What are my clothes made of?

19th November 2021

Why is it so important to know what our clothes are made of? Clothes today are made of a variety of fabrics and materials. Wool, cotton, linen, and silk are natural fabrics, made from plants and animals, but recently clothing has been made from synthetic fibres that are using plastics and heavy chemicals.

The bad ones

This includes polyester, nylon, acrylic, and elastane (spandex), commonly used in gym and swim wear, and even common clothing like t-shirts, stretch jeans, and jackets. The source of synthetic materials is the fossil fuel, crude oil. 65% of all fibres are made from a synthetic material, and it is projected that 98% of future fibres will be synthetic. This is not sustainable! Polyester and synthetic materials take 20-200 years to decompose.

Polyester requires a large amount of energy to produce, creating vast amounts of CO2 emissions which pollute the air, and toxic chemicals from factory run offs which pollute our waterways. During wash cycles of polyesters, plastic micro-particles are released, which will taint the water system, eventually ending up in our oceans, and therefore in our food chain.

clothes made of

Viscose is a plant-based textile made from wood pulp but requires harsh chemicals in its process to becoming a fibre1. So, it is an alternative to polyester, but not as sustainable as natural fabrics. It also takes 20-200 years to decompose.

Textile hardware, such as zips, buckles, buttons, and clasps, are made from metals and plastics. The production of these items is large-scale - 4.5 billion zips are consumed in the U.S. alone per year.

Cotton has made up around 39% of all fibre use globally, since the beginning of the 21st century. Due to its high demand, despite being a natural fibre, cotton, or conventional cotton requires mass pesticide, fertiliser and water use to grow the cotton fields, as well as widespread forced labour. The process to create a normal t-shirt requires heavy water consumption - one cotton t-shirt requires 3,000 litres of water, and one pair of jeans up to 8,000 litres.

Blue denim jeans, although made from cotton, require intensive dyeing processes. Heavy metals, such as arsenic, aluminium, copper and zinc and the toxic gas formaldehyde are used in the dyeing process, so much so that some of China’s rivers are now permanently dyed blue. Cotton usually takes 1– 5 months to biodegrade whereas denims can take up to a year.

The good ones

Organic natural fibres are the ones to look for, e.g., wool, hemp, linen, and cotton, but the key word here is organic. Conventional cotton uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides5. Organic cotton however, can be grown without any use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides. Thus, it has half the number of emissions of conventional cotton but uses more land in the process.

Organic linen and hemp are regarded as the best of the bunch, for sustainable fabrics. Hemp needs very small amounts of water in production and little to no pesticides during farming. It also requires less land to cultivate than other materials (2-3 times more productive than cotton). Linen is made from flax and has the lowest CO2e per kg of any fabrics, and is highly biodegradable, taking only 2 weeks, as it is with hemp in its most natural form.

Recycled fibres, such as wool, cotton and even recycled synthetic fibres such as nylon, elastane and polyester are better for the environment than new fibres, as it is closing the loop to circular fashion, keeping these fibres in circulation rather than in landfill.

Wearing natural fabrics increases wellbeing too. Synthetic fabrics can cause irritation to the skin or even allergic reactions. But with organic fabrics you feel better, and your body breathes better. What’s not to love?

What can you do?

  1. Check your labels. What fabrics are your clothes made of? Where was it produced? Get informed!
  2. Have you researched the company you buy from? Scrutinise them, ask them on social media, what is in their clothing?
  3. Check out these great resources - https://goodonyou.eco/ https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/transparency/. They rate the companies you buy from and keeps you informed on their sustainability initiatives.
  4. Buy second hand, swapping, renting. This means that all clothes can get a second or third life and can be kept out of landfills
  5. Repair your old clothes
  6. Reduce your washing routines, natural fibres don’t need to be washed as often
  7. Slow down your purchasing. Only buy the garment if you will wear it 30+ times. If you can’t see yourself wearing it that much, do you really need it? Ask yourself WHY before you BUY

Article by Mark Munro for Vogue Xchange



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Hill A. and Andres T., 2014, 10 amazing zipper facts you didn’t know you wanted to know https://www.marketplace.org/2014/01/13/10-amazing-zipper-facts-you-didnt-know-you-wanted-know/[Accessed 10 November 2021]

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So, what can I do? https://www.close-the-loop.be/en/phase/2/resources [Accessed 10 November 2021]

Scott-Mumby K, 2015, Do Your Jeans (And Other Fabrics) Contain Hazardous Chemicals? https://alternative-doctor.com/do-your-jeans-and-other-fabrics-contain-hazardous-chemicals/[Accessed 10 November 2021]

Change E, 2010, China's famed Pearl River under denim threat  http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/04/26/china.denim.water.pollution/index.html [Accessed 10 November 2021]

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