When you see a dress, shirt or pair of pants that you love, it’s usually because of the design, cut and pattern. But it might be because of the material as well. Certain materials are fashionable and popular because of what they look like and how they make you feel. Other materials might not be as immediately obvious and instead, it’s the environment that benefits from choosing them. This is a guide to the materials that we wear and their sustainable alternatives.
When you buy a pair of leather shoes, it’s obvious that the cow had to be slaughtered. It is also obvious that skinning the animal and turning its skin into leather takes time and results in many toxic chemicals as by-products such as formaldehyde and coal tar derivatives used as dyes and preservatives. The manufacturing process requires energy to drive off water, steam and other volatile substances from hides or skins using heat and pressure, known as curing. To tan the hide, chromium salts are needed which creates pollution both on land and at sea due to runoff into waterways and groundwater systems killing marine life.
Today there are alternatives to every part of the traditional leather production process including growing fake food made from beans for the leathery look, tanning with earth-derived chemicals that are less toxic and energy-efficient processes. The price of these materials is more expensive than leather but they’re also helping the environment by reducing pollution and saving water.
The alternatives are:
Faux leather, which is made from lignin which is a natural polymer that we get from plants and trees. It’s sustainable and can be used to create durable shoes and bags.
Veg tan, which comes from the root of the Mimosa plant and requires no chromium salts, uses less water and no harmful chemicals resulting in far less pollution than traditional methods. This process is also energy efficient using only the sun for drying the hides instead of heat, pressure and steam.
Cotton is one of the world’s most popular fabrics because its versatile suitability for dyeing, printing and finishing makes it attractive for many textile products including clothing or underwear. Unfortunately, cotton production has major environmental impacts both on land and at sea as a result of pesticides, chemicals and fertilisers used in its production process.
On land, cotton irrigation accounts for 30-40% of the world’s pesticide market which pollutes soil and groundwater systems as well as lakes, rivers and oceans from runoff after rainfall.
At sea, poor farming practices kill fish and other marine life. To protect crops against pests during harvesting, chemicals are sprayed on crops contaminating them with toxic substances. Runoff into waterways kills the fish living there.
The alternatives are:
Organic cotton. Reading an article on sustainable fabrics will show you that organic cotton is treated with biological rather than chemical methods so it doesn’t pollute the environment during growing or dyeing processes resulting in healthier soil for farmers to grow food on or breed animals to eat later.
Then, recycled or upcycled cotton is made from old clothes, jeans and other products that are sent to be re-used into yarn. This method doesn’t require new cotton production which saves water, energy and chemicals.
Wool is another popular fabric because it’s warm and durable making it suitable for winter hats, jumpers, scarves and gloves. Like leather, wool is a luxury fibre requiring the deaths of millions of sheep each year not only for their skin but also due to the huge amount of water needed in its production process as well as pesticide use on land.
The alternatives include:
Wool requires far less water than cotton per unit weight so replacing it with synthetics can save a lot of water.
Also, there are a huge number of brands that have already started using recycled or upcycled wool so you don’t have to choose synthetics.
Silk is another luxury fabric often used in clothing and bedding for its softness and unique lustre making it desired by many people around the world. It’s made from the cocoons of silkworms which spin their own cocoon to form a thin but strong thread that can be woven into fine fabrics. These worms are boiled alive just to get the silk out of their cocoons as spinning them together with larvae would kill them anyway!
The alternatives are:
Bio-silk, which is made from plant proteins like corn or soybeans instead of silkworm proteins. This fabric is biodegradable and helps reduce the number of pesticides used on land as well as reducing water pollution which ensures that rivers, soil and water sources are clean.
Or, recycled silk refers to old clothing like t-shirts or other cloth that’s shredded into fibres then woven into yarns again. This reduces the need for new silk production saving energy, chemicals, water and time.
Nylon is a type of plastic made from petroleum products so it’s not sustainable at all compared to natural fabrics like recycled cotton and wool because its production pollutes the air with greenhouse gas emissions including carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NO2).
The alternative is recycled polyester, recycled fabrics made from post-consumer plastic bottles. This option is better than using new polymer-based fabric because it reduces landfill waste.
Acrylics like polar fleece, fake fur and many others are made up of mostly petroleum products but also include chemicals like chlorine (used to bleach them) and formaldehyde (a chemical used in manufacturing that’s linked to cancer). To make things worse, acrylics don’t grow on trees so their production pollutes air during its entire lifespan.
The alternative is recycled acrylic, and recycled fabrics made from old coats or blankets that are shredded into fibres then woven into yarns again. This reduces the need for new acrylic production saving energy, chemicals, water and time.
As you can see, there are plenty of sustainable alternatives to your favourite fabrics like wool, cotton, polyester and silk. If you want to save the environment and improve your wardrobe without spending a lot of money, try these sustainable fabrics instead. They all have great benefits for our planet and will make you look good as well as feel good! Just make sure to look for “recycled”, “upcycled” or “bio-based” before you buy them because these fabrics are the most sustainable of the bunch.