By Sica Schmitz
Founder of Bead & Reel, frequent speaker, writer, and sustainable stylist.
There is a lot of debate about what fabrics are considered actually sustainable, which are the best option to choose as a brand and as a shopper, and how to avoid greenwashing when trying to decide what to put on your body.
So, this week I’m giving you all the right answers.
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
— BRUNDTLAND REPORT
Sustainability is complicated. I mean, it doesn’t even have an agreed-upon definition, especially when it comes to fashion. And fabric is very complicated, with a variety of supply chain steps and environmental impacts and personal preferences to take into account.
I think the best place to start is within your own values: what matters most to you? (this is probably a really good question to meditate on in general, though it might lead you down quite the rabbit hole!). Some things to consider might be: avoiding child labor, avoiding slave labor, ensuring a living wage, how it feels on your skin, what toxins might be entering the earth, what toxins might be entering your body, avoiding animal products, staying within your budget, and many many many more angles you could ponder. And this is just the fabric! So you have to keep in mind that it may not always be possible to prioritize every single one of your values in every single garment you acquire, but I really believe that it’s important to strive towards intention and not perfection.
When it comes to fabric choices what I most recommend is: do your research, do your best, and know that with sustainable fabrics (and probably life in generally) there’s really no such thing as a 100% perfect option, but, that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of really good options.
A quick note on vegan fabrics:
I’m not going to get into the sustainability debate of vegan leather vs. animal leather in this piece. As a vegan, feminist, and member of #MeToo, my first priority is always the safety and autonomy of other bodies and so I do not promote, support, or wear fashion that explicitly use other bodies without consent, no matter how biodegradable or vegetable tanned it might be. That’s my own #1 value, and I’ve already written about my other reasons for choosing vegan fabrics here.
A quick note on style:
I’m 6 months pregnant in these photos. None of these item are maternity clothes (unless notated) but they still work great on bodies in a variety of sizes, shapes, and stages.
Cotton is a very popular fabric natural fiber (meaning it comes from a plant… or animal) known to be soft and breathable and comfortable.
While cotton can be problematic (which I’ve written about before) with some pretty deep environmental issues (like high levels of insecticide, pesticide, and and water use) and human rights violations (like child labor and forced labor and contributing to health issues among cotton workers), conventional cotton is not inherently evil or unsustainable.
Part of sustainability is considering the full production and life cycle of a garment, so many small fair trade brands will choose cotton and fabrics which are local to where they manufacture in an effort to cut down on the cost and carbon footprint of importing cotton from elsewhere. Recycled cotton fabrics and second hand cotton garments are also great ways to add some sustainability to conventional cotton as well.
Organic cotton helps avoid many of the pitfalls of traditional cotton. It uses less chemicals, often has labor standards in place (especially when it’s certified), and is non-GMO.
It’s not perfect: it’s still quite water intensive to grow compared to other crops and tends to be more expensive than conventional cotton, but as demand increases (meaning, every time we purchase it), prices continue to fall, so that’s neat.
A word of caution: “organic” is sometimes one of those terms like “fair trade” which sounds good and therefore gets used a lot but can be misleading, so I always recommend you either look for organic certifications or stick with brands you trust (since, certifications are great but can be expensive and time-intensive, so, they aren’t always practical for small farmers and small brands).
Other organic natural fibers include hemp and linen, which are covered more in depth here.
Bamboo fabric (more appropriately called viscose) often gets touted as a totally sustainable fabric or equally disparaged as a green-washed fraud, and I think it depends how you define “sustainable” to determine which is more true.
This semi-synthetic is made from a fast growing, low intervention plant which requires much less water than cotton, so that could definitely be considered agriculturally sustainable. But in order to turn this rough fiber into a wearable, comfortable cloth it goes through an intense chemical process which can end up both in our environment and our skin. But it also tends to be less expensive than cotton and other natural fabrics which can be really important for the viability of small brands and small batch productions and individual shopper budgets. And it’s suuuuuuuper soft.
So what’s the conclusion on bamboo? That’s up to you!
Other viscose fabrics include modal, lyocell, and rayon, which are covered more in depth here.
Synthetics are (wo)man-made fabrics derived from plastic – basically petroleum. These are typically considered the least sustainable of fibers, but, as with everything, there’s always some complexity.
Plastic and petroleum obviously come with and cause a variety of issues, but, 100% synthetic garments are easily recyclable (at the proper facility), tend to offer excellent stretch and strength, can to be quite long-lasting (which can be a pro for your closet but a con for our environment) and can have a lot of high tech properties which can be really ideal for athletic and recreational attire. Additionally, synthetics can make super realistic substitutes for wool, leather, silk, or fur (and, we’ve already established my stance on this).
Other synthetics include nylon, polyester, and spandex, which are covered in more detail here.
Rayon Georgette Dress: Symbology (okay, this is a semi-synthetic and not a true synthetic, but I included it here because I apparently don’t have any synthetic dresses… and isn’t it cute?)
Recycled Polyamide & Elastane Maternity Tights: Boob
Vegan Leather Shoes: Bhava
Not-Synthetic Metal Cuff: By Natalie Frigo
Remnant fabrics essentially mean leftover fabrics. This can be entire rolls of unused fabrics which are sold to other brands (often called deadstock – some major fashion brands end up with warehouses full of deadstock!), or it could mean taking scraps and weaving or blending them together to create an entirely new fabric (often called zero waste).
With this approach no new resources are needed to make new fabric, but you may not always know exactly what the content of your garment actually is, which can be a bit tricky if you have allergies or are trying to avoid certain fibers.
As with all fashion (and life), I truly don’t think there is an inherently right or wrong answer. The most important thing is to check in with your values, find brands and styles you really love, and plan to keep whatever you do buy or acquire for as long as you possibly can.
The most sustainable fabrics are the ones which are well-loved and kept long term.
Also read: THE MYTH OF SUSTAINABLE LEATHER