One of the easiest ways to shop sustainably and buy clothing or accessories that avoid harming the earth is to check the fabric content of an item. I'd like to help you understand which fabrics are harmful to you and the earth, what fabrics are made of, and what fabrics are better to buy or avoid.
Fabrics You Should Avoid Wearing and Buying
Polyester is like cotton's cheaper, less sustainable/natural cousin. While many love the shine and feel of polyester commonly found in pants, knitwear and blazers, it is wholly made from petroleum (oil). While some forms of polyester are biodegradable, most of them are not, and polyester production and use contribute to pollution around the world. Polyester is most commonly blended with cotton to create apparel, but it reduces comfortability - along with reduced production costs to help brands save money.
Acrylic is made using a colourless, flammable liquid that is derived from polypropylene plastic. It is combined with other chemicals and placed into a spinning solution to create acrylic fibres. Acrylic is most certainly not a natural fabric, I also cannot see anything healthy or comfortable about wearing plastic on the skin. Acrylic is most commonly found in knitwear and tops because it is cheap to use, but definitely should be avoided.
Like polyester, nylon is also made from petroleum (oil), which requires an energy-intensive process to become the fabric that is used in clothing. To create nylon, the following processes are needed: extraction, combining, heating, extrusion, loading, stretching, drawing and spinning. Nylon is not a sustainable fabric and will not biodegrade in landfills, it is an unnatural fabric that does more harm than good; the only reason it is commonly used is because it is cheap.
Just like acetate, viscose (rayon) is a semi-synthetic material that uses wood pulp to be produced. The wood pulp is treated in a similar way to that used to make acetate except different chemicals are used. The manufacturing process of viscose includes dissolving the wood into a pulp solution, which is then washed, cleaned and bleached. Chemicals such as carbon disulphide and sodium hydroxide are used in the process (who even knows what they are?). Viscose can be found in tops, dresses, or pants, it is commonly used and people are led to believe it is eco-friendly due to it being made from wood pulp but the chemicals used to create viscose make it harmful both to the environment and the wearer.
Acetate is made using a natural and renewable source, wood pulp, but the way in which it is manufactured uses acetic acid, acetic anhydride, and sulphuric acid. It is then spun into fibres, sometimes mixed in with other materials, hardened into a sheet, or moulded into shapes. Even though the original source is natural, the harsh process used to create acetate makes it chemical-heavy and non-breathable. Acetate is most commonly found in sweaters or knitwear.
Bamboo is known to be a natural fibre that has a soft touch but in reality, bamboo comes from bamboo trees that are extremely rough, thick, and hard. The process that turns a bamboo tree and turns it into bamboo material used in clothing requires many harsh chemicals and toxins. I think we should just leave those bamboo trees alone! Generally, you will find bamboo in pants or t-shirts.
Many people are attracted to satin because of its shine and luxurious look, and whilst satin was originally made with silk, a pure fabric, it is now created by weaving together cheaper fabrics such as polyester and rayon. Silk is a much more sustainable and healthy alternative to satin (the wannabe silk). Satin is a very cheap material to produce and can be instantly recognised.
Whilst Cotton is a very breathable and comfortable fabric, it requires a large number of natural resources like water and energy to produce it, especially in the large amounts that people require. But unlike most of the materials above, cotton will eventually biodegrade rather than sit in a landfill.
Leather is an extremely popular fabric used in the fashion industry, and we all know exactly where it comes from and how it is produced. The only way that you can sustainably buy/wear leather is to make sure the place you are buying the leather product from is part of the LWG (Leather Working Group). The LWG makes sure that leather is produced in small amounts and is sourced sustainably to make sure no leather or animal life is going to waste.
Natural Fabrics That are Safe to Wear and Good to Invest In
This is possibly one of the best materials for t-shirts, loungewear or anything comfortable. Although to make sure that the garments you are buying are chemical-free and have a low impact on the earth, they must be made from GOTS certified organic cotton. Whilst there are still better alternatives to organic cotton, it makes less of a negative impact on the earth than normal cotton. Some of my favourite brands to buy from that produce only organic cotton products are Arnsdorf, Jac+Jack, and Bassike.
Whilst silk is a sustainable fibre that does not cause any harm to the environment, it is not the most ethical of fabrics. To create silk, silkworms spin their thread into cocoons which they use to transform into silkmoths, the raw cocoons are collected and placed into boiling water (with the silkworms still inside) and are stored to create silk fibre. Organic silk uses the same process but comes from transformed silkmoths.
Hemp fabric is made by taking fibres from the stem and stalk of the cannabis plant, which is then softened in water, broken up and woven into fabric. Hemp is a very durable material that has a similar feel to linen, it is biodegradable and is a weed that requires little water and pesticides. Overall, hemp is a fabric that requires extremely little environmental strain to produce and should be used more often.
Linen is a highly breathable and biodegradable fabric that is made using the cellulose fibers that grow inside the stalks of the flax plant. The flax plant requires little water and attention unless the weather is particularly dry, meaning that it is sustainable and naturally thriving. The flax plant can be used in many ways and the wastage amount is significantly low, but to get linen to its white, grey and tan state we see most commonly, it requires heavy bleaching.
Cashmere is one of the most luxurious fabrics to buy and wear, it is produced by the natural shedding of goats. Producing cashmere is not ethical if the goats are shorn too early in the winter and die of the cold. Cashmere is a soft and biodegradable material that is generally expensive to buy - to make sure your purchase is both ethical and sustainable, recycled cashmere is the best option (and it still has all of the great feels of virgin cashmere). My favourite place to buy cashmere sweaters is Tricot Paris! But cashmere gets softer over the years, so if you can find one in a relatives closet (that they aren't using) then I'd suggest stealing it.
Merino is a natural, biodegradable fabric that is grown all year round by merino sheep. Merino wool is thermoregulated and naturally breathable, meaning that in the colder months it keeps you warm and in the hot months it will help you to stay cool. Merino is also antibacterial and although merino wool should be an ethical process when people begin to buy the wool, farmers want their money and produce more - this can involve muselings (which is the process of harshly shearing off wool but also chunks of skin). Harsh videos of this process have been seen taking place in America and Australia, and it can also lead to the death of the sheep. Before buying merino, just make sure that the brand or supplier specifically states they are certified or ethical, or from New Zealand (as they are known to be sustainable and ethical when producing merino wool).
I hope that you found this article helpful and consider what you buy more carefully in the future; it's always good to know what you're wearing and how ethically it was made to get to you. I learnt a lot when researching about all these products, and that each fabric has its downsides so when shopping, all you can do is choose more sustainable and considerate fabrics, or even wonder if you really need a certain piece - or will get to wear it with everything.
Also, check if something you like is on a second-hand website - just make sure that the length, material, fit and size are great because you can't return, but you'll get a good price.
Thanks for reading, Sienna xx