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 what might be some of the least eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics.
Summary – Least Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly Fibres & Fabrics
List Of Fibres
The main fibres and fabrics we list in this guide are:
– Synthetics – Polyester, Acrylics, Nylon, and so on
– Regular/Conventional Cotton
– Different Types Of Rayon, & Viscose (processed with specific synthetic chemicals)
– Animal Sourced Fibres – Wool, Fur, Silk, Leather, Down, Angora, and so on
It’s worth pointing out though that some animal fibres, 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.
Factors That Can Impact Fibre Or Fabric Eco Friendliness, Sustainability & Ethics
Synthetic Fibres – Polyester, Acrylic, Nylon etc.
Synthetic fibres do not come from plants or animals, but instead usually come from compounds derived from fossil fuels (like petroleum), and undergo chemical reactions to be turned into monomers, and then polymers (which can be used to create fibres – usually via extruding)
There’s aspects of this way of production that have negative environmental impact and are not as sustainable as some types of natural fibre production.
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).
– It is mainly derived from petroleum, and the oil manufacturing industry is currently the world’s largest pollutant (according to some sources)
Fossil fuels are also not renewable.
Having said that, there is recyclable polyester available now, which is made from recycled plastic bottles. And some types of plant based polyester are also available.
– It uses a lot of water, a lot of energy and has a high carbon footprint (petroleum in particular has to be refined, and ethylene also has to be refined, in addition to chemicals reaction to create monomers and polymers, just to name a few steps)
– It uses many chemicals, dyes, finishing chemicals, and other chemicals during the production process
– Polyester is not biodegradable or compostable like some organic or natural fibres are when it reaches it’s end of useful life
One of the contentious things about synthetic fibres though is that there is also a range of benefits that come along with them as well.
They can be very important to various needs of society, and can be practical where some natural fibres may not be.
In general, synthetic fibres are the most highly produced fibre in the world (along with synthetic filaments), and in general, some sources say synthetic fibre production is only expected to grow in the future.
There is obviously a lot of economic benefit that comes from synthetic fibre and filament production in general.
On one hand with conventional cotton …
– 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.
– 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, and becoming more efficient with water use for irrigation.
– Some also 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.
So, cotton’s economic value and contribution to employment adds importance to the fibre.
On the other hand with conventional cotton …
– 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
Rayon & Viscose
We’ve written at length about what rayon and viscose are in this guide.
Rayon is a semi synthetic or regenerated fibre that uses cellulose as a base material, but that cellulose needs to be turned into a soluble (usually via pulp production), and then is regenerated back into a usable fibre.
The viscose process is one of the processes used to product one form/type of rayon.
Although the viscose process has become more eco friendly over the years (notably by not using carbon disulfide anymore in some countries, but also adding carbon disulfide controls where it’s still used), it can still use heavy chemicals (that may be toxic, or harmful) during pulp production, and may not always treat or capture (and re-use) water, chemicals and other inputs used in the process.
Wastewater, and can be dumped directly into the environment, causing water pollution, and harm to wildlife.
In some parts of the world, workers may also have their health and safety put at risk by working around viscose production.
Even when bamboo cellulose is used in place of wood cellulose for rayon, there can still be issues.
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.
Carbon disulphide control technology can also impact cost and profit, which may lead to viscose rayon producers in some countries not implementing it as much as in other countries.
Wool, Fur, Silk, Leather, Down, Angora, & Anything Sourced From Animals
On one hand with animal fibres …
– Wool, fur, silk, leather, down, and angora are all fibres and materials sourced from animals, and have had various animal welfare and cruelty issues related to their production and supply.
– 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.
– Faux leather as another example comes from non renewable petrochemical feedstock.
But, on the other hand with animal fibres …
For example, there is a version of silk called ‘Peace silk’, where silkworms can hatch from their eggs and live.
This is instead of 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.
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 mean that people in very low income areas of the world selling animal based products to make an income to meet their basic living needs, can no longer do so.
Why The Type Of Fibre Used Might Be Only One Consideration
Focussing On How Fibres Are Made, Rather Than The Fibre Itself
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.
Consumption Stage, Disposal & Decomposition Of A Fibre
Further to that, we would add that it matters:
How long a fibre 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 fibre product (energy and water for cleaning/washing, ironing, etc.)
How a fibre product is disposed of (upcycled or recycled and reducing the need for new production, dumped in landfill)
How a fibre product breaks down (biodegrades naturally, or breaks down over 1000’s of years and breaks down into micro plastics)
Hierarchy Of Buying Products
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
Certifications, Transparency, & Other Ways To Meet Standards Of Sustainability, Eco Friendliness & Ethics
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
HIGG Sustainability Index
The HIGG Materials Sustainability Index is an index for different materials that is updated by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
It attempts to help attempt to assess the environmental impact of materials used in global manufacturing.
As of 2018, it included 80 base materials.
apparelinsider.com indicates that (paraphrased):
– Calculation account for energy, water, chemistry and additional impacts used in material production
– In 2018, alpaca wool rated the worst of any material, at almost double the score of second placed cow leather
– In 2018, the updated rankings from worst to best were – 1. Alpaca wool, 2. Cow leather, 3. Silk, 4. Conventional cotton production, 5. Wool, 6. Polyurethane synthetic leather, 7. Modal, 8. Nylon, 9. Viscose/rayon, 10. Acrylic, 11. Elastane/spandex, 12. Polyester, 13. Typical footwear rubber (compound), 14. Cork
– It’s worth noting that even though a material might rank as one of the better materials, that material can still have issues, such as polyester with microfiber pollution.
Something we noticed though is that some sustainability indicators may be excluded from the HIGG calculations, but we’d need to confirm this by looking at the full list of sustainability factors taken into account by HIGG and SAC to do their assessments and rankings.
ecocult.com mentions something similar to this, indicating that (paraphrased) the HIGG index may define sustainability narrow, may try to compare apples to oranges when comparing different materials, and that the impact areas used by HIGG are greenhouse gases, water efficiency, eutrophication, fossil abiotic depletion and chemistry.
They also indicate (paraphrased) that HIGG only considers how materials are made, and not how they are used, how long they last, how the may pollute at or after the consumer usage stage, and so on.
They also indicate (paraphrased) that HIGG doesn’t take into account things like recyclability, of social impact, such as how many people an industry employs.
They also indicate (paraphrased) that when you go beyond the sustainability criteria used for assessment, data collection can also be challenging. In general, it can be hard to get like-for-like data on the sustainability at different stages of fibre/fabric production.
So, independent or third party ratings and indexes may be looked at as a general guide, and not a perfect or definitive answer to fibre or material sustainability.