Learning more about the production process that goes into making fabrics and where they go after use can go a long way if you’re seeking to minimize the environmental impact of your wardrobe. The following guide to fabrics is hardly comprehensive, but it’s a good introduction to points worth considering next time you’re out shopping.
- Linen: Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, which can be grown on rough terrain that’s unsuitable for food production. What’s especially attractive about linen as a fabric is that it doesn’t require chemicals for cultivation and processing. The downside – when conventional linen is processed into the fabric from the flax plant, it’s usually done in rivers or waterways, leaving behind a high amount of pollutants, such as agrochemicals, as well as natural waste.
- Cotton: Cotton makes up a quarter of all fabric used in clothing, furniture, and other textile blends, including rayon and synthetics. There are many attributes that make cotton a good fabric: it is durable, breathable, and highly versatile. Not to mention, it is also biodegradable, which is a huge plus, considering the damage being caused by synthetic fabrics. The problem, however, is that cotton requires a tremendous amount of water, pesticides, and arable land, making it a resource hog. Organic cotton can improve the chemical effect, but it tends to require more land because crop yields decrease.
- Wool: Besides relying on animals to source it, the wool may be the most environmentally friendly option. Wool is tough, wrinkle-resistant, good at retaining shape, and it holds colorful dyes without relying on chemicals. What’s more, wool is a good substitute for many water-resistant synthetics used for making outdoor gear, without the risk of shedding microfibers into the environment. The biggest issue with wool is the methane emissions from burping sheep. An estimated 50 percent of the wool’s carbon footprint comes from the sheep themselves. These sheep, however, are usually raised on non-arable land.
- Rayon & Modal: These synthetic fabrics are both made from cellulose. Modal sources cellulose from softwood trees and viscose rayon usually gets it from bamboo. While the raw crop is biodegradable, transforming it into fabric requires carbon disulfide, which can cause serious problems for Rayon workers. The source of cellulose is also questionable. The fabric for rayon clothes made in China, for example, likely comes from Indonesia, where bamboo plantations are often associated with deforestation.
- Polyester. Polyester is currently the king of the garment industry, found in 60 percent of clothing. Stretchiness, durability, and comfort, are all attributes that make it the perfect candidate for many applications. It is important though to bear in mind that polyester is essentially a plastic manufactured from crude oil. The material is also the culprit behind the release of plastic microfibers into waterways every time it’s washed. These eventually make their ways into lakes and oceans and last for an indefinite period of time.