Everything You Need to Know About Natural and Sustainable Fabrics

Aug 20

When you think of pollution, you might imagine soda rings and bags littering beaches. But microplastic pollution, the latest conversation in eco-fashion, is invisible.

As many as 700,000 microplastic fibers can get released into an ocean or river during a laundry session. The fibers come from clothes made from synthetic (man-made) materials, such as nylon and polyester. Since they’re small, many sewage plants can’t filter them. They can bind to chemical pollutants in water and get eaten by plankton. Microplastic pollution then makes its way up the food chain, yes, even us. In fact, scientists have found traces of fibers in the fish that we eat.

What materials won’t contribute to microplastic pollution? Natural fibers, such as cotton and linen, are great alternatives to synthetic materials since they’re biodegradable. Here, we provide a guide on natural and sustainable synthetic fabrics to help you on your eco-fashion journey.

Cotton

Cotton makes up half of the world’s clothing. It’s breathable, soft, durable, and of course, biodegradable. But cotton production isn’t sustainable. Cotton farming requires a lot of water and pesticides. And to dye it, cotton needs to be pure white as opposed to its natural beige color. Thus, cotton production often involves bleach and heavy metal dyes.

To be more eco-conscious, select organic cotton free of harmful pesticides. Check for a Global Organic Standard Textile label to ensure that your fabric doesn’t contain harmful dyes.

Linen

Linen comes from the flax plant, which requires little pesticides and much less water than cotton. As a fabric, it’s stronger than cotton, though still breathable. While it feels stiff when you first buy it, linen softens over time.

A linen wardrobe, while sustainable, can be investment in money and time. Linen costs more than cotton, as it takes longer and requires more effort to produce. The material can be wrinkle-prone and requires special care, such as dry cleaning (which may not be very green). However, there are many new styles of light-weave linens and linen-blends that are affordable, soft and machine washable.

Wool

Wool is warm, water resistant, and wrinkle resistant. It dyes easily, so it doesn’t require harsh chemicals to get coloring. Wool is also durable, so it’ll stay in your closet a long time.   

But since wool comes from sheep, animal cruelty can be an issue. To address concerns, some companies, such as Patagonia, offer cruelty-free wool items. Besides animal ethics, many eco-consumers also feel conflicted about the methane in wool production. Half of the emission comes from the sheep themselves passing gas. Scientists are researching ways to reduce methane production through breeding, adjusting diets, and planting trees in pastures.

Silk

Silk is luxurious, coming with a smooth texture and natural sheen. Not only does it feel great, it does the environment good as well since it’s biodegradable and dyes easily.

But silk isn’t for everyone. Like linen, silk is expensive and requires special care because it’s a sensitive fabric. Plus, traditional harvesting methods involve boiling silk cocoons and killing silkworms. Ahimsa silk is your best bet for ethically harvested silk, though it’s steeply priced. To produce this silk, manufacturers either wait for the pupa to hatch or cut the cocoon open without hurting the worm.

The Difference Between Recycling and Upcycling

Recycled or upcycled products are also eco-friendly since they prevent reusable materials from going to waste. Recycling refers to breaking down and refashioning existing products, often synthetic materials. Clothes are shredded into fibers, spun, and then woven back into fabrics. The fibers are shorter, so the recycled material is often blended with new fibers. Besides used clothes, fibers can also be made from plastic bottles. In this process, the plastic is turned into pellets, melted, and then made into polyester yarn. The product may still contribute to microplastic pollution, but it allows the plastic to be used longer instead of going into a landfill.

Upcycling takes a waste material and turns it into something of higher quality. It’s a creative process in which you work imperfect fabrics into your designs. Upcycling refers to everything from DIY projects to when companies buy deadstock fabrics.

Now that you know all about eco-friendly fibers, stay tuned for our post on building a sustainable wardrobe. In the meanwhile, check out Klee’s discounts for clothing brands that use sustainable and ethical fabrics, including uni-T, RECOVER, THOM KELLY, and ASH & ROSE.

Stacey Nguyen Stacey is a California-based freelance entertainment and lifestyle writer. Her work has been published by PopSugar, HelloGiggles, Reelgood, The Balance, and The Bold Italic. When she's not writing, she enjoys finding a good thrift deal and listening to pop culture podcasts.