slow fashion: sustainable vs. unsustainable fabrics

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Slow fashion. Many of us have heard the term before, often in conjunction with other elements of the slow movement – slow living, slow food, slow media, slow medicine… we’re all about the slow. But what exactly does it look like when it comes to fashion? 

Gaining momentum over the past several years, the slow fashion movement is a direct response to the unethical and wasteful practices of fast fashion. While fast fashion is all about the convenience of the consumer – often at the expense of the individuals making the clothes and at the expense of the environment – slow fashion seeks to minimize the negative impact of the sourcing, production, transportation, and selling of a garment. Like all elements of the slow movement, slow fashion requires a degree of awareness and intention.

Sarina Ho, an ethical fashion blogger and fashion design student, explains that slow fashion is composed of two umbrellas: a commitment to both ethics and sustainability.  A company committed to ethical practices will provide the workers with a fair wage, worker’s compensation, paid time off, and a safe working environment. Workers employed by ethical factories are encouraged to complete tasks accurately instead of being pressured to produce as quickly as possible. The emphasis here is for quality over quantity. A company’s commitment to sustainability is demonstrated in the quality of the garment itself  (is it made to last?), limiting the amount of wasted fabric, utilizing local resources for materials, and the environmental impact of the fabric itself.

To further emphasize the importance of fabric content, Sarina Ho goes into more detail on what constitutes a sustainable versus an unsustainable fabric.


Growing up I’ve always been specific with fabrics I liked to wear. It was something my mom had trained me to do. When we went shopping, she would always make sure the fabric of a garment was made of one she liked, and it turns out that the fabrics she encouraged me to wear were natural ones. At some point, I was able to determine the content of a fabric solely from touching it. Now more than ever I am very particular with what fabrics I wear since I am aware of sustainable fashion. Below, I have created a list of textiles that I either do or do not consider sustainable.

 

UNSUSTAINABLE FABRICS

Cotton (Inorganic):

  • Uses pesticides and a lot of water due to poor soil quality
  • Can irritate skin from chemicals

Nylon:

  • Made from petrochemicals that pollute the environment
  • Non-biodegradable and releases nitrous oxide when manufactured

Poly Cotton:

  • Treated with toxic formaldehyde

Polyester:

  • Made from petrochemicals
  • Lasts long in landfills

Rayon:

  • Non-environmentally friendly manufacturing process (uses chemicals and heavy metals)

Viscose:

  • Made from wood pulp of eucalyptus trees but treated with chemicals

Wool (Inorganic):

  • Dipped in toxic chemicals to ward off ticks/lice

SUSTAINABLE FABRICS

Alpaca:

  • Don’t require insecticides/ antibiotic treatments
  • Long lasting, wrinkle resistant, durable
  • Warmer than wool, has no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic

Bamboo:

  • Newer methods produced without toxic chemicals

Cashmere:

  • Truly green cashmere is lasting and durable
  • Cheap cashmere is produced with chemicals and carcinogenic dyes

Hemp:

  • Easily grown without chemical pesticides

Cotton (Organic):

  • Still use a lot of water but less than inorganic cotton
  • Safer for farmers because it does not use toxic chemical treatments
  • Maintains healthy soil

Linen:

  • From flax which doesn’t require pesticides
  • In its most green form when it’s in a natural shade or dyed with natural dyes
  • Cheap linen is treated with chemicals in fast fashion retailers

Modal:

  • High yield cellulose biodegradable fiber from beech trees
  • High wet strength and extra soft
  • Machine washes and tumble dries without shrinking
  • Absorbs 50% more moisture than cotton which keeps it odor free and uses less energy from washing
  • Can be dyed with harsh chemicals
  • Lenzing modal is sustainable and bleached in an environmentally friendly way

Ramie:

  • Harvested 3-4 times/year
  • Less water than cotton
  • Naturally resistant to bacteria
  • Grows healthily without pesticides
  • One of the strongest natural fibers (8 times stronger than cotton)
  • Stain resistant

Silk:

  • It’s a natural fabric because it’s made by silk worms
  • Vegan silk uses worm casings after moths have emerged

Soy Fabric:

  • Made from byproducts of soy oil processing
  • Good for bras and panties because its soft and silky
  • Can be certified organic, sustainable, eco-friendly
  • Watch out for soy blends with polyester and inorganic cotton

Tencel/Lyocell:

  • Non-chemical alternative to viscose
  • Uses solvents that are 99.9% reclaimed and reused
  • Biodegradable and recyclable from eucalyptus trees (grow quickly without pesticides)
  • Production uses less energy, water, and fabric
  • Doesn’t get bleached, manufacturing is environmentally friendly
  • Absorbs perspiration, doesn’t allow bacteria growth, remains odor free
  • Fewer washes to save energy
  • Dye process can be with chemicals
  • Naturally wrinkle free

Wool (Organic):

  • Renewable and durable from sheep
  • Made according to Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS)

*Fabric information sourced from New Classic’s The Ethics of Fabrics

A few of my favorite fabrics include alpaca, organic cotton, linen, silk, and wool. I’ve always really liked alpacas and when I went to Portland, Oregon, I visited an alpaca farm. I was able to pet the alpacas and they were combed of their fur to spin into yarn. A few years after my visit, my boyfriend gifted me an alpaca sweater and I love it because it’s so soft. Organic cotton is also on my list of favorite fabrics because it can come woven or knit and casual or dressy. It’s great that it’s a comfortable fabric and also come in various textures! I love linen because it’s a very wearable fabric year round. It’s breathable for the summer and great for layering when it gets colder. Being the lazy person I am, I love that linen is machine washable and can be worn with wrinkles!

Another fabric I love is silk because it feels so luxurious against the skin. Sometimes when I wear silk garments I forget that I’m even wearing anything! Lastly, wool gives me a nostalgic feeling because my grandma used to knit me wool sweaters when I was younger and they would keep me warm in the cold, San Francisco weather. Up until today, I still have the sweaters and wear it when the weather dips or when I visit home. Although I am not sure if they were made of organic wool, I am now aware that organic wool exists and will try to look for that option.”

It’s easy to forget the impact of a purchase, as well as the power that we have as consumers. Many assume that just because a material is “natural”, it’s a sustainable option. But if we want to be aware, we’ve got to do our homework. If you’re considering a shopping trip, spend some time really thinking about what you want. We recommend making a list of items you need, especially if you’re trying to create an intentional capsule wardrobe. What type of garment do you want? What type of fabric are you looking for – something breathable, something you don’t have to iron? If you’re not sure, use Sarina’s list as a guide! If you’re vegan, there are plenty of additional online resources that recommend sustainable vegan options. Jot down some fabric options before you go shopping. This will curb any impulse buys, and help keep you mindful about your purchases.

To learn more about Sarina’s take on defining slow fashion, visit her Slow Series on her website.

All photos provided by Sarina Ho. 

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1 Comment
  • Kristen
    September 17, 2018

    Really appreciate this breakdown, Sarina. I’ve been much more mindful of the fabrics I’m purchasing in the past year, and it’s revolutionizing my wardrobe. I loved learning even more here today!

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slow fashion: sustainable vs. unsustainable fabrics