ethical travel clothing

Your guide to choosing eco friendly fabrics for a sustainable travel mindset

Being a sustainable and eco-conscious traveler is considering ways to reduce your environmental and social footprint when traveling. Clothing has a huge importance in the sustainability equation and choosing what to wear starts even before you set your foot abroad.

Textiles have always been part of our lives and we love how we feel in them: they provide us with warmth and protection but they also talk about our preferences and tell a lot about who we are. But, we need to be aware of our role as consumers and the impact of our choices. Nowadays, many eco conscious consumers are opting for eco friendly fabrics and ethically produced clothing.

What clothes are the most sustainable after all? What is the most eco friendly fabric? We had exactly the same questions and went looking for information that could help you make the best decision when it comes to what we wear.

Don’t know what clothes to pack for your next trip? Check our Travel Essentials for Women – Sustainable Travel Clothing Guide and start packing right!

Why choose eco friendly fabrics?

When we started traveling, eight years ago, being environmentally friendly wasn’t a hot topic like it is today. I still remember when we bought travel clothes and the criteria back then was to choose an affordable brand. I don’t regret our choice, as we still carry most of the clothes we bought back then, but would I have done anything differently? Yes, today I would:

  • look for environmentally-responsible brands;
  • choose second-hand over brand new clothes;
  • and choose carefully the type of fabric, depending on the use I would want to give to a specific piece of clothing.

The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industrial sectors in the world, with textile dyeing being the second largest polluter of clean water globally, after agriculture. Many dyes are actually harmful to human health, building up in the food chain or directly affecting the health of poor workers in third world countries.

How a fabric is produced is of the utmost importance to understand the overall impact of the industry in the depletion of natural resources. Polyester, for example, is made of a non-renewable resource – oil, and when you wash a polyester garment, millions of tiny fibers are released into the water, contributing to a dramatic increase in water pollution.

Fast fashion has pushed consumerism to an unsustainable limit. With a new fashion trend launched every week and clothes marketed at a very low price, no wonder consumerism has sky-rocketed: people buy more but then what they need and a piece of clothing is history a few weeks after you purchase it. This is only possible because somewhere along the line, someone is paying the real cost of cheap production and the infamous Rana Plaza disaster is a painful reminder of the “true” cost of the clothes we wear.

For these reasons, we believe it’s worth to invest in responsible fashion and choose carefully the clothes you buy. But, how can we do that? Keep reading to find out.

What makes it an eco-friendly fabric?

When we think about an eco friendly fabric it is obvious that the environmental impact should be minimal but, in order to truly assess the sustainability of a fiber, we should take into consideration all the different stages of its lifecycle:

  • First, the production phase, or how the raw material is obtained: is it a natural or synthetic fiber? What about animal welfare?
  • Second, the method used to produce the fiber: what was the overall output of energy use and natural resources depletion? What about social impact?
  • Third, the textile production phase, where the need for chemical additives during the process (dyes, finishes, and coatings) should be carefully assessed.
  • Forth, the end of life: how to dispose of the fabric and the environmental impact of that decision – biodegradability, recyclability.

Natural fibers, like cotton and wool, tend to be more eco-friendly options than synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon, and spandex that are made of a non-renewable source – oil. But that isn’t always the case, as we will see below.

Let’s see the different types of fibers and compare them based on the different stages of their lifecycle.

Natural fibers

A natural fabric is made from the fibrous material present in plant seeds, stems, and leaves, animal hair or the cocoon of silkworms. It’s breathable and rarely causes allergies, it’s durable, biodegradable and often recyclable.

Cotton

Cotton production accounts for 40% of the total textile fiber market and is still a major industry in countries like the US and India.

Cotton is a natural fiber made from renewable resources but it requires a lot of land and water to grow. It is often produced from GMO seeds and it demands a high load of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Besides the intensive cultivation process, other processes, like dyeing and finishing, require a heavy amount of toxic chemicals dyes, water, and energy usage. Cotton mills in developing countries are major culprits for water and soil pollution, leading to the loss of natural resources and an increase in health problems.

In countries like India and Pakistan, cotton production has been pointed a finger for farmers indebtedness and a rising rate of suicides, as well as an alarming depletion of potable water sources in regions that are susceptible to drought.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton has been touted as a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton. It is grown from non-GMO seeds and it doesn’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic agricultural practices are better for the soil and protect biodiversity, and certification tries to ensure better and fairer working conditions and protection of communities.

Saying that organic practices lead to lower yields is a common argument used by conventional farming advocates, although organic cotton actually appears to produce higher yields compared to its conventional counterpart.

Nevertheless, cotton, being organic or not, still uses a lot of land and water resources, compared to other fibers, and an organic cotton T-shirt can still be dyed using toxic chemicals, so not all is perfect.

Still, organic seems to be a better choice, as it will probably have a lower environmental and social impact. Always look for certified cotton and check the labels for any of the two certifications available: Organic Content Standards (OCS) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

Wool

Wool is a natural fiber that comes from the fleece of sheep (merino), goat (cashmere and mohair), llama, alpaca or rabbits (angora). Wool is a great fabric: it’s breathable and suitable for both cold and warm weather. It also requires little care and less washing than synthetic fabrics, as it doesn’t hold smell and is quite durable.

Nevertheless, wool raises some environmental and ethical concerns. Mulesing is a controversial and painful practice, in which strips of the animal’s skin are removed to prevent disease. Also, animal welfare organizations have been alerting the public to animal overexploitation and violence, especially in large-scale production units.

Land for sheep grazing is traditionally unsuited for crop production, which makes wool more sustainable than cotton if we look at the fact that cotton uses arable land and requires an intensive irrigation system. But, let’s not forget the problem with methane emissions and the fact that industrial operations have huge numbers of animals in the smallest effective land area, leading to soil erosion due to overgrazing practices. Also, wool needs to be cleaned (scouring) after shearing, sometimes with the use of chemicals that contaminate water sources and land.

The best is to buy certified wool clothing, that ensures the fabric was produced with good agricultural practices, prioritizing animal welfare and using eco-friendly methods to clean and process the raw material.

Linen, Hemp, and Ramie

These three fibers are called bast fibers, which means that the fiber is extracted from the stem of the plant, through a process called retting. This allows for the fibers to be released from the fibrous stem and it can be done through a natural process or through the use of chemicals.

Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant and has been used as a textile since the beginning of civilization. As a fabric, linen is cool and fresh, breathes well and is highly resistant. Comparing to cotton, growing flax seems to be more sustainable because it requires less water and land and no use of chemical fertilizers. Due to its low flexibility, it can wrinkle easily and ironing is a must if you want to get that sleek look. This can increase energy use so if you want to have a lower environmental impact, dry it in a clothesline and learn to love its wrinkles, some say that’s what gives it its charm.

Hemp is made from the fibers of Cannabis sativa plant, an industrial variety that has been used since ancient times as fiber, food, and medicine. Hemp crops are highly productive, yielding many times more than cotton and flax and they also don’t require any pesticides. It is considered one of the most sustainable fibers out there. The fabric has similar properties to linen, making it a great option for hot climates, as it also has UV protection properties.

Ramie, also an ancient fiber crop, is made from the stem of an herbaceous plant native to Asia. It’s a strong fiber that is mostly used in combination with other fibers to produce textiles with better properties since it has a silky touch and doesn’t wrinkle easily. It’s not as popular used alone as a textile source because the fiber is hard and expensive to obtain, compared to other alternatives, and it’s not as durable.

Bast fibers seem to be better alternatives to cotton due to their low impact on the land and little use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water. Nevertheless, the biggest impact of a fabric is usually on the processing and consumer use phases. Often, heavy chemicals are used in the dyeing phase, so it’s best to opt for natural dyes or just wear the natural colors of the fabrics. Linen has beautiful gray or beige hues that give a distinct look to anyone’s style. Due to their lower flexibility, linen and hemp wrinkle easily and energy use to care for these textiles might be higher if you iron your clothes.

Rayon (aka Viscose), Lyocell (Tencel™), and Modal

Rayon, modal, and lyocell are fabrics composed of cellulosic filaments. Cellulose is a polymer extracted through a chemical process from the wood pulp of beech trees, pine trees, eucalyptus or bamboo. It is a natural fiber but its extraction is actually a man-made process so these fabrics are often called semi-synthetic. They are biodegradable nevertheless, as the fibers are 100% natural in origin. They have very interesting properties, such a soft silky feel, highly breathable and they can absorb moisture better than cotton.

Rayon, or viscose as it is known in Europe, was developed in the 19th century as a cheaper alternative to natural silk, also called “artificial silk”. The production process for rayon fabrics consists in extracting the cellulose from the wood pulp by soaking it in a chemical bath and then spinning it to create a filament. Unfortunately, some of the chemicals used in the process are very toxic, and most factories have no way to recover them, releasing them into the environment, which contaminates water supplies and becomes a hazard. Also, many rayon-based textiles require dry cleaning and that amounts to the environmental impact. Using rayon textiles is therefore not recommended if you are trying to reduce your footprint.

Modal and lyocell are technologically more advanced than rayon and their production and properties are different too. Modal, for example, is stronger when wet and it doesn’t shrink when washed, as it happens with rayon. It’s also softer than cotton and for that reason is used in underwear and undergarments and, because it’s highly absorbent and breathable, it’s a great choice for activewear. Nevertheless, modal’s production system is the same as rayon’s so it isn’t the best environmental choice.

Lyocell, on the other hand, is a type of rayon that was developed by the Austrian company Lenzing, under the trademark Tencel. Tencel has nanofibrils (nanotechnology) whose properties can be changed to make products with distinct characteristics. It’s revolutionary also in its production process as it uses a gentler solvent that is recovered up to 95% in a closed loop. Tencel is highly breathable, highly absorbent, it has antibacterial properties and it can be manipulated to have stretching qualities, making it a better choice for activewear and underwear than synthetic fibers like nylon or polyester. It’s actually such a versatile fabric that it can be virtually used in any kind of garment and, environmentally, it seems to be a top choice.

Bamboo – is it really an ecological fiber?

Fabric made out of the pulp of the bamboo grass has been touted as the alternative to cotton, as it’s a fast-growing plant that requires much less water and land to grow and virtually no pesticides or fertilizers.

The fabric also possesses desirable qualities: it’s breathable, has excellent moisture wicking properties and some antibacterial properties as well. It’s silky and soft in touch and it has insulating properties, keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter.

Although this seems to be the promised alternative to less environmentally-friendly fabrics, such as cotton or polyester, bamboo fabric is not without its controversy. In fact, the process to turn the cellulose in the bamboo bark into a fabric is similar to the one used to make rayon and, as we have seen above, its use of heavy chemicals to turn it into a fabric is a big no-no in terms of environmental impact. Also, most of the fabric being sold is actually bamboo rayon, which means it uses this process to make the fiber, thus destroying any environmental claim attributed to bamboo fabrics.

Monocel® is a recent Norwegian technology where the bamboo fabric is produced through the lyocell method, combining the best bamboo fabric has to offer: the fast regeneration of the raw material and the environmentally-responsible practices of the production method. This is a recent innovation, so it is still not easy to find a wide variety of products in the market but, hopefully, this will change in the near future.

Synthetic fibers

Synthetic fibers, like polyester and nylon, are man-made and often obtained from petrochemicals and are, therefore, non-biodegradable and non-renewable.

Polyester

Polyester is a fabric made from the same material as water bottles, a plastic called PET or polyethylene. It’s a petroleum-based fiber that goes through an energy and chemical-intensive process to spin the fiber and eventually to dye it. It was first commercialized by an American chemical company in the 50s and, since then, polyester’s use in the fashion industry has steadily been growing and is now so ubiquitous that, most probably, the T-shirt you are wearing now is made of polyester.

This fiber has some desirable properties, such as moisture wicking, quick drying, and resistance to wrinkling, so it’s blended many times with other fabrics to improve the overall look and feel of the final product. Raincoats and active clothing are often made from polyester.

Polyester production, as well as other synthetic fibers, does not have an impact on land use, contrary to conventionally-grown cotton which requires high amounts of water and chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Nevertheless, it requires a lot of energy, more than double of that of cotton, and this puts even more pressure on the use of non-renewable resources like oil.

Toxic chemical dyes are used and many times released into waterways untreated, especially in countries like China or Bangladesh, where most of the polyester production occurs. Poor communities are the ones that end up suffering the biggest impacts of the textile industry, as water and air contamination occur with impunity.

Recycled Polyester – a true eco friendly fabric solution?

Environmentally-conscious companies, such as Patagonia, have been using recycled PET bottles to produce recycled polyester fleeces in an effort to reduce plastic waste. Sounds like an amazing idea, right? Except that breaking down a bottle into tiny pieces could actually do more harm than good, as a 2016 study found out.

The problem mainly has to do with washing. Recent concerns about ocean pollution with plastic contaminants (watch the documentary A Plastic Ocean for more information) are in line with some late research that appears to indicate that the majority of the contaminants are tiny fibers that are shed by synthetic garments after being washed.

In this study, the shedding of microfibers from polyester garments during washing was assessed and it revealed that almost 2g of microfibers per garment was released into the water, with the potential to contaminate rivers and oceans. The situation was aggravated by the type of washing machine (top-load machines were worse than front-load) and by the tear of the garment. Another study from 2018, which compared the shedding of different synthetics (polyester, nylon, and acrylic), found that polyester fleeces were the worst as well as loose knits, independently of the fiber.

As a consumer, we need to be aware of the problem and try to avoid contributing even more to this problem. Avoiding buying new synthetic clothing, reducing washing to the strictly necessary, installing an efficient washing machine filter are just some of the suggestions I leave here. For more ideas and some inspiration, check out this article with 15 ways to stop microfiber pollution.

Nylon

Nylon fabric is a polymer, or better said, a plastic made out of very long chains of molecules in a repeated sequence. Nylon is not one substance but a group of synthetic substances called polyamides. So, if you see “polyamide fabric” on the tag it means that you are wearing a piece of a garment made out of a type of nylon.

Nylon was introduced in the 1930s and, due to its versatility, it’s almost everywhere: the bristles in your toothbrush, the waterproof raincoat, or the umbrella you use to protect you from the rain are just a few examples of uses for nylon materials.

Just like polyester, nylon is a synthetic fabric with excellent waterproof characteristics and it can also be quite stretchy. Unfortunately, it tears very easily, shedding the infamous microfibers we talked about before, and, as any synthetic fiber, it’s prone to accumulating bacteria, thus causing bad odor and, you guessed it, asking for being washed more regularly. It’s actually a vicious cycle: the more you wear it, the more you have to wash it and the more rapidly it tears and wears, so nylon fabric has a very short lifespan comparing to natural fibers, for example. Needless to say that, once in the landfill, and because it’s a plastic, it takes ages to decompose.

Nylon, as with other synthetic fibers, is produced from petrochemicals, requiring tons of energy and pressure to transform the molecules in coal or petroleum into the desired polymer. Then, the polymer is melted and goes through a spinning process, where the liquid substance passes through a spinneret (much like a shower head full of holes where the liquid passes to be transformed into a fiber). All this process needs twice as much as the energy needed to produce polyester fabric and nearly five times as much to process cotton fibers. Nitric oxide is a greenhouse gas released during the production phase that can also cause serious health problems to workers.

How do all fibers compare to each other?

From all the info collected I did a table with all the information. After that, I tried to give a grade from red (bad) to green (good) and created a second table to be easier to read. The final column has a kind of a score but again, this is just my opinion, and it is definitively not an exact science.

What to wear in hot climates?

Cotton and linen are definitely fantastic options for hot weather. Lightweight, breathable and comfortable feel on the skin are some of the characteristics of these fabrics that make them an excellent option.

Tencel is also an excellent option, as the fabric is breathable and moisture-wicking, especially for athletic wear and underwear.

Cons: cotton and linen can wrinkle easily (especially linen) and take longer to dry than synthetic fabrics. Look for lighter pieces. Tencel can be quite pricey and harder to find.

Pros: you can find organic and sustainable options made out of cotton or linen. They are resilient fabrics and biodegradable. Tencel is an environmentally-friendly option with the benefit of being antibacterial and less prone to wrinkles.

What to wear in cold climates?

Colder and humid climates ask for specialized materials that trap your body’s heat and don’t let moisture in. Natural options include wool for insulation. It will keep you warm in winter and cool in summer.

Polyester fleece is also a good option for a base layer, as it will trap your body’s heat and avoid moisture coming in.

Nylon is probably the best choice for outer layers, as it doesn’t let moisture in and is a sturdy fabric.

Cons: merino wool is of better quality but can be quite expensive. Polyester and nylon are synthetics with a high environmental footprint.

Pros: you can buy recycled nylon and polyester.

What are the most eco friendly fabrics after all?

Even though it is easy to think of natural fibers as the most eco-friendly options, as we saw above, not all natural fibers are made the same. We need to look at the fabric in all its life cycle: from the moment it’s produced until the moment it’s discarded.

Some fabrics behave better in the production phase than others and recycled fabrics tend to use less energy and resources. Also, organic practices used to grow natural fibers, such as cotton, tend to have a better ecological footprint if we compare it with conventionally grown varieties and the end product is virtually indistinguishable.

Nevertheless, a fabric needs to undergo a series of processes, like dyeing, coating, finishing, and transportation before it becomes available to us as consumers. And this is not the end of the journey, as we also need to factor in the washing cycles a garment can stand before it is discarded. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, have a heavy impact in water pollution with the shedding of microfibers and they are not biodegradable, so that also needs to be taken into consideration when evaluating the overall environmental impact of a fiber.

Avoid fast fashion

It’s probably one of the most sensible and responsible things you can do for the future of our planet: don’t fall into the trap of fast fashion. Some brands, like H&M, are already including more sustainable fabric options in their collections but, don’t be fooled if you think you are doing the environment a big favor if you are still buying cheap clothes, with very short lifespan, even if they are advertised as “eco-friendly”. As a conscious consumer, you must be aware of the impact the whole cycle of a garment has in the environment and the people and communities involved.

Here are a few ideas for you to start your journey as a conscious consumer:

reduce: avoid buying new clothes all the time. Buying a few good-quality, timeless items should be enough to have a decent wardrobe.

reuse: buying second-hand clothes is a good way to reduce the need for new resources to produce new clothes. Also, you avoid tones of clothing going to a landfill. Learn some basic sewing skills and recover lost items instead of just giving them away. Reuse old clothes as kitchen rags.

recycle: buying clothes made out of recycled materials is a good way to start reducing your footprint

upcycle: use what you already have but make it new by crafting new clothes out of old or outdated pieces. Make sure you get to know the seamstress in the neighborhood.

How to extend the life of a fabric

Here are some useful tips shared by Eartheasy to help us extend the life of our clothes, save the environment and a few bucks:

use front-loading machines instead of top-loading machines; the first are gentler on your clothes.
wash in cold water, it will save 80-90% of your energy use and the detergent is what really makes the difference (choose a biodegradable one).
avoid using clothes dryers, as they reduce the life of your garments, cause shrinking and spend a lot of energy. Use a clothesline instead.
avoid buying clothes that read “wash separately” on the label, the amount of water and energy spent in caring for them is not worth it.
wash less, as some fabrics, such as natural fibers, can be worn several times until they really need to be washed. Aerating your clothes also helps to reduce the need to wash them.

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