Everyone wears clothes – probably even the most diehard nudists, sometimes – so whether you’re an avant-garde fashionista or a committed dag, you should know the ethical dimensions of the fabric we wear. Jess Noble is a veteran Otter writer with fashion-industry experience.
As an ethical consumer, how do you know for sure that your favourite “ethical” clothing brand is actually using sustainable fabrics? If you answered, “Because it says so on the website”, no dice. The requirements for a fabric or material to be considered sustainable are many. While there are ways to ensure you only buy sustainable materials – like GOTS certification – sometimes if transparency is poor, it comes down to the consumer asking the right questions.
Strap on your (unsustainable polyester) seatbelts for the Otter guide to sustainable fabrics.
Conscious consumers should ideally ask a tonne of questions before handing over their money. Whether we are asking the designer, the salesperson, Google or apps, it’s up to us to be armed with the right queries.
Consider a white T-shirt. First, we want to know if it was ethically produced. Is it fair trade? Where was it made? We might want to know the fuel expended in shipping – its carbon miles (or kilometres, but that’s a bit of a mouthful). Were the workers in the fabric mills fairly paid? Will the T-shirt stand the test of time? Can it be recycled? These are all great questions – but the first and foremost question any consumer should be asking is, “What is it made from?” And checking the label just doesn’t cut it.
What is it made from?
This is the preliminary question because it opens up an underbelly of sub-questions delving deeper into the fashion cycle of that garment; before that cotton was made into your T-shirt, it was out in a cotton field, probably in India or China, a long way from your wardrobe, with a huge journey ahead of it.
What do we mean by “sustainable” fabric?
Navigating the intricate sustainable fashion rulebook can feel like a minefield, especially when the fashion industry is taking liberties with the term “sustainable”. It’s important to know what we mean when we say “sustainable”, and definitions of the word abound, but for the purposes of this article, to be sustainable, any design – from a shoe to a piece of cloth – must tick three major boxes: it must not impinge on workers’ rights or animal rights, or harm the environment.
A starting point – fabrics that are definitely not sustainable
Polyesters, nylon and acrylics are artificial fibres made from petrochemicals that are absorbed by the skin of the wearer. These fibres don’t break down as they are made from plastic, creating tonnes of pollution. Nylon production creates nitrous oxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas.
Rayon (viscose) is a synthetic fibre made from wood pulp, which is treated with hazardous chemicals. The production of rayon also sees the destruction of ancient forests to make room for pulpwood plantations.
Fabric made from bamboo is often presented as sustainable, but this is only true in limited cases. While bamboo is a relatively sustainable source of fibre, the problem is in the production of the final cloth. The soft bamboo that is most in demand is normally made in the same way as rayon, with a similarly highly intensive and unsustainable chemical process. There is an alternative and much less harmful method that uses a closed loop process and produces a product marketed as Tencel or Lyocel.
Silk is a natural fibre made from the grub of the silk moth. It takes thousands of the grubs to create a small amount of silk. There are now alternate ways of harvesting silk, called Peace Silk, where the grub is allowed to leave the cocoon, but this ethical option is not widely adopted as the end product is not as soft.
Is there sustainable fabric certification to look out for?
Yes. Always look for a GOTS certification on the care label of a garment. This is a definitive sign that the fabric has ticked all (or most) of the boxes to be considered sustainable. If a fabric is GOTS-certified (an acronym for Global Organic Textile Standard), the buyer of the fabric can trust that it’s fair trade.
If the product is supposedly ethical but doesn’t have sustainable certification, this doesn’t mean it’s not sustainable. Some smaller fabric mills can’t afford certification, so it’s then up to the buyer to take steps to ask what makes it sustainable and ethical.
Are natural fibres always sustainable?
Not always. Natural fibres are those produced by plants or animals that can be spun into a fabric – such as silk, wool, hemp, bamboo or cotton.
Let’s go back to that cotton field. Cotton is the most widely used natural fibre in the world. Growing in nature, this must mean it’s a sustainable fibre, right? Not necessarily, because there’s more to it. The cotton industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, using 24% of the world’s insecticides. That alone results in a massive footprint. Unfortunately, this means that one of the most beloved wardrobe staples in history – jeans – are often made from unsustainable, non-organic cotton. Unless otherwise specified (Nudie Jeans uses 100% certified organic cotton, for example), chances are your old faithfuls are chock-full of chemicals. So in that case, while the cotton is natural, it’s not always sustainable because of the environmental impact during the harvesting phase. Made-by.org is an expert European NGO working to make sustainable cotton common. It rates organic hemp, organic linen and textiles made from recycled materials with the least environmental harm.
Another example is wool. Also known as sheep fleece, wool is a natural fibre taken from sheep – but the way the sheep are treated is often inhumane.
The hard part for ethical consumers is getting all the answers to piece together the whole story.
How can believe what we’re told?
With the contagion that is greenwashing infiltrating the ethical fashion world, ethical brands, designers and manufacturers need to be as transparent as glass about every aspect of their creations.
Charlatans masquerading as ethical are marketing their wares as being made from natural sustainable fabrics – which may be true by some measures, but not all. Just because the cotton is organic, i.e. made without harsh chemicals, doesn’t mean the workers in the cotton fields were fairly paid. It doesn’t mean thousands of carbon miles weren’t clocked up importing the cotton from China or India. There is more than one tick box for a fabric to be 100% legitimately sustainable and ethical, and when certification is not present, transparency is key.
Case study: Eva Cassis*
Sydney-based ethical clothing designer Eva Cassis is one designer who makes sure she ticks the social, economic and environmental boxes when selecting fabrics.
“For a fabric to be ethical enough for me to use in my designs it must qualify for lots of things. The fabric source is super important, all mills should be fair trade and fabrics should not be processed with chemicals exposing workers to health risks. The fabrics should be either natural, or of the 100% recycled fabrics that have been created in recent years.”
Anything that is GOTS-certified is a safe bet for Eva, but she says many textile sources are claiming to be sustainable without the GOTS stamp because they can’t afford the costs of certification. The only way to tell without this kind of industry accreditation is via full transparency.
“There have been quite a few [textile] sources along the way that I have had to stop using because I couldn’t get enough information to trust in their product. I prioritise anything that’s GOTS-certified. If something is not certified I choose smaller family-run mills, which have proven to be more responsible as they are working on a much smaller scale, which means control and management is much better. And open and honest transparency.
“I’m so passionate about sourcing the right fabrics from the right places. If you’re not supporting the ethical mills doing the right things – both environmentally and humanly – you are essentially supporting those who aren’t.”
Polyesters, acrylics – all fabrics that aren’t natural – are out the realm of possibility for a label like Eva’s, because of their environmental impact.
“Not only are they toxic for the wearer, but toxic to the factory workers creating them and devastating to the environment. Quite frankly, I think it should be illegal to produce these types of fabrics.”
While labels like Eva’s make it easy to trust in the ethical label, other brands are not always as forthcoming with the information. That’s where it’s up to the consumer to ask questions.
“Ask them what makes it sustainable,” says Eva. “Ask where the fabric comes from. Who made the product? Where was it made? Is it fair trade? If it’s not certified, how does the maker know it’s ethical? I love when people ask because it means they care and I love to share what I do.”
Starting your sustainable fabric journey ASAP
The ethical fashion movement is but a wee baby with a huge, important future. And we each have a very important role to play in that future. Everyone in the world wears clothes.
Next time you get changed, turn your T-shirt inside out and look at the label. Besides the washing instructions, you’ll see the most important detail on this garment – the material. It may not be as easy as just looking at a label to figure out if a fabric is sustainable, but it’s step one.
* Jess Noble, the author, is employed by Eva Cassis.