Know Your Fibers
A Guide to Eco-Friendly Fabrics
When I first started being mindful of the impact my personal consumption had on the environment, I relied a lot on labels to tell me what was good and what was bad. If a shirt said “eco-friendly” or “green” in the description, I was all there for it. If it didn’t, I assumed it was the enemy and I needed to stay away. But I wasn’t exactly sure why some fabrics were good and others were bad.
Here’s what I learned from a lot of thoughtful research on what exactly makes different fabrics and fibers better for the environment, and why so many common synthetic fabrics are problematic. As you shop for new clothing, keep an eye for these high-quality environmentally-friendly fabrics. Try out a few of them to figure out what you like best!
Natural Eco-Friendly Fabric Options:
All the well-known benefits of regular cotton, without any of the drawbacks. Nowadays, organic cotton is increasingly common, in small-scale shops and department stores alike. Organic cotton is breathable, durable, biodegradable, hypoallergenic, fair-trade, and always pesticide-free. It adheres to a rigid set of standards, guaranteeing it’s always made ethically and sustainably.
Since it’s made without pesticides, it requires significantly fewer resources and less land to produce, making it better for the environment and for farmers. Conventional cotton, on the other hand, uses more pesticides than any other crop. Its production releases harmful greenhouse gases and chemical runoff into waterways.
Eucalyptus is a fast-growing woody tree that, when processed, can be turned into a sustainable, high-quality fabric. Unlike organic cotton, it requires energy input in order to be converted from wood pulp to a soft fiber for clothing. Still, that process uses no harmful chemicals and produces only minimal waste. Eucalyptus fabric is also biodegradable, soft, lightweight, and pesticide-free. Eucalyptus fabric is usually called TENCEL, so keep an eye out for that on labels.
Bamboo is an incredibly sustainable plant. Technically a type of grass, it grows from its roots -- so when it’s cut down, it quickly grows back, without requiring any pesticides, irrigation, or replanting.
The production process of bamboo fabric is similar to that of eucalyptus, with bamboo pulp being dissolved and then spun into viscose fibers. Bamboo fabric is chemical-free, hypoallergenic, and very soft. It’s also naturally antibacterial and offers great temperature control.
If you’re unfamiliar with hemp fabric like I was, you might imagine it to be coarse, scratchy, and a little lumpy. In fact, hemp fabric is soft, comfortable, and totally eco-friendly. It’s a renewable resource that grows remarkably quickly without pesticides and requires only minimal water. It’s also hypoallergenic, biodegradable, and super durable. Hemp can be converted into a fabric with a sustainable, non-chemical process, though some companies produce it with chemicals and dyes that can have a worse environmental impact.
Recycled & Upcycled Eco-Friendly Fabric Options:
Commonly referred to as reclaimed cotton or regenerated cotton, recycled cotton is another eco-friendly fabric option. It’s made primarily of pre-consumer cotton scraps, though it can be made of post-consumer cotton waste as well. Since recycled cotton most often is created from manufactured cotton that would otherwise be thrown away, it helps to reduce waste. It also doesn’t require the use of any additional cultivation, pesticides, or chemicals.
Upcycling goes a step beyond traditional recycling. While recycling usually results in a lower grade fabric or plastic, upcycling converts waste or useless materials into new materials or better-quality products. It refashions materials rather than breaking them down. This process is highly sustainable. It eliminates waste, saves water, and prevents tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
Many top brands have started creating clothing from recycled plastics found in oceans in an attempt to be more sustainable. It’s a noble effort -- turning terrible waste and pollution into wearable, recyclable clothing. However, many have criticized recycled plastic clothing, saying it may actually do more harm than good. Research has found that microfibers may be the biggest source of plastic in the ocean -- which end up in the ocean as a result of washing synthetic clothing in washing machines. Use your best judgment when it comes to purchasing recycled plastic clothing (and maybe wash it sparingly!)
Remember: while it’s important to make smarter, more sustainable purchases going forward, that doesn’t mean you have to throw out everything in your closet that isn’t as eco-friendly. Making the most of what you have now is just another way to minimize your waste and your personal environmental impact.
But now that you know better, you can make informed decisions about the fibers you’ll wear and the like-minded businesses you’ll support. As you seek out clothing made with natural, environmentally-friendly fabrics, you’ll do your part to take care of the planet and support others striving to do the same -- all without sacrificing your personal style.