Have you ever wondered about the materials that are touching your skin every day? Is it cotton, wool or something completely different? How are those materials made and how sustainable are they? These are questions that came up for us when we looked in our closets and discovered a wide assortment of materials that we knew little about.
After an extensive research, we created a list with the most common materials that are used in clothing and other fiber-based products. It is crucial to look at these materials and understand their environmental impact. These substances have to be grown, harvested and produced, and after they have made their way to our closets, we need to wash them regularly. All these steps come with consequences that sometimes are more harmful than we might think.
Clothing brands are required to list materials used in the clothing when they constitute more than 5% of the garment. Some companies list all materials, even if some are present in less than 5%. However, brands are not required to list the origin of the material. According to the Ethical Fashion Report 2019, only 9% of companies and brands knew the origin (the place where the material comes from) of their clothing. Besides, companies must show the origin where the item was produced, however not every step of the process takes place in the same country. Asket, a Swedish brand, is a positive example that shows all the steps of a garment on their label.
For certain materials, we have highlighted a few brands that focus on that material and are environmentally engaged in their practices. Supporting these brands instead of fast fashion companies is a vote for a more sustainable and transparent consumption.
Keep this list close to you the next time you are shopping for a new or second hand garment to make the best choice for you and the environment.
Plant-based fibers (cellulose)
Cellulose fibers are plant-based fibers made of branches, leaves, or other parts of a plant. These ancient fibers have been used already 34.000 (!) years ago for clothing, furniture, isolation and food.
Cotton is a natural material made of the seeds and flowers of the cotton plant. It is one of the most used materials in the fashion industry next to polyester. Cotton grows in warm climates such as in India, China, or Texas. It needs a lot of water and needs a lot of land to grow.
Most cotton plants are treated with pesticides – toxic chemicals that prevent the cotton from any damage from bugs, bacteria, or mold. These chemicals not only enter the plant and, during the transformation, the fiber and eventually the clothing item, but they also penetrate the soil where the cotton was growing.
When growing and harvesting organic cotton no chemicals and pesticides are used, leaving the fiber as pure as possible. That is the main reason why organic cotton, in most cases, is more expensive.
Most cotton farms have to sow new cotton seeds every year. The seeds of the cotton can be used for cotton oil and other food supplements. The branches and roots of the plant are a waste product.
Brand: Babaá , Organic Basics , Paloma-Wool
Linen is a natural fiber from the flax plant and the oldest fiber discovered by archeologists. Flax grows all over the world, also in Europe and The Netherlands. The inside stem of the flax plant is used to make fiber from the plant.
Linen is a very light and breathable fabric therefore perfect for a summer dress, a light coat, or a blouse. Linen does wrinkle but after 3-4 washings the material becomes softer and does not wrinkle as much as when it was new.
The flax seeds are used as a food supplement. They are full of Omega 3 fats and can be added to salads and yogurt bowls.
Brand: Linenfox , Babaá , Paloma-Wool
Hemp-based textiles are made of the Cannabis sativa plant. As with linen, the stem of the plant is used for the textile. Hemp is a very strong and breathable material. Sailors’ ropes were made of hemp before synthetic materials replaced them.
Other parts of the plant, such as the roots are used for medicine or paper. The seeds can be used for replanting the plant or for food supplements such as oils. Hemp is also widely used as a hallucinative and psychoactive substance, however the Cannabis sort that is grown for fibers does not contain enough THC to be used as a drug.
Because of the wide variety of uses, hemp is one of the least wasted sorts of fibers. It is also a CO2 negative plant, which means that it removes CO2 from the atmosphere and holds it for a long time. When the plant is cut down, very little of the CO2 is released, making the plant sustainable for farming.
Brand: Hempje , Patagonia
Animal-based fibers (protein)
Animal-based fibers are from animal origin, such as the fur or a skin of an animal. These methods have not been around for so long since animals have been domesticated only 8.000 – 10.000 years ago. Animal fibers have great characteristics such as keeping you warm, cold or being very flexible to use. These fibers are still considered natural instead of man-made. However, negative environmental impacts, such as land use, cattle feed and animal cruelty, are the dark side of the coin.
Wool is a widely known material used in clothing, isolation, and furniture. Wool comes from sheared sheep. As a result, the animal does not have to be put down but lives further after being sheared. However, when a sheep is sheared too early in the spring, it might freeze to death because of lack of natural protection against the cold. Next to that, in some farms sheep are treated in bad conditions that increases the stress and health factor of animals.
After shearing the sheep, the wool is carded and spun into yarn. Then, the yarn is washed and dyed. The yarn can be used to knit or weave clothing.
Wool, as a natural fiber, is biodegradable, recyclable, reusable, flame resistant and breathable. Many baby products are made of wool instead of synthetic materials. On the contrary, synthetic materials have a much lower flame resistance and can release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere when heated. However, children and adults are not warned against these factors, it is only mentioned on baby products.
Brand: Babaá , Paloma-Wool
Alpaca wool originates from South America. The characteristics of alpaca wool, in contrast to sheep wool, is hypoallergenic because it does not contain lanolin. It is naturally water- and flame- resistant. In addition, alpaca wool is warmer and softer than sheep wool, therefore it is less prickly to the skin.
Alpaca wool is recyclable and compostable as well.
Cashmere is made from the fleece of cashmere goats. It is much softer, lighter, and longer than sheep wool. However, it is also much more expensive.
Cashmere goats are from the Himalayas where temperatures can go way below -20 Celsius degrees. Therefore, the animals have been growing incredibly thick and warm fleece for themselves.
Cashmere goats produce way less wool than sheep or alpaca. Because of this, the fiber is very limited and only collected once a year. The goats are not sheared but combed for their wool, which takes extra time as well. The rest of the production process is very similar to other wool fibers.
Angora wool is made from the fur of Angora rabbits. These animals have extremely thin, soft, and warm fur. They produce very little wool per year. Because of this, Angora wool is one of the most expensive sorts of wool there is.
However, there are many ethical concerns regarding wearing Angora wool. Most Angora rabbits are plucked alive without any sedatives. As a result, the rabbits die from stress while being plucked. Besides, these animals are kept in small cages that often never see any dayligh. In the last couple of years, many brands have stopped using Angora wool in their collection because of animal cruelty. However, there are still brands using this type of wool, so check the labels to avoid them.
Petition against using rabbit wool
Silk is made by the silkworm when the worm creates a cocoon. Production of silk was developed in ancient China around 9.000 years ago. The cocoon is boiled to make silk thread. During this process, the worm is still inside the cocoon, being boiled alive. A single thread, which can become hundreds of metres long, requires 30-40 cocoons at the same time.
Silk is one of the finest and most luxurious fibers. It is mostly used in formal wear, such as blazers, pantalons, dresses, suits, but also in lingerie. It has a cooling effect, making it an ideal material for summer dresses, blouses and light jackets.
Alternative for silk is Tencel. Studio Jux and Organic Basics have a great assortment of Tencel garments.
Leather / suede
Leather and suede aremade of skins of sheep, cow or other domesticated animals. Leather can be a waste product of the meat industry but there are cows kept especially for their leather (as in the case of Italian leather).
Leather is a very flexible material, it can be used as a hard basis for shoes but it can also be softened by chemical processes. Leather is a very durable and also waterproof material. Because it is made of a natural, animal-based material, it is also compostable, however the chemicals used during the process to soften and dye the leather make it harder to decompose.
Suede is made of the underside of the animal skin, which makes it softer. It has a napped effect that makes the material less durable yet softer than leather.
Brand: Miista , Alohas , Paloma-Wool
Fur & exotic leathers
Fur is made of thick hair that grows on wild animals such as bears, foxes or rabbits. The use of fur in clothing has become controversial but fur clothing is still a large market, especially for luxury brands. Illegal fur, especiallyexotic fur, such as of a tiger or leopard, is still sold on the black market, speeding up the extinction of certain species.
Next to fur, there are exotic sorts of leather, such as alligator skin, snake skin or ostrich skin (and feathers). The use of exotic and wild skin in clothing has become controversial as well but luxury brands still use them in their collections.
Petition against using fur
Semi-synthetic fibers are fibers made of wood pulp. The fibers are called semi-synthetic because the process of making fiber from wood takes a lot of chemicals, therefore can not be called completely natural. However, these fibers are developing faster than before, improving the sustainability of the process.
Viscose and rayon are fibers made of wood pulp, usually beech wood or other agricultural wood waste. The wood becomes soft enough to spin fiber from it in a chemical process. A lot of trees need to be cut down for viscose production, creating a debate that bridges deforestation with the usage of natural materials instead of synthetic ones.
Viscose has the same characteristics as silk or wool. It can mimic the material very well, which makes it a vegan variant.
Tencel is quite a new material, made of eucalyptus wood. Eucalyptus can be cut down but will regrow again from the same stem, making it sustainable to harvest. Tencel uses a chemical process as well, however it has developed a closed loop system where the chemicals can be used multiple times before dissolving them.
Tencel has the same characteristics as silk, if not better. It is a very soft and light material, however it is surprisingly warm in the winter months as well.
Brand: Organic Basics , Jux
Synthetic clothing, such as polyester, acrylic or nylon, are made of fossil fuels. Effectively, this means that they are made of plastic since plastic products and packaging are also fossil fuel-based. Fossil fuels need millions of years to become the oil that we dig up to create single-use and synthetic products from.
During the washing of synthetic clothing, microplastics and microfibers are released and they end up in the water systems. Eventually, they reach rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. Smaller fish cannot tell the difference between microplastics and microorganisms, so they eat plastic that comes from our clothing. Bigger fish eat smaller fish and they end up on our plate with microplastics in their stomach.
Synthetic fibers have been widely used commercially since the 1950s. They are flexible and waterproof, making them ideal for sportswear, raincoats, or swimwear. However, synthetic fibers, such as acrylic or polyester, do not absorb water. Therefore, odors and bacteria from the armpits will stay on the skin instead of being absorbed by the garment. That is the reason why many people experience more sweating and smells while wearing synthetic clothing. Wool and cotton are ideal materials that absorb water and sweat making it better for the skin to wear.
We recommend avoiding buying synthetic clothing, as well as buying it second hand when possible. It may also be a good idea to install a filter on your washing machine. Older models of washing machines do not have the right filters against microplastics. Newer models are coming with built-in filters for microplastics but they can also be purchased separately. Read more in our Cleaning tips article.
List of synthetic materials: Polyester, Acrylic, Nylon, Elastane/Spandex, Polyamide, Faux-Fur and more!
The term ‘vegan leather’ can be used for all kinds of fibers and materials that mimic animal-derived leather. Synthetic materials can also be called ‘vegan leather’, which makes choosing a right product more complicated.
However, there are companies that experiment with the usage of fruit and vegetable waste to make leather from it, such as Fruit Leather Rotterdam, Pinatex, and Komrads.
Biodegradable: Only if the blend is a natural fiber
Microplastic: Yes, when the blend contains synthetic fiber
Blends such as 50% cotton and 50% polyester might be more durable but can not be recycled as of now. Blends that come from different groups, such as plant-based and synthetic, can not be recycled or composted making it a useless fiber when discarded and adding to waste pollution.
Blends such as cotton-linen or cotton-silk can be composted but not recycled. Recycling is developing rapidly at the moment and in the near future these blends might be recyclable, but as of now they are causing more harm than good in the long run.
We hope that this guide will help you shop more consciously. If you have any questions regarding fibers, send us a DM on Instagram or an email at email@example.com.
List of plant based fibers: https://www.textileschool.com/379/natural-cellulose-fibres-natures-own-fibres/
List of impact of materials from Milieu Centraal: https://www.milieucentraal.nl/bewust-winkelen/love-your-clothes/de-impact-van-kleding/kledingstoffen-en-milieu/
Ancient fibers research: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2009/09/oldest-known-fibers-discovered/
How a t-shirt can make a difference by National Geographic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHgNoSYlhYs
How is cotton made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHgNoSYlhYs
From Sheep to Cloth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngLoJxssEao
Modern wool production by Woolmark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yafkK0uk65U
Why is cashmere so expensive?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fy1suDnO3o
How is silk made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqFm_7KyfHI
How is viscose made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcxcPVX5ejY
How is polyester made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYkglUysDKk