You can’t know until you know the fabrics and materials you like in your clothes, therefore I made a list, so you can choose.
Natural cotton fibers
Cotton agriculture mainly takes place in Asia and Latin America. Cotton has a high environmental impact due to high water and pesticide use during cultivation. Exploitation, slave labor and child labor are major problems on the cotton plantations, especially during the annual cotton harvest. Also during the processing of cotton fluff to yarn the working conditions are often poor and the workers run the risk of lung diseases due to the small dust particles of the cotton fluff.
The genetically modified BT cotton offers a solution for high pesticide use on cotton plantations in certain regions. BT cotton plantations separate a substance that kills insects. Whether the pesticide use is really lower on BT plantations depends on many factors: the type of insects on the plantation, the temperature, and the increasing resistance of insects to the dust. Moreover, a richly marginal line is that genetically modified crops increase the dependence of cotton farmers on strong economic players. The seeds cost relatively much and the corresponding pesticides are sold by the same company.
Cotton can be grown through the principles of organic farming. Growing organic cultivation means more than removing pesticides and requires a total approach in terms of soil and biodiversity on and around a cotton plantation. The yield of a bio plantation is often lower than that of traditionally grown cotton, but this is compensated by a higher sales price for the cotton farmer.
Scientists indicate that organic cotton in regions with many natural enemies of the cotton plant is not feasible because the yield would fall too much. They opt for an integrated plague management where targeted pesticides play a role, but where knowledge is also shared about alternative methods for controlling pests. The Better Cotton Initiative label starts from that principle.
Linen is mainly won from flax production in Europe and Asia. The impact on the environment of flax is lower than that of cotton: for linen less sprays and fertilizers are necessary and often less irregation is needed. Working conditions are also good at linen plantations because the fabric is also produced in Western European countries (France, Belgium and the Netherlands) China and Russia are also important producers of linen. The small dust particles that are released in the processing into yarn can cause the same lung diseases as cotton.
Hemp production takes place in Asia and Europe. The plant is very similar to flax, but the fibers are coarser and stiffer. Through extra production steps they can become more ‘cotton-like’. The production steps and the ecological problems are the same as with linen. In the case of hemp, however, no pesticides should be used, while this is still the case with linen. The energy demand in treating the fiber is a lot higher than with hemp.
Bamboo is a plant that grows very quickly and can easily be grown organically. For clothing, however, the plant fibers are usually processed into a viscose through a chemical process. Viscose is a kind of rayon. Most bamboo textiles therefore have all the ecological disadvantages of viscose / rayon. Bamboo also exists as a natural and ecological textile garment, but in that form it is rather rare. The manufacturer must state ‘viscose’ on the label when it comes to that variant of Bamboo, legal requirements are not always followed. Therefor, be careful with the label ‘Bamboo’.
Wool is produced on a large scale in Australia and China. Although wool is a natural product, there are quite a few chemical steps involved in the production of a woolen garment. In the ‘sheep dip’, for example, the sheep is dipped into a pesticide bath to avoid disease. Many chemicals are also used to clean and degrease the wool. Animal welfare is a concern both in sheep’s wool and in Angora production. The working conditions for the shearers and for all workers who work with chemicals is also an important point of interest in wool production.
Rayon is made from wood pulp (eg bamboo) but is not seen as a natural textile fiber because the wood pulp gets completely chemically degraded before being processed into yarn. Various perilous substances are used in the production of rayon and the environmental impact of rayon is high. It is possible to produce rayon in an environmentally friendly way, but that is expensive and therefore usually does not happen.
Lyocell / tencel
Lyocell and Tencel (a lyocell fiber from the producer Lenzing) are an environmentally friendly variant of rayon. The wood pulp used in the lyocell production process comes from the eucalyptus trees that are grown especially for lyocell production. The wood production for lyocell is therefore generally more sustainable than that for rayon and also the chemicals used in production are less harmful. Lyocell, like rayon, doesn’t get recycled yet.
Acrylic is the synthetic variant of wool. The basic raw materials of acrylic are fossil fuels. The textile department is made by large chemical companies such as Bayer in risk countries such as China and Turkey. Dangerous substances are used during production, including toxic and carcinogenic substances. Acrylic has a large ecological footprint, partly due to the high temperatures required to process the fossil raw materials into acrylic. Acrylic is not currently being recycled either.
Nylon is another type of textile made from fossil fuels. Just as with acrylic, high temperatures are required to convert these substances into textile. In addition, nylon factories emit N2O, a gas that has a very strong impact on climate warming. Recycled Nylon is more expensive, but a more sustainable choice than new Nylon.
The most produced textile type, polyester, is used in various types of products, from fleece sweaters to filler in cushions. Polyester has a similar production cycle as nylon, but its production requires less energy. Sometimes chemicals that contain heavy metals and toxins are used in the production. Recycled polyester is a more sustainable choice here.