Decades ago, clothes were built to last and styles were timeless. These days, fabrics are cheap, fads are passing, and the realities of our disposable wardrobes are stark. Sustainable fashion means you’ve been given the information of where the clothing comes from, who makes it and what it’s processed with to ensure the item is worthy of the eco-friendly message it’s sporting.
Organic Cotton is cropping up everywhere including retail stores and big brand names. This is a good thing: conventionally grown cotton packs a huge pesticide punch and is one of the most chemical-laden crops in the world. “Supporting the organic cotton industry is a big green step,” says Rob Grand, owner of Grassroots Environmental Products. “It’s not just your own health you’re supporting when you buy organic cotton but also an economy and a method of agriculture that’s good for the planet.”
But if the organic cotton you purchase isn’t also assured to be fair trade, or is processed using conventional dyes, or treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde to keep it from wrinkling on its trip overseas, that cute T-shirt is still leaving a sizeable footprint on the earth. Labels won’t tell you everything and that you have to dig deeper to get the whole story. Whenever possible, try to buy organic cotton in the shades it’s naturally grown in: cream, pale green, and light brown. Also look for garments that are coloured using natural or vegetable-based dyes or bear credible labels (such as Eco-Cert) indicating the product is certified organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly.
Silk is inherently natural because it’s made by silk worms, not chemical-based synthetic processing. Peace silk or vegan silk (it’s always clearly labeled, so accept no substitutes) is an alternative to normal silk, where the silk worms are boiled after they finished working. Peace silk is made from the worm casings gathered only after the moths have emerged and moved on. Also try looking for silk that’s been dyed naturally and made as close to home as possible.
Bamboo receives lots of eco-buzz because it’s easy to grow without pesticides and is quick to replenish itself. Another bonus is that bamboo fabric is naturally antibacterial and repels odour. It’s when the processing starts that it potentially loses its eco status: “Bamboo can be beautiful, and is a very soft fabric, but there’s a chemical component to the manufacture that’s pretty toxic,” says Grand.
Regular polyester is made from petroleum, which is a byproduct of processing oil, and far from eco-friendly. While it still requires heavy processing, companies are now finding ways to create polyester out of recycled plastic bottles or even recycled polyester fabric. Polyester is likely greenest when it’s vintage.
Lyocell is the generic name for the Tencel brand. It’s made from wood pulp, so it’s both biodegradable and recyclable. Producing this fabric involves less emissions, energy, and water usage than other more conventional fabrics, and it doesn’t get bleached, either. Plus it’s naturally wrinkle-free, so you don’t need to waste time or energy on ironing! Not all lyocell fabric is made from sustainable wood, though, so check labels carefully. And, as usual, try to find a product that’s been dyed with a low-chemical or vegetable colourant.
Hemp has been touted as the ultimate eco-friendly fabric because it requires no chemicals to grow. It’s also extremely versatile, and can be used to create strong, sturdy fabrics – even rope – or soft, delicate items (think comfy pajamas or a soft nightgown). Hemp is unfortunately not very well regulated, which means there’s little monitoring of the chemicals the crop may have come in contact with or where it was grown. The claim that it’s antibacterial, similar to claims about bamboo, has also yet to be fully authenticated and might be more about marketing than truth.
As anyone who has ever caressed a cashmere cardigan knows, the fabric is luxurious. The fibre comes from combing out the under-hairs of Kashmir goats, a breed native to the Himalayas but now raised worldwide. Perhaps best of all from en eco-perspective, it’s also long-lasting. However, cheap cashmere has become popular but to keep its price down, has probably been treated with chemicals and dyed with carcinogenic dyes, so be wary of such inter. A truly green cashmere piece will likely be an investment but you’ll also keep it for a lifetime – making it one of the most eco-friendly wardrobe items you own.
True linen is made from flax, a crop that requires very little pest-controlling chemicals. It’s also best when it’s a teeny bit wrinkly, so you can conserve energy by putting away the iron. Look for linen in natural shades, or dyed with natural dyes. Try to purchase linen that’s been made by an eco-certified clothing or fabric company.