5 Ways to help you choose sustainable fabric

Author Wearing a woolen dress for a business brunch

Do you ever check the label to see what your clothes are made from? I never used to. Why would I if I looked good in them? It only became important to me a few years ago, after I started to balance my interest in fashion with conscious consuming or choose sustainable fabric. STYLEMEGREEN

It’s estimated that the world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. As new clothing comes into our lives, we also discard it at a shocking pace. Producing clothes year after year strains the planet, both in terms of the natural resources and environmental impacts like pollution and waste.

Here is the summary of 3 categories of materials: natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic, and a few environmental issues involved with each. I think if we have a better understanding of what goes into our clothes we’ll be able to make a more educated decision when choosing the next outfit.


Natural materials come from… nature. Like food, natural materials come from plants or animals. The plant-based materials are: linen, cotton, hemp and raffia. The animal-based materials are: wool, silk, leather, cashmere and alpaca. Same as with the food we eat, they can be organic or grown with fertilizers and pesticides; free range or pumped with hormones.

Resources used: land, water, fossil-fuels (because many agricultural chemicals are petroleum-based).

Environmental issues: chemical pesticides and fertilizers pollute soil, water systems and air. Farm animals (including sheep and goats) release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.

Category offenders: cashmere and cotton (discussed below).


Synthetics are created through an industrial manufacturing process in which petroleum, a fossil fuel, is extracted from the earth and mechanically transformed into fibers for clothing. The resulting fiber, although soft and even silky, is actually a plastic. In fact, polyester is made of the same exact material used to make plastic bottles: polyethylene terephthalate.

Resources used: fossil-fuels.

Author Wearing a 100% viscose dress (Photography by Nooria Shafqat)

Environmental issues: firstly, the production of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, which is the leading cause of climate change. Secondly, it has been recently proven that washing synthetic fibers releases micro-plastics into the water supply and ultimately into our food chain. Synthetics don’t decompose in landfills so if not recycled and reused they stay with us for about 40 years.

Category offenders: polyester (because of its volume – it is the most common material in our clothes); nylon (because its production releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2).


Semi-synthetic materials come from a natural source, but require processing to transform them into a fiber that can be used for clothing. These include viscose, modal, lyocell and bamboo.

Resources used: mostly wood.

Environmental issues: deforestation, which has climate change implications; heavy chemicals needed to transform the hard wood into a soft fiber release pollutants into the air and water.

Category offenders: viscose, modal and bamboo (deforestation).

Author Wearing an outfit made out synthetic fibers

How do we translate this in practice ? Here are 5 ways:

For summer clothes, skip cotton and choose linen, hemp, and organic cotton instead.

Here’s why:Cotton, although a natural fiber, is one of the most environmentally intensive materials.
Cotton needs a lot of pesticides and fertilizer to grow and consumes a lot of water. It takes around 700 gallons of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt. Cotton is grown using genetically modified seeds. We tend to think of genetic modification as a food issue, but cotton is one of the world’s major genetically modified crops. GM crops present a host of environmental issues, including soil and water pollution and threats to biodiversity.

Organic cotton is a more sustainable option because it is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and using non-GM seeds.Linen, hemp, and organic cotton are significantly less polluting. Linen and hemp in particular are highly sustainable materials, they don’t need pesticides or fertilizers to grow and require little water. Organic cotton is a more sustainable option because it is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and using non-GM seeds

For your winter wardrobe, pass on cashmere in favor of alpaca.

Here’s why: When goats graze (cashmere, is a fiber obtained from cashmere goats and other types of goat), they pull grasses from the root, whereas sheep and alpaca only eat the grass at the surface, preserving the root system. Overgrazed, soil can’t store water or nutrients and slowly transforms into barren soil. Due to overgrazing for cashmere production, 90% of the land in Mongolia is experiencing some form bareness. It’s not cashmere that is unsustainable, it’s these unprecedented volumes of cashmere production.

Alpaca have a light environmental footprint. They eat and drink very little and tread softly on the ground. If you choose alpaca that’s fair trade or from a cooperative, you also support development in Peru’s remote alpaca growing communities.

For athletic wear, swimwear, outerwear, and any clothing in general where you need the properties of synthetic materials, skip polyester and choose recycled post-consumer PET instead.

Here’s why : The plastic waste we generate can be recycled to form polyester fibres that can be used to make new clothing. There is a dual benefit here: we reduce plastic waste and simultaneously decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, which in turn reduces GHG emissions. There are a growing number of companies, including Ecoalf, Odina Surf, Teeki, Patagonia and Nike making clothing and accessories using recycled plastics. This doesn’t address all of the problems associated with synthetic materials, but it does take a step in the right direction. Due to micro-plastic shedding issue the most sustainable solution right now is not buying fleece and other synthetic fabrics, although eliminating synthetic clothing from society’s wardrobe would be nearly impossible now, when you consider that most people live in their ‘leisure wear.’ Opt for natural fibers whenever possible.

Not buying more than you absolutely need and wearing it to the end of its life cycle, as well as investing in a front-loading washing machine and hang-drying clothes, are other helpful steps to take. Wash as little as possible; spot-wash as much as you can.

For evening wear, choose silk

Here’s why: Silk is a natural, durable, yet biodegradable material that has a very low environmental impact. As the technology to spin polyester fibers improves, polyester is making its way more and more into our evening wear – but we don’t need plastic in our evening gowns. Choose pieces made of 100% silk instead, even if that means buying vintage or second-hand.

Steer away from blended fibers when you can.

Here’s why: Blended fibers are those made from mixing two or more different materials together. For example, jeans are very often comprised of a blend of cotton and elastane, which makes the jeans a bit stretchier . Clothing made of blended fibers cannot be recycled., because the technology doesn’t exist to separate the fibers yet. Because we are producing, consuming and turning over such a high volume of clothing, recycling fibers is an important way to reduce our use of virgin raw materials. So whenever possible, favor clothes made exclusively from a single material.

  • Written byVictoria Onken

    Victoria Onken, lives in Amsterdam and writes about her passion which is sustainable and vintage fashion. She helps us make the right choices when buying clothes so that one can look good and help the environment at the same time. Visit her website; STYLEMEGREEN


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