Natural Fabrics — Which are the Most Sustainable?
Posted on June 07 2021
So you’ve decided to switch to sustainable fashion. Our hats off to you, wise and responsible fashion consumer!
But deciding to go green in your fashion choices is only the start of this long and often arduous journey. The next few steps? Research, research, and research!
Even before the switch, you probably already had an idea that natural fabrics are superior to synthetic fabrics in terms of sustainability. But does that mean that all natural fabrics are equally sustainable?
In fact, some of the most popular natural fabrics are terrible for the environment, the people who make them, and the economy!
With that knowledge, it’s time to roll up our sustainably-fabricated sleeves and decipher the sustainability factor of common natural fabrics.
What Are Natural Sustainable Fabrics?
In the fashion world, natural fabrics refer to any fabric extracted from natural sources. These sources could be animals or animals. Contrastingly, synthetic fabrics are synthetically manufactured from petroleum and by-products of natural gas.
But don’t be fooled; just because the fabrics are natural doesn’t necessarily mean they are sustainable.
On the contrary, natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, and linen, are conventionally extracted, manipulated, and sold in highly unethical and unsustainable ways. Then again, what else can we expect in our current global capitalist culture?
Recently, though, there has been a slow yet promising shift in the fashion industry. Some small-scale brands are producing fabrics that are:
- Environmentally sustainable, i.e., they use less natural resources and are biodegradable.
- Socially sustainable, i.e., they have a net positive impact on manufacturers, sellers, and buyers
- Economically sustainable, i.e., they preserve human and natural resources in the long term.
Of course, everyone has their own definition of sustainability, and we certainly can not impose ours on you. However, you’ll find that most of our values coincide with yours, whether you're in it for the environment, the people, the animals, or yourself.
With that said, let’s delve deeper into the world of sustainable fashion and understand why some natural fabrics are more sustainable than others.
Which Fabric is Most Sustainable: Bamboo, Cotton, Wool or Silk?
As mentioned before, sustainable fashion comprises more than one thing. As a responsible consumer, you have to consider:
- The source of the fabric
- How much water and land were needed to make the fabric?
- Whether the clothing brand practices ethical labor laws.
- Whether the fabric is easily recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable.
With these pointers in mind, it’s time to analyze the sustainability of some of the most popular natural fibers.
Bamboo cultivation is considerably forgiving towards the environment. This is because bamboo is a very low-maintenance plant and can grow in soil that most other plants reject. Moreover, bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants, reaching maturity in only 90 days.
However, the subsequent extraction and treatment of bamboo into bamboo fabric is not so encouraging.
In fact, the process of producing bamboo viscose from the bamboo plant requires a lot of dangerous and toxic chemicals. Moreover, substances such as lye and carbon disulfide that transform bamboo into a workable material can not be reused.
Another thing to consider is the mass production of genuine bamboo rayon in China— the largest bamboo fabric exporter. Unfortunately, factory workers are often exposed to carbon disulfide, which is neurotoxic and can cause organ failure.
Cotton is a universally loved fabric due to its comfort and versatility. However, cotton ranks as one of the least sustainable fabrics, particularly in its environmental impact.
Cotton cultivation requires copious amounts of agrochemicals and fertilizers, which end up contaminating surrounding water bodies. Speaking of water, cotton drinks up a lot of it; we’re talking 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton.
Moreover, cotton crops severely damage the soil in which they grow. Consequently, growers must acquire more cultivable land, thereby displacing civilians and destroying habitat.
Wool comes from sheep, and the amount of resources required to breed and raise those sheep is concerningly high.
Sheep graze on land, which can be good for the environment. But with such a high global demand for wool, overgrazing has become a serious problem. Overgrazing leads to excessive vegetation loss, which leads to desertification of once-fruitful land.
Moreover, mass production methods rarely care about animal welfare. While shearing is healthy and necessary for sheep, it is a necessity that we created. Unlike wild sheep, domesticated and genetically modified sheep can not shear their own wool and rely on humans to do it for them.
We can’t deny it: silk feels fantastic against the skin. And it looks great, too.
However, the Higg Index ranks silk as the worst fabric in terms of sustainability— even worse than the often-demonized cotton.
The main reason for silk’s low ranking is that silk farms require a lot of energy to operate. Moreover, silk is an unquenchable fiber that drinks up water throughout its manufacturing process.
Call us biased, but hemp fabric is the foremost champion of the sustainable fashion movement.
Sadly, hemp has yet to make a breakthrough in the mainstream fashion industry. This is mostly because of the legal status of hemp, which in turn has severely undermined the production and distribution methods of hemp fabrics.
However, hemp is one of the most sustainable natural fabrics out there. Compared to its more conventional counterparts, the hemp plant is the highest-yielding crop. Worst case scenario, hemp stalks only take four months to reach maturity.
Moreover, hemp’s water footprint is only one-third of cotton and even lesser still than silk. Better still, hemp returns 60-70% of the nutrients to the soil instead of stripping it of them.
Hemp is also extremely durable, which means that it will last you a long time. By extension, it also means that you won’t have to update your wardrobe every few months, thereby reducing your carbon footprint.
When the time does come, hemp is biodegradable as well as compostable. In other words, hemp grown in soil will return to it.
But the best part about hemp fabric is that it is untouched by the fast fashion industry. This means that, for the most part, there are no unethical labor practices, no destruction of land, and no excess energy consumption.
Hopefully, by the time big-name brands catch on, sustainable fashion will be more dominant.
The thing is, none of the natural fibers are inherently bad; most of them are biodegradable, compostable, and come from a natural source.
The only problem is the fashion industry’s modern methods of mass-production/ consumption.
Luckily, the fast fashion industry hasn’t gotten to hemp yet. But hemp is a far more sustainable fabric in and of itself as well. Compared to other natural fabrics like cotton, silk, wool, and bamboo, hemp is very low-maintenance; it requires less water, no pesticides, and doesn’t exhaust the land.
So, if you’ve only recently embarked on your sustainable fashion journey, hemp fabric is a great place to start.
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