With the fashion industry being a BIG contributor to environmental waste and pollution, many people are making the switch to eco-friendly, sustainable farbrics. However, it can be a little daunting, this idea of clearing out your whole closet and revamping your entire wardrobe. This is especially true when just starting out. First, if your current clothing and shoes are intact and you wear them, keep them! No need to add to the waste. If they need replacing and you want to move towards sustainable fabrics, the first step is finding a way to properly donate or dispose of your old clothing.
If your clothes are in good enough condition, you can try selling them. Alternatively, you can find thrift shops or clothing drives in your area to donate to. Finally, see what recycling options exist in your area. Some stores will take your old clothes off your hands and up-cycle or recycle them for you!
Now that you have properly cleared your closet, you’re ready to shop. But where to begin? Start by understanding what to look for. Regardless of what type of clothing you’re shopping for, there are certain materials you should keep on your radar. Let’s start unpacking!
Hemp (and organic hemp) is a great material to look for. Hemp is a very low impact, antibacterial and anti-odor, natural fiber, that is also capable of growing in tons of climates—even the Arctic! It also grows fast, meaning you can grow a lot in a small amount of time. This helps cut down on costs. If that’s not enough, hemp is pretty resistant to pests, meaning there is little need for pesticides in its production. So, whether you’re buying organic or not, there’s a good chance harsh chemicals were not used during its growth phase. Still though, a good rule of thumb is to stick with organic to be safe. Another cool thing worth mentioning is that the energy used to produce hemp and the level of CO2 emissions during production are significantly lower compared to synthetic fibers like polyester!
The next material to look for is organic cotton. Now, we know the term ‘organic’ can sometimes get a bad rap. However, we want to make sure people understand that ‘organic’ is inherently good. When something is organic, it means the product is comprised of materials that were grown and treated without the use of harsh and toxic chemicals. This is no exception when it comes to cotton. Organic cotton is often handpicked. It doesn’t damage the soil or require as much soil turn over. It has less impact on the air, including less CO2 emissions. It also uses 88% less water and 62% less energy. Conventional cotton uses about 16% of the world’s insecticides and 7% of pesticides! Another great thing about organic cotton clothing is it is rarely treated with harsh dyes. Typically, water-based dyes and peroxide are used.
100% Linen (Flax Fiber)
One of the most sustainable materials on the market is 100% linen (flax fiber) that has not been treated/dyed. Linen can be used for clothing, bedding, curtains, tablecloths, and many other purposes. It’s light and airy, and becomes softer over time, making it the perfect textile for the summer!
Another pro to buying linen is that it is extremely durable (It can last for up to 30 years!), but it’s also entirely biodegradable when left untreated. Additionally, flax production requires much less water than cotton production, making it an even better eco-friendly alternative. It doesn’t even require irrigation, as rainwater is enough to keep it growing, and it requires minimal fertilizer. All this considered, linen is one of our top eco-friendly picks!
A quick note about Lyocell. This is like the eco-friendly version of the man-made fabric rayon, and a fabric you should watch for. Lyocell is a sustainable textile, which requires less dye than cotton. And because of its closed-loop treatment, there is less environmental impact especially compared to standard man-made materials.
What About Bamboo?
Bamboo is the third material to look out for when shopping sustainable textiles. But this one can be sneaky!
- It grows efficiently and replaces itself quickly. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on Earth! It takes just three or four years to go from seed to harvest. It also has such an expansive root network that it doesn’t need to be replanted—new stalks quickly shoot right back up on their own to replace those that were cut down. Some species can grow up to 1 meter per day and up to 60 feet high within 90 days!
- Does not require pesticides or insecticides. Bamboo is naturally pest-resistant, so there is no need to spray chemicals on it.
- Prevents soil erosion. Because bamboo roots are never disturbed, a canopy always remains in place, which helps prevent soil erosion. The canopy also reduces the surface temperature in the immediate area, since the bamboo leaves absorb sunlight and provide constant shade.
- Does not drain water resources. Bamboo grown in Asia does not require irrigation because it’s harvested in a climate that has sufficient rainfall needed for the growth of the plant.
- Improves the atmosphere. Bamboo is one of the most efficient plants for taking in carbon dioxide and producing oxygen during photosynthesis.
- Processing makes a big difference. Bamboo can be processed into fabric two ways: mechanically like linen (more labor, more costs) or chemically.
- The second option—the viscose process—uses harsh chemicals to create a pulp, which later will become the fiber.
- Harsh chemicals can be used for texture. For those who have ever owned anything ‘made from bamboo’ you’ll probably notice it feels very soft, almost silky. Well that is achieved through the use of sodium hydroxide (also known as lye or caustic soda), carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid. These chemicals break down the tough cellulose of bamboo plants into a soft material. Yes, the final product might feel soft on the skin, but you probably do not want those chemicals coming anywhere near you!
- Watch out for heavy metals. After the cellulose is dissolved, you are left with a sort of pulp. This pulp is put through a spinneret and spun into the fibers used to make threads and fabric. Additional chemicals—formaldehyde, chlorine bleaches, and dyes—and heavy metals are often used in this stage of processing as well.
- Technically natural. Technically, you are left with a product that is a mix of both natural and synthetic fibers, but it is far from organic.
Most of the bamboo used in the fashion industry is processed chemically. Because of this, ethical and environmental organizations—like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Soil Association—will not give their certifications to bamboo clothing. Even if the original bamboo plant came from an organic field, many companies treat the plant through a viscose/rayon process. At that point you cannot call the product organic or natural. In fact, The Canadian Competition Bureau actually had manufacturers remove the ‘eco-friendly’ label from textiles made from bamboo cellulose because it was misleading to consumers. And that was in 2010!
Buy Mindfully, Buy Compassionately, Buy Sustainably
Knowing how to identify these four eco-friendly, sustainable textiles will help you begin your transition towards a sustainable wardrobe. Remember, as consumers we can make a huge impact through every purchase. Buy mindfully, compassionately, and sustainably, and make a difference with every dollar!