You may have been someone who has decided it’s high time to start exercising regularly, finally get to cleaning up your eating habits, and even have started to look more closely at the ingredients in the beauty products you’re putting on your skin everyday. But how about the clothes you wear on your skin (your body's largest organ) everyday? Let’s take a closer look at the different types of materials (synthetic, natural and semi-synthetic) and the issues when it comes to their production.
1. Synthetic Materials
Synthetic materials are ones like nylon, polyester (the most common material in clothes), acrylic or rayon. These materials don’t exist in nature, but they’re “great” (cheap) for making clothes, so they’re produced in huge quantities in factories.
These factories are the hub and home to industrial manufacturing processes that uses petroleum as well as thousands of harmful toxic chemicals to transforms these materials into fibers. These fibers are made to feel soft and silky, but do you really want to wear them on your skin?
Plus, these synthetic materials are actually the biggest source of micro plastic pollution in the oceans. Indeed, up to 1900 fibers can be washed off one garment every time it is washed. So additionally to be bad for your skin and the environment, synthetic materials are also killing marine animals and poisoning our food.
Last but not least, the majority of synthetic materials are not biodegradable, meaning that it will sit in landfills for decades to centuries, slowly decomposing, leaving behind chemicals and dyes to contaminate local soil and groundwater.
2. Natural Materials
Natural materials, because they are plant materials, decompose quickly (1 to 5 months). Now, like our food, natural materials can come from different plants or animals.
When it comes to cotton, organic cotton is the way to go. Indeed, today, more than 90% of cotton is genetically modified. Runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and minerals from cotton fields contaminates rivers, lakes and wetlands. Countless studies have shown that exposure to pesticides could result in risk of cancer, neurological diseases or birth defects. The devastated consequences of pesticides in cotton fields have been seen all over the world, from India to Texas.
Linen and hemp are great material as they are highly sustainable and don’t need pesticides or fertilizers to grow, plus they require very little water.
Animal-based materials (definitely a no-go for Vegans) like wool, cashmere or silk can come from farms with vast differences in process and principles. Just like in the food industry, you can find the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The high demand of cheap cashmere in fast fashion has resulted in unprecedented volumes of cashmere productions and created dry land over almost 90 percent of Mongolia, often going hand in hand with animal cruelty. When it comes to choosing your next cashmere sweater, opt for sustainable cashmere practicing hand combing, the only cruelty-free technique.
Wool is a great material to keep you warm during winter. Like other natural fabrics though, mass production and processing of wool can have some bad environmental impacts or involve animal cruelty like mulesing. As with cashmere, it is safer to opt for organic wool from sustainable brands.
Silk is a durable and biodegradable material with a very low environmental impact. Polyester factories have long tried to imitate its softness but remember to check the tag when you purchase a "silk like" piece, nobody needs plastic in their clothes. Consider also to buy it vintage or second-hand as it is a very durable material.
3. Semi-synthetic materials
They are the ones that come from a natural source but need processing to transform that source into a fiber. They include bamboo, rayon (aka viscose), modal and lyocell (tencel).
Lyocell (tencel) is one of the best sustainable fabric. It is obtained from eucalyptus trees that don't need irrigation nor chemical pesticides or fertilizers to grow. The cellulose or ground pulp used for tencel is treated in what is known as a closed loop process in which these solvents are recycled with a recovery rate of 99.5%.
Bamboo and rayon are a bit more tricky... Rayon is considered semi-synthetic because it comes from wood pulp. However, its chemical conversion generates highly polluting air and water emissions. Its productions can also be harmful for workers.
As for bamboo, its natural source is very sustainable. It grows quickly, needs very little irrigation and doesn’t require chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But the majority of bamboo is produced in exactly the same way as rayon, involving a heavy chemical process that pollutes air and water. Bamboo linen is a cleaner and more sustainable material option, but it’s rarely used in the clothing industry.
When shopping for new clothes, a moderate and conscious approach is key. By familiarizing yourself with the materials you wear and the issues of clothes production, you are more armed to make empowered and thoughtful decisions. Remember, next time you pick up that cute top or cotton t-shirt to check the fabric tag and start aligning your wardrobe with your values!
To go further...
- "Wear no Evil" by Greta Eagan;
- "Overdressed, the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion" by Elizabeth L. Cline