How to choose fashion with a low environmental footprint – a quick guide to sustainable fibres

Sustainable fashion is one of the fastest-growing trends judging by this spring’s fashion weeks in London, New York and other big cities.

And not only that, sustainable fashion is a trend that’s here to stay until it becomes the norm – unlike the recent somewhat strange see-through plastic trend (what was that about?)

For many of us it means having to familiarise ourselves with fibres used in fashion and their environmental footprint – and it also means rethinking what we thought we knew about fashion fibres. Some of the fibres that we have been taught were good for us and the environment are actually not so great, while some of the better ones are still fairly unknown, making it a tricky world to navigate.

Just for you, we have put together a quick guide to sustainable fibres, enabling you to make choices with a positive impact whenever you shop fashion from your favourite brands. It truly makes a difference!

TENCEL (lyocell)

Choose instead of: viscose or rayon

Viscose and Rayon are both cellulose fibres derived from wood pulp through a process using vast amounts of water and chemicals, which in turn are polluting rivers etc.

Tencel is their eco-friendly cousin with similar properties; it’s soft, sophisticated, has a good drape and comes in a variety of both woven and knitted fabrics - even silk-like fabrics. Lenzing, the inventor, won an award from the European Commission for sustainable development due to the closed-loop process that re-uses 99.9% of the chemicals and water over and over again. The result is a big saving on water and no chemicals lead into nature.


Choose instead of: polyester

Polyester is a synthetic fibre made from crude oil and is essentially a type of plastic. It’s great especially for printed items and has some excellent properties such as durability. It does however require quite a lot of resource to produce in terms of raw material, energy and water.

Recycled polyester on the other hand is made from recycled plastic bottles and other plastic that are already in circulation. Through breaking down the plastic mechanically, melting and spinning it into delicate polyester threads, the plastic is given a new purpose in textiles and clothing. Compared to virgin polyester, this process uses only 30% of the energy, saves raw material and resources, and prevents large amounts of plastic from ending up in landfill. Best thing about it: it looks and feels identical to virgin polyester and comes in a variety of fabrics from chiffons to faux furs.


Choose instead of: cotton, Better Cotton

For decades cotton has been perceived as one of the cleanest fibres around given that it is a natural fibre. Ironically, it is actually one of the dirtiest crops around, using more pesticides and insecticides than any other major crop, polluting soil and causing illnesses amongst the cotton farmers. Add an extensive usage of water to this, and all of a sudden, your cotton jeans become less attractive.

Unless, of course, they are made from organic cotton, using only natural pesticides and insecticides to grow the crops. Like conventional cotton, organic cotton is super soft, breathable and comfortable to wear. And while there is little difference in price, it has a huge positive impact on the soil, water streams and health of the workers in the cotton industry. Some organic cotton farmers even use harvested rainwater for irrigation, addressing the issue of extensive water usage by adopting a more sustainable approach.


Choose instead of: wool

Like cotton, wool is also a natural fibre perceived as being great for us and the environment. You are probably surprised to learn that the process of cleaning the grease wool (sheared wool) requires lots of chemicals, soap and water, and that there are ethical concerns over a popular practise that some farmers use called mulesing. Combine this with the fact that 14.5% of all greenhouse emissions stem from livestock, and wool suddenly becomes less attractive. It does have some excellent properties though and is one of the best fibres in terms of keeping us warm and cosy.

Recycled wool is pre- and post-consumer wool that has been recycled. It has the same fantastic properties as virgin wool and comes with a much smaller environmental footprint as these wool fibres have already gone through the process from farming to cleaning. Apart from that, the only difference is that the fibres are a bit shorter and, in some instances, may need 3-5% virgin wool for softness.


Choose instead of: polyamide

Polyamide, or Nylon as we also know it, is a synthetic fibre made from polymers derived from coal and petroleum. And while it has excellent properties such as strength, stretch and recovery, the process of creating polyamide emits nitrous dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2, and requires huge amount of water for cooling. Add to this that it never biodegrades and you may fall out of love with your Nylon stockings.

Except if they are made from recycled polyamide, something that the brand Swedish Stockings among other specialises in. Recycled polyamide is made from, well, recycled polyamide in a process similar to recycled polyester. A variety of post-consumer products can be re-used with the most talked-about being old fishing nets. Compared to virgin polyamide, this process saves both water and emissions and can even be completed in a closed-loop system by companies like Econyl. With an estimated 40% of the plastic found in the oceans being polyamide, recycling polyamide can have a massive positive impact on the sea life.


Choose instead of: linen

Linen in itself is a pretty sustainable fibre as it doesn’t require much water to grow and is quite resilient. As with most other crops, it is however grown using chemical pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers and hence not entirely eco-friendly in its conventional form.

Organic linen on the other hand is one of the purest, cleanest fibres you can find. Grown using only rainwater for irrigation and with the help of only natural pesticides, it demands little in terms of natural resources and has a very low environmental footprint. While still maintaining the outstanding properties of the fibre; cooling, durable and breathable. The appearance of linen yarn is slightly slubby, but if one can live with this (I personally think textures ad lots of interest to an outfit), then it can be used for all sorts of products ranging from knits to jeans.


In an ideal world, we would all wear organic linen only and, while this is an alluring thought, it is unfortunately rather unrealistic since linen requires a specific environment to grow and the process is quite laborious. 

Organic cotton also has its downsides due to the huge water consumption and the fact that it is mostly grown in warm tropical or subtropical climates. 

And while mechanically recycled polyester is ranked A on a scale from A-E with A being the eco-friendliest materials around, this also has a drawback; microplastic particles being shed when we launder our clothes. At VILDNIS, we like the idea of re-using existing plastic over and over again, and believe that there are other ways of dealing with the micro-plastic particles such as better filters in washing machines and the Gubbyfriend laundry bag. At the moment polyester accounts for 55% of the world’s global textile fibres. If we were to replace this market share with natural fibres, we would need enormous amounts of land and water to grow the crops.

As you can see, there are few 100% sustainable fibres on the market at present. Tencel is perhaps the best choice depending on the product.

The important take away here is that all these eco-friendly fibres are MUCH better than their conventional cousins and, by buying them instead, you are sending a strong signal to brands and fabric mills that you care about the environment and give them an incentive to speed up the development of new, truly sustainable fibres.


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