So you’re trying to make ethical fashion choices. A good first step is knowing which clothing materials to look for.
But which ones are the most ethical? The most sustainable? It’s not as obvious as you might think, and you’ll be surprised to read some of the findings in this post.
After spending countless hours researching each fabric and its impact on the environment, workers, consumers, and animals, I’ve ranked each textile on a scale of A to E.
The rankings take into consideration biodegradability, consumption of water and energy, environmental and water pollution, safety of the workers, and animal welfare.
The ratings are as follows:
The ranks make it easy to know which materials to look for (a rating of C or higher) and what to avoid (a rating of D or lower). But also, they make it easy to have a better idea of how the textile compare to one another. For example, is conventional cotton better or worse than rayon?
By the end, you’ll know exactly which materials to buy, and which to avoid. You might be surprised.
A note on thrifting: The best way of shopping for clothing ethically is to buy second-hand. If you’re at the thrift store, you can go for any material on this list–even the least sustainable options become sustainable. For thrifting tips for beginners and pros, visit my thrifting guide.
How To Find Which Materials A Garment Is Made Of
To find out which materials clothes are made of, look for the composition tag. You’ll find it on the inside of the garment. Most commonly, it’s sewn along an inner seam.
The composition tag will tell you which materials the garment is made of, and the percentage of each material.
Cotton (D): Choose Organic Cotton (B) Instead
Cotton is a natural fiber, and its main advantage is how (relatively) easily and naturally it becomes transformed into cloth. In terms of wear, I personally love cotton because of its breathability and natural feel.
In itself, cotton may seem like an environmentally-friendly material because it’s natural and biodegradable — and it is a better alternative to other fibers.
Unlike other natural fibers such as rayon and bamboo, cotton doesn’t require as many pesky chemicals. However, the dying process is chemical-heavy, and regular cotton requires a ton of pesticides, some of which are so harmful that they’re banned in the West. The large amounts of water used in processing cotton, and specifically their pollution due to the chemicals, are also a problem.
The Ethical Alternative: Organic Cotton
For these reasons, we should be looking for organic cotton whenever possible. Not only is organic cotton better for those who wear it–since there are no pesticide residues or other harmful chemicals–but it’s infinitely safer for the workers, and doesn’t support the unethical industry that is regular, GMO cotton.
Since 1995, there have been over 270,000 cases of Indian cotton workers committing suicide. These deaths are linked to the high prices of GMO seeds, which is “piling pressure on poorly paid growers, forcing many into a cycle of unmanageable debt”. The working conditions are also terrible and involve working with dangerous pesticides. These are the same chemicals that are banned in the West, and Indian workers are using their bare hands and feet in the fields, and wear no masks or protection.
Organic cotton is:
- Grown without the use of synthetic chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers)
- Grown on land without residues from past synthetic chemicals (at least 3 years “clean”)
- The cotton seeds are not treated with fungicides or insecticides
The Truth About Organic Cotton And Water
Another environmental downside of cotton is the large amounts of water needed to grow it. A T-Shirt alone requires over 2,000 liters of water (this number varies depending on the study). Organic cotton, on the other hand, reduces the amount of water.
Although it’s widely claimed that organic cotton uses less water than conventional cotton, I found an article which claims the opposite. Its source? Cotton Inc, the biggest producer of regular cotton.
Every other source claims that organic cotton uses much less water to be produced. In their study, Textile Exchange found that a regular cotton t-shirt uses 2,168 gallons of water to make, while an organic cotton t-shirt uses 186 gallons. For a pair of jeans, regular cotton requires 9,910 gallons of water while organic cotton requires only 932.
Organic cotton is an ethical and environmentally-friendly fabric, as long as you choose organic cotton and not regular cotton.
Polyester (E): A Definite No-No
Let’s get this out of the way: in terms of wearability, Polyester is horrible. I hate it. It’s not breathable, and it traps all your body heat, making you overheat and sweat.
But there’s an even bigger problem with polyester: it’s the least environmentally-friendly fabric out there. And unfortunatelty, it’s also the most popular one, accounting for over half of textile production.
The Many Problems With Polyester
Polyester is essentially plastic. Like plastic, it does not biodegrade. It stays around forever. It’s also derived from petrolatum, which comes from the oil industry–the biggest polluter in the world.
Polyster requires more energy and emits 3 times as much CO2 gas than cotton, and water pollution occurs when factories release potentially dangerous chemials into the environment.
Polyester is also partly responsible for microplastics in our waters:
“When washed, fibres from polyester textiles and clothing are shed and enter waterways and oceans as microplastic fibres, according to recent studies. Fish, shellfish and other aquatic creatures ingest the microplastics, which accumulate, concentrating toxins up the food chain. These can enter human food chains and pass into the wider environment.”Common Objective
What’s alarming is that polyester is very unsustainable, yet we’re producing more of it. The vast majority of polyester on the market is virgin polyester, meaning it’s new. This material is also hard to recycle, since like other plastics, it can’t be recycled indefinitely, and it takes a lot of resources to actually recycle. If we continue producing polyester at this rate, we’re creating more and more plastic which isn’t recycled, or is hard to recycle.
Recycled polyester is a better alternative, but it continues to have the downsides of polyester.
Polyster is essentially a plastic, and highly unsustainable. This fiber should be avoided.
Nylon (E) and Acrylic (E), other types of plastic, are also unsustainable and should be avoided.
Rayon (D) or Viscose (incl. Modal and Bamboo Viscose, D): Avoid
Rayon, also called Viscose, is a semi-synthetic fiber derived from wood pulp. Bamboo, for example, is often used for this purpose. The molecular structure is similar to cotton, and it’s similarly breathable as a material.
Even though it’s obtained from wood pulp, rayon is not environmentally-friendly. The main concern is the highly toxic process of transforming the raw materials into the actual material. Cardon disulfide, a poisonous chemical, is responsible for a plethora of health problems in rayon workers and those near rayon factories.
Pollution is another problem:
Investigators for the Changing Markets Foundation visited 10 manufacturing sites in China, India, and Indonesia, and found severe environmental damage including water pollution from untreated contaminated waste, and air pollution. Brands alleged by the report to source from these factories include H&M, Inditex (the owner of Zara), Marks & Spencer and Tesco.The Guardian
Modal is a type of rayon that’s made to be more durable, has a slightly more eco-friendly manufacturing process than typical rayon, however it’s still not a sustainable option.
Even Bamboo Viscose? Really?
Unfortunately, yes. Although bamboo in itself is a sustainable material when it comes to wood, everything takes a turn for the worst once it’s processed to become viscose. Toxic chemicals are used, out of which 50% can not be reused and are dumped into the environment. Bamboo viscose is not as eco-friendly as some companies would like us to think.
Although rayon is sometimes touted as an eco-friendly fabric, don’t be fooled by these claims. Rayon factories are highly toxic to the environment and to their workers. Modal, a type of rayon, is slightly better for the environment but is also best avoided.
The sustainable alternaitve? Lyocell, a type of rayon.
Lyocell or Tencel (A): A Sustainable Form Of Rayon
Lyocell is the generic name given to a type of rayon which is more eco-friendly than traditional rayon, cotton, or polyester. Tencel is a registered trademark for a type of lyocell fibre. Excel is another trademarked type of Lyocell, although less common than Tencel. Monocel is a bamboo lyocell fiber.
Lyocell is one of the most environmentally-friendly fibers because it uses a closed loop production system. Meaning, the chemicals used to make lyocell are reused over and over again instead of being wasted and polluting the environment. The producers of Tencel claim that 99% of the chemicals are reused.
Lycell also requires far less water and energy to produce than cotton. It’s biodegradable (like all natural fibers such as cotton or rayon), and Tencel specifically is sourced from sustainably-managed plantations.
Always look for Lyocell, which is a sustainable form of rayon. This fabric is breathable and odor-wicking.
Hemp (B) Or Organic Hemp (A): A Top Choice
Some will be happy to learn that hemp is one of the top sustainable fabrics, especially when it comes to organic hemp.
Hemp requires little water. For example, cotton needs 4 times the amount of water hemp does. Hemp also grows quickly, which is beneficial for the producers, but it also requires half the space cotton does.
Hemp is also naturally resistant to most pests, which means it doesn’t require toxic pesticides. In addition to this, it can be mechanically made without the need for additional chemicals, which means there’s no pollution involved.
Hemp therefore solves many environmental problems raised by other fabrics. Fortunately, in 2018, after a long legal battle for hemp producers, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 passed. Hemp is now unrestricted in 46 American States, but also legal in Canada, Australia, Europe, India, Japan, Korea, and other parts of the world. China is the leading producer with over 70% of worldwide production coming from the country.
Since hemp doesn’t require pesticides, certain hemp brands can apply for organic certification, given that they fulfill all the criteria. Even though hemp can be mechanically-produced without chemicals, some fabrics are made using cheaper methods that do use chemicals. For this reason, it’s important to verify if the brand does have organic certification, or alternatively, to ask them about their practices.
Hemp is one of the most sustainable fabrics. To make sure the fabrics are eco-friendly, make sure that the brand is either certified organic, or ask them how their hemp is produced.
Linen (B) Or Organic Linen (A): Another Top Choice
Another sustainability winner: Linen. It’s really easy to recognize linen either by sight or touch: it’s a bit rough at first, but softens the more you wash it. Mostly, I love how lightweight and breathable linen is, making it perfect for hot weather.
The video below gives a 2-minute glance into how linen is made.
Linen comes from flax, which is a resilient plant that requires 4 times less water than cotton. Because it’s so resilient, the flax plant doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizers. Also, unlike most other fibers, it doesn’t require a chemical process to transform the flax plant into linen.
This means that linen is typically pesticide-free and chemical-free, which is better for the environment and safer for the workers.
However, some linen might be processed using chemicals, especially when bleached or dyed. Natural-colored linen is typically off-white, in various shades of beige. Try to choose natural or naturally-dyed linen, and stay away from white linen as it’s been bleached with harsh chemicals.
Because linen is so durable, any linen clothing or sheets we purchase will typically last us longer than other materials. For this reason, choosing linen is a great way to cut down waste.
Linen is a sustainable fabric. It doesn’t use much water, pesticides, or chemicals, especially compared to other fabrics. Ideally, make sure the linen has not been chemically processed or treated.
Wool (D) Or Organic Wool (C): Make Sure It’s Humanely-Sourced
Wool is a natural fiber, which means it’s biodegradable. In terms of comfort, it’s breathable while keeping us warm. Wool comes from sheep, while cashmere comes from goats, and alpaca wool from alpacas. There’s also angora wool which comes from angora rabbits.
Wool And The Environment
In itself, wool is a better alternative to polyester or acrylic, which are plastics and do not biodegrade. That being said, industrial farming isn’t completely eco-friendly given the large amounts of resources and energy that animals consume. For this reason, we gave Organic Wool a C rating.
Wool And Animal Welfare
Since wool comes from animals, it’s crucial to make sure that it’s obtained in ethical and humane ways. A cruel practice of the wool industry is called Mulesing, which involves cutting off a portion of the sheep’s buttocks in order to prevent a parasitic infection known as flystrike.
In 2018, Mulesing was banned in New Zealand. Since the practice of mulesing has become more mediatized, non-mulesed wool is becoming increasingly popular. Big brands such as Uniqlo and H&M have made the transition to non-mulesed wool.
So how do we make sure that the wool products we’re buying are ethical? The best way is to look the Responsible Wool Standard certification, which certifies that the producer is treating the animals with respect and doesn’t perform mulesing.
Ditch Cashmere (D) And Choose Alpaca (C)
Cashmere. So soft. So luxurious. So… unsustainable. Because of the increase in demand, cashmere production can’t keep up in environmentally-friendly ways. For one, it takes 4 goats to produce a single cashmere sweater.
Since the demand is high, there are too many goats, and they’re destroying the pastures. This causes the herds to starve, cruel conditions for the animals, air pollution, and contributes to climate change.
Alpaca is just as soft as cashmere, just as warm, more durable, and the environmental footprint of an alpaca is much lighter than a cashmere goat’s. They don’t destroy the soil, drink less water, and can produce 4 to 5 sweaters per year.
To make sure wool is ethical, look for certifications or ask the company about their production. Cashmere is not environmentally-friendly, but Alpaca, which is sustainable, is a similar material we should opt for.
Silk (B): Make Sure It’s Humanely-Sourced
There’s nothing like silk. Polyester tries, but fails from every perspective: it’s not as breathable and luxurious, nor is it sustainable. So how do we find ethical silk?
Silk And Cruelty
Silk comes from silkworms. We can think of it like a spiderweb, except it’s excreted from the worm’s salivary glands. The silk is wrapped around the pupae (baby silkworms) into a cocoon.
Usually, moths would break out of the cocoons. However, in order to keep the silk intact and in a single thread, the cocoons are boiled with the pupae still inside. So, boiling and killing the silkworm pupae is the common way of producing silk.
Ahimsa Silk: A Humane Alternative
In some parts of India, the cocoons are not boiled with the pupae inside. Instead, the moths are allowed to complete their metamorphosis and escape the cocoon, after which the empty cocoons are boiled for their silk. This type of silk is called Ahimsa Silk, or Peace Silk.
Some brands claim that their silkworms are “wild”. Although this means that the worms are free and the cocoons are harvested in a habitat that mimics their own, this doesn’t make “wild-harvested” silk a humane option, since the cocoons are still boiled with the pupae inside.
Silk And The Environment
Silk production is relatively low impact compared to other materials such as cotton. The silkworms are fed mulberry leaves, which are plants that require some pesticide and fertilizer. The detergents used to wash the silk can also contribute to some pollution.
If you want to ensure the highest degree of sustainability, choose silk fabrics that are certified organic–for example, with GOTS or OTEX certification.
Silk is a sustainable fabric with a low environmental impact, especially when choosing organic silk. However, truly ethical silk shouldn’t kill the silkworms. Choose Ahimsa Silk for a humane alternative.
Choose: Organic Cotton, Lyocell such as Tencel, Excel, or Monocel, Hemp or Organic Hemp, Linen or Organic Linen, Wool (humane options), Alpaca, Silk (humane options).
Avoid: Cotton, Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic, Rayon or Viscose, Bamboo Viscose, Modal, Cashmere.
Here are our rankings:
Organic Hemp, Organic Linen, Lyocell (Tencel, Excel, Monocel), Recycled Cotton, Recycled Wool
Organic Cotton, Hemp, Linen, Silk
Recycled Polyester, Recycled Nylon, Organic Wool, Alpaca
Rayon (Viscose), Bamboo Viscose, Cotton, Wool, Modal, Cashmere, Leather
Polyester, Acrylic, Nylon, Spandex
Thank you for reading!
I hope this guide was helpful, and I enjoyed putting it together! The more we pull the curtain to expose unethical practices and educate ourselves, the better choice we will make as a society. Please share this article with your friends and family to spread the word.