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Fabrics and Their Impact on the Environment

Ankita loves to explore various aspects of science and is passionate about writing on topics of her interest.


The Carbon Footprint of Fashion

We often overlook the materials that make up the clothes we wear. Some people may not like how a particular fabric feels. Others may dislike certain fabrics because they snag easily or are difficult to wash. From studies it is found that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global human-caused carbon emissions—not only from the manufacture of the fabrics but also the care after purchase contributes as a whole to these emissions.

We seldom think of how fabrics affect the environment. Washing our clothes frequently affects the environment more and, therefore, it is always recommended to skip unnecessary washes. Switching to more sustainable fabrics is always a better option to help reduce these impacts. Although no fabric is 100% sustainable, some fabrics are better than others.

A thorough study of how fabrics are made and the amount of resources used helps in determining whether a fabric is sustainable or not. Some of the least sustainable fabrics are mentioned below.

The 5 Least Sustainable Fabrics

Here's a quick look at five of the least sustainable fabrics to try and avoid if possible.

1. Acrylic

Commonly used in winter clothing, acrylic fabrics are known for their warmth. Sweaters, caps, area rugs, gloves, and hats are commonly made from this fabric. Acrylic fabric has several environmental and health impacts. The production of this fabric involves highly toxic chemicals, which adversely affects the health of the factory workers. Acrylonitrile, the key ingredient, enters a wearer’s body through inhalation or skin contact.

Also, acrylic is not easily recyclable and can lay for 200 years before degrading in a landfill.

2. Polyester

This fabric is widely used in clothing items and a wide variety of products can be made from different forms of polyester. Most common are blankets, conveyor belts, T-shirts, rope and bottles. Polyester is among the least sustainable fabrics because of the fact that most polyesters are not biodegradable and take from 20–200 years to break down in a landfill. Also, polyester is partially derived from oil, which is one of the major sources of pollution.

In the energy-intensive process, large amounts of water are used to make polyester, which is dangerous in areas where there is a scarcity of water. This subsequently reduces access to clean drinking water in those areas. The most adverse effect of all is the release of microplastics, especially during washing. About 700,000 mini plastic fibres are released in each washing cycle into the environment. Microplastics, in addition to pollution, are also harmful for the marine life.

3. Nylon

Nylon is derived from crude oil and is most commonly used in clothing items such as stockings and tights. Nylon also releases microplastics similar to polyester. Nylon is non-biodegradable and it sits for years without breaking. The manufacturing of nylon also emits nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas, and involves the use of large amounts of energy and water.

4. Cotton (Conventional)

The most common fabric used in clothing, cotton is known for all its likable properties. Although cotton is a naturally occurring fabric, it has several effects on the environment. From studies it is found that to manufacture a single T-shirt and a pair of jeans, 20,000 litres of water are required. In addition to it, the excess water filled with all the hazardous chemicals are expensive to dispose. For this reason, they are often released to pollute the river ways.

5. Rayon

Also known as viscose, rayon is made by dissolving cellulose into a chemical solution and then spinning it into threads. Cellulose, the main constituent of plant cell walls, is not toxic, but the manufacturing process has ill effects on the workers and in the environment as well. Also, since it is derived from plants, many areas are suffering from deforestation due to increased demands of this fabric.


The 6 Most Sustainable Fabrics

Here are five of the most sustainable fabrics to look for when purchasing clothes.

1. Organic or Recycled Cotton

A sustainable alternative to conventional cotton, organic cotton is produced without any harmful chemicals. Also it is most sustainable to wear recycled cotton since it requires less energy and water to produce as compared to conventional or organic cotton.

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2. Organic Linen

Produced from flax plant, linen is known for its summery feel in clothing. Organic linen requires little to no pesticides and it easily decomposes when undyed. The manufacturing process also requires very less water as compared to other fabrics. Although there are some emissions, they are considered low when taken into account the carbon emissions produced by other fabrics. Flax plants are available in abundance, and thus it is a great option for local production.

3. Organic Hemp

Hemp is known for its excellent durability and is often used to make rope and boat sails. It is also naturally cooling and insulating. The plant requires very little water to grow and it also returns 60%–70% of nutrients to the soil in which it grows. The process of manufacturing it into a fabric requires no chemicals. Unlike other fabrics, hemp gets softer through washing. For all these reasons, hemp is considered very environment friendly.

4. Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester is often made from plastic bottles, which ultimately help in reducing plastic waste in our environment. It is considered as a sustainable version of polyester, because it skips the oil extraction process thereby reducing emissions. Also, the manufacturing process of recycled polyester requires 35% less water than regular polyester. The release of microplastics while washing is still an issue though.

5. Tencel

This is a relatively new fabric and is made from wood pulp. Tencel is similar to rayon but is purely biodegradable. Tencel is produced with just one third of the water that is required to produce rayon, and over 99% of the solvents and water used can be recycled! This helps to reduce the release of dangerous chemicals into the environment, as most of the solvents can be recycled. Industries producing Tencel are growing fast although it is more on the expensive side.

6. Econyl

Made from waste materials such as fishing nets and industrial plastic, Econyl is considered to be a more sustainable alternative to nylon. This fabric is mostly used to make items which require little to no wash such as sneakers and backpacks. This is because washing items made from Econyl often can release small particles, since it is made from plastic.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Ankita B (author) on December 01, 2020:

True, Brenda. They are light and comfortable for hot and humid days. Yes hemp as well as some of the others are yet to be widely available as compared to polyester, etc. But they will gradually be chosen more for their benefits. Thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad that you enjoyed reading this article.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on December 01, 2020:

I enjoyed reading your article. I try to wear a blend of 50/50 or 60/40 like cotten/polyester which allows clothes to be breathable.

On hot humid days it really helps as does the cold winter days since it doesn't sweat.

I find nylon a bit hot and rayon will shrink.

Guess i haven't tried hrmp or others.

Ankita B (author) on December 01, 2020:

Thank you Devika for your encouraging words. I am happy to know that you found this article informative and interesting. I appreciate your kind comments.

Ankita B (author) on December 01, 2020:

Yes, hopefully the future green fabrics will solve all these issues. I appreciate your comments, FlourishAnyway.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 01, 2020:

Ankita B Interesting about the environment and what is friendly to it. Informative and so useful. Your research is thorough and makes one know more about Fabrics and what is required to be eco-friendly.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 01, 2020:

Nothing is easy, is it? Thank you for making us for aware!

Ankita B (author) on December 01, 2020:

Bamboo is considered eco-friendly as a fabric although some bamboos are manufactured the same way as rayons. This is the reason it is yet to be recognised as a sustainable fabric as a whole. Thank you FlourishAnyway for reading and commenting. I appreciate your comments very much.

Ankita B (author) on December 01, 2020:

Thank you so much Lora for your generous comments. I did receive your previous comment and replied to it as well but I guess it takes some time to appear comments from the feed to show in the discover.hubpages site.

I am so glad that you found this article interesting and informative. I appreciate your insightful comments very much.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 30, 2020:

I knew some of these were bad but was surprised about others. What about bamboo? I have a set of bamboo sheets that are incredible and I at least like to believe they are good for the environment.

Lora Hollings on November 30, 2020:

I made a comment on your article earlier, Ankita. It looks like you didn’t receive it. So I will comment again and hope you get this one! You have written an excellent article about really thinking about the fabric that an article of clothing is made from before purchasing it. You have listed more eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics here that aren’t as harmful to our environment and so wasteful of our precious resources like water that we can buy instead of material that is so toxic to out environment, people’s health and are so costly to limited resources! I will share your wonderful information with others. Thank you!

Ankita B (author) on November 30, 2020:

Yes, we should all be aware of the side effects of manufacturing and its impact on the surroundings. Thank you very much Chitrangada for reading and commenting. I appreciate your insightful comments always.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on November 30, 2020:

An important and informative article about how the different fabrics affect the environment. I wasn’t aware of so many details, which you have shared in your well researched article.

Protecting the environment, by minimising the side effects of manufacturing, should be everyone’s concern. And, this applies to many other products, besides fabrics.

Thank you for sharing.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

I truly appreciate your comments, John. Thank you very much for reading and commenting.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 29, 2020:

A very informative article, Ankita. We need to do everything we can to protect the environment so it is good to know the impact the production and use of these different fabrics can have.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

Thank you so much Lora for your generous comments. I am delighted to know that you liked reading this article about sustainable fabrics. I appreciate your insightful comments very much.

Lora Hollings on November 29, 2020:

Wonderful article that I hope many people read. We should all be using clothing which is more sustainable and not so destructive to our environment. After reading your article, I will be much more cognizant about buying clothing which is biodegradable and whose production doesn’t require a lot of harmful chemicals and large quantities of water. Great information! Thanks for sharing.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

Thank you very much, Linda. Yes, Tencel is unfamiliar to many of us but it is gaining popularity because of its good properties. I appreciate your kind comments.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 29, 2020:

This is a very informative article about an important topic. Thank you for sharing all the facts, Ankita. I've never heard of Tencel before. It sounds useful.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

I appreciate your generous comments, Liza. Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I am glad that you found this interesting.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

Yes Peggy. Recycling is always a better option for many of the problems. Thank you very much for your kind comments. I am glad that you found this article interesting.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

Thank you James for reading and commenting. I appreciate your kind comments and your visit very much.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

True Liz. We are gradually becoming aware of the environmental impacts caused by different fabrics. I appreciate your generous comments very much. Thank you.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

Thank you very much Rosina. I am happy that you enjoyed reading this article and found it informative.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

Thank you Eman for your insightful comments. Yes, natural fibres are best for the environment. I appreciate your comments.

Liza from USA on November 29, 2020:

I agree with how we seldom think of how textile can affect the environment. After reading your article, I gain awareness about how important to know about fabrics and their impact. Thanks for sharing, Ankita.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 29, 2020:

You gave some excellent explanations of how much of our clothing is produced and some of the downsides of the manufacturing process, and what happens when we clean our clothing. Recycling is definitely one way to cut down on some of the problems.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on November 29, 2020:

Now, I know what not to get. I wonder though if retailers offer thorough fabric info when clothes are advertised on line.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 29, 2020:

This is a fascinating article. I had heard that some fabrics are worse than others for the environment. Your article explains this in a well-structured and interesting way. We are gradually starting to become more aware of the impact that their clothing purchases and choices can have on the world around us.

Rosina S Khan on November 29, 2020:

This was a good article explaining sustainable and least sustainable fabric and whether they have an effect on the environment. A really enjoyable and pleasant read with helpful information, Ankita.

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on November 29, 2020:

Natural fibers are the best because they do not harm the environment, despite their high price and low production. Thank you, Ankita, for sharing all this information about fiber.

Ankita B (author) on November 29, 2020:

Thank you Pamela. I am glad that you found this article interesting and informative. I appreciate your comments very much.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 29, 2020:

This is a very interesting article, Ankita. There is a wealth of information in this article that I did not know. I think I will pay close attention to any clothing I buy after reading this. Thank you for this good information.

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