Your Sustainable Fabric Guide For Earth Day 2021 Is Here!

Let’s face it, fashion is a dirty industry. Between the resources needed to sustain natural fiber crops, the time it takes to break down synthetic fibers, and the emissions from manufacturing, it’s no wonder that the fashion industry is one of the largest carbon producers worldwide. This Earth Day is the perfect reminder to clean up our act, and starting in our closets. But how exactly do we do that? Which fabrics do we look out for? These are all great questions and you’re not the only one wondering. To make things a little easier for you, we’ll answer some common questions about where to start with your sustainable wardrobe!

Rattan bag surrounded by chamomile flowers

Arkhipenko Olga/Shutterstock

Can I Still Wear Leather?

This question presents a sticky situation for a lot of people. On one hand, fabrics like leather score huge points in sustainability for their durability and natural sourcing. They biodegrade quickly after disposals like any other animal tissue and a wool, fur, or leather coat will last for generations, whereas polyester alternatives break down in months. On the other hand, the agriculture industry is right up there with apparel as far as pollution is concerned, so what do we do?

The first thing to consider, especially with leather, is why exactly the animal producing the hide was raised. If your leather comes from an animal that was raised specifically for the hide, then your consumption of the product does indeed increase agricultural waste. However, if the animal which produced your leather product was originally designated for meat farming, your leather purchase actually reduces agricultural waste. What you want to look for is by-product leather, which is a fancy way of saying that the animal was raised for meat and the leather is a sweet bonus for you and the farmer. Provided that your leather is a byproduct, what you really have to worry about are the chemical agents used in the tanning process. Chromium tanning uses harsh chemicals that are corrosive to the skin and cause great environmental harm if not disposed of properly. Vegetable tanning, which uses natural bark and vegetable-based dyes and is much safer and more eco-friendly. Unfortunately, vegetable-based tanning means that you have a much narrower range of color options to choose from. If you really need a piece of brightly colored leather, make sure it comes from a country with proper regulations in place for worker safety and proper disposal of tanning by-products to ensure the least environmental and human costs possible.

What About Wool?

There’s good news, this one’s a short answer, and it’s yes! Wool is one of the only animal-based materials whose sourcing is not only unharmful to the animal but actually helpful and necessary. Sheep must be shorn to avoid a variety of health issues and their resulting wool is warm, durable and biodegradable. If you’re concerned about the idea of more sheep being raised for wool, you can again look specifically for by-product wool. After your wool is produced, you just have to look out for the distance it’s traveling to reach you.

And Silk?

Okay, this one is admittedly a difficult question without a super straight answer. Yes, silk is natural and biodegradable, which is fantastic. However, the process of making silk usually involves the mistreatment of the silk moth, which is killed before maturity to harvest the silk which composes their cocoons. Even in more animal-friendly production methods like peace silk where the moth is allowed to exit the cocoon after maturity, the welfare of these moths isn’t that great. In order to make the moths easier to work with, humans have bred them to be extremely docile, not fearing predators. This means that even if they are allowed to grow to maturity, domestic silk moths can’t survive in the wild for long. You also have to factor in the environmental costs of raising the mulberry trees that feed them, which requires lots of water. By the time you consider the agriculture emissions, the animal rights issues, and the transport it takes to get it to you, silk isn’t really worth the cost to the environment or your wallet. The exception to this is wild silk, harvested from wild moths with natural defenses living in trees that aren’t a product of commercial farming.


Are Plant-Based Fibers Always Sustainable?

A cotton flower laying on a background of cotton


The short answer is, no, not always. Not every plant fiber is created equal and some are better for the planet than others. Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks of the most common plant-based fibers you’ll see. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it’s a great jumping-off point if you’re wondering which vegan fabrics your favorite brands are hyped about.


Rayon is a fiber made from regenerated cellulose. That sounds great on paper, but the sustainability of rayon can vary widely depending on which plant you get your cellulose from. It’s also usually processed with toxic chemicals like lye, which means it’s an awful polluter especially when it’s not made in a closed-loop process. In fact, the process for making lye-based rayon is so toxic that you can’t find it manufactured in the US because it violates environmental-protection laws. If you really need access to it, your best bet for rayon is eucalyptus or bamboo rayon, which you can read about further down. However, it’s still worth noting that even brands like Eileen Fisher, known for their sustainable products, have begun phasing out rayon because of its environmentally dangerous manufacturing processes. 


Bamboo is a tall grass that grows rapidly, requires little fertilizer and self regenerates from its own roots. This means it doesn’t have to be replanted and since it’s natural, it biodegrades very well. Bamboo textiles are not a problem on their own. The issue is that a lot of clothing companies get very sneaky when it comes to their bamboo-based products and may try to pass off chemically processed bamboo textiles as unprocessed bamboo. When you’re looking for bamboo-based textiles, look for something that’s made of pure bamboo linen. If your clothing is being sold in the US and it says anything other than “bamboo linen” or “bamboo” such as “bamboo derived” or “bamboo rayon” you’re getting plant material that’s been chemically processed into something else. A dead giveaway is texture since pure bamboo linen will be rough, not smooth like silk. This doesn’t mean that you’re completely out of luck with processed bamboo fabric. If you want something made out of bamboo that’s silky smooth, look for something called Monocel. Monocel is a brand of lyocell fabric made from bamboo. Though technically a rayon fabric, lyocell cuts down on chemical pollution by operating in a closed-loop system, which recaptures and reuses 99% of the chemical solution necessary for the viscose process.


As mentioned above, eucalyptus has much the same story as bamboo. It takes very little water and pesticides to grow, and is generally produced on land that can no longer be used for food. The best eucalyptus based fabric you’ll probably find is called Tencel, a branded form of closed-loop lyocell derived from this plant. All the silky smooth benefits of silk and rayon without so much environmental cost. Tencel has been awarded the European Award for the Environment for these reasons and remains a popular and versatile choice for many sustainable clothing brands.


Cotton is probably the most common natural fiber you’ll see apart from rayon and it’s biodegradable. This is fantastic, but not all cotton is created equal. Cotton can be very labor-intensive to produce, using a lot of water and pesticides that you wouldn’t necessarily need with something like eucalyptus or bamboo. The best way you can reduce water and pesticide waste in your cotton products is to look for those which are organic, recycled, and operate in as closed a system as possible.


Which Fabrics Should I Avoid?

Whew, finally an answer that won’t make you sweat in confusion! Generally, you should try to avoid the majority of synthetic fabric like polyester or nylon. They are normally made from petroleum based products whose manufacturing produces fossil fuels and the fibers hardly biodegrade at all. Since synthetic fibers can be used in such a variety of ways and goes by so many names, it can be hard to distinguish whether your fiber is a non-renewable synthetic. The names you really have to watch out for are nylon, polyester, acetate and spandex. This doesn’t mean that you should throw away all your nylon or polyester products, or that you have to swear it off completely though. There are plenty of brands out there who are using deadstock and recycled synthetic fibers, saving from landfills what would otherwise be considered waste. This is a perfect way to make use of that patchwork trend that keeps popping up every couple seasons. 


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