Welcome! I've finally (after about 9 months of talking about it - literally) got this baby online. I'm still working on creating a more aesthetically pleasing version of this doc, but for now bare with me!).
I receive SO many questions asking about fabrics every week, so I figured it’s about time I take you all through preferred fibres.
Why should you spend the next 5 minutes reading about fabrics, you ask?
Well, if reducing your climate, waste or broader environmental impacts is on your to do list, a focus on your clothes, what they’re made from and the impact of those materials is critical.
Fun facts (I’m a scientist after all…)
- Fabrics account for approximately 70% of an item of clothing’s environmental impact (huge ha?!).
- Every second, a tonne of textiles enter landfill (every second!).
- Textile production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping (in non-Covid times) combined, the fashion industry accounting for around 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
There is A LOT to consider when measuring the impact of a fabric – from the effects of the growing/extraction/production of source materials, to processing, dying, weaving, travel, durability and usability, and what happens to it at the end of its life. Like all aspects of ethics and sustainability, fabrics are rarely black and white, good and evil. But there are definitely some rules you can learn that will help you to make purchasing (and care) decisions that are more in line with your values.
So let’s do this!
Simply describing fibres and fabrics as ‘natural’ or ‘man-made’ is problematic – all fibres need to be processed to some degree, and natural doesn’t mean sustainable.
The Textile Exchange, my go-to for all the updates regarding preferred fibers, groups fibres and materials into the following categories:
- Plant-based natural fibres, such as cotton, hemp and linen;
- Animal based fibers & materials, such as down, wool, leather and silk;
- Manmade cellulosic fibres, such as rayon and viscose; and
- Synthetic fibres, such as polyester and nylon.
Globally, that the most common fabrics are synthetics, which make up around 65% of all clothing, followed by cotton (21% of clothing) and then cellulosic fabrics (plant-based but highly processed), such as viscose and rayon, at around 7% of global fibre production.
Wool, silk and down each make up 1% or less of global fiber production, while other plant-based fibers (such as hemp, linen and jute) together make up around 6%.
Getting this biggest eco-bang for your buck (and effort)is important.
Sometimes we focus on the wrong things because they’re popular or easy. If you’re not a big swimsuit person and only buy one every few years, that wouldn’t be the most logical place to start for maximum impact, right?!
If you’re just starting out, I suggest focusing on the types of clothes (and fabrics) you buy MOST often and finding better alternatives to these.
I LOVE the term Preferred Fibres. It’s essentially about knowing the best alternatives to the fabrics that are most common - which ones are ‘preferred’ over others.
Let’s start with cotton
Conventional cotton, the second most common fibre in the world, accounts for up to 7% of all employment in some low-income countries. Australia is one of the top 10 cotton producing countries in the world.
Cotton is ‘natural’ and renewable, but this does NOT mean that it’s good for the planet!
Cotton is hugely problematic when it comes to pollution (soil, air, water), carbon emissions, human and environmental health and ecosystem functioning and diversity. It needs the most water of ANY fibre crop in the world, and is often grown in arid climates, straining water supplies. It also requires large amounts of pesticides and insecticides to grow, and has serious negative impacts on human and environmental health.
What to choose instead: Preferred cotton
Preferred alternatives to conventional/non-organic cotton are available and are becoming increasingly common (hallelujah!).
Organic cotton does not require harmful synthetic fertilisers and pesticides (although it can still be fertilised with approved products, which aren’t necessarily ‘chemical free’), and has a SIGNIFICANTLY reduced output of water, air and soil pollution (almost none in some cases). It’s carbon footprint is lower than conventional cotton too, largely because it requires less electricity to pump water and distribute pesticides.
While there are some misunderstandings around reduced water needs of organic vs non-organic, and certainly some important social issues around the treatment of workers and the value of some organic certifications (neither of which I’ll get into here), if we consider the huge reduced impacts in terms of water, air and soil pollution, human health benefits of farmers not having to handle or be exposed to harmful chemicals on the daily, it is currently a pretty good alternative. If you can find cotton that’s certified organic and has a social certification (like fair trade, for example), that’d be your best bet.
This said, organic cotton makes up less than 1% of global cotton production, so isn’t taking over the industry just yet.
Organic cotton is not the only ‘official’ type of ‘preferred’ cotton. Others have environmental and social benefits for farmers (they include BCI, Fairtrade and more), however, they are not necessarily organic.
Recycled cotton is another fab alternative, but is still fairly uncommon.
While they make up a relatively small portion of global textile production, linen and hemp are excellent alternatives to cotton (organic varieties are even better). These plant-based fibres require significantly less water, insecticides and pesticides to grow and produce than cotton (even the non-organic versions), produce more fibre on the same amount of land, are durable, breathable and compostable.
Most people don’t realise that over 60% of all clothing is made from plastic. Polyester, nylon and acrylic are all made from crude oil, which is not only non-renewable, but emits carbon monoxide when processed (which is much more toxic than carbon dioxide).
While synthetic clothes can be durable and often have non-crease properties, their climate impacts, the shedding of microplastics/microfibres when washed and worn, and the fact that they take 100s of years to break down make them probably the most unsustainable fabric choice.
Did you know?
Around 190,000 metric TONNES of microplastics enter the ocean from textiles EVERY YEAR? (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017).
Instead, choose recycled synthetics .
Numerous varieties of recycled synthetic fibres are being produced worldwide, made from a range of recycled plastic products such as PET bottles, old fishing nets and discarded textiles. While most of the names of these companies and products are foreign to me (meaning I’m not seeing them used commonly in the fashion industry or in fashion labelling), there are some that are increasingly easy to source, particularly in active and swimwear lines. These include Econyl (made from recycled ocean waste and other post- consumer plastic waste) and R-PET, made from recycled plastic bottles.
There are still some issues with recycled synthetics. Some release more microfibers/plastics than others, and current tech means that synthetic textiles can only be recycled once – the recycling process weakening the strength of the material so it can’t be recycled over and over. But if you really need a synthetic product, they’re definitely a more eco-friendly alternative, and behave the same way as virgin synthetics. (If you’d like me to point you in the direction of awesome recycled activewear, get in touch. We have some gorgeous recycled swimwear on the website too!).
Man made cellulosics
These include fabrics you would have heard of and likely have in your wardrobe (particularly if you’re a boho gal) such as rayon and viscose, as well as lyocell, cupro and modal. Loved for their softness and flow, they’re common, but I’ve seen them confused for both natural and synthetic fibres, neither of which is entirely correct.
These fibres are derived from plants, primarily wood, which is chemically broken down and spun into fibres. There are two key problems with this.
The first is the sourcing of the wood they are made from. Independent audits indicate that over 70% of viscose is at significant risk of being sourced from ancient or endangered forests. This said, the number of suppliers who have committed to responsible sourcing has more than doubled in the last few years (thank gosh!).
The second is the dissolving of the wood and management of chemicals used in this process. Often, this processing occurs in countries that lack knowledge, technology and investment to properly treat and dispose of the chemicals and contaminated water used to process cellulosic fibers. As such, chemical pollution of waterways is a huge concern. Whether the fabric is made from bamboo (often considered a more sustainable alternative), virgin forests, responsibly sourced wood or waste, the processing can be problematic.
Preferred alternatives to conventional cellulosics
The two key processes that are being explored and implemented to improve the sustainability of cellulosics include sustainable sourcing (of the plant material) and closed-loop processing, whereby water and chemicals are treated and recycled indefinitely, keeping harmful contaminants out of natural eco-systems.
There are a number of organisations and initiatives working to develop more eco-friendly viscose alternatives. The most common ones I see in fashion are made by the Lenzing company, which engages both responsible sourcing and closed-loop processing, and is largely powered by renewable energy. Some of the fabric names you’ll see from them include Reibra, Tencel, Lenzing Viscose and EcoVero.
There are heaps of other fascinating innovations in this space, such as materials made from fruit-industry waste (you may have seen Pinatex – pineapple leather) and waste from the cotton industry. If you come across them, just make sure you do a little digging into their origins, labour practices and any synthetic additives. Fruit-based innovations are producing some great vegan, non-plastic leather alternatives too.
What about bamboo?
While this isn’t in the preferred fibres list, I did want to address it, as it is one of the most common fabric questions I get. I think when we start exposing ourselves to slow or sustainable fashion, bamboo always seems to come up.
And it’s a tricky one. Bamboo is made in a similar way to other plant/tree-based fibres like lyocell and viscose. While growing bamboo requires less water and is quicker than other types of wood, sustainability concerns around deforestation and chemical processing endure. There is certainly some ‘closed-loop’ bamboo on the market, but it is hard to identify. So while bamboo may be better than ‘traditional’ lyocell and viscose, it isn’t generally considered a truly sustainable fabric alternative.
(You might want to photograph this bit…)
Avoid virgin synthetics (polyester/nylon/acrylic)
- Choose recycled options
Avoid ‘conventional’ cotton
- Choose organic cotton, organic linen or hemp instead
Avoid rayon, viscose and even bamboo
- Unless it’s made in a closed-loop processing system and from renewable sources, like Tencel, Lenzing Viscose and EcoVero.
I sincerely hope this was helpful.
I know it’s hard to get your head around all of the ins and outs of ethical fashion, but learning the basics will help you read through the nonsense marketing companies put out trying to convince you their products are ‘sustainable’. Only yesterday I saw an advert for a fashion brand that said, ‘Sustainable. 100% cotton.’
Doing just a little bit of research will make it easier for you to make conscious decisions that you can feel good about.
Some final words of fabric wisdom in case you’re still reading:
- ‘Natural’ DOESN’T mean sustainable
- There is always an ‘exception’ to the rule, like an ethical underwear label who have sourced closed-loop bamboo, or a North-Queensland cotton grower producing Australian cotton from natural rainfall. But, these options can be very hard to find and track. So if you’re after an easy solution, stick to the preferred alternatives above and you’ll be safe.
- Wearing what you have is a 100% guaranteed to reduce your environmental impact.
Think about what you do with your clothes when you don’t love them anymore – end of life contributes significantly to a garment’s eco impact (I’d recommend checking out A.BCH’s amazing end-of-life series to learn about the different types of clothing recycling and which types of clothes and materials can be recycled – it’s fascinating! Find it here: https://abch.world/blogs/news).
The original reports/sources I used to inform this post include:
Textile Exchange, Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report, 2019,
Common Objective, What are our clothes made from?, https://www.commonobjective.co/article/what-are-our-clothes-made-from
Ellen Macarthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, 2017, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications.