What to Wear: A Starter’s Guide to Natural Fibres and Sustainable Fashion

by Christina Cannes

If you haven’t seen the harrowing documentary The True Cost, detailing the suffering, pollution, and deaths caused by the fast-fashion industry, I suggest you watch it straightaway. It will change the way you shop forever.  Sustainable fashion is starting to pick up serious momentum, but until it goes mainstream, always opt for natural fibres.

Sustainable Fashion + Natural Fibres

Not only is the clothing manufacturing process a major health and human-rights issue, but so is the pollution caused by—not just the manufacturing process—but because so much clothing is being produced, it cannot be used by all the people in the world. This discarded, poorly-made clothing ends up in third world countries and then eventually landfills. Since it’s mostly made of synthetics and plastics, it will take hundreds or thousands of years to biodegrade, not to mention the pollution it causes when we wash it (microfibres end up in the ocean).

The greenest and most sustainable way to shop is to buy used from vintage shops, opp shops, on consignment or through eBay. Up-cycled clothing is all the rage and another great way to keep clothes out of the landfills—get creative with those old jeans!

Despite all this, we still want to buy new things. If you do want to purchase new clothing, make sure it’s manufactured using sustainable methods and made with natural fibres. Natural fibres will break down in landfills like food scraps—meaning they will emit greenhouse gases, but at least they will break down (unlike synthetics). Shopping at eco or sustainable fashion stores will ensure both the material and the manufacturing are environmentally friendly, but always be sure to ask and do your research. Just because it says eco, doesn’t mean it is eco.

Remember, shop local and buy quality, not quantity.

Here are nine natural fibres to get you started:

  1. Wool & merino wool

Australia is to wool as wool is to sheep. It can’t get more sustainable than buying Australian wool and New Zealand merino wool. Merino wool is one of the finest and softest wools available with unique thermal properties which keep you warm in winter and cool in summer. Organic wool requires that the animals be treated ethically, fed organic food and the farms must adhere to specific environmental standards.

  1. Cotton

All natural cotton is the most common of the natural fibres, but unless it is organic, the environmental impact from harvesting and manufacturing this fibre cancels the sustainable out. Organic cotton must be grown with non-GMO seeds and no chemicals must be used to treat or grow it.

  1. Linen

Unlike cotton, linen is stronger and requires much less water to grow. It’s breathable and cool to wear in the summer and ideal for home items such as napkins, tea towels and tablecloths.

  1. Silk

Who doesn’t love silk? It’s so lightweight, beautiful, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. While it is all-natural, silkworms do die in the process. Sustainable, yes, but not exactly ethical. Try to purchase wild/ peace silk or soy silk instead.

  1. Bamboo (Rayon/ Viscose)

Bamboo is a hardy, highly renewable grass grown with few chemicals that requires no watering and no re-planting (the roots re-shoot). The fabric also has natural antibacterial properties, breathes and is biodegradable. Toxic chemicals are often used to turn the plant into fabric, while some manufacturers do use sustainable methods, this needs to be rolled out across the board.

  1. Hemp

Like bamboo, hemp is rapidly renewable, requires little or no pesticides, grows without fertilizer, requires minimum attention, doesn’t deplete soil nutrients and is easy to harvest. The fabric is breathable, warm, moisture-wicking + anti-bacterial.

  1. Jute

Jute is a coarse fibre found in the soles of shoes like espadrilles. Finer jute fibers are often woven with cotton to create a strong material used in apparel and home textiles like rugs, mats and sustainable shopping bags.

  1. Leather

Leather is 100% biodegradable, but it’s a cruel process. There are alternatives, such as vegan leather (heaps of chemicals) or in-vitro leather (involves making animal hide cells using bioreactors and 3D bio-printers).

  1. Tencel/ Lyocell

Made using natural cellulose wood pulp, tencel is fully biodegradable. Tencel is produced through a closed-loop process where nearly 100% of the water and non-toic solvents used are re-used.

5 Ways to Make Your Wardrobe More Sustainable

  1. Mend clothes, don’t just throw them away
  2. Wear your clothes for longer (cough, cough until they fall apart)
  3. Up-cycle—transform old styles into something unique
  4. Only buy natural fibres
  5. Purchase quality, well-made clothing that will last

Check out this comprehensive list of all sustainable fibres here.

Check out this guide to ethical clothing brands in Australia here.


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