We all know the simple changes we can make in order to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics, whether it's buying a reusable bottle or using metal straws instead of plastic ones. However, when it comes to fashion, dressing sustainably can seem a little more complicated.
Along with cutting out plastics, we can start by being conscious about what we're consuming and taking steps (however small) as individuals. One thing I was asked after writing a piece on sustainability was which fabrics are the worst for the environment. And believe it or not, it's not an easy question to answer. You often can't simply label fibres as "goodies" or "baddies," but there are a few to avoid.
There are three stages in which an item can prove harmful: First there's the impact of the raw material, then there's the process of creating the garment, and finally you need to consider what happens after you've used it. "These are the three areas we try to get the consumer to understand and to look at," Nina Marenzi, founder of The Sustainable Angle, explains. The nonprofit organization teaches brands about sustainable materials and updates them on new advancements via the Future Fabrics Expo event.
One thing Marenzi stressed to me is that not every natural fibre is inherently sustainable: "Silk is natural, so a lot of people think it must be good, but with silk, there's a processing problem, as it needs a lot of heat and chemicals. Just because it's natural doesn't mean the industrial silk factories are good."
My afternoon at the Future Fabrics Expo made me realise just how complicated and nuanced this subject is. However, we can simplify it by looking for certain things on clothing labels. Keep scrolling for the fabrics that Marenzi suggests you avoid—and her sustainable alternatives.
Avoid: Polyester and Nylon
"You want to look at if it's plastic, which means polyester. Any kind of normal polyester should be avoided because it causes pollution. It's made using fossil fuels—a limited resource—and in the production itself, it's very polluting. Instead, look for recycled polyester. We want consumers to understand they have the power to ask questions and not buy things. So if you see something in a shop that's polyester, ask the sales assistant why it's not made from recycled polyester.
"Unfortunately, we have to put the caveat on recycled polyester and say that it does still contribute to microfiber pollution because polyester sheds microfibers into the ocean, meaning the fish are eating it and then we're eating it, so it's a health hazard for everyone. Whether it's recycled polyester or virgin polyester, it still sheds when you wash it. That's the problem. Also, you can't decompose polyester.
"We say it's about selecting the right fabric for the right application. If you want an outdoor garment, you usually have to have a synthetic to be weather-proof, so in that case, you want it to be recycled polyester or recycled nylon. But it makes no sense to have a jumper which is 30% polyester and 70% wool—it should not happen. So try to reduce any polyester and nylon based fabrics."
Avoid: Conventional Cotton
"Conventional cotton is terrible because it needs a lot of irrigation, so it uses huge, huge amounts of water. Another problem is the amount of pesticides it uses. Cotton gets attacked by lots of pests, so you need a lot of fertilizers. All of that ends up in the waterways and pollutes the water.
"The good thing about cotton is you can have organic cotton (80% of it is rain-fed and is grown in crop rotation, so it naturally breaks the cycle of the pest). By growing cotton for one season, the pest that lives on the cotton plant doesn't have a host anymore, so it will die. If season after season, you plant the same crop in the same location and have a monoculture, the pests will continue, so you'll need pesticides.
"A natural, organic system always grows in rotation, so you break up the pest cycle in a natural way. The soil also gets replenished every time and recovers automatically—whereas, with conventional cotton, the soil is totally exhausted so you have to use a lot of fertilizers and that pollutes the waterways. Organic cotton is also a cash crop for smaller farms, as they can sell it for cash among the food crop rotations.
"The whole supply chain of organic cotton has a lower environmental impact, from how it's grown to how it's processed and dyed (and the finishing agents that are applied). It's all regulated, so it can decompose easily. If it says organic cotton, you know it's reliable. There are a lot of different varieties, but you have to question that because they aren't the same. Organic cotton is the best you can do. If it's Soil Association–certified or adheres to the Global Organic Textile Standard, it's fully traceable."
Avoid: Colourful Faux Fur
"Faux fur is synthetic. One of the main things is it's about consumption. If you buy a shearling coat every 20 years, I think that it's far better than synthetics. The worst ones are the fancy furs with the pink and yellow colours that are shown as a fashion product. Every year, you have to have a different one, or they quickly date. If you have a one-in-a-generation shearling, I think it's a moral question more than a sustainable one. From a sustainability point of view, faux fur is just terrible because it's plastic."
Avoid: Conventional Viscose
"This uses a lot of chemicals to break down the pulp and is basically made from wood. Those wood plantations are not sustainable. The raw material is a problem, and how it's processed is highly chemical. There are alternatives, however, such as Ecovero and Tencel."
Use: Linen and Hemps
"Linen is super low-impact and is an inherently more sustainable fibre because it doesn't grow on fertile soil; it doesn't need pesticides because it's a hardy crop; it doesn't need to be irrigated, and you can blend it. Plus, there are Tencel and Ecovero blends."
"Wool is a great fibre. A top tip is that New Zealand wool often has very high animal welfare. With wool, it's how it's processed, and often it's best to go local and go for British wool. The wool from the Scottish Highlands is contributing to the whole area and the livelihoods of the people, so it's an important part of the economy too."
Use: Lyocell Fiber
One thing to look out for on clothes labels is the Tencel-branded Lyocell fibre, a sustainable alternative to fibres like viscose that can be found at Arket, Mara Hoffman, Ninety Percent and many more. The fibre is made from the pulp of trees, according to the Tencel website, which explains how it's produced: "The fibres originate from the renewable raw material wood created by photosynthesis. The certified biobased fibers are manufactured using an environmentally responsible production process. The fibers are certified as compostable and biodegradable, and thus can fully revert back to nature."
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Next up, see our guide for how to dress more sustainably.