Fashion textiles: a primer for non-scientists


Time to put on your magnifying glass and examine what we’re wearing, in terms of the materials themselves. It’s a complicated subject, but I’m attempting to break down some of the topics here. Let’s get started!

Synthetic fibres

These include polyester, acrylic, and nylon. There are several concerns with synthetic fabrics, starting with their origin: fossil fuels. While synthetic fibres certainly have some advantages, we should be smart about their use. If we’re looking to transition out of our reliance on fossil fuels as a society, we should be using them only when necessary when it comes to clothing. As we learned back on Day One of this series, 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels) are used to make clothing every year, including 200,000 tonnes of pesticides and 8 million tonnes of fertilizers. In addition, these textiles are not biodegradable.

Another concern is microplastics: tiny pieces of plastic that are shed from our clothing in the wash. This plastic enters our waterways—and therefore the entire ecosystem, including us. According to a 2018 study, 30 billion particles of microplastic are released into the ocean each year–and that’s just from Vancouver. Plus, this is after treatment centres filter out 1.8 trillion plastic particles in waste water.

What about recycled plastic and using ocean plastic in fashion? It’s a complicated subject, with many people firmly for or against its use. In my opinion, it’s a Band-Aid solution, and we need to cease the overproduction of plastics in the first place before we can applaud the use of recycled plastics in fashion.

Semi-synthetic fibres

How can something be semi-synthetic? This term refers to something of natural origin that has been highly processed. For example, viscose made from bamboo. Other examples are cellulose, rayon, and modal. There are conflicting reports of the environmental and health impacts of these textiles. Some argue that while bamboo may be a great material for certain products, it requires too much harsh chemical processing to be an eco-friendly textile.

Do semi-synthetic fibres shed microplastics? The jury is still out on that, too.

Natural fibres

Natural material include plant and animal materials. They are renewable and biodegradable.

  • Plant-based textiles include cotton, linen (flax), hemp
  • Animal-based textiles include wool, alpaca, leather, and silk

There are many different issues to unpack here, but one thing that’s clear is that plant-based textiles are not inherently sustainable or better for the environment than animal products. It depends on many different factors!

Recent research shows that even natural fibres produce microfibre contamination in our waterways. Although it’s not plastic, it can still be chemically processed and disruptive to the natural environment.

Plant-based textiles

Cotton is an extremely “thirsty” crop, requiring vast amounts of water. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That’s enough water for a person to drink for 2.5 years. With a limited amount of fresh water on this planet, we need to ask ourselves, “is that sustainable?”. Plus, cotton production exposes workers to toxic pesticides and causes them to fall ill. Organic cotton is thought to use less water and help protect worker health.

On the other hand, hemp is thought to be a very environmentally friendly crop, preserving soil health and not typically needing pesticides. It can easily be grown in Canada, and produces strong, warm, and durable cloth.

Animal-based textiles

It’s important to note that Indigenous people have been using animal materials for thousands of years in a respectful and sustainable way. Mass production and overconsumption leads to exploitation of animals and people; whereas small-scale, thoughtful production can mean a harmonious relationship with animals. Examples of animal materials that can be used in a sustainable way are alpaca and merino wool.

What about dyes?

Textile dyes are a massive source of wastewater pollution—the second largest polluter of freshwater after conventional agriculture. As argues, “Using these chemical dyes in our clothing and textiles is yet another form of environmental racism, as the majority of the people directly affected by the poisons the fashion and textile industries emit, are low-income, minority communities, working for slave wages to make the products we frivolously purchase.”

Other chemicals used

According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, other chemicals that may be found in textiles include pesticides, solvents, plasticizers (such as PVC and phthalates), flame retardants, and stain repellants.

What are the solutions?

  • As always, do your best to avoid buying new. Shop less, and choose secondhand when possible.
  • Try to preserve your clothing as long as possible. Wash it less often, be gentle with it, and mend it when it needs repairing.
  • To help reduce microplastic shedding on synthetic garments: do a full load (which reduces frictions), use a cold water setting, hang to dry, and consider looking into a washing machine lint filter or microfibre-catching device.
  • When you are buying new, try to choose natural materials that have been ethically sourced and dyed with non-toxic dyes. You can also look for brands that use deadstock: factory scraps and other material that would otherwise be thrown out or destroyed. Chances are, if you’re buying from an ethical company, they’ve already put thought into this and have written about it on their website, and can answer questions you might have.
  • Look for certifications on clothing. Clothing certifications include, but are not limited to:

(Learn about more certifications here:

A few additional references

Photo courtesy of Shannon Dixon.


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