You would like to buy clothes or textile home decor products as a gift or for yourself, but you are unsure of what is actually eco-friendly fabric. Moreover, you have heard of fast fashion and how bad is it for the environment or for the people who work in the industry. You don’t want to take part in it. Let’s explore this together.
This is a very hard question (same as any question starting with “what is the most eco-friendly…”), but looking at the whole cycle of a textile: growing or sourcing of the raw material, production, durability of use, and the possibility of composting or recycling, the most eco-friendly natural fabrics are linen and hemp, followed by bamboo linen and organic cotton. Thanks to new technologies, we can also find fabrics made of recycled old textiles or other plastic materials like water bottles. We must add to the list any item of clothing that we buy second-hand; avoiding it to go to the landfill before its time.
Change in customer behavior
I remember when I was a child, clothes were made to last for years. We didn’t renew the closet each year, or each season. And when something broke, my mom would amend it, instead of buying a new piece. Producers and consumers focused more on quality than quantity. Nowadays, the norm is to focus on the quantity, purchase new pieces of clothing each season. Several factors are causing this behavioral change, I will mention just three.
First, the quality declined, and the fabrics don’t last for very long, they will wear out in a very short time. The seems will break, the color will fade, the fabric will stretch, you name it. Some will call this planned obsolescence. The products are made to last a shorter time, so you are forced to buy more.
The second factor is perceived obsolescence, which means, we don’t want to appear out of fashion. The trends change each season, so we want the newest piece, in order to appear fashionable. We are convinced that we need a new item, even when the old item is still useful. This need is based on style rather than functionality.
Third, the price has declined significantly. There could be a whole article explaining how this is harmful to the people who are making the clothes in third world countries. We can afford to buy more.
I understand fast fashion as fashion trends changing really fast, items going from the catwalk to the consumer in no time, and trends changing every season or more often so that new clothes can be mass-produced and sold to the customers. This way, many clothing products are used just a few times before they end up in the landfills. The clothes are made with dyes and chemicals that will decompose in the landfill and cause environmental harm. The clothing industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world. One of the main factors to that is the vast number of items produced every single day.
So what to do to help lessen the impact?
In my opinion, there are a few things we, as consumers, can do in order to not participate in this. Realizing that cheap isn’t always cheap (the cost is just hidden in the misfortune of others), being mindful of knowing where the product came from, who and in what condition made it, choosing quality and durability over quantity, choosing materials that cause less harm, getting used to buying second hand, recycled or upcycled clothes, and re-purposing old clothes (fabric) we don’t use anymore.
If you want to learn more about what does it mean to be eco-friendly, check out this article where I cover everything from the product stages, materials, to certifications, and much more.
Let’s explore the materials, and how are they made.
Hemp has a long tradition of being used for clothing. Archeologists found remains of hemp textile in Iraq from 10.000 years ago! Traditional clothes in my native country (Slovakia) have always been mainly produced from hemp, linen, or wool. It is also very frequently used for making ropes. Unfortunately, in the modern age, this crop has been forgotten and substituted by other crops.
Hemp grows like a weed, it grows very densely ensuring high yield, doesn’t need much water, pesticides, or fertilizers, it’s biodegradable at the end of its life and it improves the quality of the soil. Hemp fabric is made from the stalk of the plant. The various stages of production can be done organically through a mechanical process that requires no chemicals. This process can be done faster and cheaper using chemicals; so we need to be mindful of the source of the hemp fabrics and be sure about their process and purchase the hemp processed the traditional way.
Hemp fiber is very strong so that it will last much longer than other materials. It feels similar to cotton, and it is a lightweight fabric, which means that it is highly breathable. It is naturally resistant to mold, and the fabric softens with each washing. Hemp can be used for T-shirts, dresses, hoodies, underwear, socks, other forms of apparel, and household textiles. At the end of the life cycle of hemp, the textile can be composted.
Some countries don’t allow planting of hemp because the plant is related to marihuana plants, although it contains negligible THC. It is produced in Europe, Asia or Canada.
Linen is made from flax plants and it is one of the oldest plants to use as fabric. It grows without the use of watering, it will grow well just using rainwater, the whole plant can be used for different products, so no waste is created, the production process is low-energy, it is naturally moth resistant, the fiber is inherently strong which makes it very durable, the final product is recyclable and biodegrade. The only disadvantages I could find are mostly aesthetic or practical, but not related to its environmental impact: it crinkles easily, has to be washed at low temperatures, and it’s hard to iron. I personally wash clothes with cold water and don’t iron, so I am good to go with linen!
Bamboo has been celebrated as one of the most eco-friendly materials. It is used to produce different kinds of products for different industries, it is renewable, grows really fast, doesn’t need fertilizers or chemicals for the growth, it even improves the soil quality, it doesn’t need to be replanted after the harvest as it self regenerate from the roots, and can grow in many climates. We can conclude that growing bamboo is very eco-friendly.
BUT when it comes to the production of the fabric, without going into much detail, the process of making nice soft bamboo textiles (the most common and most available kind) is not very eco-friendly, as it uses a lot of chemicals, and wastes a lot of water.
UNLESS we are talking about bamboo linen, a bit coarser fabric that is produced mechanically and without chemicals. Because the texture isn’t as desirable, and this process is expensive and more labor-intensive, it is harder to find.
Commercial cotton, on the other hand, is one of the thirstiest and most chemical-laden crops grown in the world. Cotton requires a large amount of insecticides and pesticides which affect the health of workers, as well as polluting the ground and water supply.
BUT organic cotton is a good sustainable option, which is grown without the use of pesticides, and GMOs, and using fewer resources, ensuring the farmers better health conditions. The cotton is still very labor-intensive, so better to look for fair trade products fo make sure that the workers and not being exploited. When buying cotton, definitely, look for fair trade and certified organic cotton (it will be more expensive).
Recently, some companies started to find ways to recycle old fabrics (or plastic materials such as water bottles) into new textiles. This was diminishing the amount of discarded clothing and other products going to landfills. This is great news and I am looking forward to these textiles to become more readily available. I found eco-friendly fabrics such as: NuCycl, Pure Waste Textiles, Repreve, Waste2Wear, and others.
One of the best ways to help the environment might be to prevent any item from going to the landfill before it fulfills its lifecycle. That is why shopping in second-hand stores for clothing can be a very eco-friendly option. In this case, you are giving an item a second chance. You are prolonging its life, so the material doesn’t matter so much if you buy it and use it as long as it’s usable. Despite what anyone might think, shopping in thrift stores is great. It’s cheap, you are helping the environment and you can find great items. I once bought Hugo Boss skirt for just a few dollars, I used it until somehow it got burned.
After I am done with a clothing item, I usually still will use it as a cloth to clean anything around the house, extending its life even more. And when I am done with that, if the fabric is biodegradable, I will compost it.
If you are also interested in eco-friendly yarns for your knitting or crocheting projects, check out my article with all the eco-friendly yarns explained.
Use in gifts
Eco-friendly fabrics can be used in many ways in gifts. Either pick a gift made from fabric, or you can even wrap a gift in fabric. I talk about using cloth around the house instead of paper in this article about saving the planet with gifts. You can easily change from paper towels, napkins, and a handkerchief to “unpaper” cloth towels, napkins, and handkerchiefs.
Wrap gifts in fabric
Also, you can use eco-friendly fabrics to wrap gifts. You can either sew gift bags to reuse for generations or learn a Japanese technique called Furoshiki.
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