What to look for
Some materials are better than others. Generally speaking, there are four aspects of textile production: raw material extraction, textile production, length of fiber lifespan, added chemistry and end-of-life options. Some textiles are sustainable because they require less washing, the production methods are less intensive, or they decompose quickly, and others are great because they are hearty and will last. Check out the lists below to see what you should buy and what to avoid.
Tencel (lyocell) (A+) What is the difference between Tencel and lyocell? Tencel is simply a name for lyocell branded by the Austrian firm Lenzing. Tencel a man-made miracles in modern clothing; it is made of wood pulp, but unlike other forms of rayon, Tencel’s closed-loop (which means 99.5% of chemicals are reused) creation is non-toxic and the production requires very limited water. Tencel also doesn’t require bleaching (which most other textiles require) and quickly and easily absorbs dye, requiring less to get the same color effect The natural material created is biodegradable, breathable, and durable.
Hemp (A+) Hemp is an exception durable, low maintenance, high yield crop that requires little water to produce. The seeds of the plant can also be harvested for food products.
Jute (A) Similar to Hemp, it requires less water than cotton and little chemicals, and grows quickly. However, it does take more water than hemp.
Bamboo (A) A The growing and harvesting of the bamboo shoots is quick and doesn’t require a lot of external irrigation systems (because it is fed enough by rain water), pesticides, or energy, but textile spinning is labor intensive and creates a toxic chemical by product called caustic soda. It also needs to be bleached before being dyed to the garment color.
Linen (A) Linen comes from the flax plant and is very similar to hemp in it limited water need, ease of growing, it’s seed being a food product, and it bio degradability. However, linen fabric typically takes ironing because of its tendency to wrinkle, adding to its impact.
Organic Cotton (B) Organic cotton takes a lot of water, and uses chemicals that are better for the soil than conventional cotton, and cotton is always biodegradable and recyclable.
Silk (B) Silk is an animal protein that and be woven into a fine and expensive material. While it is a natural and biodegradable material, the method of extracting it kills the pupa and potentially harming the moth. Also silk is commonly produced in China where low wages are exploited and child labor is common.
Organic Wool (B) Organic wool puts more restrictions on wool production, resulting in better treatment of the animals and more consideration going into what the animals consume. However, any process that involves animals (particular their feeding and waste), have a high environmental footprint, but these sheep farms are typically located in lower income areas and create profitable income.
Recycled (Shoddy) (C) Recycled wool is made out of cuttings from creating other wool products. Reusing this material is great, however, the recycled wool is entirely unregulated and the conditions under which the fabrics are respun are frequently hazardous to workers.
Composite leather (C) Similar to recycled wool, composite leather is created by taking cuttings from the production of other leather goods. The advantage is wool’s durability and getting as much from material as possible but the disadvantage is that the use of the cuttings encourage the production of new leather, which is quite bad for the environment.
Non PVC Vegan Leather.
Latex (C) Latex is a rubber like material that is produced when a tree or plant is cut as a means of protecting the plant. The collection process is typically preformed by and helps foster the economies in developing worlds.
Conventional cotton (D) Takes a lot of water and a lot of chemicals, but it is biodegradable and is recyclable.
Rayon (viscose) (D) Although viscose is created out of a renewable resource (wood pulp) the production is very water intensive and requires toxic chemicals.
Traditional Leather (D) Tanneries are very toxic, both with the preservatives and dyes used, but leather usually lasts a very long time.
Conventional Wool (D) Conventional wool has no regulation outside of husbandry laws, so many animals are mistreated an mutilated and live a stressful and short life.
Recycled Polyester (D) While recycled polyester is markedly better than normal, it still comes with the downsides of normal polyester; the short lifespan and lack of biodegradability or recyclability.
Spandex / Lycra / Elastane (D) Created by a chemically intensive process, but creates durable, long-lifespan clothing.
Nylon (F) Nylon creates a very hazardous greenhouse gas, created by a water intensive process but it is “infinitely recyclable,” meaning it can be easily recycled forever and very durable. The production of this textile should land it in the avoid category, but its durability saves it. Only buy stuff with nylon in it if you’re planning to wear it for a really long time. Read more about the history and future of nylon here.
Polyester (F) Polyester production is a energy intensive and polluting process and it is made of a non-renewable resource (oil). If you’re going to avoid one fabric over all else. It is used in a lot of clothing because it is cheap and stretchy, but it is really quite terrible for the environment and there are a lot of other options for clothing. If you must have polyester, opt for recycled, or try to choose and item that where polyester is not the highest content. For example, if it is 80% cotton and 20% polyester, that is better than 100% polyester.
PVC and PVC based Faux Leather (Pleather) (F) PVC is a carcinogen, non-biodegradable, non-recyclable and created by a toxic process.
Fur (F) The process of production is very energy intensive, fur isn’t biodegradable, and the animals are typically treated very poorly.
Acrylic (F) Acrylic production creates a lot of pollution and it is not readily bio degradable.
Acetate and triacetate (F) These are not as popular textiles, but they’re created with wood pulp and are bio degradable, but the process is chemically and water intensive
These are a few easy physical tests to see if the fabric is quality, and that you'll want to wear it in a few months.
The Handle Test
Close your eyes and put the garment in your hands. How does it feel? Oily? Like a paper towel or napkin? Too thin? don't buy it.
The Scrunch Test
Scrunch up the fabric, if it doesn't immediately de wrinkle, don't buy it.
To see if the garment is built to last a while, check for the following attributes:
Seam allowance. Inside the garment, instead of seeing a stitched edge that is 1/8in, look for clothes that you can't see the stitching on (french seams) or more fabric at the seams. This allows the clothing to be let out if needed in the future.
Prints matching up with the pattern. At the seams or when there are patch pockets (packets that are put onto the garment), the patterns should line up seamlessly. Otherwise, the garment was made with little attention, and is probably low quality.
Extra buttons. On the tags of most apparel with buttons, check to see if there are extra buttons. Not only is this helpful, because you'll eventually lose a button, but this shows extra care and consideration taken into thinking about the life of the piece.
Trim, Lining and binding & other details. Other signs of well made clothing are the details. Trim is stitched to the edges of the garment as decoration or to help stabilize it. You'll find linings on well made dresses and coats. You should (usually) not be able to put you hand between the garment's shell and lining. Binding goes over the seams inside of the garment.