Hey guys! I often talk about sustainable fashion, how to shop green, how to take better care of your things, how to wash your clothes with the lowest impact, etc, I recently made a list of the most sustainable fabrics, so of course, you’re also getting a list of the most unsustainable fabrics. (find my list of eco brands I stand by here), if you want to know more about my favorite sustainable fashion brands. I would also like to mention that even though you have some of these fabrics in your closet, you can still be sustainable, and actually, continuously wearing these “unsustainable” pieces makes them more and more sustainable. Wearing what we already have rather than replacing unnecessarily is a really important step towards a green wardrobe, so please, don’t feel discouraged. Use this list to find out how to consciously consume these materials, what to look for, and what to avoid when shopping for new.
Polyester: is partially made from crude oil, and this material does not break down, just like other plastic products, polyester clothing release microplastic whenever it is worn and washed. As many as 700.000 microplastic particles can be released during 1 wash cycle. Polyester is very widely used in the fashion industry today, because it is super cheap to produce, and as such using polyester is key when wanting to keep prices down, buuut there are definitely many downsides to using this material – starting with the fact that it is derived from a fossil material, its recycling abilities are rather limited, it is difficult to repair, it does not break down organically, cannot be composted, and it releases microplastic. That being said, polyester, isn’t necessarily always worse than natural fabrics, some lifecycle analysis studies place it as less impactful than cotton, some gives it an average scoring, and some scores it worse. Ultimately, most clothes aren’t recycled or composted, not even the ones made from natural fibers – so depending on how you choose to treat your clothes, the impact of them can change, drastically. My best advice for wearing polyester (yes don’t throw your polyester clothes away, wear them for as long as you can), wash them in a particle filtration bag, wash them only when necessary, while underwear needs washing after 1 use, most shirts, skirts, leggings, etc do not – and find ways to upcycle your clothing if they break, rather than throwing them away.
Acrylic: poses a lot of the same issues as polyester, actually they overlap 100%. Acrylic is made from a synthetic polymer (acrylonitrile) and the production of it is extremely toxic to the workers making the materials. Acrylic also releases microplastic, and some estimates find that 20-35% of primary sources of ocean microplastic come from synthetic textiles. Most studies place the breakdown time of synthetic fibers in a landfill between 20 and 200 years depending on the conditions.
Nylon: again, same issues as with polyester and acrylic, it is derived from crude oil, it does not break down, it releases microplastic and it is basically impossible to wear. I do wear second-hand nylon tights, but I haven’t found sustainable alternatives that are see-through in the same way, and once they break I upcycle them into electric bands, filling for pillows, etc. I also recommend checking out nylon recycling programs like the one Swedish stockings have established. It is not a perfect system, but it is by far the best I have seen so far.
Conventional cotton: is the most cultivated non-food crop in the world, and oh boi does it have an impact, even though it is a “natural fiber”. I have a whole impact video about cotton if you’re curious about the details, but here are the highlights. It takes almost 3000 liters of water to produce 1 cotton t-shirt, cotton production has actually resulted in some pretty devastating loss of watersides around the globe, including the Aral Sea. While only 2.4% of the world’s arable land is planted with cotton, 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and 18 percent of pesticides are used to grow it. Organic cotton and recycled cotton are definitely better options, but simply being mindful, not buying more than necessary, repairing clothes, and maintaining quality are good steps to a more sustainable wardrobe.
Rayon (viscose): while rayon is technically made from plants, it is not necessarily sustainable. The material is often categorized as a “semi-synthetic”, it is made by dissolving cellulose (plant mass) into a chemical solution, which is then made into fabric, and this process can be highly toxic and damaging both to workers and the environment, we’re talking toxic wastewater galore flushed out into natural water systems as well as people’s drinking water. Rayon is a good example of how a material can be derived from plants, and often marketed as a “plant-based material” while still having a lot of environmental issues – in many ways, just like bamboo textile.
and lastly, an ambiguous one…
Leather: I want to mention leather as well, however as a sort of ambiguous material, that can be sustainable, or at least used sustainably, while its production definitely is not. The Textile Exchange report 2021 estimates that around 1.4 billion hides and skins of animals were used in global leather production in 2020, that’s around 1 animal for every 5 people on the planet. I have already covered the impact of animal agriculture, and these two are definitely related (leather is often a bi-production of the meat industry, however, that is not always the case, in some cases leather is the main product and some animals are specifically bred for their skins). Overall leather is a high impact product because the product is derived from an industry that is connected to massive greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. In order to preserve leather so it can be used for goods, it is tanned, and tanning comes with a big impact. A majority of leather today is tanned with chromium, a known carcinogen that is highly toxic for both workers and the environment. According to EPA, 70% of the water pollution in the US comes from factory farms. Leather in fact has the greatest impact on eutrophication because the wastewater often flows untreated to local waterways. Tannery workers – including children as young as 10 in some countries – risk severe health problems as a result of working in tanneries.
However, leather is also one of the most doable materials we have, and I am not opposed to using what we already own. Ethically, I am personally okay with using vintage/second hand/reclaimed/upcycled leather because once it has been created, it’ll stick around for a long time, and compared to many synthetic leather alternatives, which are often derived from petroleum, leather can be repaired, and do not release microplastic.