Green doesn’t have to be your favorite color for you wear it well! Figuring out whether fabric is sustainable and socially responsible is a much harder task than identifying the color, unfortunately.
Here’s Green America's ranking of the most popular fabrics, with expert advice from Kari Morales of OrganicCottonPlus.com, a company that sells eco-friendly textiles, yarns, and notions, and Barkha Malik of Barkha’s Custom Sourcing, a consultancy firm that specializes in sourcing and producing sustainable fabrics and finished goods in apparel, gifts, and furnishings industries.
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Best of the best: Organic cotton and linen
While both organic and conventional cotton take a lot of water to grow, organically grown cotton requires no chemical fertilizers and pesticides, says Malik. Wearing certified organic cotton is a great step toward sustainability. Malik stresses that making sure those organic cotton pieces are GOTS and Fairtrade certified mean that you’re supporting both planet and people. See more about certifications at greenamerica.org/ethical-fashion.
Linen, which is made from the flax fiber, the same plant that makes the seeds you might add to smoothies, is another greenest pick. Linen takes a lot less water to grow than cotton, even non-organic linen. Linen is naturally pest-resistant and will also eventually biodegrade, which is a good thing! In the meantime, it will get softer with wear.
Other natural fibers:
Bamboo is another plant-based fiber, but worth having some wariness around, says Malik, because when it’s made into bamboo rayon, it is a chemical-intensive and wasteful process. But if you find the course woven material that is more like linen, bamboo can be a good choice.
“The natural fibers are all good—they are breathable, absorbent, and comfortable to wear. They are recyclable, and also biodegradable when no longer usable,” says Morales. “Hemp and flax [linen] are naturally pest resistant. Wool is both warm and cool, wicks moisture, and can absorb a lot of moisture without losing its insulating properties.”
Malik does not recommend wool or silk as they are not vegan, but recognizes others do. Silk is problematic because it involves killing thousands of silkworm cocoons—according to PETA, these animals can feel pain, making new silk production an unethical business. Wool production does not kill sheep, but that doesn’t mean all wool is sustainable and cruelty-free. Look for sustainability text on the company’s website if you are buying new wool.
Leather comes from nature, of course, but both it and its counterpart pleather (plastic leather) have a dark side.
On conventional cotton: Neither expert recommends conventional cotton, which means cotton that has not been produced with organic guidelines. Cotton is extremely water-intensive and chemical-intensive when grown non-organic.
Yes, there is a gray area between natural fibers that come from plants and animals, and synthetic fibers that are made by chemicals.
Rayon, modal, viscose, lyocell, are technically made from tree pulp, but undergo very chemical-intensive manufacturing process to become the silky smooth, soft fabrics we know.
Both the tree source and chemical processing can change these fibers from not-so-green to somewhat green. The Forest Stewardship Council does certify tree sources for sustainable management, just as you may see the FSC tree on a greeting card or pack of printer paper, though it is not the norm.
Both Morales and Malik say if you are going with a semi-synthetic, the fiber called TENCEL and other products made by the company Lenzing are preferable because Lenzing uses a zero-waste circular process for chemicals so it does not result in the same level of chemical waste as conventional rayon.
Synthetic fibers polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, Lyrcra, and elastane (also known as Spandex) are all commonly used because they are cheap to produce and quicker than growing crops.
The fact is, these materials are not good for the earth as they are made using chemical heavy processes, are petroleum-based so come from fossil fuels, and are not biodegradable, so will remain on Earth forever. Avoid buying synthetic materials when you can; though they are popular for sports clothing, consider buying natural versions, like performance wool and silk garments (preferably thrifted), which have the same wicking properties, as Morales says. Though they will be a larger upfront cost, look for those long-lasting pieces in thrift stores in your area or online.
Of blended fabrics, Morales says textiles that have synthetic fibers mixed with natural (like jeans that are 2% elastane, or a sweater that’s a 50/50 blend of acrylic and wool) are very unlikely be able to be recycled or biodegrade, unlike items that are not blended and totally plant- or animal-derived.
You may have seen companies touting new innovations where polyester is made from plastic water bottles and other plastic items are recycled into textiles and made into clothes. That trend has good intentions and companies may think they are doing the green thing by sourcing those fabrics, says Malik, but making fabrics out of plastics doesn’t address that those garments will still shed microplastics every time they are washed.