Before the appearance of synthetic fibers in the mid 20th century, all clothing and textiles were made from natural materials (vegetable or animal). However, although some would like you to believe it, not all natural materials are sustainable, therefore, it is important to know their specificities, in order to make an educated purchasing decision. Natural fibers, chemical, artificial, synthetic … It can be complicated to navigate the long list of textile materials, so here is a summary of the key points to know.
Cotton is a plant fiber that is transformed into yarn, then woven to make the fabrics we use every day. It represents more than 50% of the world’s consumption of textile fibers. However, the cultivation and production of cotton is considered to be one of the most polluting and water consuming industries in the world (between 7 and 29 m3 of water consumed per kg of cotton produced!) It uses about a quarter of the pesticides sold in the world, while it represents only 2.4% of the agricultural surface. The production of cotton is therefore harmful for those who wear it and for those who grow it. Moreover, the need to purchase fertilizers is one of the main sources of debt for small producers worldwide. In a desire to preserve the environment and protect farmers, an alternative to traditional cotton has been established: organic cotton.
The cultivation of organic cotton is much less water intensive and consumes up to 50% less than traditional cotton. Organic cotton is designed without GMOs and pesticides, so producers are less exposed to these toxic chemicals. It is also softer and will make your clothes more pleasant to wear. These brands in our conscious curation have already adopted the use of organic cotton: GOAT, Mother of Pearl, Tucca, The Summer House and Boyish Jeans.
Linen is a bast fiber, which means that it is contained in the stem of the flax plant and not in the flower. Grown primarily in temperate climates such as Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France, linen is a 100% natural, eco-friendly textile with a minimal environmental footprint. Durable and biodegradable, linen produces no waste during its cultivation and every part of the plant is used and transformed to produce all kinds of products such as clothing, home linens, and furnishings.
Linen is very strong and is used in the textile industry because of its resistance to time; it does not warp and its color remains intact even after many uses. However, it is a fabric that wrinkles quite easily, and many wrinkle-free options have become available on the market, but these alternatives are heavily treated with chemicals that are not good for your body, or the environment. The best solution is to choose non-treated linen, and steam it once it wrinkles. The brand in our conscious curation who uses linen is OhSevendays.
Wool is a natural fiber that comes from the fleece of sheep or alpaca, available in many varieties. However, if it is not directly specified, the wool probably comes from sheep. Wool has an excellent thermal power and very good elasticity, which is why it will be found most often in scarves or sweaters. Sheep’s wool is the most classic. It is very resistant to humidity and protects from the cold, but sometimes it can lack softness, irritate the skin and cause allergies.
On the other hand, alpaca wool is mainly raised in South America and is a precious fiber, softer, stronger and lighter than sheep’s wool. A high-end product, it has an undisputed thermal insulating power and reduces the risk of allergies. Discover our brands adopting wool: Alpaca Loca, Francis Stories.
Viscose is a textile material made from wood pulp. The manufacturing process is artificial, therefore it is called a, “synthetic fiber of natural origin”. It can sometimes be called artificial silk, because of its silky and shiny appearance. Viscose is quite similar to cotton; it is not very elastic, does not shed and is absorbent. It is a material that is not very suitable for low temperatures, since it insulates poorly from the cold and tends to produce static electricity.
However, the manufacturing process of viscose is extremely polluting because it diffuses carbon disulfide, a toxic, flammable and dangerous product, into the water used to dissolve the wood pulp. Although the raw material used is natural, the production generates an extremely polluting sulphurous compound, and if the viscose is not made with a closed loop water system, the toxic water is sent out into the waterways. Therefore, it is important to use a closed-loop viscose. The brands in our conscious curation that use sustainable viscose are Bogdar and Indigo Luna.
The term lyocell refers to a cellulose fiber made from wood pulp, dissolved in a natural, non-toxic solvent, coming from sustainably harvested forests. TENCEL® is a fiber produced solely from the pulp of the Eucalyptus tree, which grows rapidly with little water and pesticides. A TENCEL® garment is pleasant to wear because its texture is light, smooth and this fiber resists repeated washings, keeping its color. TENCEL® is a trademarked fiber produced by Austrian brand, Lenzing.
It is a totally hygienic fiber and its properties promote moisture management. For example, TENCEL® fabric can absorb moisture about 1.5 times more than cotton and reduces not only the development of bacteria in contact with the skin but also its proliferation. In comparison, according to a laboratory study conducted by B. Redl, the number of bacteria can be up to 2,000 times higher on a synthetic fiber like polyamide. These brands in our selection are made of TENCEL®: Indigo Luna, Mother of Pearl.
Modal is an alternative to traditional materials used in the textile industry, which was developed in the 1960s by researchers in Lenzing. It is an artificial fiber like Lyocell or Tencel which are often confused with viscose. The modal fiber, although it comes from natural materials, requires a chemical transformation, which is why it is classified in the category of “synthetic fiber of natural origin”.
Modal is made from cellulose of beech wood, a substance contained in the membrane of plant cells that is also used to make paper. Modal absorbs moisture twice as fast as cotton, is stronger, requires less water and energy, and requires less surface area for production. Nevertheless, this textile also faces different problems of water evacuation as with viscose, so it is important to pay attention to the information you are given.
Hemp is a very old plant with extraordinary properties; it does not require any chemical treatment or pesticide to grow, it can be grown all over the world on any type of soil, and in climates ranging from 7 to 30 degrees. Beneficial for the environment, it requires very little water, and is a great choice for organic farming. Moreover, the fiber extracted from the hemp plant is very resistant and durable over time.
Hemp is five times more durable and stronger than cotton. Naturally antifungal, it has a very high absorption capacity, and it dries quickly. A very good thermal insulator, hemp brings a remarkable comfort. This plant meets societal and environmental expectations and is sustainable.
Bamboo is an exotic reed plant present on several continents: Africa, America, Asia and Australia. It is a plant that grows very fast with a low water supply, and does not need fertilizer or pesticides. Moreover, it produces up to 35% more oxygen than traditional trees. This makes it an ecological and inexpensive raw material, increasingly popular with the textile industry, especially in the field of ethical fashion. Indeed, with its rapid growth, its multiple uses, and a yield of bamboo plantations 25 times higher than that of traditional tree plantations, bamboo is a factor of development and the fight against poverty in developing countries.
The textile fibers obtained from bamboo are lightweight and anti-bacterial, as bamboo is a rot-proof plant. However, bamboo fibers are not a natural material, they are artificial chemical fibers. Most bamboo fiber clothing is actually made from regenerated bamboo cellulose or bamboo viscose.
The manufacturing process of these natural fibers must still be improved so that we limit the negative impacts on our environment, but also on the producers who are too often confronted with toxic chemicals. Choosing textiles with a manufacturing process as natural as possible will be beneficial to our collective health. Finally, it is important to be constantly informed about the origin, the manufacturing process and the production of the fibers we put on our body.