What Are The Worst Fabrics For The Environment?

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The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters globally. Most of the pollution it creates comes from fabric production. Many textiles used for clothing have a disastrous impact and are the worst for the environment.

The clothes we wear have a terrible impact on people, animals, and the planet. Most of them are full of toxic chemicals and consume crazy amounts of resources, land, water, and energy.

One of the best ways to reduce the environmental impact of fashion is to buy more eco-friendly fabrics. As consumers, we have the power to change what's happening in the fashion industry today.

The first step we can take toward a more sustainable future is getting informed on fabrics to avoid when shopping for new clothes. Consuming less and better helps tremendously to protect the Earth.

With a few great tips, you can build a more conscious wardrobe that does better for people and the planet. Shop more ethical brands that use sustainable materials.

If you want to do a bit of digging, you can easily find out about the awful consequences of fast fashion, the terrible fabrics they are using, and their disastrous impact on the environment.

The global textile and apparel industry is very harmful in many different ways. Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting information out there. Most fashion brands and retailers are hiding the truth from consumers.

Businesses don't want you to know how much pollution, waste, and carbon dioxide emissions they are responsible for. Even if the oil industry is the most polluting globally, petroleum-based textiles aren't the only culprit.

Not every natural fabric is good for the environment. There are many facts behind the clothes you wear that fashion brands don't want you to see.

To make it as easy as possible for you to make conscious decisions, I've compiled here the information you need to avoid wasteful fabrics, buy better clothing, and support sustainable fashion labels that are actively working to reduce their environmental impact.

We know this information may seem overwhelming and frustrating at first, especially if you are new to sustainable fashion. Take it one step at a time. You don't have to change completely tomorrow.

Ultimately, if you take the approach of shopping less and higher-quality, you are well on your way to have a positive impact on society and the environment.

FAQs

What are the eco-friendly materials?

Recycling is one of the most sustainable ways to live, whether it's reusing bags, throwing your paper, plastic and metal into a recycling bin or wearing recycled goods. Here are examples of the most eco-friendly materials.

  • Hemp.
  • Soy Silk/Cashmere.
  • Organic Cotton.
  • Linen.

What is eco-friendly clothing?

Eco-fashion is about making clothes that take into account the environment, the health of consumers and the working conditions of people in the fashion industry. Eco-fashion clothes: are made using organic raw materials, such as cotton grown without pesticides and silk made by worms fed on organic trees.

Is cotton on eco friendly?

Absolutely. Cotton is sustainable, renewable, and biodegradable, making it an excellent choice as an environmentally-friendly fiber throughout its entire product life cycle. Most chemical fibers are petroleum based, which means they come from nonrenewable resources.

What fabric is biodegradable?

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The majority of fabrics and fibres will biodegrade, whether synthetic or not.

  • Organic Cotton. Organic cotton is cotton that is produced without the use of chemicals, pesticides or synthetic substances inside of it.
  • Silk.

What fabrics last the longest?

Polyester is the most long lasting and durable fabric. It is a synthetic fiber, engineered to be stronger and more flexible than natural fibers, such as cotton.

Fabrics Rated Best to Worst

We’ve outlined fabrics below that rank from most earth-friendly to least, and the impact they have in production, during their lifetime, and in the afterlife.

Hemp

Hemp is the most versatile plant on the earth, and serves many uses. As a fabric, it’s the top choice for sustainability.

Hemp doesn’t require much water to grow, and it can produce two to three times more fiber per acre than cotton can. It also replenishes the soil as it is growing, rather than taking nutrients away, like most plants do. Hemp is breathable, soft, warm, moisture-wicking, and anti-bacterial.

Like linen, hemp is super durable and becomes softer with use.

Because it is a wholly natural fibre (when unblended), washing hemp clothing in your machine isn’t cause for concern, as the microfibres that filter into the water supply will easily breakdown with time.

Hemp is biodegradable at the end of its lifetime, meaning you can chuck it in the backyard and use it as garden mulch. From a sustainability perspective, hemp is definitely the best fabric to go with.

Linen

On par with hemp, linen remains traditionally and historically one of the best and most sustainable fabrics to date.

Made from the flax plant, linen production uses the plant in its entirety, lessening waste from the get go.

Flax is easily grown and quickly replenish-able, using far less water than cotton, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, making linen production very sustainable (this when dew-retting or enzyme-retting is used, not water-retting).

Linen as a fabric has a very long lifetime, as it’s one of the most durable fabrics out there.

With a recent resurrection, linen clothing is coming back as people seek ways to lessen their fashion footprint. Linen is breathable, durable, lightweight, absorbent, antimicrobial, naturally moth-resistant, and cooling, making it perfect for summer days.

It also reduces gamma radiation almost by half, protecting us from solar radiation.

It’s the only fabric that is stronger when wet, and like hemp, becomes softer with use.

Also, like hemp, micro-fibres from linen are of no concern, as they will naturally biodegrade in the water.

Linen pieces that are left un-dyed or naturally dyed will biodegrade 100% with time, making it sustainable and earth-friendly.

Bamboo (the same as Rayon or Viscose)

A natural fibre made from the bamboo plant, bamboo is quickly rising in the ranks of earth-friendly fabric, but it’s not as clean as we think.

Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, making it an amazing resource. It requires very little water and no fertilizers or pesticides to grow.

Despite this, the process of turning bamboo into fabric is actually very chemically-intensive, in order to get it into the soft fabric we all love.

Bamboo fibre production produces quite a bit of waste (50% of hazardous waste from production cannot be recaptured and goes into the environment).

Also, because so much of the bamboo we use comes from China, it is hard to regulate pesticide use (so many growers do use it to maximize their outputs, but don’t always declare it), so the bamboo waters can be murky and not always as clear as we may think.

Bamboo is naturally highly sweat absorbent, pulling moisture from the skin for evaporation in what is called moisture-wicking.

Claims that it is naturally antibacterial or UV resistant are unclear, as the process of making it into a fibre seems to disqualify this.

The fabric itself is incredibly soft and feels great on the skin.

Because of its chemically-intensive production, bamboo isn’t quite as sustainable as we think, and while it may biodegrade, it is considered a fabric falling between naturals and synthetics.

It would need to be properly recycled in a facility, rather than simply in your compost, and micro-fibres are a cause for concern with bamboo. Here is some more information on bamboo, rayon and viscose.

Cotton

Cotton is probably the fabric you expect the least to see on this list. But it's one of the worst for the environment.

Conventional cotton is one of the worst natural fibers. It's extremely wasteful, polluting, and damaging to human health. It ruins biodiversity and soil fertility.

Today, cotton is mass-produced in subtropical countries around the world. And mass-production isn't sustainable.

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It's the second most used fiber for apparel and footwear after polyester.

30.3 million tons of cotton are produced each year globally, as estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

China is the largest producer of cotton worldwide with 6.1 million tons of cotton produced in 2018, followed by India (4.69 million tons), and the United States (4 million tons).

Regular cotton farming pollutes the air, water sources, soils, endangering ecosystems, and human lives. It accounts for 16% of all insecticides, 7% of all herbicides, 4% of all nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers worldwide.

Cotton also requires a lot of water to grow. It's one of the most water-intensive crops. It takes about 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton, equivalent to a single t-shirt and pair of jeans, as reported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The better alternative is to buy organic cotton. The Textile Exchange estimates that organic cotton farming can potentially save 218 billion liters of water and 92.5 million kg of carbon dioxide.

About 80% of all organic cotton is grown with water form rainfalls, which reduces pressure on local water sources. It's non-GMO and grown without man-made fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Cotton is a well-known, high in demand fabric, that makes up a quarter of all fabric used in clothing and textiles.

In a process that is quite unsustainable, cotton uses a tremendous amount of water (700 gallons for a t-shirt, which is the same amount a person drinks in 2.5 years), pesticides (35% of the world’s insecticides and pesticides), and arable land. Organic cotton is definitely the better option, but often requires more land because crop yields decrease over time.

Micro-fibres are a huge issue, and with non-organic cotton, they begin to leach into our water systems and environment when we wash our clothes.

Most cotton is not wholly biodegradable, if it has been treated or dyed with non-natural dyes, while organic cotton would eventually biodegrade.

Wool

Wool is a historical favourite, but not for everyone, especially vegans. It is however, one of the most environmentally-friendly (in terms of the actual fabric) out there, but the reason we’ve listed it as fifth is due to its carbon footprint.

The biggest issue with wool comes from the methane gas emissions caused by gassy sheep.

50% of wool’s carbon footprint comes from the sheep themselves, but on the flip side, sheep are usually raised on non-arable land, requiring less resources than some plant-based options.

In terms of the fabric itself, wool is tough, wrinkle-resistant, resilient, and can absorb a ton of moisture before feeling damp.

It is warm and can replace many polyester fleeces out there, helping reduce the amount of micro-fibre shedding that occurs.

When wool micro-fibres are released into the world, they biodegrade, naturally. The average lifespan of a wool garment is 2-10 years, compared to 2-3 years for a typical cotton or synthetic garment.

So, while the carbon footprint is high, our rate of consumption of it is lower than other fabrics.

Polyester

Polyester is the least sustainable option, yet the one that is currently dominating the clothing industry (60% of clothing has polyester in it).

The fabric is stretchy, durable, comfortable and easy to take care of however it is a plastic product, manufactured from crude oil. Recycled polyester is slightly better, as it reduces the amount of oil being used (9.5 billion litres of oil yearly for virgin polyester production) and reduces waste, but eventually will also have the same environmental repercussions as new polyester when it comes time for disposal.

Polyester is the most used fabric for apparel and textile worldwide. The total production of polyester fibers increased to 55 million tons in 2018 globally. It accounts for 52% of all fiber production.

The largest producer of polyester worldwide is China.

Half of its polyester is manufactured in the Zhejiang region and a third in Jiangsu.

With the rise of fast fashion over the last 20 years, polyester became a highly popular fabric to make cheaper, trendier, and disposable clothes.

It's a synthetic fabric made from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products. It's also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Its fabrication involves the polymerization of synthesized polymers compounds made from oil-derived materials.

Polyester is responsible for the global plastic waste and microfiber pollution that endangers ecosystems, marine life, land wildlife, and human health.

Polyester isn't biodegradable and can take up to thousands of years to decompose in the oceans, according to recent research.

Polyester clothing produces huge amounts of waste, pollutes the air, soil, and water with plastic microfibers and hazardous chemicals.

A more environmentally friendly alternative to polyester is recycled polyester (rPET). It's manufactured from PET bottles, post-industrial polyester waste, or used clothing.

Use recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester to decrease impacts on the air, land, and water. It reduces energy consumption by 30-50%, water consumption by nearly 90%, and greenhouse gas emissions by about 60%.

Polyester releases a ton of micro-fibres into the water every time it is washed, and there is no way this fabric breaks down or biodegrades easily, as it takes up to 200 years to decompose.

Our fish (and eventually us, if you eat meat) consume these micro-fibres, which is dangerous to the health of marine life, ourselves, and the ocean/world’s waterways.

Many brands proudly share that their clothing lines are made from recycled ocean plastic or from recycled water bottles, however unless the garment is something that requires it to be waterproof (raincoats, shoes, bathing suits, certain types of activewear), it shouldn’t be made from virgin or recycled polyester fibres.

Don’t let brands greenwash you into believing that a simple, everyday dress or shirt is sustainable because it is made from recycled plastic. Quite simply, it’s not. 

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