GoEco Explains: The Natural Fibre Fabrics You Need in Your Wardrobe

The fashion industry is often under fire for its unethical practices, be they toxic waste, poor labour conditions or overuse of raw materials.However, when it comes to buying clothes, a good place to start making ethical decisions is what fabric your garments are made from. Not all materials are created equal, and there are some that you should definitely avoid. 

Clothes that are made with synthetic fibres such as plastic shed fibres in the washing machine which end up in the water supply. There is 14 million tonnes of plastic on the ocean floor and an estimated 35% of that comes from clothes in the wash cycle. 

With this in mind, biodegradable clothes made from natural fibres are clearly better for the planet. But what are the natural fibres you should be looking out for, to build a more conscious closet?

Lyocell – The New Kid on The Block

Lyocell is quickly taking off with big brands like H&M as well as smaller, eco-focused businesses. It is a plant-based, soft fabric that’s perfect for athleisure pieces. The material is made from wood; usually eucalyptus as this grows quickly and can be planted on degraded land. Once the wood is harvested it is ground into pulp and then dissolved in amino oxide. This mixture is turned into a thread and woven into fabric. 

Lyocell requires half the water of cotton production, but products from China, India and South Africa should ideally be avoided due to fossil-fuel intensive production.

The process uses half as much water as cotton, plus lyocell requires less frequent washing because it’s so breathable, so less water is used through its entire lifecycle too. However, the production process is very energy intensive, so the country it is produced in is key. Avoid lyocell made in big fossil fuel users like China, India and South Africa. 

There are many different names for lyocell including tencel and excel – look out for ‘cel’ as this stands for cellulose fibre. The chemicals used in its production are also reusable so it isn’t a wasteful process. Lyocell gets a big tick from us. 

Cotton – The OG Fabric Crop

Cotton is the most abundantly farmed natural fibre in the world with 25 million tonnes produced per year. Cotton biodegrades so those stray fibres in the washing machine aren’t such a worry, although chemicals from dye and treatments will of course still affect the environment. 

Biodegradable cotton has been a popular option for years, and big brands are pledging 100% sustainable cotton sources by 2025.

The way that cotton is farmed is where it’s true environmental impact comes from. It takes a lot of water to grow cotton, and because it is often grown in arid conditions this means large amounts of irrigation. This can have devastating consequences; the Aral Sea, an inland sea basin in Central Asia, is believed to have completely dried up due to cotton farming. 

The good news is that big name brands like Adidas, ASOS and Burberry have all pledged to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. Cotton can be bad, but ensuring your cottons come from sustainable sources can make them that bit more environmentally friendly.

Bamboo – The Fast-Growing Multi-Tasker

Bamboo is itself an extremely sustainable crop and it is popping up in the manufacture of toilet roll and furniture too. Bamboo is a fast growing grass which doesn’t require fertiliser and self-regenerates from its roots. However, most bamboo is farmed in China so little is known about how intensively it is farmed, or what land clearance is taking place to farm it. 

Bamboo is fast-growing, can regenerate from roots and does not require fertiliser, making it an inherently sustainable choice.

The most common fabric made from bamboo is rayon (which can also be made from wood or cotton), and this process does require toxic chemicals like caustic soda and carbon disulfide. The waste that is produced in this process cannot be reused. 

However despite this, the manufacturing process is being made more efficient and as long as waste is disposed of correctly (i.e. not dumped in rivers) then bamboo’s advantages as a low-maintenance crop do win out. 

Wool – Warming with a Few Knitty Consequences

Humans have farmed sheep since time immemorial, and selectively bred them specifically for harvesting wool. Now, 500 million sheep are bred worldwide every year to produce fibres for our fabrics. Wool is biodegradable and therefore better than plastic, but farming wool has negative impacts on the environment. A wool jumper produces 27 times the greenhouse gases in a cotton one. Emissions from wool are associated with methane produced by the sheep themselves, but also land clearance for grazing.

Issues with wool arise from unsustainable agricultural practises in sheep farming; before buying new try checking out a thrift store.

Sheep farming is also associated with severe top soil degradation and biodiversity loss; with journalist George Monbiot describing the UK’s national parks as ‘sheepwrecked’. Wool is still a great natural fibre, but it is worth thinking about the environmental implications of sheep farming and exploring upcycled, recycled and second-hand wool items rather than buying new. 

Linen – Our Luxurious Winner

Linen is often considered a luxury fabric due to its price and the maintenance that goes into it, but it turns out it is also luxurious for the environment. Linen is made from flax plants, which can be grown in poor condition soil and require little water. In fact, a linen shirt only requires 6.4 litres of water over its life cycle compared to the 2,700 litres it takes for a cotton one. 

Our favourite natural fibre fabric, linen is durable, breathable and long-lasting, with the lowest environmental impact on our list.

By-products from growing flax for linen can also be used to make linseed oil (useful in manufacturing furniture), and undyed linen comes in neutral tones like ecru, tan, ivory and grey. Linen is also durable, with linen bed sheets lasting up to 30 years. 

Linen is great to wear, long-lasting and comes from a low maintenance crop. Flax crops don’t typically require pesticides either, but it’s still a good idea to do your research on organic linen to explore all options. Linen is our favourite fabric!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.