The Fibers We Avoid
Natural & Animal-based fibers
synthetic & semi-synthetic fibers
Although it is a natural fiber, conventional cotton is far from being environmental friendly.
Cotton is produced mainly in dry and warm regions, but it needs a lot of water to grow. In some places like India, because of inefficient water use, it requires up to 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. In the meantime, 100 million people in India do not have access to drinking water.
99,3% of cotton is grown using fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. Cotton represents 10% of pesticide and 25% of insecticide used globally.
99% of the world’s cotton farmers are in developing countries where most of the time labor, health and safety regulation are nonexistent or not enforced. Child and forced labour are common practice.
In Uzbekistan (6th largest exporter of cotton in the world) more than 1 million people are forced each year to pick cotton for little or no pay.
Leather is a controversial fiber. First of all it is not an animal friendly option as it is made of dead animal skin.
But environmental and social concerns related to leather are mostly linked to the tanning process: to transform the skins into wearable leather, toxic chemicals are used (chromium in 80% of the cases).
Those substances are often dumped into rivers, polluting freshwaters and oceans. Also, most of the tanning factory workers in the world don’t wear adequate protection and suffer from skin, eye and respiratory diseases, cancers and others diseases due to their exposure to chemical substances.
Many children are also working in tanneries.
"Chrome-free", which usually means aldehyde-tanned or vegetable-tanned leather are alternatives to chrome-tanned leather, however it has been proved that their environmental impact are very similar to chrome-tanned leather.
The good news is that some sustainable leather options are starting to appear. Learn more...
Wool as such is a renewable natural fiber, so it could have been considered an environment-friendly option. Unfortunately the extensive sheep farming practiced to meet the global demands has had disastrous consequences on the environment.
Sheep survive by grazing, which can have a positive impact on certain types of ecosystems when it is well managed. But when the land is grazed too heavily, it leads to overgrazing.
Overgrazing means that the vegetation doesn’t have enough time to grow back again before it is eaten. The soil becomes weak and vulnerable to erosion and desertification.
For example 30% of the region of Patagonia is affected by desertification mainly due to sheep overgrazing which are primarily raised for their wool.
Sheep also release methane, a gas that is 25 times worse for global warming than CO2. Sheep are often dipped in insecticide baths which contain substances hazardous for the farmers. Residues of those harmful chemicals can stay on the wool and be found in our clothes.
Another concern about wool production is the bad treatment that sheep sometimes receive. When a sheep’s fleece is removed (the shearing), the shearers often hurt the animals, cutting their skin or hitting them to keep them quiet. Finally the practice of mulesing has been widely denounced by animal rights activists. Mulesing consists in removing the skin of the Merino sheep around the breech to prevent parasitic infection.
Cashmere fiber comes from cashmere goat hairs. More than 80% of the world’s cashmere is produced in China and Mongolia.
The main environmental issue from cashmere comes from the fact that goats pull the grass out by the roots when they eat instead of cutting it, which doesn’t allow the grass to grow back and leads to land desertification. This, combined with an overpopulation of goats, results in a real environmental threat.
Mongolia is now suffering the consequences of this overgrazing of cashmere goats. The breeding of more than 20 million cashmere goats is the principal cause of the massive desertification threatening 90% of the surface of the country.
Polyester is the most common fiber in our garment. We can find it in 52% of our clothes.
Polyester is a synthetic fiber derived from petroleum, a nonrenewable fossil fuel. As we know, the transformation of crude oil into petrochemicals releases toxins into the atmosphere that are dangerous for human and ecosystem health.
The production of polyester is also very energy-intensive.
One of the major problems with this plastic fiber, is the fact that it is non-biodegradable.
Furthermore, each time we wash a polyester garment, it releases 1900 plastic microfibers, ending up in rivers and oceans and then in our food chain.
Other Synthetic Fibers
Acrylic, Polyamide, Nylon, Polypropylene, PVC, Spandex (AKA Lycra or elastane), aramide, etc, are all different types of synthetic fibers that are derived from petroleum and therefore have a very similar impact on the environment as Polyester.
Rayon, Viscose, Modal
Rayon is a fiber from regenerated cellulose usually derived from wood pulp. Rayon is usually made from eucalyptus trees but any plant can be used (such as bamboo, soy, cotton, etc). To produce the fiber, the plant cellulose goes through a process involving a lot of chemicals, energy and water. Solvents used during the process can be very toxic to humans and to the environment. Viscose, modal, lyocell, bamboo are different types of rayon.
The other substantial environmental concerns arising from rayon production is the massive deforestation involved. Thousands of hectares of rainforest are cut down each year to plant trees specifically used to make rayon. Only a very small percentage of this wood is obtained by sustainable forestry practices.
Viscose (also called Artificial Silk or Art Silk) is the most common type of rayon. Viscose production involves a lot of chemicals, heavily harmful for the environment when they are released in effluents.
Modal, another type of rayon using Beech trees with a similar process to viscose. The company Lenzing, selling modal under Lenzing Modal® only uses trees from sustainably harvested forests (PEFC certified) and employs an eco-friendly bleaching method. However modal is produced by many other manufacturers who don’t necessarily use sustainable processes.
Cupro is a rayon fiber from cotton wastes, which is a sustainable aspect. But it still has to go through a chemical process to be transformed, with its negative consequences on the environment.
Bamboo is usually sold as an eco-friendly textile. Which is partially true as the bamboo plant is potentially one of the world's most sustainable resource. It grows very fast and easily, it doesn’t need pesticide or fertilizers and it doesn’t need to be replanted after harvest because it grows new sprouts from the roots. However to transform bamboo into fiber, the bamboo is processed with strong chemical solvents that are potentially harmful for the health of manufacturer's workers, for the consumers wearing the garment and for the environment when chemicals are released in wastewaters. Bamboo fabric is a type of rayon often called "bamboo rayon".
Nevertheless, manufacturers have developed processes addressing this chemical concerns, converting bamboo into a truly sustainable option.
Vegan Leather is usually made of PVC, Polyurethane which are synthetic fibers that have a similar environmental impact as polyester. It is certainly better for animal welfare but it is not an eco-friendly option.
However, some plant-based substitute of leather exist, such as the pineapple fiber.