Know Your Materials: What Each One Means for Sustainable Fashion

When was the last time you turned down a dress that made you look great and feel even better, simply because it was constructed with a questionable poly-blend?


I get it.

We live in our clothes.

Yet we’re not educated on what those clothes are made of, and why that matters, or if it matters at all.

It matters — for those of us learning to balance our interest in fashion with conscious consumption, an awareness of materials and their environmental impacts can guide us toward more sustainable purchasing decisions.

It’s estimated that each year we consume 80 billion pieces of clothing. Clothing is made of materials. Producing this volume of materials year after year strains the planet, both in terms of the natural resources use and environmental impacts like pollution and waste.

Let’s take a closer look at the three broad categories of materials: natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic, and a few of the high-level environmental issues involved with each.


Natural materials exist in — you guessed it — nature and come from the same place our food does: farms. Like our food, natural materials can come from plants or animals.

Plant-based materials, including cotton, linen, hemp and raffia, are the fruits and vegetables of our wardrobe. They can be organic and farmed in a cooperative, or they can be grown using chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Animal-based materials, like wool (from sheep), silk (from silk worms), cashmere (from goats) and alpaca are the protein of our closets. Meat eaters can opt for organic, cage-free eggs and grass-fed beef versus the alternative options from industrial farms, right? Well, the same goes for animal-based materials. The way that farm animals interact with the land has significant environmental implications.

+ Resources used: land, water, fossil-fuels (because many agricultural chemicals are petroleum-based)
+ Environmental issues: chemical pesticides and fertilizers pollute soil, water systems and air. Why air? Ruminant farm animals (including sheep and goats) release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.
+ Material miscreants: cashmere and cotton (discussed below)


Synthetic materials, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, don’t exist naturally but are made in factories. Synthetics are created through an industrial manufacturing process in which petroleum, a fossil fuel, is extracted from the earth and mechanically transformed into fibers for clothing. The resulting fiber, although soft and even silky, is actually a plastic. In fact, polyester is made of the same exact material used to make plastic bottles: polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

+ Resources used: fossil-fuels
+ Environmental issues: the production of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which is the leading cause of climate change; washing synthetic fibers releases microplastics into the water supply and ultimately into our food chain, synthetics don’t decompose in landfills.
+ Material miscreants: polyester (because of its volume — it is the most common material in our clothes); nylon (because its production releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2)

Semi-synthetic materials have a natural source, but require processing to transform that natural source into a fiber that can be used for clothing. These include rayon (aka viscose), modal, lyocell (aka TENCEL®) and bamboo.

+ Resources used: primarily wood
+ Environmental issues: deforestation (the cutting down of trees faster than forests can replenish them) which has climate change implications; heavy chemicals needed to transform the hard wood into a soft fiber release pollutants into the air and water
+ Material miscreants: rayon, modal and bamboo (discussed below)


How do we translate this knowledge into practice? Here are 10 ways:

1) Know your materials. Done! See above. Off to a great start.

2) Read the tags.

Here’s why: Awareness is the first step. As they PSAy with a shooting-star rainbow: The more you know.

3) For summer clothes, skip cotton and choose linen, hemp, and organic cotton instead.

Here’s why: Cotton, although a natural fiber, is one of the most environmentally intensive materials in our closets, for a few reasons. First, cotton needs a lot of pesticides and fertilizer to grow. It’s one of the world’s most pesticide-intensive crops. Second, cotton consumes a lot of water. It takes around 700 gallons of water to make enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s roughly equivalent to 40 showers-worth. Third, most cotton is grown using genetically modified seeds. We tend to think of genetic modification as a food issue, but cotton is one of the world’s major genetically modified crops. GM crops present a host of environmental issues, including soil and water pollution and threats to biodiversity. Because cotton is the second-most common material in our clothes after polyester, these environmental issues are significant due to the scale at which we cultivate cotton.

Linen, hemp, and organic cotton are significantly less polluting. Linen and hemp in particular are highly sustainable materials that don’t need pesticides or fertilizers to grow and require little water. (P.S. Jungmaven has great hemp tees). Organic cotton is a more sustainable option as well because it is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and using non-GM seeds.


4) For your winter wardrobe, pass on cashmere in favor of alpaca.

Here’s why: It’s probably been a while since you thought about the eating habits of goats. Well, in Mongolia, one of the world’s top producers of cashmere, overeating goats are severely altering the ecosystem. When goats graze, they pull grasses from the root, whereas sheep and alpaca only eat the grass at the surface, preserving the root system.

When land is overgrazed, the soil can’t store water or nutrients so it becomes unhealthy, which slowly transforms previously fertile land into a desert. Due in large part to overgrazing for cashmere production, 90% of the land in Mongolia is experiencing some form of this transition to desert land. To be clear, it’s not that cashmere is inherently unsustainable, it’s that these unprecedented volumes of cashmere production are. So, until cashmere can be produced more sustainably (this company is trying), choose alpaca instead. Alpaca have a really light environmental footprint. They eat and drink very little and tread softly on the ground. If you choose alpaca that’s fair trade or from a cooperative, you also support development in Peru’s remote alpaca growing communities.

5) For athletic wear, swimwear, outerwear, and any clothing in general where you need the properties of synthetic materials, skip polyester and choose recycled post-consumer PET instead.

Here’s why: The plastic waste we generate can be recycled to form polyester fibers that can be used to make new clothing. There is a dual benefit here: we reduce plastic waste and simultaneously decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, which in turn reduces GHG emissions. There are a growing number of companies, including Ecoalf, Odina Surf, Teeki, Patagonia and Nike making clothing and accessories using recycled plastics. This doesn’t address all of the problems associated with synthetic materials, like microplastic shedding, but it does take a step in the right direction.

6) For evening wear, choose silk.

Here’s why: Silk is a natural, durable, yet biodegradable material that has a very low environmental impact. As the technology to spin polyester fibers improves, polyester is making its way more and more into our evening wear — but we don’t need plastic in our evening gowns. Choose pieces made of 100% silk instead, even if that means buying vintage or second-hand. If you’re concerned about the ethical issues associated with silk production, consider peace silk.

7) Go nude! Just kidding. And making sure you’re still reading.


8) Embrace TENCEL®.

Here’s why: According to Reformation, “Tencel is like the Beyoncé of fabric.” Need I say more?

Lyocell, sold as the branded fabric TENCEL®, is a highly sustainable material. Tencel’s wood source is most commonly eucalyptus, which grows quickly without irrigation and doesn’t need chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Furthermore, eucalyptus can grow on marginal land that isn’t ideal for farming, which means its production doesn’t compete with the production of food. Tencel is produced through a closed loop system, in which virtually all of the chemicals are captured and reused, rather than being emitted into the environment as pollutants.

Given that over 70 million trees are cut down annually to make wood-based fibers (30% of which come from endangered/ancient forests), eucalyptus-based Tencel is a much more sustainable option than wood-based rayon.


(You may have heard about about bamboo-based synthetic fibers, too. That’s a tricky one: As opposed to rayon, bamboo, the source, is extremely sustainable. It grows quickly, needs very little irrigation and doesn’t require chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But when it comes to the sustainability of the production process, the majority of bamboo is produced in exactly the same way as rayon, which is a heavy chemical process that pollutes air and water. There is a type of bamboo known as bamboo linen, which is produced mechanically and not chemically. Bamboo linen is in fact a sustainable material option, but it’s rare to find it.)

9) Steer away from blended fibers when you can.

Here’s why: Blended fibers are those made from mixing two or more different materials together. For example, jeans are very often comprised of a blend of cotton and elastane, which makes the jeans a bit stretchier (and it’s appreciated). What is less appreciated is that clothing made of blended fibers cannot be recycled, because the technology doesn’t exist to separate the fibers yet. Because we are producing, consuming and turning over such a high volume of clothing, recycling fibers is an important way to reduce our use of virgin raw materials. So whenever possible, favor clothes made exclusively from a single material (i.e. 100% x).

10) Recycle or donate your clothes when you’re ready to move on from them.

Here’s why: Clothing that sits in landfills is a huge environmental problem. In the US alone, we throw away 10.5 million tons of clothing each year, which represents 85% of our clothing waste. Once in a landfill, plastic-based materials are essentially never going to budge because the sturdy chemical properties of plastic polymers means they won’t break down. Even though natural fibers could hypothetically decompose, landfills don’t provide the ideal conditions for that, so those fibers are effectively not breaking down either. So send a little love a landfill’s way and always donate or recycle your clothes.


When it comes to materials, taking a moderate approach is key. There is no perfectly sustainable material. The goal is to be more aware of the ways in which our material decisions matter in places far beyond our closets.

Nadine Farag is a sustainability writer and consultant in New York City. Nadine researched and authored Zady’s New Standard, which examines the social and environmental issues associated with apparel manufacturing. Follow her on Instagram @nadinefarag and Twitter @nadinefarag. Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; gifs designed by Juliette Kang; Ana Khouri ring, Club Monaco necklace


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