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Best Natural and Sustainable Clothing Fabrics to Look For & Which to Avoid

Oct 7, 2019

Natural-and-Sustainable-Clothing-Fabrics-to-Look-For-Which-to-Avoid

Growing up, my parents really instilled in me that less is more. We went shopping twice a year to get a few essentials, and being the younger sister, I always got all the hand-me downs, much to my chagrin.

Now as an adult, I have fully embraced that less is more, but I wasn’t always this way. I get scattered and overwhelmed easily, a big part of me working through adrenal fatigue, and clutter is one of the most stressful things to me! I literally feel panicked and instantly overwhelmed if I enter a room or a store that is packed with things.

A huge part of me creating a capsule wardrobe these past few years is:

  1. Because clutter and stuff overwhelms me
  2. Because I like nice (often more expensive things) and if I purchase less, I actually save money big picture…funny how that works 😉

But the world of fast fashion, ethical fashion, sustainability and choosing to purchase from conscious companies has really intrigued me and pulled at my heart strings recently!

I know I want to do better when it comes to my purchases, and today I want to encourage you too!

Natural-and-Sustainable-Clothing-Fabrics-to-Look-For-Which-to-Avoid

First, some facts about the fashion industry…

  • Fashion is the third highest polluting industry in the world and the second largest consumer of water.
  • 2,000 different chemicals, including formaldehyde, chlorine, lead, and mercury are used in textile processing. Of these, over 1,600 are used in dyeing processes, but only 16 are actually EPA-approved.
  • Americans throw away over 14 million tons of textiles a year. Over 99% of the clothing thrown away in the US can be recycled or reused, but sadly more than 85% ends up in landfills. Even in a landfill, these materials don’t just go away—nylon takes 30 to 40 years to biodegrade, while polyester requires more than 200 years.

What is fast fashion?

Before we jump into what are the most sustainable, ethical and natural fabrics, we need to first understand a bit about fast fashion.

Fast fashion is…

An approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers. —Merriam Webster

But there is no such thing as free—it always comes at a cost! In a world where we are quick to purchase and quick to discard, often before even using, we have SO much waste! And that waste comes at a cost to all of us, including our health and the environment!

I could go on and on for days, I got sucked into researching this for hours and it is fascinating to me just how toxic our clothing really is—and yes it is affecting our health, hormones and future greatly!

So more posts to come but I had to go ahead and hit publish to not overwhelm myself…or you!

I want to encourage you just to think more consciously about your purchases! Don’t go and throw all your clothes out (that would just be the opposite of sustainable, right?!) but do carefully think the next time you walk the aisles of your local Target!

Natural-and-Sustainable-Clothing-Fabrics-to-Look-For-Which-to-Avoid

Let’s chat fabrics…

Offender: Synthetics—Polyester, Nylon, Rayon

Polyester—the worst offender and most widely used—is a plastic derived from petroleum and is not biodegradable meaning it could take up to 200 years to decompose! Polyester requires a special type of coloring to penetrate the fabric and these dyes are incredibly harmful to the environment and toxic to humans. 

The production of polyester is a highly chemical process requiring the use of carcinogens and toxins. Nylon like polyester, is a type of crude oil derived from plastics with similar concerns to both humans and the environment.

Sweat resistance or performance fabrics can be harmful as this highly synthetic fabric actually suffocates your skin (rather than letting it breathe) and has been linked to headaches, nausea and skin issues. Plus sweating is one of the best ways to encourage natural detox, so we don’t want to suppress that!

Ok let’s chat microfibers because researching this really concerned me! Plastic based materials (like polyester, nylon) are finding their ways into oceans, soil and waterways all around the world. When we wash synthetic fabrics, micro-plastics make it out of the laundry machine and into the environment. Acrylic for example can release 730,000 microfibers per wash!

Microfibers are making their way into our water and our food supply, in fact, “the average person ingests over 5,800 particles of synthetic debris” from our food and water supplies. Crazy!

Plastics are one of the biggest sources of endocrine disruption today so one of the best things you can do for your health is eliminate plastics from coming into contact with your skin all day and night, aka your clothes!!

Sustainable + Clean Picks—Recycled Polyester, Tencel, Lyocell

Recycled polyester takes existing plastic and melts it down and re-spins it into polyester fibers—this keeps plastics from heading to landfills and into the ocean. Recycled polyester still releases microfibers and can use harmful chemicals in the dying process, but it is a step in the right direction towards more sustainable fashion!

Tencel, sometimes also called lyocell or modal, is made by spinning dried wood chips and wood pulp. Although it still requires the use of conventional dyes, which can be harmful to your health and the environment, it is a biodegradable and natural fiber so for sure a step in the right direction. It is a very breathable fabric and a great option for working out or active wear.

Offender: Conventional Cotton

Conventional cotton, although a natural fabric (which is preferable to synthetics for sure), is one of the worst offenders to produce as it requires takes a hefty dose of chemicals and water to produce. In fact about 25% of the worlds insecticide use and more than 10% of the world’s pesticide use goes to growing cotton!

According to this study, hazardous pesticides applied during cotton manufacturing, including petroleum scours, heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia, and formaldehyde, can also be detected in our clothes impacting our health, respiratory tract, skin, hormones and more!

In many countries, cotton often hand picked, so the farmers or manufacturers are coming into contact with these chemicals! There is also a link between cancer rates and those in the textile industry. 

In India, where a large portion of the world’s cotton comes from, more than 100 million people do not have access to clean water yet it takes 22,500 liters of water to produce 1 kilo of cotton—this water is than evaporated or too contaminated to be used again.

Sustainable + Clean Pick: Organic Cotton, Linen, Silk

Choosing organic cotton not only decreases the environmental toxins and water waste but also delivers a clean product for you to wear and use. Organic cotton requires less water and no pesticides or other harmful chemicals!  Always look for GOTS certified.

Linen is one of the oldest and most natural, biodegradable and safe fabrics to choose from, it is also very durable! A good linen shirt might cost more upfront but will save you money and help the environment long term.

Silk is a natural fiber, biodegradable and has a smaller environmental footprint, but often is made unethical due to the boiling of silkworms. Always look for a sustainable and ethical company!

Offender: Acrylic

Acrylic is another plastic based fabric, similar to polyester and nylon, made from fossil fuels like petroleum and created through a chemical process. Acrylic fiber is made from the polymer polyacrylonitrile, which the Environmental Protection Agency found that inhaling polyacrylonitrile produces similar symptoms to cyanide poisoning and is a potential cancer hazard. Keep in mind that acrylic is often seen in blends, so if you see fabrics like “cotton blend” or “wool blend” that most likely contains acrylic.

Sustainable + Clean Pick: Wool, Cashmere

Wool and cashmere are a bit more expensive at times, but these natural fabrics won’t come at a cost to your health! You want to be on the look out for ethically made wool and cashmere as that can be an issue with many brands. Plus these fabrics stand the test of time and will look good for years to come!

What can you do?

Now, don’t go throwing out all your clothing, but I do want to encourage you on a few steps you can take to be mindful of your fashion choices!

  1. Build a capsule wardrobe—this limits your clothing items and will help you save money and free up brain power, plus it’s the most sustainable option!
  2. Check your tags—spend 10 minutes and go through your current clothing and see what it’s made of, this will be so eye opening!
  3. Look for companies with trade in programs—Madewell, Cuyana and Patagonia are a few that come to mind.
  4. When you do need something new, plan ahead and do some research on a more natural, sustainable clothing brand. 
  5. Be intentional! That’s all that matters!

Here’s my favorite natural and sustainable fashion brands:

Cuyana: Quality, timeless pieces. I usually invest in one per season and their quality does not disappoint!

Sezane: This French brand is so feminine, a good price point—look for the natural material, sustainable material, recycled packaging and audited factory icons!

Boyish Denim: sustainable denim that uses less chemicals in the dying process 

All Birds: sustainable sneakers

Girlfriend Collective: recycled workout apparel

Mate the Label: Organic, everyday essentials

Kotn: ethically made cotton staples, not organic but a very transparent company

Reformation: Sustainable clothing for every occasion 

Everlane: they are totally transparent with their process which is a step in the right direction

Patagonia: One of the original sustainable and fair trade brands

FashionAble: They are all about providing economic opportunities to women around the world, which I love

Kayu: Hand crafted bags using natural, sustainable materials

Alice and Whittles: Fair trade, sustainable footwear

Vyayama: Workout apparel using botanical fibers

Knickey: Organic underwear

Veja: Super comfortable sneakers made with organic cotton and natural materials

Get more of my favorite conscious fashion brands in this post on summer fashion.

Comment below or share with me on Instagram one fun fact you learned and what more you would love to know about sustainable, natural fashion!

Comments +

  1. Dorothy

    October 7th, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    What about Pact Apparel? Curious if you’ve heard of that brand?

  2. Caroline Potter

    October 8th, 2019 at 9:50 am

    Yes, they are great! This list is by no means all encompassing, but I am working on putting together a detailed brand list!

  3. Lindsey

    October 9th, 2019 at 7:18 am

    Great info! Question about non-organic cotton… once you wash the clothes, won’t the chemicals be washed out too?

  4. Caroline Potter

    October 9th, 2019 at 10:33 am

    Really great question and sadly no. The chemicals are grown into the plant’s leaves, roots and flowers as the plant grows. Just like with food, you can’t wash the toxins/pesticides off of your fruits and vegetables, it’s inside the material!

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