The Most Harmful Fabrics in Fashion (and A Personal Challenge)

Jess Ann Kirby organizes her neutral colored chunky knit sweaters at her home in Rhode Island

The last two days have been an intense learning curve. By the end of the first day, I was in tears out of frustration. Our food, our beauty products, our clothing, all of it has such an immense impact on our planet and on us. It’s INSANE the number of toxic chemicals that are allowed in the foods we eat and the products that we use. But with knowledge comes power, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few days it’s that WE have the power to change all of it.

When I wrote down my goals at the beginning of the year and then created a capsule wardrobe a few months later, my main focus was consuming less. While it was a good place to start, and it helped me realize just how much I was wastefully spending and consuming, I’ve realized I need to go further.

Creating a capsule wardrobe forced me to pay a lot more attention to the things I buy. I started to shop more sustainable and ethical brands (the two aren’t mutually exclusive by the way, we’ll get to that) and I felt pretty good about it. Then I started to do more digging and slowly fell into the black hole of researching the fashion industry, the fabrics they use, and the impact they have on the environment. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t know the fashion industry was a big polluter (not to mention the human rights abuses happening in major companies). I know this, but I didn’t quite think about all the different ways in which it’s such a harmful industry.

For example, polyester, the most popular material used in fashion, is incredibly damaging for the environment. Why? From a production standpoint, it’s a fiber made from petroleum—the same substance used to make plastic water bottles. It can take up to 200 years to decompose. When polyester clothes are washed, they shed microfibers that are so small they easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants into our waterways. Since they do not biodegrade, they threaten sea life, and ultimately find their way back to us when we eat fish and shellfish. UGH. There’s also a lot of conflicting information about recycled polyester and recycled plastics used in clothing (I’ll get to that below).

Honestly, after the amount of research I’ve done in the last 48 hours I could go on FOREVER, but a) I’m not an expert and b) I wanted to make this post as impactful and easy to digest as possible. This has been quite a learning process for me and to be transparent, at times very frustrating. There is SO MUCH conflicting information. What I’m going to share, is based on my research. The fabrics I’m eliminating from my wardrobe are because of what I’ve discovered about their environmental impact. Ultimately I think the approach of shopping less and focusing on quality over quantity is one of the best approaches to take, but I think it’s important to educate ourselves about the choices we make and how those decisions have a greater impact on society and the environment. One last note, this post isn’t the final word on the best way to approach this subject. There is truly so much to learn on this topic. This is a starting point, and I’ll continue to do my best and share what I learn along the way. I encourage you to do the same.

Jess Ann Kirby researches the most environmentally harmful textiles as well as more sustainable options for her wardrobe.

First, let’s talk about fabrics…

This is not a comprehensive list of fabrics used in the fashion industry but they are the ones, based on my research, that are causing the most environmental harm. Of course, I will continue looking into different materials and their environmental impact as we move forward.

The Culprit: Polyester/Nylon

Polyester currently dominates the fashion industry and is one of the most commonly used plastics in the world. The worst parts about polyester: it does not biodegrade and it is derived from petroleum (the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest pollutant). The production of polyester requires the use of harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, and can cause significant environmental damage. As I mentioned above, washing polyester also released tiny microfibers into our waterways negatively impacting aquatic life and adding more plastic to our oceans. Nylon, like polyester, is a type of plastic derived from crude oil. Producing nylon is a very chemically intensive process that creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The Alternative: Recycled Polyester (see also Tencel/Lyocell)

In the past few years, recycled polyester has become a big part of sustainable fashion. Typically recycled polyester is made from recycled plastic bottles. Great right? Sort of. Keeping plastic bottles out of landfills is a good thing, and buying recycled polyester minimizes waste while cutting out the fossil fuel industry, but studies have shown microfibers from recycled polyester can be harmful too. Fleece made from recycled polyester may be more polluting than its original form. Ultimately the goal should be to eliminate single-use plastic altogether. If you have or plan to purchase recycled polyester items, wash them with The Guppyfriend to keep microfibers from entering our waterways.

The Culprit: Rayon/Viscose/Acrylic

Rayon is made from plants, but it’s not eco-friendly because of its toxic production and the deforestation associated with it. Viscose is manufactured in the same way as rayon but their materials differ. As a result of fast fashion, the majority of viscose is created with a chemically-intensive process that’s harmful to people and the environment.

The Alternative: Tencel/Lyocell or Silk

While tencel/lyocell is the most eco-friendly alternative comparatively speaking, against rayon/nylon it’s still not the best. It pollutes less than viscose but uses the same amount of wood pulp. The difference is in its closed loop production which means that the solvent is recycled time and time again to produce new fibers and minimize harmful waste going into the environment.

If done well, making silk can be a low waste process, and because it’s a natural fiber is also biodegradable. While silk is generally less environmentally damaging than other fabrics, there is cruelty associated with conventional production because of the process involving boiling moths. If buying silk look for unbleached or naturally dyed from ethical and sustainable brands.

The Culprit: Cotton

I’ll be honest, cotton was probably the most shocking to me in terms of fabrics. Cotton requires A LOT of water to grow. Safely disposing of the hazardous chemicals used to dye fabric is very costly. Due to the fast fashion industry and pressure to keep costs low, the result is contaminated waterways. To put it in perspective, in India, where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production could provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 liters of water every day for a year according to Good on You. Growing cotton also requires the use of dangerous and toxic pesticides. Pesticides contaminate soil and water and create health problems for farm workers and nearby populations.

The Alternative: Organic Cotton, Linen and Hemp

Organic cotton does not require pesticides or toxic chemicals to grow, making it a much better alternative to traditional or GMO cotton. Organic cotton also uses less energy and water than traditional cotton. Look for brands certified with GOTS.

If you’re a lover of linen you now have even more reasons. Linen is biodegradable, recyclable, and doesn’t require pesticides. The plant used to make linen, flax, is versatile and makes production cost-effective requiring less water than cotton. Linen is also incredibly durable and can last a long time. Check out my post on linen bedding here.

Hemp is an incredibly versatile plant. It naturally repels pests, so it doesn’t require pesticides and it returns 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil. It also requires very little water and a relatively small amount of land to cultivate. The problem with hemp lies in the production of the actual fabric. It can be converted into fabric sustainably but chemical processes may also be used to cut costs. When buying products made from hemp pay attention to the brand’s overall sustainability and ethics.

The Challenge:

Did you make it this far? If so, yay, and thank you! I know it’s a lot to digest. Where do we go from here? This is my plan. First, look at your wardrobe and look at the tags. What fabrics are in your closet? Don’t go and get rid of all your clothes because they have polyester or acrylic. That’s not the point! My goal is to STOP purchasing those fabrics going forward. Just as I don’t want you getting rid of your existing wardrobe this is also not a prompt to go buy a whole new one. Again, quality over quantity and focusing on less consumption overall is the goal. Here’s my next steps:

  • Clothing purchases will not contain any percentage of the following fabrics: polyester, acrylic, nylon, viscose or rayon.
  • When purchasing anything new focus on buying from sustainable and ethical brands (more on that below) and items made of fabrics including: linen, organic cotton, recycled polyester (for activewear and outerwear), upcycled textiles, tencel and organic/sustainable silk.
  • Use The Guppyfriend for laundering any fabrics containing polyester.
Some thoughts on shopping

There are lots of sustainable brands popping up all the time. This list is not comprehensive, it’s just a mention of some brands I’ve purchased from and had good experiences with their products. I’ll of course continue to share more sustainable brands (in beauty and home as well) as we move forward.

Secondhand – A great way to keep clothes out of landfills is to buy used clothing. One of my favorite things to do on the weekend when we lived in Brooklyn was go thrift shopping. There are lots of online options for secondhand now as well including ThredUp, Etsy, eBay, Poshmark (an App), The Real Real (luxury), and Vestiaire Collective (luxury).

Girlfriend Collective – Activewear made from recycled polyester

Mate the Label – Organic cotton tees and linen basics.

Patagonia – The company has been an industry leader in ethical and sustainable active and outerwear.

Sézane – A brand that’s been a favorite for a while now. Sezane isn’t rated on Good on You but they have a pretty extensive section on their website about their sustainability efforts and you can see production information about each item on their individual pages.

Everlane – I was disappointed to see Everlane’s Good on You App rating of “Not Good Enough.” That said, I think Good on You is a great resource but also not the perfect way to determine a brand’s ethical and sustainability legitimacy. I think Everlane can stand to improve, and it seems they are working towards that with things like their clean silk line.

Reformation – Inclusive sizing, ethical and sustainable dresses, tops, tees and jeans.

Threads 4 Thought – Sustainable activewear brand using recyled polyester and organic cotton fabrics.

Vitamin A Swimwear – Sustainable swim brand using recycled and organic textiles.

Mara Hoffman – Premium brand of dresses and swim with a “Great” environmental rating from Good on You. Utilizes majority organic cotton and recycled textiles and eco-friendly materials.

Boyish Denim – Sustainable and ethical denim brand with a goal of becoming 100% zero waste. Utilizes recycled cotton, lyocell and recycles water in production so no harsh chemicals enter the water supply.

Resources

The Guppyfriend

Good on You, How Can You Tell if A Brand is Greenwashing

The True Cost

TheGoodTrade.com

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44 Comments

  1. Sara V wrote:

    Love this post!! I also found Prana, Amour Vert, and Elizabeth Suzann to be brands with good materials that are doing what they can to support an environmentally friendly clothing option. The good on you app is helpful, but I agree that more research is needed after you look something up. Prana prints all of the production information in their tags.

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thanks Sara. I was just looking at Amour Vert they have really cute stuff. My contributor Jess also wrote about Elizabeth Suzann last month and I’ve heard great things! Need to check out Prana as well.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  2. Jen wrote:

    Fast fashion (and its impact) has been at the forefront of my mind the past couple of years. I’m glad that sustainable and ethical practices and brands are becoming the trend. Thanks for being so transparent as you navigate your learning curve, Jess! Your dedication to the things that matter, especially as a bigger blogger, inspires me. xx

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thank you so much Jen.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  3. Laura wrote:

    Thanks so much for this post! This is information we should all keep in mind as consumers and I’m appreciative of your research to get us started!

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thanks for reading Laura

      5.2.19 | Reply
  4. Thank-you so much for shedding so much light on this topic. It’s such an important thing to be talking about and I really found this so important to read!

    I hope you have a great Thursday,
    Michael
    https://www.mileinmyglasses.com

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thank you so much Michael. Same to you.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  5. Abby C wrote:

    Thank you for reminding people NOT to run and dump their clothes (essentially bringing them direct landfills). I like that the article isn’t about shaming people for what they have but encouraging them to think about the choices they make in the future.

    Synergy Clothing is another good, sustainable brand with chic basics.

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Yes definitely don’t want people doing that! Thanks for sharing Synergy I’ll check it out.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  6. Erica wrote:

    This was an incredibly helpful post! Thank you for sharing everything you’ve learned so far. It’s helped me become more aware so that I too can make a more informed choice. The last thing I want to do is cause more damage to the planet.

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Really glad it’s helpful Erica. Thanks for reading.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  7. Sarah wrote:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post! I found it so informative! I have been eliminating polyester from my wardrobe for about a year just because I hated the cheapness and static cling. Lol. I had NO idea about the environmental impact it had. And I had no idea about the other fabrics! I’m going to be more mindful moving forward! I cant wait to go on this journey with you and I’m excited to get some outfit inspo from things you end up buying!

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thanks Sarah! Great to hear you were already eliminating polyester from your wardrobe.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  8. Erica wrote:

    Jess, what an informative and researched post! After watching your Stories the other day, I’ve already started thinking about the products used in my clothing. It’s an area I want to do better.

    Sometimes it seems there’s so much that needs to change that it’s overwhelming. How best do I get involved and make a difference? It’s helpful to follow your journey in this area so I can leverage your research.

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      I totally understand. I was very overwhelmed at the beginning of this but already feel like I have a better handle on how I can make personal changes for the better after researching and writing this post. I hope it’s helpful for you too.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  9. Maria Paula Camargo wrote:

    Hello from Bogotá, Colombia! Thank you so much for this post; I’m also challenging myself to change my habits and this is tremendously helpful. I’ve been following you for a couple of years and love how real, smart and interesting you are, while still knowing how to have fun. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s hard to find bloggers who can talk about both “superficial” stuff as well as more important stuff and do it well. If you ever make your way down to Colombia I would love to meet you. Thanks again!

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Hi Maria! Thank you so much. I’d love to visit Colombia some day. It looks like such a beautiful place.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  10. Morgan J wrote:

    Thank you for writing this post, Jess! I’ve been trying to scale back my clothing consumption and as a conscious consumer, the lack of transparency from most brands on environmental impact is frustrating. Going to add Knicky (underwear brand) into the mix here, as their panties are made from organic cotton, and they have an awesome recycling program for old undergarments. Their customer service is awesome too. I’d also echo your sentiment on MATE – awesome basics that are super soft! Christy Dawn is another great label that uses upcycled fabrics and has an aesthetic similar to Ref.

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thanks Morgan, been looking for a good underwear brand to try I’m going to check out Knicky!

      5.2.19 | Reply
  11. Great information! Tencel is such a great alternative and it’s so soft!

    Liz @ ShoppingMyCloset.com

    5.2.19 | Reply
  12. Lisa wrote:

    This is great info! thanks for all the time you have put into it…..it’s something I think about often so appreciate that you are making it a priority. I really enjoy your blog and instagram. thx

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thank you so much Lisa.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  13. Grace wrote:

    Happy that you are starting your foray into ethical, sustainable fashion! Recycled polyester is, unfortunately, not the answer. There is a great deal of corruption with many companies using brand new plastic water bottles and labeling items “recycled polyester.” Using it also keeps polyester in the system and on our skin. Companies like Patagonia and Outdoor Voices have the power to change the system here and, I believe, should view recycled polyester as a temporary band-aid that will be phased out while educating people about natural materials, and then making sustainably-derived natural materials the norm. Reformation uses tons of viscose which is unacceptable for a “sustainable” company. Producing viscose and rayon is extremely toxic and dangerous for the workers- the production process is poisoning families and rivers in Asia. The Guppy Bag is great but is also a band-aid. We need to just buy less and stop buying and wearing synthetic fabrics. These are companies that are truly committed to sustainable and ethical practices, and natural materials: WearPact, Botanica Workshop, Harvest and Mill, Soul Flower, Garnet Hill, Satva Living, Mighty Good Undies, Brook There, People Tree, and Synergy Organic Clothing. Love that you are challenging yourself by banning these fabrics from your closet, and informing readers in the process. Once you start, you never want to go back!

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Jessica wrote:

      Thanks Grace. I agree, recycled polyester is a band-aid but I also think it’s important to be realistic about what’s feasible for consumers. Ultimately yes I think brands need to do better in coming up with better fabric solutions, for now, I did my best to provide suggestions that I think are attainable for most. Thanks for all the brand suggestions I will check those out.

      5.2.19 | Reply
  14. Jessie Barber wrote:

    This is a great resource post that brings to light the darker side of fashion that most consumers don’t know about. I am currently a textile student at URI and I actually just did a project on polyester, so I understand the research hole you can dig yourself into (researching pollution from textile dyeing and finishing is even worse!). Unfortunately, polyester is the most used fiber worldwide and is not going anywhere, so I wish you luck in finding more brands and garments that are made from sustainable fibers. I also recommend watching the Netflix documentary “The True Cost”; its an eye-opening look into the industry. I do hope that more people adopt the capsule wardrobe idea instead of the wear and dispose culture that fast fashion has created!

    5.2.19 | Reply
  15. Megan B wrote:

    I love this post so. freaking. much! I know I can’t speak for everyone, but at least for me, the prospect of being more sustainable with my fashion has felt SO daunting that I don’t even know where to start. I know now after seeing this post and your stories on Insta just how daunting it really is to research all of this. Another brand I wanted to throw in the mix that I have loved for a long time AND is US-based and super open about their sustainability efforts is Eileen Fisher. They even have a program where they take their products back when you don’t want them anymore and will give them second life. Would love to see a post or two about your favorite pieces from some of the smaller sustainable brands!

    5.2.19 | Reply
  16. Carolyn wrote:

    This is such great info! And it is just maddening that so many chemicals and so much pollution is happening in the clothing industry. When I was pregnant last year, I did a bit of research and came to the conclusion that I wanted my baby in organic cotton as much as possible. I carefully registered and for the most part, received “safe” items and clothing but still got lots of cutesy things from people made of cotton or polyester. Anyway, I donated what I wouldn’t use and have kept baby in about 95% organic items. Basically, in addition to everything you mentioned, it’s important to think about what we have on our skin all day, every day. It’s our largest organ! I’d much rather have less clothing but make it high quality.

    5.2.19 | Reply
    • Christiana wrote:

      Hi Carolyn, I’m 19 weeks pregnant right now and finally needing to buy some maternity clothes, specifically jeans. I was wondering if you have recommendations for stores which sells sustainable maternity clothes? Thanks!

      5.16.19 | Reply
  17. Lia wrote:

    Thank you for this post. I have always leaned towards natural fibers and thought that was enough. I never thought about cotton vs. organic cotton or the other details you point out. This is such a wealth of information about aspects I never considered. Always such a fan of your content!

    5.2.19 | Reply
  18. Catherine Little wrote:

    Great article and hopefully people are waking up to this issue. In the U.K. H & M have a Conscious range and Vejer trainers are very popular, so word is getting around. I was made aware of you by Audrey Coyne and along with Alyssa Beltempo I feel I am being influenced in a very positive way. Thank you

    5.3.19 | Reply
  19. Kaitlan wrote:

    Thanks for sharing! Random question: I have heard that fabrics can be composted- any idea if that’s true of all fabrics? I’m guessing just natural fibers like cotton or linen would work. Could be a good option if an item is so damaged/worn that it can’t be mended or donated. Thanks again for all your research and for engaging us in this important dialog!

    5.3.19 | Reply
  20. Courtney wrote:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this! I found it very easy to read and informative. I’ve been leaning toward reducing my footprint w fashion & beauty, and you’ve been inching me closer every step of the way! I really appreciate it!

    5.3.19 | Reply
  21. Madeline wrote:

    Considering how clothes are made, what they are made of, by whom they are made, and where production is taking place are all very important topics. I also think it is crucially important to remember the privilege that comes with being able to ask these questions. At this time the majority of the world is not afforded this opportunity and we are really really lucky.

    5.3.19 | Reply
  22. Anah wrote:

    Thanks to you I discovered some New sustainable brandis. Merci beaucoup 😊

    5.6.19 | Reply
  23. Alli wrote:

    Thank you so so much for posting this! It’s such a great reference for those of us adopting new shopping habits 🙂 I love that you have become a part of this movement and also, thanks for the guppyfriend recommendation!

    5.6.19 | Reply
  24. Logan wrote:

    Giving you all the virtual high fives and applause for doing so much work for this post. I’ll admit that I never thought I would be someone who would care so deeply about these types of things, but in the last 2-3 years, I’ve developed an undeniable conviction that I just can’t ignore. I’m looking forward to reading more posts about these subjects and following along for your #cleanswapchallenge.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your integrity and passion!

    xoxo Logan
    http://www.habitsandhues.com

    5.6.19 | Reply
  25. Jen M wrote:

    Just another thought I cam across in my research, once fabrics are blended they can be up-cycled but as the fibres can’t be separated they can’t be recycled. So buying 100% fabrics is better than a fabric blend if looking at the full life cycle.

    5.7.19 | Reply
  26. Abby wrote:

    Thanks for the round up on the textiles. I was aware of many of them, but not all details, so thanks for the effort you put in!
    Obviously second hand first, but great ethical brands I love include:
    People Tree
    Armed Angels
    Lana
    JannJune
    Veja
    My Marini Swimwear
    Reformation

    On instagram I recommend following:
    @wyl_store who does an amazing round up of ethical or/and sustainable brands almost every day
    and
    @dariadaria who is also a climate and many more topics activist
    @gatherandsee fair fashion store

    5.7.19 | Reply
  27. Miri wrote:

    Hi Jess,

    I read the whole article and really loved it. I don’t buy polyester and focus only on cotton, linen, wool and silk. But as you said, even organic cotton is preferable.

    Thank you for sharing!
    Xo
    Miri
    https://currentlywearing.com

    5.7.19 | Reply
  28. Thank you so much for this brilliant post! I have been increasingly conscious of the impact of my consumption the last couple of years, and as of January have made a commitment to only purchase one item of clothing and one accessory a month. It’s not an easy task (at least as a fellow blogger), but it *really* makes me think carefully about every single purchase I make and piece that makes it to my closet. For example last month I bought a beautiful midi dress from H&M, but then realised it was 100% polyester and thought ‘do I really want the one thing I buy this month to be something so polluting and which makes me sweat?’ The answer was clear, and I traded it for a recycled cotton dress from their ‘conscious’ collection instead. I’ve also banned angora and mohair from my wardrobe for similar ethical reasons; I saw something on the hideously cruel way the wool is harvested, and I just couldn’t bring myself to unsee it or ever wear it again (and interestingly many stores – including H&M, ASOS, Whistles, etc. have now pledged to stop selling it from this year).

    I don’t know if it is happening there in the US, but here in the UK and Europe many stores are also participating in textile recycling to help close the loop – such as H&M, & Other Stories, etc. and they take back *any* textile and make sure it is recycled or reused (to all our old socks, tea towels, worn out clothes, etc. all get bagged up and taken there a few times a year, and old towels and blankets go to a local animal shelter).

    Just a few things I’m working on and thought I would share in case they’re helpful to you or anyone else (and I’ll be sharing this post on my blog this week too as it’s such an important read and so well-put and researched)

    Briony xx

    5.9.19 | Reply
  29. Danielle Hansen wrote:

    Thank you so much for the great information. I’ve also been trying to focus more on natural fabrics and being very intentional with not just what I buy but where I buy, so appreciate all your info! I enjoy working out 3 to 5 times a week so really struggle with active wear that doesn’t contain polyester. I’ve found brands like girlfriend and athleta, but do you have thoughts/ recommendations for sustainable active wear? Possibly using more eco friendly fabrics? Thank you!

    8.18.19 | Reply
    • Jess wrote:

      I know activewear is tough, I buy from sustainable brands and use a Guppyfriend to wash anything with synthetic fabrics. Athleta is great they have a lot of sustainably made activewear and Girlfriend is good too. It’s hard to come across any activewear that doesn’t have some sort of synthetic fabric even if it’s recycled. If I come across anything new I will definitely share.

      8.19.19 | Reply
  30. Kress wrote:

    This is incredible. Thank you!

    9.2.19 | Reply