Sustainable clothing materials; why natural fibres aren't always great – and how to spot the ones that are

I used to be head over heels in love with a certain French fashion brand. With my journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle, I have been buying less from them since their fabrics didn’t live up to my idea of sustainable clothing materials. Perhaps they noticed that sales dropped off a cliff when my purchases became less frequent, or maybe they started reacting to the general trend of consumers wanting products that are better for the planet.

Either way, they started making statements about becoming more sustainable and icons with things like ‘oekotex certified’ and ‘natural materials’ began appearing on their product pages.

I choose to believe that they have a genuine wish to do better and technically their usage of the ‘natural material’ icon is correct. That said, used in context with sustainability it becomes misleading. Some might even say bordering on greenwashing and that’s why I am falling out of love with them.

The fact is that while natural fibres are great to wear in terms of comfort, they aren’t always great for the planet, animals or us.

 

WHY NATURAL FIBRES AREN’T ALWAYS GREAT

As I’m writing this, I am looking at the website of said brand (no names mentioned) and, amongst their gorgeous dresses, I have found a beautiful maxi dress that is a perfect example to help me illustrate what I mean.

Right there, at the top of the product page, is the ‘natural material’ icon and further down the composition. The main fabric is a cotton/silk blend and the lining viscose.

So far, so good: cotton is derived from the cotton plant, silk from the silk worm and viscose is based on wood pulp. This garment is indeed made from natural fibres and for a moment I get my hopes up.

However, when taking a closer look at their sustainability section, I discover that these are natural fibres with a dirty conscience. I will explain why in the following:

Cotton

The brand states that 67% of the cotton it uses is organically grown. Unfortunately, this doesn’t include the cotton used in the collection with the maxi dress. In other words, this dress is made from conventional cotton, one of the world’s most polluting crops, using vast amounts of synthetic pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers to grow. Not only is it harmful to the soil, waterways and wild life, it is also the cause of serious illnesses amongst workers in the cotton industry.

Silk

According to the brand’s website, the silk it uses is Oekotex certified, which means that it is free of any harmful chemical substances. As such, it is much better for the planet than conventionally dyed silk. However, it comes with an ethical challenge (which in my world also falls under the sustainable umbrella) given that the silk is produced in the conventional way. This entails boiling the silk worms alive to obtain the fine long silk fibres. Yikes.

Viscose

Viscose is made by mixing wood pulp with chemicals to obtain a smooth cellulose fibre, and is also one of the most polluting fibres around with chemicals and water being used just once before being discharged into waterways. The brand states that 47% of their viscose is FSC mix certified – surely this must be good right? It is definitely better, but all it means is that the 47% of the wood pulp used in their viscose stems from either FSC certified forests, recycled material or controlled wood. It doesn’t minimise the impact that the viscose generating process has on the environment.

 

HOW TO SPOT THE GOOD NATURAL FIBRES

Luckily there are better versions of all the natural fibres used in fashion and once you know about them, it gets easy to separate the good from the bad when you go fashion shopping.

Better versions of cotton

Go for organic cotton. Any organic is better than non-organic although GOTS or OCS certified fabrics are the best in my opinion. The Better Cotton initiative is also better than conventional cotton, but it leaves it up to the individual cotton farmers to only use the ‘necessary’ synthetic pesticides etc, and hence is less of a guarantee for pure goodness than GOTS or OCS. Upcycled and recycled cotton are also gaining traction, so keep an eye out for this too.

Better versions of linen & hemp

Linen and hemp are already pretty high on the sustainability scale. Go for the organic versions and you have reached the stars.

Better versions of and alternatives to viscose

The branded Ecovero viscose promise 50% lower emissions and water impact than generic viscose. Even better, though, is Tencel, the branded version of lyocell. Tencel uses harvested wood pulp and is created in a closed-loop system that reuses around 99% of the water and chemicals, emitting only a tiny amount of entirely clean water.

Better version of silk

Ahimsa silk, or Peace silk, allows the silk moths to break the cocoons when they are ready to flyaway, and is therefore a more ethical version of silk. Given that the silk threads are broken as the moths leave their cocoons, the fibres are slightly shorter but the luxurious feeling the same.

Better versions of wool

For a more ethical ‘footprint’, choose wool that is certified non-mulesed if you are buying something made from virgin wool. Or even better, choose organic wool produced with both animal welfare and the planet in mind. The best form of wool, in my mind, is recycled wool though, giving both the sheep and the planet a break.

Better versions of bamboo

The fastest growing plant on earth is also pretty sustainable if you use it in its natural form. It is quite a hard fibre though and most of the time the bamboo used in clothing is a viscose version - and not great at all for the same reasons that viscose isn’t great. Go for Monocel, a branded version of bamboo viscose created in a closed-loop system.

No doubt, it would be possible for my French love to create the exact same dress using better versions of the same fibres – without having to compromise on quality, style or how it feels to touch.

And this is one of the primary reasons that I started VILDNIS; to demonstrate that pretty much anything you can find on the high street today can be made in a more ethical and eco-friendly way. There simply are no excuses.

I hope that I have inspired you to take a closer look at the fabric content next time you are looking to buy new clothing. It may sound like a cliché but I genuinely believe that we are the change we want to see in the world.

Ulla

Caption: the VILDNIS Dueodde Culottes made from 100% GOTS certified organic cotton.

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