Materials Most Harmful To The Environment & Their Sustainable Alternatives

Now more than ever, we are conscious of our environmental footprint.

Every day, television and social media advertisements ask us to cut down on our usage amount of single-use plastic and asked to lower our carbon footprint by taking public transport.

Would you believe that the most harmful part of your lifestyle is your clothing?

Brands are increasingly shifting towards more sustainable methods of garment production, but transparency is a serious issue.

To help you become more aware of which materials you should avoid, we are rounding up the most harmful garment materials and their sustainable alternatives. 

The Fashion Industry’s Carbon Footprint

Fast fashion is a global problem and is one of the leading causes of pollution. 10% of the word’s carbon emission comes from the fashion industry, and this will increase to 26% within the next 30 years.

Fashion production creates 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions every year and produces more than 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

The fashion industry is the world’s second-largest consumer of water supply and causes 20% of the industrial water pollution in the world.

While 750 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, the industry uses 1.5 trillion litres of water per year.

It takes 700 gallons of water, the amount of water an adult drinks every three and a half years, to produce one cotton t-shirt.

For a pair of jeans, this increases to 2,000 gallons of water. 

We are buying more clothes now than ever before, with each of us purchasing 60% more clothing than we did in 2000.

In the same period, clothing production has doubled thanks to the age of fast fashion. 

The first step on your sustainable fashion journey is to educate yourself on what the harmful materials are and their environmentally-friendly alternatives.

What Makes A Material Sustainable?

When looking for sustainable fashion materials, and when determining what is and isn’t sustainable, you should think about:

  • Whether the production process uses toxic chemicals that can enter the local water supply
  • If the material is bio-degradable 
  • The ethics behind the production of the material
  • Can the material be reused or recycled?

You can read below to see our in-depth descriptions of which materials to avoid and their sustainable alternatives. 

The Materials That Are Harmful To the Environment

Harmful Material 1 – Cotton

Cotton is one of the most popular garment materials, and it is one of the most harmful.

It is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world, and uses 6% of the world’s pesticides, making it one of the worst natural fibres that you can have in your wardrobe. 

Cotton farming damages our ecosystems as most cotton fibres are created through a genetically modified process during which time the cotton is sprayed with chemicals.

Thousands of workers on these cotton farms suffer from pesticide poisoning every year. It is these chemicals which are dangerous to both our ecosystem and insects.

The scary thing is that these chemicals remain on the garment for all its lifespan. 

Cotton Farming

Cotton farming utilises fertilisers which cause pollution and ends up damaging the water system.

As well as the environmental factors, cotton farms take land from local people in a developing country who depend on the farmland to produce crops. 

Did you know that it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of cotton? 

Cotton requires a warm climate to be cultivated in, which is why it is largely produced in India, where 100 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.

Cotton production has effectively caused entire lakes to disappear, with the Aral Sea being the most quoted example. After 50 years of being exploited for cotton farming, the Aral Sea, which was once one of the largest lakes in the world, has become a desert.

30.3 million tons of cotton are produced each year, with China, India and the United States being the top three producers of cotton. 

While cotton is biodegradable, this doesn’t offset the environmental turmoil that it causes.

Harmful Material 2 – Dyed Material

tie dye

Dyed materials are incredibly harmful to the environment.

While tie-dye is one of the biggest trends in fashion, you might want to stop and think about how it is produced.

Textile dye is the second-largest polluter for water, as the leftover dye-water is discarded into nearby rivers and water systems.

Every year, 200,000 tons of dye is lost to effluents. 

Harmful Material 3 – Textiles

As many as two thousand different chemicals are used to treat textiles within the fashion industry.

Out of these 2000, shockingly only 16 of them are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As fast fashion garments are usually produced in developing countries, these chemicals face little to no regulations, and it can be hard to find out which chemicals are used.

The water waste that is produced by textiles is practically toxic, containing toxins such as arsenic.

In China, 80% of groundwater from the major river basins are considered “unsuitable” for human contact as a result of chemicals in the water.

Harmful Materials 4 – Polyester & Nylon

sustainable material

Polyester is the most common of the three main synthetics, which also includes nylon and acrylic.

In 2018, there were 55 million tons of polyester fibres produced, which was 52% of all fibre production. Polyester features in virtually every fast fashion garment, which allows for such pieces to be sold at a bottom-level price. 

35% of the microplastics in the oceans comes from synthetic textiles such as polyester, which are popular amongst fast fashion brands.

Mirco-plastics account for 31% of the plastic pollution in our oceans, with fast fashion being responsible for the vast majority of that plastic. The micro-plastics enter the water system when we wash our clothes.

Up to one thousand and nine hundred individual microfibres enter the water system while we are cleaning a polyester garment.

Micro-plastics do as much damage to our oceans as 50 billion plastic bottles each year. 

The production of polyester is also damaging to the environment. Almost 70 million barrels of oil are used every year to make polyester, as the petroleum is used to make its plastic fibres.

Polyester is non-biodegradable and requires lubricants in its production which can contaminate the local water supply. 

The dependency of synthetics on the fossil fuel industry makes it one of the most harmful materials in the fashion industry, due to its knock-on effects on biodiversity and wildlife.

Just like polyester, nylon is non-biodegradable and is made from petrochemicals, making it one of the leading causes of plastic pollution. Nylon accounts for 5% of the global production of fibre, which most of its waste ending up either in landfills or the ocean. 

The one redeeming factor of nylon is that it can be recycled and used for new garments without any additional production. By swapping out your traditional nylon for recycled nylon, we can reduce the environmental impact of the material by 80%. 

Harmful Material 5 – Viscose

viscose

Also known as rayon, viscose is an artificial fibre that comes from wood pulp, which is treated with caustic soda and sulphuric acid.

Viscose is the most commonly used semi-synthetic fabric and is commonly used in fast fashion pieces.

For pulpwood plantations to be developed, older forest areas and farms are taken over. The pulpwood tree is of such a nature that it uses a significant amount of water, which can be harmful to other parts of the local ecosystem.

The most significant environmental damage that occurs at the hands of viscose is deforestation. 

The production process for viscose uses chemicals that can be toxic to the environment that includes carbon disulfide and ammonia. Not only are these chemicals harmful to the surrounding biodiversity, but they can also lead to health conditions for the workers who produce the material.

Harmful Material 6 – Leather

leather

Leather is one material that seems to be missing from the large-scale conversation around sustainability.

The tanning process is one of the least environmentally-friendly treatments in garment production. 

The production of leather creates methane outputs which is 20 times as strong as CO2 and is one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

Livestock also causes 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in leather’s giant carbon footprint. One billion animals per year are killed for leather, but its harm doesn’t end there. 

Leather is tanned and treated to be used in handbags, shoes and jackets.

The production process includes toxic substances such as chromium, which can result in cancer and skin conditions for the workers who treat the leather in tannery workshops.

The water waste from the tanning process, which includes toxic chemicals, is untreated and allowed to pollute rivers and water sources.

This material is anything but sustainable, and chromium waste is a primary byproduct of leather production.

Harmful Material 7 – Wool

wool

Wool is one of the most in-demand materials for winter clothing and can be used in everything from coats to gloves and leggings. 

Wool comes in a variety of fabric types, including shearling that features in coats and cashmere that is most commonly woven into jumpers. 

1.155 million kilograms of wool are manufactured annually, with more than 95% of it coming from mass production.

While some people believe that wool is a sustainable material, it is anything but that.

It is a major producer of greenhouse gases due to the methane in sheep digestion which is one of the most potent and dangerous greenhouse gases.

For every metric ton of wool, you need 500,000 litres of water.

Wool production also requires pesticides and insecticides, and the waste contains toxic chemicals which pollute the nearby water systems. 

The Global Fashion Agenda considers wool to be one of the five most environmentally damaging fibres in the fashion industry.

What are Sustainable Materials?

Below is the list of sustainable alternatives that we recommend to replace the harmful materials that already exist in your wardrobe.

This list includes more sustainable natural materials and recycled materials that increase the lifespan of what was once considered to be a ‘harmful’ material.

Sustainable Alternative 1 – Organic Cotton

Sustainable fabric

As cotton is one of the most popular materials for garments, in particular t-shirts and dresses, it’s no surprise that the world of sustainable fashion has found an innovative replacement for this harmful material.

This dilemma is where organic cotton comes in.

It is grown using production methods and materials that have a much lower impact on the environment.

The key to their sustainability is that the production system replenishes and maintains the fertility of the soil and reduces the use of toxic, pesticides and fertilisers.

The production of this kind of cotton is offset by the farmer adding to the ecosystem by taking active steps to improve the surrounding area, such as planting new trees.

For cotton to be sold as ‘organic’, it will need to be verified by a federal regulatory body.

What makes organic cotton sustainable is that it uses:

  • Natural and untreated seeds, whereas traditional cotton uses seeds treated with insecticides.
  • Healthy soil which retains its moisture, whereas traditional cotton uses synthetic fertilisers which can kill the soil.
  • Non-toxic cornstarch to stabilise warp fibres, whereas traditional cotton uses toxic waxes.
  • Safe peroxide to whiten the cotton, whereas traditional cotton uses chlorine bleach which has toxic by-products.
  • Natural dyes which have a low sulphur level, whereas traditional cotton uses heavy metals and sulphurs.
  • Water-based inks for printing, whereas traditional cotton uses petroleum-based pigments which pollutes our water systems. 
  • Ethical production which including safe working environments with a living wage, whereas traditional cotton product often exploits child labour with unsafe working conditions.

It is estimated by The Textile Exchange, that organic farming could save 218 billion litres of water and over 92 million kg of carbon dioxide.

Unlike traditional cotton, which depletes the natural water resources of the farm’s surrounding area, organic cotton typically uses waterfalls as their water source. 

Sustainable Alternative 2 – Cork

Sustainable materials

Cork ages just like leather does, and has become an unexpected choice for handbags and small accessories.

Cork can withstand just about anything that you put it through and is both tear-resistant and waterproof. 

This flexible material can be used in as many ways as leather, but it is far more unique than mass-produced leather could ever be.

Each piece of cork tells its own story and has a natural beauty that gives it personality.

While cork comes from trees, the bark of cork trees rebuilds themselves every nine years which means it does not lead to any form of deforestation or damage to the local biodiversity that occurs with less sustainable materials. 

While leather can become damaged or worn over time, cork is scratch-resistant and easy to maintain.

Not only is cork easy to clean, but it is also stain-resistant.

If you happen to spill wine or sauce over your cork-made accessories, you can easily wipe it off without any hassle.

Although it is highly durable, cork is also a lightweight material with more than 50% of its volume coming from the air.

Fun fact: NASA uses cork in its rockets to protect the vehicle in high-temperature conditions. If NASA can use cork, then you can use it for your bags and accessories. 

Sustainable Alternative 3 – Organic Bamboo

Sustainable fabric

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, and when it is harvested, it can renew itself far quicker than other natural materials.

It can regrow to its original size in 3-4 months, while other trees take up to 30 years to reach their full height.

Did you know that a bamboo tree can grow 3 feet in just 24 hours?

Bamboo is virtually a carbon-neutral material as it consumers more CO2 than it takes to produce the garments it creates and does not need to be treated with chemicals or parasites.

Bamboo absorbs two times more carbon dioxide than other trees and creates over 30% more oxygen for the atmosphere than most trees. Bamboo is anti-bacterial material thanks to its ‘bamboo kun’ and does not need to have any chemical treatments.

Through the production process, bamboo can be used to create a variety of fabric types. It can be combed into fibres and then spun into thread which can be used to create what is known as bamboo linen.

For a more silk-like material, bamboo wood chips are turned into rayon, and this is the most common form of bamboo that you will find in the fashion industry as it makes up 95% of its industrial use.

While there is some debate about the sustainability of bamboo, there is no denying that culturing bamboo and growing the tree causes practically no damage at all to the environment, and instead helps it by removing CO2 for the air.

Look for bamboo materials that are produced in a ‘closed-loop system’, meaning that there is no toxic waste produced as an unwanted byproduct.

The most sustainable form of bamboo is its linen variant. You can use bamboo as an alternative to cotton or synthetic fabrics. 

Sustainable Alternative 4 – Bast Fibers

Sustainable materials

Bast fibres come from plants that have a stem made up of a wooden core and fibrous bark.

Unlike synthetic fibres, bast fibres have a much lower water consumption and have a tiny carbon footprint.

Hemp is a bast fibre that can be used as an alternative to cotton as it can be grown in different climates and does not require pesticides during its production stage.

Hemp is one of the most eco-friendly natural fabrics and is high-yielding, meaning that it grows quickly and isn’t harmful to the soil. Hemp uses a significantly smaller amount of water than cotton does. 

The number one selling point for hemp is that it is thought of as being carbon negative, as the plant absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Sustainable Alternative 5 – Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester

The same way that the sustainable fashion industry has found an alternative to traditional cotton, the industry has also discovered a sustainable replacement for polyester. 

Recycled polyester is known as rPET and is manufactured from plastic bottles, leftover polyester waste and clothing fibres that can be reused.

rPET uses 30-50% less energy and only 10% of the water consumption that traditional polyester uses. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, rPET uses 60% of what traditional polyester does. 

You can use recycled polyester to make virtually any kind of clothing and is a popular material choice for activewear.

Recycled polyester is one way to stop plastic ending up in landfills and can be recycled several times over, significantly increasing its lifespan. 

If you ever have to choose between traditional polyester and recycled polyester, always go with the recycled variant. 

Sustainable Alternative 6 – Linen

Linen

Linen is a brilliant alternative to wool which is a natural fibre that comes from the flax plant, which grows over several months and creates soft fibres that can be used to create clothing garments.

The sustainability levels of linen are comparable to that of hemp, as it requires hardly any fertiliser.

This material can be used as a replacement for wool and is extremely versatile, as it is used in everything from pyjamas to trousers and beach coverups.

Linen is one of the oldest garment materials and has been used to make clothes for thousands of years.

Unlike wool, linen is biodegradable and can be recycled.

You can easily find linen garments in your local high street shops or online, making it an affordable entry-level garment material if you want to become more sustainable with your fashion choices.

Linen will stand the test of time and has a luxurious feel to it.

Becoming An Environmentally Aware Consumer 

Now you know just how harmful our fashion choices can be. 

When we are shopping for clothes, we rarely stop and think of where our clothing has come from. Now we hope that you will.

We know how hard it can be to build a wardrobe that is solely made up of sustainable garments, but it is possible. 

Closing Thought

The sustainable fashion industry has grown from a niche to a major power in recent years.

Everyone from Stella McCartney to online retailers is promoting their ‘eco-friendly’ ranges to draw in environmentally-conscious Millennials and Generation Z. 

One of the first steps that you can take to build a more sustainable wardrobe is to seek out garments that are produced with reusable and recycled materials.

We hope this list provides you with a starting point on your sustainable fashion journey.

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