Most of our clothing these days is made from polyester, which has a decomposition time of between 20 and 200 years. So if you’re looking to reduce your environmental impact, but are forgetting about the clothing you’re buying and wearing, here’s my list of the most natural, biodegradable fabrics for your wardrobe.
Apart from not being biodegradable at the end of its lifetime, our ‘plastic’ clothing is releasing tonnes of micro plastics into our water system each time we wash them. By 2050 it is claimed that there will be more plastic in the ocean than sea life. This is something I’m not okay with just sitting back and let happen. So what can we do about it? Stop buying plastic!!!!
Linen: Linen comes from a the flax plants and can be grown with much less water than cotton. It’s a really nice lightweight fabric that lends itself very very to hotter climates. Linen pieces are very easy to find second hand too. Linen is also easy to find if you’re looking to buy fabric for dressmaking and doesn’t tend to be too expensive but just be sure it’s coming from a reputable source and is in fact 100% linen.
Decomposition: As little as 2 weeks
Lyocell: Lyocell is made from the pulp from Eucalyptus trees.The fabric can be made in a closed loop system meaning it is much more environmentally friendly that a lot of other fabrics. It also feels incredibly soft, if you’ve never come across it. It drapes like silk. I’ve managed to find quite a few second hand lyocell pieces like ‘denim’ shirts and when shopping online you can just search by ‘lyocell’ in the search box.
Decomposition: 6 weeks under the right conditions
Cotton: This isn’t always the most eco friendly fabric due to the amount of water and chemicals that are used in the process. However, if buying new you can opt for organic cotton which eliminates pesticides and chemical and reduces the amount of water used. When buying second hand you don’t need to worry if it’s organic or not, just whether or not it’s natural. Cotton is probably one of the most common natural fabrics out there so it’s very easy to find, but do try to find 100% cotton if you can. A blend will slow down the decomposition process. Cotton is also a very easy to find fabric if you are looking to buy it for dressmaking and it’s very inexpensive.
Decomposition: 5 months approx
Leather: This is a controversial one for many as the idea of wearing an animal skin is way off the ethical radar. As a vegetarian I decided it was no longer right to be buying new leather, although I will wear second hand leather. It’s been around for so long that the idea of wearing it doesn’t gross me out, but I just don’t agree with it going forward. I do believe in terms of environmentally friendly fabrics that it is much better than wearing a faux leather which is ultimately plastic. Sometimes it can be hard to choose between ethics and sustainability.
Decomposition : Leather – 20-40 years / Faux Leather or Polyurethane – only possible under extreme conditions.
Wool: Another tricky one in terms of ethics. I will not buy new cashmere (apart from the fact I probably can’t afford to) but I’m not sure where I stand with the rest of the wool categories. I can imagine a farmer in West Ireland shearing his sheep that he so cares about and treats well, to make a few Aran Sweaters. That’s the kind of sheep farming I can get on board with. But I’ve seen so many documentaries where the shearing is not done with as much care and I really draw the line there.
Again, I will buy real wool second hand, and I am also a sucker for a second hand cashmere sweater. It’s alternative is Acrylic, another synthetic fibre.
Decomposition: Wool – 6 months – 1 year / Acrylic – 20 – 200 years
Silk: I won’t buy new silk unless it’s cruelty-free, but again, second hand silk is a winner. I recently replaced a polyester shirt in my wardrobe with a much nicer 100% silk version from a charity shop for £6.99. Silk can be expensive so second hand makes much more sense to me. If you don’t know how silk is make and wonder why it needs to be ‘cruelty-free’, getting the silk fibres involves boiling the silk worm alive.
Decomposition: about a year
Some more great natural options are Bamboo, Hemp (probably THEE most sustainable), Rayon and modal (similar to lyocell), cork (a recent find for me and definitely one I want to try in a DIY), pineapple leather (made from pineapple leaves).. There are a lot of new technologies lately that are making all of these wonderful natural fabrics possible so here’s to the future of a more natural garment industry.
My aim is to have a 100% natural wardrobe of clothing in 1-2 years. It can be hard making the transition and I’m not looking to spend a tonne of money to buy a whole new wardrobe. As an item in my wardrobe wastes away I will replace it with a natural version. I will replace my acrylic jumpers with second hand wool jumpers, my polyester blouses with second hand silk or Lyocell, my faux leather footwear with second hand leather or possibly a recycled plastic option.
For any DIY projects going forward I want to choose only 100% natural fabrics where possible, and anything new that I buy, if I buy, will be made from sustainable fabrics and be from ethical and sustainable brands.
What do you think? Could you change to a fully natural wardrobe, or decide to only buy natural fibres going forward?