A Guide to Natural and Eco-Friendly Fabrics

Photo: iStockphoto.com/dhughes
Get to know green clothing inside and out

Decades ago, clothes were built to last and styles were timeless. These days, fabrics are cheap, fads are passing, and the realities of our disposable wardrobes are stark. But clothing made with self-proclaimed sustainable or eco-friendly fabrics are not the only aspect of making a green garment, despite clearly being an important component of evolving your wardrobe. Sustainable fashion means you’ve been given the information of where the clothing comes from, who makes it and what it’s processed with to ensure the item is worthy of the eco-friendly message it’s sporting.

Here’s a critical primer on commonly found natural and eco-friendly fabrics, assured to help you ask the right questions and revamp your wardrobe as mindfully as possible.

Organic Cotton: It’s cropping up everywhere, from H&M to the Gap. This is a good thing: conventionally grown cotton packs a huge pesticide punch and is one of the most chemical-laden crops in the world. “Supporting the organic cotton industry is a big green step,” says Rob Grand, owner of Grassroots Environmental Products. “It’s not just your own health you’re supporting when you buy organic cotton but also an economy and a method of agriculture that’s good for the planet.”

But if the organic cotton you purchase isn’t also assured to be fair trade, or is processed using conventional dyes, or treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde to keep it from wrinkling on its trip overseas, that cute T-shirt is still leaving a sizeable footprint on the earth. So be forewarned that labels won’t tell you everything and that you have to dig deeper to get the whole story. Whenever possible, try to buy organic cotton in the shades it’s naturally grown in: cream, pale green, and light brown. Also look for garments that are coloured using natural or vegetable-based dyes or bear credible labels (such as Eco-Cert) indicating the product is certified organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly.

Silk: Luxury and high fashion junkies rejoice; silk is inherently natural because it’s made by silk worms, not chemical-based synthetic processing. But there’s a drawback: vegans don’t wear silk because to get at the silk fibres, the silk worms are thrown in a vat of boiling water once their hard work is complete. If that seems cruel to you, look for a new generation of the fabric: peace silk or vegan silk  (it’s always clearly labeled, so accept no substitutes). This kind of silk is made from the worm casings gathered only after the moths have emerged and moved on. Also try looking for silk that’s been dyed naturally and made as close to home as possible. Easiest to find are fabulous silk dresses for summer like ones made by fabulous Canadian designer Sonja den Elzen of Thieves.

Bamboo: Bamboo receives lots of eco-buzz because it’s easy to grow without pesticides and is quick to replenish itself. Another bonus – or so bamboo marketers insist - is that bamboo fabric is naturally antibacterial and repels odour. It’s when the processing starts that it potentially loses its eco status: “Bamboo can be beautiful, and is a very soft fabric, but there’s a chemical component to the manufacture that’s pretty toxic,” says Grand.  

Polyester: Regular polyester is made from petroleum, which is a byproduct of processing oil, and far from eco-friendly. While it still requires heavy processing, companies are now finding ways to create polyester out of recycled plastic bottles or even recycled polyester fabric. Polyester is likely greenest when it’s vintage: second-life boutiques are brimming with great retro styles that will add plenty of eco-funk to your style.

Lyocell: This is the generic name for the Tencel brand. It’s made from wood pulp, so it’s both biodegradable and recyclable. Producing this fabric involves less emissions, energy, and water usage than other more conventional fabrics, and it doesn’t get bleached, either. Plus it’s naturally wrinkle-free, so you don’t need to waste time or energy on ironing! Not all lyocell fabric is made from sustainable wood, though, so check labels carefully. And, as usual, try to find a product that’s been dyed with a low-chemical or vegetable colourant.

Soy Fabrics: Soy fabric is made from the byproducts of soy oil processing and is a good option for underwear and bras because its long fibres make it soft and silky. Just make sure your soy fabric is certified organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly. Also check you aren’t getting a less-eco “soy blend” that includes polyester and inorganic cotton in the mix.

Hemp: Hemp has been touted as the ultimate eco-friendly fabric because it requires no chemicals to grow. It’s also extremely versatile, and can be used to create strong, sturdy fabrics – even rope -  or soft, delicate items (think comfy pajamas or a soft nightgown). Hemp is unfortunately not very well regulated, which means there’s little monitoring of the chemicals the crop may have come in contact with or where it was grown. The claim that it’s antibacterial, similar to claims about bamboo, has also yet to be fully authenticated and might be more about marketing than truth.

Cashmere: As anyone who has ever caressed a cashmere cardigan knows, the fabric is luxurious. The fibre comes from combing out the under-hairs of Kashmir goats, a breed native to the Himalayas but now raised worldwide. Perhaps best of all from en eco-perspective, it’s also long-lasting. However, cheap cashmere has become popular but to keep its price down, has probably been treated with chemicals and dyed with carcinogenic dyes, so be wary of such inter. It may also be blended with other fibres, such as polyester. A truly green cashmere piece will likely be an investment but you’ll also keep it for a lifetime – making it one of the most eco-friendly wardrobe items you own.

Linen: True linen is made from flax, a crop that requires very little pest-controlling chemicals. It’s also best when it’s a teeny bit wrinkly, so you can conserve energy by putting away the iron. Look for linen in natural shades, or dyed with natural dyes. Try to purchase linen that’s been made by an eco-certified clothing or fabric company. And, as usual, watch out for linen blends or cheap, chemical treated garments.

Alpaca: Alpaca sheep don’t require insecticides to be injected into their fleece, are fairly self-sufficient, don’t need to be treated with antibiotics, and don’t eat very much. It seems they’ve taken the idea of being eco-friendly upon themselves! Alpaca wool is also long lasting, which may help make up for the fact that the alpaca product you buy will likely be imported.

Ingeo: This is a new fabric made from fermented plant sugars, usually derived from corn. This is actually one of its pitfalls; since conventionally grown corn leaves a particularly large eco-unfriendly footprint via pesticides, water use, and land hogging. But making Ingeo requires almost half as much energy as it does to make cotton, even organic cotton, which gives it some advantages.

Get Savvy

The bottom line when shopping for environmentally friendly clothing is to do your homework, or shop at a reputable eco-friendly goods store or online supplier who will weigh the facts for you in advance. “We go through every detail because it’s very important to us,” says Grand. “A lot of companies will give you a product that’s an organic cotton blend, which means it could also contain polyester. We ask all kinds of questions: is the trim certified, is the thread certified? Even if it’s not, at least we know and can pass the information along to our customers.”

Find amazing sustainable fashions in your own city – search the Green Living Guides for fabulous eco-friendly finds!