We’ve already put together a list of what might be some of the most eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres.
In this guide, we outline some of the least eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics (used in a range of textiles) to be aware of.
Summary – Least Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly Fibres & Fabrics
The main fibres and fabrics we list in this guide are:
Synthetics – Polyester, Acrylics, Nylon, and so on
Different Types Of Rayon, & Viscose (processed with specific synthetic chemicals)
Animal Sourced Fibres – Wool, Fur, Silk, Leather, Down, Angora, and so on
Having said that, some materials like Peace silk, or leathers sourced from socially responsible and more sustainable production processes, can be significantly more ethical than conventional silk or leather products.
And, alternatives such as faux furs, faux leathers, and organic cottons and other organic fibres may not be perfect solutions yet either (each have their certain drawbacks).
Using faux leather as one example – it comes from non renewable petrochemical feedstock.
Synthetic Fibres – Polyester, Acrylic, Nylon etc.
Synthetic fibres are not grown naturally like natural fibres. Instead they come from chemicals and polymers.
In many ways they are worse for the environment and not as sustainable as natural fibres.
If we take CO2 emissions per tonne of spun fiber, and embodied energy required for example – according to Oecotextiles, synthetic fibres use more and emit more than natural fibres (according to certain measurements).
If we talk about polyester specifically:
– It is mainly derived from petroleum and the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest pollutant (and fossil fuels are not renewable).
Having said that, there is recyclable polyester available now, which is made from recycled plastic bottles
– It uses a lot of water, a lot of energy and has a high carbon footprint
– It uses many chemicals, dyes, finishers and so on during the production process
– Polyester is not biodegradable
One of the contentious things about synthetic fibres though is that there is also a range of benefits that come along with them.
Cotton is a natural fibre, so there are some benefits to growing and using cotton compared to a fibre that comes from petrochemicals for example.
– Use a lot of agricultural land
– Use a lot of synthetic pesticide chemicals
– Use a lot of nitrogen based synthetic fertilizer chemicals
– Uses a lot of irrigated water for growing in some regions (especially in some places in India)
– Uses a lot of chemicals in the production process – processing chemicals, bleaches, dyes, finishers etc.
– Get’s subsidised heavily in some countries, despite how inefficient it can be with resources
Some argue that GMO cotton seeds are making conventional cotton crops less water hungry, less pesticide and fertilizer hungry, and are increasing yields and efficiency (thereby making cotton more eco friendly and sustainable).
There are several case studies and there’s more data coming out proving this to be the case, at least when compared to conventionally grown cotton with non GMO seeds.
Additionally, some sets of data from the cotton industry in a country like Australia for example indicates that over the last few decades, cotton might be becoming more productive in terms of yield, becoming more efficient with water use for irrigation, and so on.
Rayon & Viscose
Rayon is essentially a semi synthetic fibre (coming from a natural cellulose source, but processed with man made chemicals), and viscose is a type of rayon (gets it’s name from the viscose sludge when cellulose pulp is dissolved and processed with certain chemicals).
The problem with rayon and viscose is usually that the synthetic chemicals used can be toxic, harmful, and present other problems.
Not only can humans be exposed to these chemicals, but they get into wastewater, and can be dumped directly into the environment, causing water pollution, and harm to wildlife.
A few examples might be sulphuric acid, formaldehyde, carbon disulphide, and others
It’s worth noting that some companies do use a form of closed loop processing where they treat their wastewater, and re-use their bleaches, dyes etc. – but this technology can be expensive, and have it’s own challenges to use, or have it’s limitations.
Wool, Fur, Silk, Leather, Down, Angora, & Anything Sourced From Animals
Wool, fur, silk, leather, down, and angora are all materials sourced from animals, and have had various animal rights and cruelty issues related to their production and supply.
For example, there is a version of silk called ‘Peace silk’ where silkworms are allowed to hatch from their eggs and live, instead of what is usually done – which is boiling the larvae alive, to prevent the egg from splitting (and keeping the silk fibres longer, stronger and looking better for the final product).
There’s also Spider silk, which might be an even better alternative than Peace Silk
Additionally, although conventional leather has issues associated with livestock agriculture and pollution and heavy chemicals used at tanneries, some leather does have responsible, sustainable and far less environmentally damaging pros associated with it’s production.
Alternatives to animal sourced fibres, like faux fur, may not be perfect either.
Although it may not be made in the same way as conventional fur, it’s a synthetic material made from chemicals (in a similar way polyester is) – so it’s not exactly eco friendly.
Consider The Indirect Impact & Tradeoffs Of Selecting One Fibre/Fabric Over Another
There’s a good article by craftsmanship.net which outlines the tradeoffs and indirect impacts of selecting one fibre or fabric over another.
For example, Peace silk might involve more animal friendly practices, but significantly increase the price of the final product.
Another example – some synthetic fibres might not farm animals in their sourcing or production, but, their toxicity levels might be far higher than an animal based fibre.
So, a fibre might not contain any animal products, and some people might consider this a win for animal welfare.
But, that same fibre, which is often synthetic, might contribute to indirect forms of animal harm via pollution (waste water with chemicals from the production process being dumped into aquatic environments, or greenhouse gas emissions contributing to a changing climate and changing wild life habitats), and also rob people in very low income areas of the world selling animal based products to make an income to meet their basic living needs.
Should We Focus On These Things More Than The Use Any One Individual Fibre?
Refinery29.com outlines a good broad theoretical question:
… [rather focussing on one individual fibre, should we instead focus on indirect factors like] factories being powered by dirty energy, the proliferation of microfibers in the ocean [that come from synthetic fibres], and toxic effluent (a.k.a. wastewater) being poured into rivers [from production processes].
There would also be sourcing, agricultural/farming, and other indirect factors consider.
Further to that, we would add that it matters:
How long a product is kept for (the longer it’s kept for – the more resource efficiency and other measurements are averaged out and lowered)
The upkeep of that product (energy and water for cleaning/washing, ironing, etc.)
How a product is disposed of (upcycled or recycled and reducing the need for new production, dumped in landfill)
How a product breaks down (biodegrades naturally, or breaks down over 1000’s of years and breaks down into micro plastics)
There’s also the buying hierarchy to consider:
Consume less in general
Buy secondhand or trade/swap products with other people
Buy recycled or upcycled materials
Buy quality products that will last a long time
Buy a new product
Also, consumers thoroughly researching companies and their products, certifications, evidence of how/where they source and make their products, standards and criteria they adhere to along their entire supply/use/waste chain, can all help in ensuring better and more ethical products are supported in society.
Read More About These Fabrics & Fibres