Spoiler alert: All clothes, regardless of how they’re made, where they’re made, or what they’re made from, have an environmental impact.

However, not all garments are created equal. Some garments have more of a negative impact at different stages of their life than others. To figure out the environmental impact of a garment, factors such as the way the fibre was grown, how the fabric was made, or how you dispose of a garment once it’s no longer needed (among many others), need to be considered. Let’s take a look…

Fabrics are made from fibres, which are classified according to three main categories:

  • Natural (grown or produced from crops or animals, such as cotton, wool, linen, and silk)
  • Synthetic (made using chemical processes, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic)
  • Regenerated (made using chemical processes but with plant materials, such as viscose rayon)

Each type of fibre has different impacts depending on the way they are grown or made. These impacts include elements like water use, chemical pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation.

Understanding the various types of fibres and the corresponding impacts across their lifecycle can be a little hard to understand. That’s why we’ve rounded up a list of the most commonly used fibres to help give you an overview of the impacts of each. We’ve also provided some more sustainable alternatives you can opt for to help bring about positive industry change. Check the fibre content label on your clothing to see what it’s made from, and use the links below to dig deeper and build your understanding of the impacts that each fibre has.
 

Fibre Impacts Better Option More Information

Cotton

Conventional cotton is a highly water-intensive crop to produce, and often uses large amounts of pesticides. Certified organic cotton, BCI, Australian Cotton myBMP, Fairtrade Organic, or recycled cotton. Textile Exchange - Cotton

Polyester and Nylon

Both polyester and nylon are made using raw materials from the oil industry (petrochemicals). Their manufacturing process is water and energy-intensive, and the chemical dyes used for colouring are often highly toxic.

Both materials also shed microplastics during washing, which pollute waterways. They are also non-biodegradable – meaning they can take between 20-200 years to breakdown depending on the environment.

Recycled polyester (rPET), recycled nylon (eg. Econyl).

Textile Exchange - Polyester

Textile Exchange - Nylon

GoodOnYou - Polyester

Wool

The way sheep are farmed can contribute to land degradation and soil erosion.

Responsible Wool Standard certified, certified organic, or recycled wool.

Textile Exchange - Wool

Linen

Linen is made from the flax plant. Although it typically requires fewer chemicals than other fibres, most cultivation still uses nitrates which can be harmful to waterways and ecosystems.

Certified organic linen.

GoodOnYou - Linen

Viscose (also referred to as Rayon)

Viscose is made from wood pulp, which if not sourced responsibly may contribute to deforestation. The production process is also water and chemical-intensive and can be highly polluting for both the air and waterways.

FSC or PEFC certified recycled viscose, or look for lyocell as an alternative.

Textile Exchange - Cellulosics

 

 

A note on blended fibres: Some fabrics are made using a mix of fibres to maximise their different properties, such as a polyester and cotton (polycotton) blend. Blended fibre mixes reduce the ability of the fabric to be recycled at the end of its life because it is hard to separate the individual fibre types. Fabrics made from a single fibre, such as 100% cotton, can usually be recycled. Keep this in mind next time you’re checking the garment label in a fitting room or disposing of clothing.

If you’re interested in seeking out more innovative sustainable fibres, have a read through Good On You’s What Are the Most Sustainable Fabrics? an online guide, which explores some exciting fibres that have been developed to address various environmental issues: https://goodonyou.eco/most-sustainable-fabrics/

And don’t forget—the most sustainable wardrobe is the one you already have! Look after the clothes you own to extend their life, and when they’re past their best, dispose of them responsibly.


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