think of sustainable clothing, our first thoughts often turn to buzz words like organic cotton, recycled polyester, linen and hemp. But when you’re in a shop looking at a label, how can you tell which materials are the most sustainable and which ones may have hidden consequences? Well, this article is here to help you weigh up the pros and cons of a wide variety of materials so that you can make a choice that suits your needs when it comes down to buying better.
To begin with we’re asking the age-old question: natural or synthetic?
In honesty, there isn’t really a single answer to this one. Natural fibres are usually the preferred choice they aren’t man-made derivatives of oil products and don’t contain as many chemicals as synthetic materials like polyester. But on the other hand, some natural products use up huge quantities of water during their production and dyeing processes and can be the cause of logging and the destruction of ancient forests.
Generally speaking, natural fibres are more sustainable if they’re organically grown and produced, but that can still be a difficult thing to guarantee. At the end of the day it often comes down to personal choice, so below is a handy list of materials that are on the more sustainable side, each with pros and cons, so you can be equipped with the knowledge to buy well.
As mentioned previously, natural fibres are usually the safer option to go for if you’re unsure what to buy as they aren’t associated with using oil in their creation. Under each of the materials listed below you’ll find certifications to look out for – these are groups that audit material producers to ensure a high standard of production is maintained. If you see a garment that has one of these certifications then it’s likely to be on the more sustainable end of the scale!
As you probably already know, regular cotton has a variety of issues – it consumes a vast amount of water and a number of toxic pesticides during its growth. If you’re buying cotton, it’s always better to go organic.
Pros: Less pesticide use and water consumption than regular cotton, often easier to find in store than other sustainable materials.
Cons: Organic cotton needs a larger amount of plants to create a smaller amount of fabric than regular cotton so can be land-use intensive, some ‘organic’ cotton producers still use chemical dyes during processing.
Certifications to look out for: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). You might also see Organic Content Standard (OCS) certification, but this does not measure the environmental and social impacts of processing the cotton whereas GOTS does.
A gold standard when it comes to cotton products, if you can find something made from recycled cotton then it’s often the most sustainable option to go for.
Pros: Uses post-industrial and post-consumer cotton instead of virgin fibres, creates a closed-loop process and is ultimately more sustainable than both regular and organic cotton products.
Cons: Can be hard to find 100% recycled cotton garments that aren’t blended with some sort of virgin fibre, may also require chemical based dyeing processes.
Certifications to look out for: Global Recycle Standard (GRS).
Derived from a relative of the cannabis plant, hemp is a highly underrated fabric alternative. New policies allowing the growth of hemp mean it’s quickly gaining a name for itself in the fashion industry. Again, organic is always preferable to non-organic.
Pros: Requires very little water and no pesticides, fertilises the soil it’s grown in, a very durable fibre.
Cons: Due to some national legislations on the growth of cannabis plants it can be hard to find hemp products in some areas and they can be expensive.
Certifications to look out for: USDA National Organic Program (NOP), Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
Chances are most people will have some sort of linen already in their wardrobes, but like everything else it’s always better to go organic where possible! Linen is a great fibre to buy and a cheaper alternative to hemp.
Pros: Requires very little water and pesticides and no part of the plant is wasted, unprocessed linen is completely biodegradable.
Cons: Linen doesn’t have many cons but look out for GOTS certified wherever possible.
Certifications to look out for: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
There’s a lot of innovation going on in the world of synthetic fibres right now, but many cutting-edge materials have yet to make their way into the mainstream market. Fibres such as Lyocell use a nifty combination of both man-made and natural processes in their creation and so form a more sustainable middle-ground between the two.
Depending on where you’re shopping you’ll see one of these names but ultimately they’re the same thing: TENCEL is the name of a brand that makes lyocell products from sustainably-sourced eucalyptus trees. While not technically an entirely natural product, lyocell uses wood pulp which can come from a variety of sources, so it’s important to ensure that the wood being used is from a sustainably managed forest. If you’re buying 100% TENCEL fibres then you can be assured that the forestry is well managed, as opposed to lyocell products that may be mixed with other, less sustainable fibres or may potentially not be as sustainably sourced.
Pros: Naturally biodegradable, solvents used to make the wood pulp are recyclable and up to 99% can be recovered during manufacturing, working towards closed-loop manufacturing.
Cons: Chemical intensive dyeing processes are sometimes used, requires a lot of energy to produce, sometimes mixed with other fibres.
Certifications to look out for: TENCEL, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification).
Many brands now produce garments with recycled synthetic fibres in them as a way of closing the loop and ensuring that oil and chemical-based products do not end up in landfill sites. Recycling materials is actually one of the most sustainable ways of making clothes as you’re reusing what has already been produced instead of consuming new resources. However, in the case of recycled synthetics such as polyester and nylon, microplastics are still released every time you wash a garment.
Pros: Helps to keep synthetic fibres that have already been produced in the loop instead of landfill, materials retain the positive aspects of synthetic fibres, can be cheaper and easier to find than other alternatives.
Cons: Microplastics are still released every time you wash synthetic materials, chemically intensive processes are sometimes required to break down the fibres in order to recycle them, some recycled garments may still include virgin fibres in lining, stitching or minor parts of the garment.
Certifications to look out for: Global Recycle Standard (GRS), Recycled Claim Standard (RCS).
Although this is not an exhaustive list of all of the fabrics you might ever come across, the above mentioned are more common types of material you’re likely to see when shopping. If you’re buying any of the materials on this list then you’re already a step ahead of consuming virgin polyester or non-organic cotton products.
As you can see, even the more sustainable materials have their positives and their drawbacks, and none are completely perfect, but with this information hopefully you’ll feel more equipped to work out which fabric works better for you and for the planet!