And we’re back! Welcome to Part 2 of Get To Know Your Fibers. Next up: Natural fibers.
Now, in many ways, natural fabrics can be better for the environment. However, just because something is labeled as “natural” doesn’t mean it is truly eco-friendly.
Natural fibers come from plants and animals. They are often touted as eco-friendly alternatives to the chemically-intensive procedures involved in synthetic fabric production (if you haven’t already - make sure to check out Part 1 where we cover man-made fibers). But, as our friends at Good On You so eloquently ask, “If it takes nearly three thousand litres of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt, is it really more sustainable?”¹
Let’s do a deep-dive on the common natural fibers out there.
As the world’s most popular fabric, cotton is light, breezy, and overall comfortable to wear. But for many years now, cotton production has taken a serious toll on the environment. Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop which grows in arid conditions and uses tons of water to produce.
Yet, there is a better alternative! Go organic. There are no chemicals or pesticides used in the production of organic cotton. This makes it safer to harvest, safer to wear, and much better for the environment. It does, however, still take a good amount of water to produce the crop.
Next time you’re on the hunt for clothing made of cotton, check the label with accreditations from the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or the Fairtrade Textile Standard to ensure the standard of the cotton.¹
Who doesn’t love a nice pair of linen pants in the summertime?
Linen yarn is derived from the flax plant, which requires minimal water or pesticides and even grows in poor-quality soil. When it’s untreated, linen is a biodegradable fabric, meaning you don’t need to worry about it taking forever to degrade in a landfill. It’s also highly durable and becomes softer and more pliable the more you wash it.¹ Gotta love that!
Like linen, hemp also requires very little water, no pesticides, and naturally fertilizes the soil it grows in. Added bonus: it can be incredibly soft!
Jute is a natural fiber derived from plants. The long, soft and shiny fibers are spun into coarse, strong threads to make things like burlap, bags, household items, and even rugs. It’s also referred to as the ‘golden fiber’ due to its color and cost-effectiveness. Being plant-based, however, jute biodegrades relatively quickly, and it isn’t known for its long-term durability in outdoor applications.
Silk has a long history of being one of the most luxurious fabrics in the world - probably because the process is rather delicate. The fibers that make silk are spun from the threads of a silkworm cocoon. The worms subsist on mulberry leaves, which are resistant to pollution and easy to cultivate. However, silk producers often boil the cocoon in order to extract the fibres, killing the worms in the process.¹ Animal cruelty? No thank you.
Ahimsa silk, also known as ‘peace silk’, is a cruelty-free version which allows the moth to evacuate the cocoon before it is boiled.
Wool as a fiber has many great qualities: it’s biodegradable, often recyclable, durable, anti-bacterial, breathable, and wrinkle-resistant. It can be worn many times before washing, leading to lower energy and water consumption and a longer life span for the garment overall.
However, as with any mass-produced natural fabrics, there are some major ethical terms to consider. Mulesing in the wool industry can be an extremely cruel act towards the animals, and is even in the process of being banned worldwide. When buying wool, look for standards and certifications that ensure the fair treatment of animals and the respect of the environment, such as the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), and the ZQ Merino Standard.²
You can also look out for clothing made from recycled wool, and of course buying second-hand or vintage wool items are also great options to consider as well.
I think you can see where we’re going with this one. Yes, there are many that love a staple leather jacket in our wardrobes, but there are definitely other ways to achieve the look without harming animals.
Animal hide is extremely profitable, and often animals are killed strictly for their skin. This makes leather a “co-product” of the meat industry, thus we are, in a way, supporting animal slaughter when we buy conventional leather.³
Also keep in mind that not all leather alternatives are great for the environment. The most common type of faux leather is PVC (polyvinyl chloride) leather, which is essentially a non-biodegradable plastic-based man-made fabric that uses chemical and intense amounts of resources to create.
On the bright side, an eco-friendly alternative to conventional leather does exist. Just look for upcycled or recycled leather (vintage thrift shopping, anyone?).
In summary - to shop consciously, check labels for the fiber content, do your research, and trace it back to its source before purchasing an item!
P.S. - Remember, even if a fiber is seen as natural or sustainable, the way it’s dyed and how it’s handled matters. If an eco-friendly fiber like GOTS-certified organic cotton is dyed using harmful chemicals, this can negate the “sustainability” of the overall fabric.
¹ Farr, Alexis. “Label Lingo: Everything You Need to Know About Natural Fabrics.” Good On You, 11 Mar. 2020, https://goodonyou.eco/everything-about-natural-fabrics.
² Williams, Imogen. “Material Guide: How Ethical Is Wool?” Good On You, 11 Nov. 2019, https://goodonyou.eco/material-guide-ethical-wool.
³ Rauturier, Solene. “The Hidden Costs of Leather.” Good On You, 15 Apr. 2020, https://goodonyou.eco/the-hidden-costs-of-leather.