Toxic Fabrics and Alternatives to Synthetic Fibers

Toxic fabrics and alternatives to synthetic fibers

Clothing sustainability, toxic fabrics and alternatives to synthetic fibers

Synthetic fibers are toxic for the environment and the “true cost” goes beyond what you pay when you buy clothes made from these fibers. A typical fashion magazine feature includes affordable trends showing clothes, shoes and accessories for those on a budget. However, what is almost always the case is that many these affordable trends are made from synthetic materials. The “affordable” part is misleading as these affordable prices do not reflect the true cost – born by the environment. How many of us know about clothing sustainability, what synthetic fibers to avoid and what the alternatives are? Have you thought about the sustainability of your wardrobe?

Let’s start by reviewing synthetic fibers

Nylon – Nylon is a fiber made of synthetic polyamide, an organic petrochemical compound. There are naturally occurring polyamides- silk and wool, and nylon is the synthetic alternative to those natural fibers. Nylon is frequently found in fabric blends like viscose-nylon or polyester-nylon. This material is a non-renewable resource.

Viscose – Viscose, commonly called rayon, is a manufactured fiber made of regenerated cellulose which comes from trees. The chemical used to process the cellulose for it to become a “spinnable” fiber is considered a hazard to human health. Not all the cellulose is recovered during the manufacturing process and depends on the manufacturer.

Polyester-elastane – Polyester or PET as you may have seen with a recycling symbol on a plastic container, is modified ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid (yay organic chemistry!). This means it’s a petrochemical meaning it’s a non-renewable resource that comes from petroleum.  Elastane is the generic term for Lycra®, created by DuPont. In the U.S. we refer to the material as spandex but outside the U.S. it is more commonly referred to as elastane a polyester-polyurethane copolymer. This material is plastic which means it is a non-renewable resource and a petrochemical.

Polyurethane (many vegan leather items are made from this material) – Polyurethane (PU) is a plastic material that can be molded into shapes. Because it is a plastic it is a petrochemical. PU along with PVC are typically what comprise “vegan” leather and are used in cheap footwear. The chemical process for PVC is extremely toxic to the environment. There are much better vegan leather options that have less impact. Or do as I do which is buy my leather secondhand. That is how I deal with this conundrum and I also keep my shoes for well over 10 years through maintenance and care (see related post).

Why it matters.

All of the above fabrics (except viscose/rayon) are not biodegradable, are non-renewable petrochemicals that require significant energy to manufacture. Nylon is three times more energy intensive than cotton to produce. Nylon requires the use of dyes that create significant water pollution. 

Polyester –  More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year. Because it’s not biodegradable, it will persist in the environment as it breaks down into smaller pieces. The two largest sources of microplastic pollution in the ocean are nylon fishing nets and synthetic textile fibers that wear off during washing. Read more about the tremendous negative impact from polyester and microfibers. 

Polyurethane and PVC – Both of these are not biodegradable, are non-renewable petrochemicals that are extremely toxic – especially their manufacture. PVC is made from vinyl chloride a known human carcinogen.

Viscose –Recently, concerns have been raised about the trees used in the viscose and that many of them are from old growth forests, rainforests or endangered trees. Chances are you are likely wearing clothes from an old growth trees from endangered rainforests. I know what your thinking- that isn’t on the label! It’s not but certain brands in the fashion industry are working on sourcing from sustainably farmed trees. Until that gets sorted out, I advise that you only purchase rayon (viscose) secondhand.

Your clothes are treated with chemicals, too!

It turns out it’s not just the actual fibers that are toxic and harmful to the environment, but the finishes on the clothes that are also potentially hazardous. This is concerning because we wear clothes next to our skin and our skin is our largest organ. This article breaks down the main offenders and does a great job of explaining. All those fabrics touted as wrinkle free are in fact treated with chemicals. It turns out the alternative are to buy natural fabrics which I discuss in more detail below…

Alternatives to synthetic fibers for clothing sustainability …

Organic Cotton– LOOK for the logo – either GOTs, OEKO-TEX® or BCI. GOTS stands for the Global Organic Textile Standard. BCI stands for the Better Cotton Initiative. It is important to know that GOTS is a third party certification body and BCI is a not-for-profit organization “stewarding the global standards for Better Cotton.” The mission of GOTS is beyond cotton. It is “the world’s leading processing standard for textiles made from organic fibers. It defines high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria as well.” Only textile products that contain a minimum of 70% organic fibers can become GOTS certified. Whereas BCI focuses on cotton and “exists to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.” The OEKO-TEX 100 standard:  “…is an independent product label for all types of textiles tested for harmful substances – from yarns and fabrics to the ready-to-use items that you can buy in the shops. Product certification is only possible if all components of an end product comply with the required criteria.”  See photos below from PACT and what a GOTS symbol looks like.

Alternatives to synthetic fibers
See the label for PACT leggings and the small GOTs logo in the upper right.
Alternatives to synthetic fibers
Full disclosure PACT label

Organic Linen– Manufactured from the stems and roots of flax plants, linen is naturally durable and is easy to produce organically. Similar to hemp, it’s made from plants that grow quickly and requires minimal synthetic pesticides and herbicides.

TENCEL® (trade name for generic fiber Lyocell) – “eco-friendly” counterpart to Rayon. Made from cellulose in wood pulp from tree-farmed trees, Solvent “amine oxide” used to digest the wood pulp; mainly recovered during the manufacturing process. The European Union awarded this process the Environmental Award 2000 in the category “technology for sustainable developments”.

Cork or pineapple tree bark as alternatives to “vegan” leather. Other options include upcycled tires – bicycle and otherwise – see Alchemy Goods and Re-Style Fair Trade (pictured below), as well as jute which requires minimal pesticides and is a natural fiber.

Alternatives to synthetic fibers
Upcycled tires turned into bags – available from a local Fair Trade Store in Phoenix – WHEAT’s Fair Trade Store

Silk or wool– There is so much in the media regarding wool and the treatment of sheep to produce the wool. The supply chain is murky. Stella McCartney suspended the purchase of wool from a specific supplier and even Patagonia who was sourcing wool from this supplier, had to reevaluate where the wool was coming from. As far as silk goes, there is an informative review of the fabric here so I will let you be the judge. The good news is a silk-like thread is being developed that isn’t synthetic but is made from sugar and yeast. The supply chain for wool is still sorting itself out in particular regarding the treatment of the sheep. Much like cotton, there is a need for an animal welfare standard.

How to sort it all out?

I evaluate my priorities for animal free products and a world free from a dependence on petrochemicals and the cheap products made from them. Again, it pays in so many ways to shop secondhand. You can afford higher quality and likely more “natural” fabrics – by that I mean cotton, silk, wool, and linen. Another advantage to natural fibers is that they are “self cleaning” which means reduced garment care. Natural fabrics can be hung outside overnight to be refreshed versus synthetic fabrics (think about your gym clothes and that smell that just doesn’t seem to go away after washing, it’s because the synthetic fabrics are not self cleaning). When YOU shop secondhand, you are not creating demand for new resources and you are extending the lifecycle of the product. Read more how to avoid washing your clothes.

Additional resources:

Tortoise and Lady Grey – environmental impact of leather

The 4 most toxic fabrics and their “eco-friendly upgrades”

Learn more about rayon and its more eco-friendly counterpart here.

Note: Please know that I was not asked to endorse or mention any of the products in this post. All opinions here are my own.

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