Socially Distancing from Unethical Fibres and Not Each Other, Alas.

In an aim to not rain – polluted water – on our parade as the world ‘mask’s off’ and dresses up, let’s consider the labels behind our chosen looks for the much anticipated Summer ‘21. 

While one might feel deserving of a wardrobe refresh after so many months in athleisure, how will the ways in which the pandemic made us all turn inward reflect in our outward freedom of expression? A silver lining to months in confinement comes from the eradication of smog in China or the clean canals in Venice, offering the avid shopper, in particular, an unanticipated ‘clean slate’ to stand upon. As storefronts reopen, customers’ heightened humanitarian and environmental consciousness are put to the test. 

A survey conducted by Zalando found that 60% of shoppers gage supply chain transparency as a key factor in their next purchase. Nevertheless, 20% of consumers actively research this growing concern prior to a purchase. Why is there such a gap? San Francisco based fin-tech company, Affirm shares that 76% of consumers agree sustainability is an important factor in their purchase. But how does a shopper act upon that stance when they aren’t reading beyond the price tag?  

Frankly, opting for a ‘new’ clothing purchase – aka never worn, with tags – isn’t sustainable. Shopping expends finite resources, though the consumer’s liberty in fabric choice may determine how much impact their pleasure seeking purchase equates. To de-mask the process for you, let’s lay out the fabric ground rules… What does one avoid? Are there better alternatives, stripped of greenwashing, that help us sustain the environment for longevity?  

Conventional polyester is partly derived from oil. Honestly, there has been enough oil pile-up in all our pores from mask donning the last year to make room for more polyester production. Polyester contributes towards 8 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from its bi-product – methane – annually. That is equivalent to what it takes to provide over 36 million houses with electricity for a year. 

Further, as we get bikini body ready, let’s not be more responsible for the micro-plastics the fabric releases into our waterways with each wash. The way polyester continues to tax the environment after its initial production represents the antithesis of haute-couture for post-pandemic socialising. 

Doing some digging on the labels in your closet at home? Feeling bad about the swaths of plastic-reaping poly? Purchase a guppy filter: silicone balls to pop into the washing machine that absorb the lingering microplastics, preventing the strays from entering the waste water system. Wash responsibly, buy better, do your part. 

Opting for recycled polyester, coming from the likes of recycled plastic bottles found in landfills presents a better alternative. While the more conscious fabric still emits microplastics through washings, the fabric spinning process requires 35% less water than the conventional model. Here are some sunshine worthy sources of recycled polyester …

Acrylic fabric, found in jumpers donned on breezy summer nights, proves to be another leading culprit in the fashion footprint. Toxic chemicals responsible for the production of acrylic harms the health of factory workers. Further, a key ingredient called acrylonitrile can even be transmitted by skin contact, seeping into the body of the wearer.  Any health woes are to be avoided at all costs after the tribulations of the last year. Proceed in the interest of your own and garment worker’s health. 

Conventional cotton is another fabric with which to be cognisant, as it is extremely water intensive. Opting for recycled or organic, fair trade cotton grown without the harmful pesticides helps reduce the taxation upon natural resources. For a natural pick of an effortless basic, turn to these…

Rayon, also known as viscose, proves to be a case in point example of greenwashing as we toe the line between the bad and better. This plant derived material shouldn’t kid you, as the fabric technically originates by dissolving cellulose, the building blocks of plant cell walls. The process requires large amounts of machine energy and water to reach the ends of a biodegradable material. The chemicals involved are bad for the environment and its handlers, and rayon’s resource dependency upon high margins of plant-derived cellulose fuels tree deforestation. In the long awaited release to get back outdoors, in good company, nature’s bounty should not be the cost. 

Drop the nylon in the post quarantine diet as we prepare for swim and activewear season. Nylon, most likely found in your favourite bikini and spandex, derives from crude oil. However like polyester, nylon releases micro-plastics into the waterways of our fishy friends we take for granted in the backdrop of the ‘gram. In itching for a seaside escape to a ‘green list’ country, don’t inch closer to a not so green suitcase. Stick to the omega’s, away from the ugly oils, and ensure the local wildlife doesn’t bear the cost of a much deserved holiday.

So with the do not’s, where does one turn? Where’s the saving grace in a mask off summer? Alternatives like hemp, organic linen, Tencel, and EcoNyl join the likes of recycled polyester and organic cotton. But what are those and where do I find them?

Hemp represents a close to sustainable alternative, as the crop returns 60-70% of its nutrients to the soil when harvested. Hemp fabric manufacturing requires no chemicals and a limited water supply. Further, the preferred material is durable and UV-protective, making hemp the ideal summer staple. The fabric gets softer with each wash. Indulge in some dreamy, conscious hemp attire from the likes of…

Organic linen comes from the flax plant and is coveted for its breathability in a summer swelter. The harvesting requires no chemicals and minimal natural resources. The natural production of linen means the fabric is biodegradable when undyed. Flax features high yields per harvest, making the alternative an expendable, trend-worthy investment for the beach bound babe. 

Now comes the newer adoptions like Tencel, engineered by scientists using strictly natural materials. Tencel comes from wood pulp extraction and is considered the ‘conscious’ rayon, using a third of the water required to produce the conventional fabric. 99% of production materials can be recirculated, making the extraction process minimally intensive. From Stella McCartney and Adidas, to up and coming Boyish Jeans, Tencel represents a biodegradable ingredient to add to your summer shopping list. . 

Similarly, EcoNyl represents a nouveau fabric developed from used fishing nets and plastic waste. Inching towards a closed loop production process using conventional waste materials, EcoNyl can be found from the Prada catwalk down to the yoga mat. Take your pick with these gems…

When choosing your sun-kissed ready wardrobe you should consider how the power of your purchase can actually make an impact towards reducing waste rather than contributing to its yield. With an investigation behind the label, fabric choice presents a vital opportunity to practice conscious consumption.

“Socially Distancing from Unethical Fibres and Not Each Other, Alas.”


Isabel Froemming

Isabel Froemming is a contributing fashion sustainability writer, model, and activist based in London. Her research focuses on transparent supply chains and gender equity in Indonesia. Isabel ran communications for Copenhagen Fashion Week for SS21 and prior to that acted as an editorial associate at sustainable e-tailer Rêve en Vert.