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A Simple Guide To Eco-Friendly Fabrics And Where To Shop Them

While studying textiles at Parsons in New York City, one of our founders, Cara Bartlett, gained in-depth expertise on a variety of fabrics used to make clothing. Fast-forward seven years and we have built on that knowledge to develop VETTA's sustainable and ethical capsule collections.

To us, a simple way that we can all make the world just a little bit greener is by taking five seconds to look at garment labels before we buy something new. But what constitutes a "sustainable" fabric versus one that is toxic to the earth?

We've created a one-stop-shop guide that covers some of the most environmentally-sound fabrics on the market and ranked them on a scale from one to ten. For contrast's sake, we also threw in some less-than-great materials at the end of the list. 

Check out our favorite eco-friendly fabrics and shop each via our suggested brands!

   

Organic Cotton - VETTA Sustainability Score: 9/10

Why we love it:

  • Made from natural fibers
  • No pesticides or chemicals used
  • Biodegradable
  • Wicks away sweat
  • Breathable 
  • Soft

Drawbacks:

  • Requires a lot of water
  • Can be pricey

Where to shop it: People Tree, Amour Vert

 

Tencel/Lyocell - VETTA Sustainability Score: 9/10

Why we love it:

  • Natural fibers
  • Made from sustainably harvested wood raw materials
  • Requires less waster than cotton
  • Sustainable 
  • Biodegradable
  • Anti-bacterial
  • Soft
  • Machine washable

Drawbacks:

  • Chemical processing is required to turn fiber into fabric, which is toxic. However, harm is mitigated by the use of closed loop processing, which recycles the chemicals rather than releasing them into the environment. 

Where to shop it: VETTA

 

Hemp - VETTA Sustainability Score: 9/10

Why we love it:

  • Natural fiber
  • No chemical processing required
  • Requires less water than cotton (medium amount)
  • Requires little to no pesticides
  • Biodegradable
  • Machine washable

Drawbacks:

  • Must be imported since it's not legal to grow in the U.S. 
  • Can be more expensive

Where to shop it: Groceries ApparelShift To Nature, Wallis Evera

 

Linen (Flax) - VETTA Sustainability Score: 8/10

Why we love it:

  • Natural fibers
  • No pesticides or chemicals required 
  • Biodegradable
  • Lightweight
  • Breathable

Drawbacks:

  • Uses a lot of water
  • Wrinkles easily
  • May need to hand wash

Where to shop it: In God We Trust, Hackwith Design House

 

Silk - VETTA Sustainability Score: 8/10

Why we love it:

  • Natural fibers
  • Requires less water than cotton
  • Biodegradable
  • Luxurious and smooth feel

Drawbacks:

  • Can be expensive
  • Requires dry cleaning
  • Silk worms are killed, unless it's vegan silk

Where to shop it: Everlane, Cuyana 

  

Rayon/Viscose - VETTA Sustainability Score: it depends - 6/10 or 8/10 (see below)

Why we love it:

  • Natural origins
  • Biodegradable
  • Affordable
  • Uses much less water than cotton

Cons:

  • It is processed with chemicals, so if toxic chemicals are released into the environment, we rate this a 5/10. If the fabric mill processes and disposes of the chemicals properly, we rate this a 7/10.
  • Since this fabric comes from wood pulp, is best if the wood is sourced sustainably (such as Lenzing Viscose, which ensures certain sustainable requirements are met)
  • If brands are careful about the source and processing of the viscose (such as VETTA and Reformation) it can be a good eco-friendly fabric to use. 

Where to shop it: VETTA, Reformation

 

(Non-Organic) Cotton - VETTA Sustainability Score: 6/10

Pros:

  • Natural fibers
  • No chemical processing
  • Biodegradable
  • Machine washable
  • Wicks away sweat
  • Breathable
  • Soft

Cons:

  • Requires a lot of water
  • Requires a lot of pesticides, which contain chemicals that can be harmful to people and the planet

  

Polyester - VETTA Sustainability Score: 1/10

Pros:

  • Requires less water
  • Easy to care for
  • Affordable

Cons:

  • Produced from toxic chemicals that are extremely harmful to humans and the environment
  • Sourced from non-renewable resources (oil)
  • High energy consumption during production
  • Produces carbon dioxide
  • Non-biodegradable

Note: recycled polyester would have a higher score

 

Nylon - VETTA Sustainability Score: 1/10

Pros:

  • Requires less water 
  • Affordable

Cons:

  • Sourced from non-renewable resources (oil)
  • Processed with chemicals that are harmful to the environment and humans
  • Non-biodegradable
  • Typically requires acid dying
  • Creates nitrous oxide (a potent greenhouse gas)

 

 

The Details

If you want to understand the reasons for each rating more in-depth, we've provided some details below. It can get a little complicated, but essentially you want to understand what you are taking from the earth and what you are adding to the earth. There are five main things that go into whether or not fabric is sustainable:

1 - The source of the fiber (natural or man-made/synthetic).

2 - The resources required to create the fiber (water, pesticides, land, energy, carbon dioxide, fossil fuels, etc.) and whether they are renewable.

3 - The process of turning the fiber into yarn (does it use harmful chemicals? how are they disposed of? does it use large amounts of energy?)

4 - The longevity of the fabric (does it last)?

5 - The end-life of the fabric (is it biodegradable)?

Generally, natural fabrics like organic cotton and linen (made from plants) and Tencel (made from sustainable wood pulp) are more sustainable than man-made fabrics like Polyester and Nylon (which are petroleum-based and take thousands of years to biodegrade). It gets a little tricky because there are always exceptions, but if you understand that little trick it should help. 

We hope this post serves as a helpful guide for the next time you're internally deliberating over a new piece. When a garment is made using eco-friendly fabrics, that's a definite pro for the piece in our books!

 

Is there another fabric you'd like us to review? Leave it in the comments below!

 

April 13, 2017 by Alex Kaneshiro

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