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Eco-Clothes and the World of Sustainable Materials

Updated on August 24, 2012

Eco-fashion, eco-clothes—what comes to mind when you hear these terms? You might say clothing that is made from natural and sustainable fabrics that do not harm the environment, and you would be correct. Most responses would be similar.

But what does that mean?

There is far more to eco-friendly fashion and fabrics than most of us know or can identify. In fact, the same is true for conventionally produced textiles and clothing, but the differences between the two are drastic and mean everything to environmental and social sustainability.

What is Eco-Fashion?

The world of eco-clothing and fashion is in one way its own ecosystem. More than the materials that make clothing, eco-fashion considers several factors:

  • the environment from which raw materials is extracted
  • the welfare of those directly affected by the growth of materials
  • the working conditions of the people in the industry
  • the health of the people wearing the clothes
  • economic sustainability

These factors make eco-friendly fashion very important as a trending phenomenon. The industry is small now, still in infancy, so the need is great for fashion designers and manufacturers to make choices for sustainable materials.

How to Buy Organic

  • Buy in natural shades. For cotton, cream, pale green, and light brown.
  • Look for garments colored by natural or vegetable-based dyes.
  • Look for certified labels, such as Ecocert or Fair Trade Certified.
  • Do your own research before shopping.

How Organic Cotton is Made

Do you buy organic clothing or seek sustainable fabrics?

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The Need for Sustainable Textiles: King Cotton

It may be easier to understand the benefits of eco-clothes by looking at the way most clothing is currently manufactured. We’ll use cotton as a great example since all of us wear it and organic cotton is becoming more common in stores.

The advent of mass producing cotton is where most trouble with the fabric began. Until then organic is the way cotton was produced. But due to industrialization and the need for a high-yield crop, we now view cotton as a destructive plant when it is our capitalistic desires that transgress sustainable practice.

To achieve high-yielding varieties of cotton, the crop has to be genetically modified. This is done to make the plant more resistant to pests, but it also endangers the original crop species. Then, cotton drains soil of its minerals. So it is not possible to constantly use a tract of land for cotton production without fertilizers to sustain the crop. Yet these fertilizers are harsh and burn the soil, and this leads to further eradication of minerals. This is actually a starting point for desertification, the process by which land becomes a desert.

Cotton also attracts lots of pests that cause it to become a low yielding crop. Thus, chemical pesticides and insecticides are used to bump the yield. But these chemicals are toxic—to the ozone and environment, to people who breathe them, to livestock, and again to humans who consume livestock milk and meat.

Organic cotton, an eco-friendly textile, reverses all of these problems. First, there is no bio-genetic tampering with the crop. Thus, there is (naturally) no high yield. Also, the land is kept in mind: Whereas cotton growth exploits the land of nutrients, once that land is used crops that add nutrients back to the soil are planted. And certified organic cotton uses zero fertilizers or pesticides, which mean less risk to the ecosystem, other plant and animal life, and humans.

Fair Trade Around the World

Organic Clothing and Fair Trade Practices

One further aspect to eco-fashion is fair trade. Fair trade is a social movement currently with no accepted formal definition. It is, however, an international trade cooperation based on transparent and respectful dealings to guarantee greater equity and positive trade and labor conditions most notably to (marginalized) workers in developing countries. Fashion is a small (but growing) sector considered under fair trade. Other products include coffee, chocolate, wine, bananas, flowers, cocoa, and gold. One main concern is that the people who produce these products are paid a fair price and have decent working conditions.


Did you know...

  • that 80 percent of all textiles were made from hemp until the 1820s and the advent of the cotton gin?
  • that paper for the US Dollar is 25 percent linen and 75 percent cotton?
  • that despite the best fibers being used to make linen, no part of the flax seed is leftover but all is used for things like soap, feed, and paper?
  • that bamboo is not a tree but a grass and produces 30 percent more oxygen than trees?
  • that one silkworm moth lays about 500 eggs over a 4-6 day period?


The World's Best Eco-Friendly Fabrics

Organic cotton is just the beginning in sustainable textiles. There are many others you should be on the lookout for when you’re shopping.

  • Hemp. This prehistoric plant has been used by humans for thousands of years for several products. Hemp is natural, not prone to pests, and needing no pesticides. A strong and versatile material, it can also be used to create delicate items. Organic is available.
  • Bamboo. Grown without pesticides and a major sustainable plant that quickly replenishes itself. Produces a durable, soft fabric. Clothes made from bamboo are generally well-ventilated due to the structure of the material.
  • Silk. An all-natural fabric. Depending on your concern for the worm, look for either standard (wild) silk or peace (vegan) silk. Wild silk destroys the worm and allows the material to be unraveled in a single piece. It also leads to a stronger fabric.
  • Linen. Made from flax it requires little-to-no chemicals for pests. Purchase in natural shades or dyed with natural dyes. Organic linen is available but tougher to find.
  • Soy. Creates soft, silky garments and great for underwear and bras. Buy these as “certified organic” or risk a blend with other fabrics, like polyester. Soy garments are suitable for all skin types and are completely biodegradable.
  • Wool. Very warm and durable. Eco-friendly because sheep are not harsh on the land like livestock nor does wool production produce greenhouse gases. Organic is available.
  • Cashmere. A real one will cost you but last a lifetime. Be careful though. Some may be blended with other fabrics.
  • Alpaca. No need to worry about insecticides or antibiotics. Like cashmere it is long-lasting but costly.
  • Leather. There are tradeoffs here. Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry and is a very durable textile. But livestock produce greenhouse gases and are tough on the land. Also, the way leather is created may require chemicals that result in air and water pollution. Do your research before buying.
  • Lyocell. A cellulose fiber made from wood pulp. It is biodegradable and recyclable. Naturally wrinkle-free.
  • Ingeo. Made from fermented plant sugars derived from corn (not good) but uses half the energy of cotton and even organic cotton.
  • Polyester. That’s right. Not because most is made from petroleum, but because clothing is now being created from recycled plastic bottles and recycled polyester fabric. Now that’s a renewable alternative.


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    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      Thank you, MsDora. It is interesting information. It's also great to know that by being conscientious about our choices, we can make a difference to the well-being of others, human and animal, and our earth. The problems of unsustainable living can indeed be reversed...if we so choose.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Voted Up, Useful and Interesting. Thanks for sharing all this wonderful information about the fabrics. I like the "Did You Know" segment. Your hub is very well presented. Keep up the good work.