Let’s talk natural fibres: materials that come straight from nature, whether plant or animal. More specifically, let’s focus on the big three: cotton, linen and wool.
When buying new textiles (for clothing, home furnishing or anything else), going natural is usually the easiest way to ensure better sustainability.
But what about when natural doesn’t equal eco-friendly?
Thanks to supply and demand becoming balanced all over the world (thank you, fast fashion), the overproduction of these materials – especially if cheaply produced – means that natural fibres have a bigger impact than we can imagine.
But awareness is rising, and global NGOs are trying to smooth this out for manufacturers and shoppers. Here are some tips on what to look out for, and what to avoid, when purchasing products made with natural fibres.
Cotton deserves a blog post on its own, but we’ll be brief here.
Cotton is a versatile natural fibre. Raw cotton is the wooly, white mass of fibre that is picked from the plant. When spun into yarn and woven into fabric, it creates garments that are breathable and gentle on the skin, which makes it ideal for intimate basics, like underwear and t-shirts.
Best of all, if grown without harsh chemicals, cotton is strong enough to be recyclable, and can biodegrade in around six months.
So what’s the problem?
Growing cotton requires a lot of water, and less educated farms often overuse toxic chemicals, such as pesticides. In short, too much water is wasted, toxic pollutants leech into water sources and soil, and the health of workers is at risk.
The good news is there are ways around this ethical and environmental problem. Organic cotton is grown free from strong pesticides. There are better methods of irrigation to use water efficiently. Regulations are put in place to protect workers’ rights. The entire process becomes more circular (for example, the soil can be reused and is even enriched).
To identify sustainable cotton, look out for labels with organic certifications – for example GOTS, BCI Cotton and COTTON USA. These should be visible on the labels – brands want you to know when they’re sustainable, because it’s a selling point.
Tip: look for 100% cotton: this means it isn’t blended with another synthetic material, which makes the garment easier to recycle or biodegrade at the end of its life. The good news is, brands usually don’t mess with 100% organic cotton, because again – it’s a selling point.
Next up, linen
Linen is a beautiful fabric with thousands of years of history. We have evidence of linen fabrics dating all the way back to prehistoric times. Although a more expensive fabric to buy, linen is strong and gets luxuriously softer with every wash, making it a great long-term investment.
Linen is woven from flax plant fibres, which is a highly resilient and useful crop that requires little water to maintain, making it more environmentally friendly than most cotton. A lot of linen is produced in Europe, around France and Belgium, where the rainfall is enough to grow flax.
It’s also breathable and light, making it ideal for summer. It can be used for clothing and it’s strong enough for traditional home textiles: think bed linen.
Because linen is rising in popularity in apparel – and not just for retirees – companies are also coming up with plenty of innovative linen products, such as knitted linen that doesn’t crease, or is at least easier to iron.
Is linen always eco-friendly?
Because of its rustic, textured look, linen is often prettiest when untreated, i.e. not dyed or bleached. When it’s left with its natural look, linen is fully biodegradable.
Tip: To make sure that the linen you’re wearing is sustainable, stick to untreated linen – usually an off-white colour. Bright white linen has likely been bleached, and unless you can ensure the whole supply chain is eco-friendly, it’s best to steer clear of this.
How about wool?
While biodegradability is important, what if there was a material that actually improved the soil it breaks down in? Of course there is. It’s wool.
But are the sheep alright?
The ethical obstacles that come with wool are, as with any animal fibre, complicated. This deserves another separate blog post, but in this article we’ll focus on the benefits of organic, ethical wool. That means responsible farming, a commitment to abstain from animal cruelty, and environmentally-friendly treatments and cleaning processes.
Organic wool is an excellent biodegradable material, which adds nutrients back to the earth. It’s comfortable and lasts for a long time, often getting better with age, meaning it’s a material that is worth investing in.
It’s versatile – useful for everything from warm clothing to home textiles, sanitary products and activewear. It’s durable, and protective – think of merino wool hiking socks, which minimise blisters thanks to their breathable quality (which, as a bonus, can also reduce odour).
The benefits of these big three natural materials are endless. While being good for the environment, they also often offer a level of comfort that can’t be found with cheap synthetics.
But as with most materials, to ensure that your wardrobe is sustainable, you’ll probably have to spend more. To combat this, choose garments that won’t go out of style, and buy with the rest of your wardrobe in mind, so that you can keep mixing-and-matching.
The best purchases are the ones that can be worn for decades to come, and there’s a reason why traditional fabrics like cotton, linen and wool have stood the test of time throughout human history.
Lastly, and importantly, look for brands that are transparent about their entire supply chain. Is their farm responsible? Do they use harsh chemicals to clean or dye the fibres? Are their factories powered sustainably? Are their workers paid a living wage? Do they ship each stage of the garment all over the world to save a few pennies?
An ethical apparel brand will be upfront about their practices, and hopefully, it’s these brands that will succeed in the market.