What you should know about sustainable vegan fabrics
Just because clothing is animal-free does not mean it's eco-friendly. Learn why choosing natural plant-based fabrics is important.
So you don’t want to wear animal products anymore. That’s understandable. The leather tanning industry is notorious for horrific pollution, the merino wool industry has its inherent cruelties (look up ‘mulesing’ if you want to learn more), and all of those products are taken without animals’ permission, which can really rankle some people.
It is important to realize, however, that a switch to vegan clothing does not automatically mean a switch to greener clothing. Many vegan fabric replacements are chemically synthesized (either partially, like bamboo, or entirely), using processes that pollute waterways, harm wildlife, and destroy ecosystems. It’s important to learn how to recognize sustainable vegan fabrics, which are natural plant-based fibers. Here are some good options:
Made from flax fibers, linen is ancient, with records of its production dating back to 8,000 B.C.E. It has been mentioned in the Bible and other historical texts, and was even used as currency in ancient Egypt.
Linen is known for its lint-free durability and long lifespan; it softens and grows more comfortable with age. It can also absorb up to one-fifth of its weight in water before the wearer feels wet, and release it quickly, drying rapidly in the sun.
According to sustainable fashion website Dress Well Do Good, linen production uses “only 8 percent of the energy that is required to produce polyester, and requires less water, energy, and chemical pesticides and fertilizers than either polyester or cotton.”
When buying linen, check where it’s made. Linen from China tends to use more agro-chemicals and a higher-impact production process, whereas linen from Japan and Europe is gentler on the planet.
Cotton absorbs moisture, keeps you warm, and allows your skin to breathe. The world’s favorite fabric, it is wonderfully versatile and durable. The big problem with cotton, however, is the amount of chemicals used for conventional production. It’s the world’s dirtiest agribusiness, responsible for 16 percent of the world’s pesticide use.
In an article for vegan fashion site Bead & Reel, Summer Edwards writes:
“One of the commonly used cotton pesticides – aldicarb – is capable of poisoning a human being with a single drop absorbed through the skin. This toxic chemical is used substantially in the United States, and in many other countries across the world. The chemicals used on cotton also poison farm workers, particularly in developing countries, where worker protections are lax. In addition to this, forced labour and child labour is also a significant issue in the cotton industry.”
When buying cotton, look for organic whenever possible. It is becoming more common, and is certainly easy to find online. Fairtrade certification is also good. Alternatively, buy second-hand cotton clothing that would have had time already to off-gas, making it safer for your skin.
Hemp gets a bad rap for its association with marijuana, but it makes great natural fabric. Its production, finished quality, and impact on the environment is very similar to linen. It uses minimal water and can be grown rapidly and easily without chemicals.
“Hemp can be grown on marginal land, so unlike cotton, it doesn't displace food crops. The deep root structures of the crop also protect the soil against erosion. Like linen, hemp can be grown without agro-chemicals. Hemp also has the highest yield of all natural textiles, with up to double the fibre yield per hectare than cotton.”
Usually associated with burlap sacks, jute has become more refined in recent years. It is a versatile, soft, and comfortable fabric that can mimic silk, wool, and cotton. It is often mixed with cotton and wool fibers, which is why 100 percent jute fabric is difficult to find.
Trusted Clothes says that jute is one of the most affordable natural fibers and is second only to cotton in the amount produced, despite not being widely known in North America. Eighty-five percent of jute comes from the Ganges Delta in India.
“Much like hemp, jute can be grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or irrigation and so is good for the land and a profitable crop for farmers working marginal lands. Because jute is so inexpensive to grow, it is also an ideal fibre for fair trade initiatives.”