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Sustainable Fabric Swaps: What are You Wearing?

Every day, we make decisions about sustainability without realizing it– our clothes are composed of synthetic and natural fibers that have a big impact on the environment.

Written by
Hanna Cody

“Who are you wearing?” may be the most common question we ask each other about our outfits but have you ever thought to ask “What are you wearing?” This article offers a quick guide on some of the most common (not so) sustainable fabrics on the market so that you can feel more confident picking items that maximize your impact as a conscious consumer. 

Plastic in Plain Sight

When it comes to making smart fabric swaps, starting with pieces made from natural materials is one of the best places to start. It may surprise you to know that most synthetics like polyester are made from oil. In fact, polyester is considered one of the most commonly used plastics on the market, and, as any eco-fashionista knows, plastic is not very environmentally friendly. Just like a plastic bag, polyester is not biodegradable and even if you reuse a polyester item, the release of microfibers - tiny plastic particles that slip through your washing machine filter - during laundering causes massive amounts of pollution in natural water ecosystems. The San Francisco Bay is flooded with an estimated 7 million micro-plastic particles per day, and one study found that 85% of plastic waste on a surveyed beach came from fibers.  

Even though synthetics are generally a no-go, companies like Girlfriend Collective have become known for harnessing recycled plastic materials, including discarded water bottles and fishing nets, into products that are ethical and fashion-forward. While these products may still contribute to the microfiber problem and the process of turning plastics (recycled or not) into fabrics has its own environmental concerns, harnessing items that would otherwise have been considered waste is important for diverting potentially valuable materials from landfills. Just be sure to snag a Guppyfriend bag or microfiber filter to keep your leggings and our oceans clean.

The Natural Switch

Choosing plant-based materials, then, is an intuitive step for minimizing your footprint; however, there are some extra things that you can do to make sure that you are making the most of this swap. 

First, know that not all natural materials are created equal. While cotton, for example, is widely used, other materials like linen and hemp, need comparatively less water to grow. The cotton industry also leverages many toxic chemicals to ward off pests, which has been shown to increase rates of cancer and miscarriages among farming communities. Again, alternatives like linen are useful because linen is naturally pest-resistant, which significantly reduces the amount of chemicals required during production. The versatility of flax - the plant linen is derived from - also helps reduce waste and increase production cost-effectiveness overall. 

If you’re disappointed about the downsides to cotton, never fear. Many cotton products are certified organic or fair trade, which allows you to rest easy knowing that the environment and farmers were not exploited. Though these certifications are limited to what occurs at the initial faces of cotton production, others like the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 test for harmful substances across a garment’s full production cycle. That way, you can feel confident knowing that your shirt (cotton or otherwise) is free from any nasties. 

A Spotlight on Leather

It is no secret that raising cattle is resource-intensive and environmentally-burdensome. As the documentary, RiverBlue, shows, tanneries have profound impacts on the local people and environments. Some of the most polluted communities in the world have reached their critical states as a result of unsafe tanning practices. 

This is because many tanneries utilize toxic carcinogens like chromium and arsenic. While tannery workers (who are often left without property safety equipment) are significantly at risk, the practice of releasing untreated tannery waste back into the environment contributes to the pollution of surrounding waterways and air, leading to devastating consequences for communities at large. 

Luckily, numerous brands have taken strides to develop and leverage sustainable alternatives to traditional leather (which you may see referred to as “vegan,” “artificial,” or “synthetic” leather). Today, companies are using apples, cork, pineapples, banana and teak leaves, mushrooms, and many other natural materials to create leather alternatives. These are significantly less harmful to both people and the environment and, depending upon how the materials are treated, may even be biodegradable. Tons of new vegan leather innovations are also on the horizon, so keep an eye out for flower-, cactus-, soy-, and kombucha-based products coming to an ethical marketplace near you! 

When looking for vegan leather products, keep in mind that many are made with polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). While these materials do not have the same environmental impacts as traditional leather, keep in mind that they are still plastic-based nevertheless. If buying a product made of PU, be sure to double-check that the product is vegan certified as these fabrics may be created by combining PU with traditional animal leather. 

These selections just scratch the surface of the sustainable materials available on the market; however, taking the time to do your research and pick fabrics that minimize your environmental impact can have a profound impact on you as well as all the people and communities involved in the making of your garment.