Your Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly Fabrics


A rack of blouses and sweaters

In our quest to go green it’s important to think about a lot of things including the clothes we wear. Some fabrics are much more eco-friendly than others. I’ll share the top 4 as well as the 5 worst fabrics for the environment (and several that fall in between).

The top 4 eco-friendly fabrics are:

  1. Linen
  2. Hemp
  3. Organic Cotton
  4. Soy Silk

What makes these 4 Fabrics so Eco-Friendly?

Linen

If you’ve read my other post on the fabulous eco-friendliness of linen you’ll know I’m a big fan. (If you haven’t read it yet you can find it here.)

Linen has many properties that make it eco-friendly. One great thing about linen is that when you use linen to make fabric there is very little waste. All parts of the flax plant can be used.

In comparison to cotton, the flax plant, which is what linen is made from, needs less water and fewer chemicals than cotton. So growing flax is less harmful to the environment. AND because flax is able to absorb carbon dioxide it can actually reduce greenhouse gasses in the air.

Flax is relatively easy to grow and can even grow on somewhat marginal land that doesn’t support other crops.

As far as processing the fiber, to go from the flax plant to the finished linen fabric, the process isn’t very energy-intensive or chemical-intensive.

Linen also wears really well. It’s not like some cheap acrylic sweater you pick up and can only wear for a season before it pills and looks worn. Linen will last for years and years. Seriously! If you invest in linen sheets you’ll be able to use them for 10 years or more (easily!) without them wearing out.

Untreated linen is even biodegradable and recyclable. So from “cradle to grave” linen fabric is quite eco-friendly.

Hemp

Hemp Plant

Hemp may be one of the most underutilized resources for fabric these days and one of the most misunderstood, although that is rapidly changing.

Hemp is a natural fiber grown from the cannabis plant, cannabis sativa, to be exact and yes, this is the same family of plant that you get marijuana and CBD products from. But the hemp that is grown for industrial use, such as to make into fabric for clothing, is a different variety of cannabis sativa and doesn’t have significant amounts of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) which is the component of the plant that gets you high.

The amount of THC in industrial hep is tightly controlled by governments where hemp is grown. In the U.S. the growing of industrial hemp just became legal again in 2018 with the passing of the 2018 farm bill. I say again because prior to 1937 growing hemp for the making of cloth or sails for ships or rope was absolutely legal and even mandatory for awhile.

“King James I required every property owner in Jamestown to grow 100 plants of hemp for export in 1619.”

PBS NEWSHOUR

So the hemp fiber has been valued for literally hundreds of years. You’ll value it as an eco-friendly fabric because it requires a lot less water than cotton and few pesticides. Hemp also replenishes the soil as it is grown rather than depleting it as cotton does.

No chemical processing is needed to make the fiber into cloth.

Hemp is very durable and like linen becomes softer the more it’s worn. It’s also breathable and antibacterial, like linen.

Growing hemp can be a great choice for farmers as well because they can usually make quite a bit more money per acre growing hemp than they can growing grains.

Cotton (Organic vs. non-Organic)

Oh cotton. It’s everywhere. It’s relatively cheap. It’s breathable and it feels good on your skin. It’s in our jeans (if not our genes) and t-shirts and blankets and, well, you name it. Cotton can be made into so many things.

In fact, according to the World Wildlife Federation, 50% of the textiles in the world are made out of cotton. The production of cotton provides the livelihood of 250 Millon people globally.

Cotton is definitely a renewable resource, but there’s a bit of a problem and if you’re familiar with what it takes to grow cotton in the usual way you may have wondered why I included it on the list of eco-friendly fabrics.

The problem is that cotton is a very water-intensive crop when it’s grown intensively (lots of plants close together) as it usually is. In fact it takes 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of cotton – which is about how much a pair of jeans and a t-shirt weigh. For those of us who are metric system challenged that’s over 5283 gallons of water for that pair of jeans and t-shirt.

Cotton also requires quite a bit of pesticide and a lot of fertilizer to maximize production. Pesticides and fertilizer can get into water systems and cause pollution problems. They are often toxic to the workers who have to handle them or are around the application of them as well.

So why would cotton be included as one of the eco-friendly fabrics? The answer is because cotton can be grown organically. And organic cotton, while still rather water-intensive, is a lot more friendly to the environment and can use less water than normal cotton farming practices do.

The pros of organic cotton are many. Organic cotton is grown from organic seed without any chemical pesticides. Growing practices work to maintain the health of the soil and to use water more efficiently. They also support biodiversity.

To find out even more about ways cotton production can be made more eco-friendly check out the WWF site.

Soy Silk

This may be one you haven’t heard of yet. Soy Silk is fabric made out of fibers that are made from the waste products of soy food items. For example, tofu or soy milk. So something that would normally be thrown out is actually being used to make cloth. This is a great point for the eco-friendliness of the fabric.

Though it’s a new idea to many of us, soy silk has been produced since 1937 and was actually invented by Henry Ford.

Soy silk does require chemicals to turn it into fabric. But the chemicals are used in a closed-loop system so they are used over and over again, reducing the potential waste.

Soy silk is a lightweight fiber has a very silky feel and resists wrinkles. It may be a good replacement for silk or cashmere for people who are vegans and don’t want to wear items of clothing made from animal produced fiber.

Aside from the chemicals that are used to produce it, there are a few other drawbacks. Soybeans are often genetically modified. So if you are concerned about that then that is a consideration. Another drawback is that soybeans are one of the main agricultural products (besides cattle) that the rainforest is being cleared to make room for.

But since this is a byproduct or waste product from food making – then that might ease your mind a bit. (Kind of like buying pre-owned clothing.)

Knowing where your soy silk comes from and making sure it’s sourced from organic soy is one good way to make the most eco-friendly choice when buying clothing made from this fabric.

Other Fabrics to Consider

Bamboo grove

Now that you’ve read about the top 4 eco-friendly fabrics you may be wondering about some other fabrics you’ve used in the past and how they rate.

Bamboo – Bamboo is a natural fiber and totally renewable. Bamboo grows very quickly and the fibers can be made into a silky cloth that is long-wearing and good at wicking moisture from the skin. The problem with bamboo is that it requires a lot of chemicals to make the bamboo fiber into cloth. Additionally the fact that old-growth forests are being cleared to make room to grow bamboo for textile production is something to consider.

Tencell/Lyocell/Model/Rayon – These fabrics are made from cellulose fiber created by dissolving wood pulp. This is a pretty chemical-intensive process as well, much like with bamboo. Some of these textiles are produced in closed-loop systems so the chemicals are used over and over again which makes it a little more eco-friendly.

One problem is that for Rayon the source of the cellulose is often unknown. If your Rayon clothing is made in China it’s likely that the cellulose fibers and finished fabric are coming from Indonesia where old-growth forests are being systematically cut down to grow bamboo for textile production as mentioned above.

What about silk, wool, and cashmere?

Cashmere goat with large horns
Cashmere Goat

I love them all. But it’s important to consider the impact they have. Natural fibers like wool from sheep and cashmere from goats may require large amounts of land to raise the animals.

It’s important to me as well to know if the sheep or goats are being raised in a humane way. But this is often difficult to find out.

Raising animals for fibers can also require a lot of chemicals. For example, “dipping sheep” or spraying them to protect them from parasites and fungus with insecticides and fungicides not only means the wool is covered in chemicals (hardly organic) it also means that as the sheep walk around after this treatment they can easily pollute the soil and water sources.

Buying organic wool is one way to try to assure that the sheep were humanely raised and the land wasn’t polluted in the process.

But still, there’s that other thing we hate to mention in polite circles. Sheep belch a lot. Maybe not quite as much as cows, but they do belch and produce quite a bit of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is more powerful at causing the atmosphere to heat than even carbon dioxide. So if you’re concerned about the environment, this is something to consider.

Silk is lovely, but it requires a lot of leaves from trees to feed the silkworms and a large amount of chemicals are needed both for growing the worms and getting the silk threads separated from their sticky residue.

Silk is renewable (unlike fabric made from petroleum-based products). But if you are concerned about the killing of animals then silk wouldn’t be an eco-friendly choice. 2500 silkworms are killed (steamed or boiled alive) to produce a pound of raw silk.

Worst – As Promised Here are the 5 Most Eco-UNfriendly Fabrics

Leather – Leather is a natural product or at least it starts out that way. But it also requires A LOT of chemicals to produce the feed for raising cattle. Transportation costs are very high to move feed to cattle, and cattle to meat processing plants, then their skin to tanning plants to make the leather.

Cattle are a major cause of methane production (though their burps) and as mentioned above, methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 3 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If you want to read more about how the cattle industry adds to the climate crises, check out this post I wrote.

To produce leather they also need to use a lot of toxic chemicals and in their tanning and processing methods.

And, animals have to die to produce this “fabric” which is a concern to many.

Polyester, Nylon, Spandex, and Acrylics

When nylon is fabricated it actually produces nitrous oxide. We may immediately think of it as laughing gas, but this stuff is no joke. It’s a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times worse than carbon dioxide when it comes to heating up the atmosphere. You can read more about nitrous oxide and its dangers here.

All these materials are made from petroleum-based products and use chemical-intensive processes in their manufacturing.

The environmental damage they cause doesn’t end with their production. It lasts throughout their lifespan because these fabrics give off thousands of plastic micro-fibers every single time we wash them.

These plastic microfibers end up in our waterways and in fish and other animals who live in or drink the water. They also end up in us – and I’m pretty sure that plastic isn’t included on the food pyramid.

These fabrics also take many years (up to 200) to decompose.

But I love…

If you absolutely love a type of fabric that didn’t make it onto the “Best Dressed in” list then buy it pre-loved (used) from a thrift store. It’s already out there, no sense in letting it go to waste and end up in a landfill before its time.

My one exception to this is might be in regard to clothing made of polyester, nylon, and acrylics because these do break down into plastic microfibers every time you wash them and plastics in the water is NOT something we should be O.K. with. (Read on for a possible solution for this!)

Use What You Have

One of the best ways to be eco-friendly when it comes to our clothing is to not treat it as disposable “fast-fashion.” The less we consume (in terms of clothing) the better it is for the environment. Despite what the fashion industry would have us think, you don’t need to buy all new clothes each year or each season.

If you do have a lot of clothing with synthetic fabrics that are shedding microplastics (and most of us do!) you can actually get a laundry bag that reduces the shedding of microfibers so your clothes look better longer, and it also filters out any shedding microplastics so they don’t get into our water systems.

Not just any regular old laundry bag will do this. There is a b that is specially designed for this. It’s the Guppyfriend Washing Bag and it can give you peace of mind that you aren’t harming the environment when you wash your synthetic fabrics.

Sources for Organic and Eco-Friendly Clothing

It can be hard to find clothing suppliers who consistently use only organic fabric. Here are a few possibilities to help you start your search if you are in the market for some new clothes.

Remember – buying pre-loved clothing is often a great first choice when it comes to environmentally friendly clothing.

Pink Elephant Organics – But be aware they sometimes do use other materials, like spandex, in their cotton blend clothing.

Pact Clothing – Lots of great 100% organic cotton clothes that won’t break your budget. Read the label, however to be sure you’re not getting a “blend” with a fabric you don’t want.

NAADAM – For cruelty-free sustainable and environmentally friendly cashmere – this is the place to go.

Resources:

https://theconversation.com/meet-n2o-the-greenhouse-gas-300-times-worse-than-co2-35204

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/8-things-didnt-know-hemp

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