What are my clothes made of? Which textiles should we avoid? What materials are derived from which products? It is no wonder that we are all getting overwhelmed with the jargon on our care labels.
I have created the below post to try to bust what the names mean, how sustainable they are, and most importantly, gives you the information to make your own decision when you’re next looking into the composition of materials in something.
One of the main players in our threads. A lightweight, and durable material that is cheap to produce. Polyester is actually derived from petroleum (crude oil), and is environmentally harmful as it is energy intensive to make and most polyester is not biodegradable. Polyester is also a plastic, that’s right a plastic. Synthetic materials like polyester are one of the main contributors to micro-plastics. So, ideally you do not want polyester this in your clothing. However, there are lots of companies now using recycled polyester within their clothing, so look out for this.
Cotton is a very thirsty crop which makes this natural material pretty water intensive. There is a lot of ethical considerations with cotton. There are huge issues with the use of pesticides around this crops and farmers dying from overuse of pesticides. The pesticides are also very damaging for the wildlife and soil. Always look out for organic cotton and for the Better Cotton Initiative (most clothing companies, if partnered with BCI will put this on their hangtags). You can also extend this to all your cotton materials; denim and bed linen for example.
Derived from flax plant. Linen is three times stronger than cotton and pretty durable, a nightmare to iron as it wrinkles easily. Look for organic linen. Linen uses less water than cotton, but look for organic linen to avoid the pesticides that are used in the process. On the whole, this material is more expensive due to the process being quite long to turn flax seed into linen, but the flax plant retains C02 (this is a good thing) and naturally produces soil quality.
A semi-synthetic material also known as rayon. It feels a bit like silk, but slightly sturdier and is apparently derived from trees, the cellulose from these trees is combined with manmade chemicals to create the material. This manufacturing process is very pollutive and wastes 70% of the tree and the chemicals used are very harmful to textile workers. Viscose is actually made on such mass (and very cheaply) today that it is not environmentally friendly.
An entirely synthetic material (one of the first). The process to make nylon is very water intensive and creates nitrous oxide (terrible for the environment). It is very durable but unfortunately nylon is a plastic that made from crude oil and goes through an intensive production process. It has a very long life (as far as we know it is not biodegradable) so look for recycled nylons as an alternative or even better, check out Econyl .
Leather is a tough cookie. From an ethical standpoint it is horrendous. Leather is also not always a byproduct of meat (there are lots of differing viewpoints around this). Leather usually comes from animals that are killed solely for their skins. It is probably more likely that meat would be a byproduct of the leather production. Farmers can make a lot more money from leather than they can meat. Because leather is “natural” it is biodegradable, but the processes to dye leather (tanning) are usually pretty chemical intensive. The good news is that there are lots of great alternatives out there; Pinatax (pineapple leather) apple leather, rubber, tree bark leather. The list is endless. However, if you are looking for a vegan leather do your research first and make sure you are not just buying plastic. Or, of course one of the most sustainable things you can do is buy secondhand leather.
Silk is natural and biodegradable- it comes from the cocoon of silk worms but the process is cruel and sometimes involves boiling the worms inside their cocoon so as not to break the silk fibres. The production of silk is laborious and has been very strongly connected to child labour. As silk is mostly produced in China and India, it has probably had to travel quite some miles to reach you. There are, however some methods of silk which do not harm the silk moth/worm such as Peace Silk, but these are more expensive. There are now some vegan alternatives to silk such as Bolt Threads (silk made from yeast) or Art Silk ( a silk made from bamboo).
Wool is another tricky one. A lot of vegans won’t touch it, as there is a lot of controversy around shearing animals and the treatment that these animals get when sheared. Wool is, however, biodegradable, durable, very warm and long-lasting. Cashmere wool has been condemned recently for the degradation caused to the land by rearing too many goats, the treatment of the goats and the pressure on the cashmere goat herders to produce the cashmere wool at a low price. When buying brand new woollen items, look out for standards on these wool items such as Responsible Wool Standard, ZQ Merino Standard and the Soil Association Organic Standards.
As always, for the more sustainable approach the best thing seems to be to scour vintage shops and buy secondhand. To me it seems like the obvious choice, we have enough clothes in the world now! I hope this guide has given you the information you need to make your own decision and just give you an idea of the components of the materials in your wardrobe.