The real cost of your clothes: These are the fabrics with the best and worst environmental impact

The real cost of your clothes: These are the fabrics with the best and worst environmental impact

Fast fashion is putting the future of the planet at risk – Sarah Young speaks to a number of industry experts to find out how different fabrics impact the environment and what we, as consumers, can do to help

oxy leather jackets and breezy cotton dresses are mainstays in many of our wardrobes but do we really know just how much our favourite fashion pieces are affecting the environment?

An industry that thrives on providing consumers with the latest trends, fashion’s rapid turnover means that each year we consume approximately 80bn pieces of clothing – a volume which is inevitably putting strain on the planet.

According to The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) – a charity that works with governments, businesses and communities to improve resource efficiency – approximately £140m worth of clothing goes into landfill each year.

Alice Wilby, a sustainable fashion consultant and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion – a campaign group demanding governments take urgent action on climate change – tells The Independent that this kind of misuse results in “wasting perfectly usable textiles, slowly leaking toxins into the earth and microfibres into the waterways” and contributes to methane emissions.

And that’s not all. By 2050 it is anticipated the fashion industry will use up 25 per cent of the world’s carbon budget, making it one of the most polluting industries second only to oil.

So, what can we, as consumers, do to change this?

When it comes to environmental action, one of the most effective ways people can individually have a positive impact on the planet is to choose fabrics that are sustainable.

However, given that all conventional fibres have different environmental and social impacts associated with them, knowing which materials to buy can be complicated.

Wilby explains that there are many factors that influence the sustainable credentials of a fabric, including how much water or energy it takes to produce, where in the world it is manufactured and how it’s production affects biodiversity.

To make a more informed decision, Fashion For Good – a global platform for sustainable fashion innovation – recommends judging the impact of materials on the basis of its “Five Goods Cradle-to-Cradle” concept which looks at how sustainability is integrated across the whole supply chain of a good or product. This includes:

  • Good Materials – safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling. Materials are returned to the biosphere in the form of compost or other nutrients, from which new materials can be created
  • Good Economy – growing, circular, shared and benefiting everyone
  • Good Energy – renewable and clean. Reduction in MW/h of energy consumption. Increase in MW/h of energy from renewable source. Associated reductions in CO2 emissions
  • Good Water – clean and available to all. Reduction in cubic metres of H2O consumption
  • Good Lives – living and working conditions that are just, safe and dignified. Fair jobs created, workers paid living wage and empowerment trainings conducted

It’s also worth exploring specific brands that are just as passionate about the issue as you are, such a luxury label Mother of Pearl which uses organic and natural materials, and puts social responsibility, respect to animals and low-environmental impact first.

Amy Powney, creative director of the fashion brand, tells The Independent that she ensures Mother of Pearl embraces sustainability from a holistic point of view, from restructuring its supply chain in accordance to ethical practices to creating a plastic-free and low-waste working environment in its London headquarters.

Powney says that working with Mother of Pearl made her realise that “you can’t use the word sustainability” without seeing it in practice through a brand’s “culture”.

“Every angle of how we run the business is looked at and we are constantly trying to improve practices, the biggest things come first and the small ones are on the list,” Powney tells The Independent.

To help you minimise your impact on the environment, we’ve put together a list of the best and worst fabrics for the environment with the help of a number of industry experts.

The worst fabrics for the environment: Cotton, synthetics and animal-derived materials


While cotton is a natural fibre that can biodegrade at the end of its life, it is also one of the most environmentally demanding crops.

Wilby explains that cotton is “very water intensive to cultivate and process”, taking between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make a T-shirt.

The fashion consultant adds that cotton farming also uses high levels of pesticides and toxic chemicals that seep into the earth and water supplies.

“Cotton as a crop wreaks havoc with both people and planet even before it’s turned into clothing,” Wilby says.

According to Fashion For Good, conventional cotton production accounts for one sixth of all pesticides used globally, impacting farmers and local communities with harmful chemicals – a claim that is bolstered by figures from the World Health Organisation, which show that in developing countries approximately 20,000 individuals die of cancer and suffer miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton.

Peter Maddox, director of WRAP agrees, explaining that it is imperative that producing cotton is done as sustainably as possible to limit its environmental footprint by using fewer pesticides, less water and taking working conditions into consideration.

“Manufacturers, brands and retailers must use sustainable cotton, which many more are now doing,” Maddox tells The Independent.

Synthetics (Polyester, Nylon and Acrylic)

Laura Balmond, project manager of Make Fashion Circular at environmental charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), states that synthetic fabrics are usually produced from oil and account for 63 per cent of the material input for textiles production.

The most common materials in this sector are polyester (55 per cent), followed by nylon (five per cent), and acrylic (two per cent).

While plastic-based fibres do not require agricultural land and use little water in production and processing, they do negatively impact the environment in other ways.

Not only are synthetics not biodegradable, they all rely on the petrochemical industries for their raw material, meaning this fashion industry staple is dependent on fossil fuel extraction.

Aside from the environmental impact incurred during extraction, manufacturing and shipping of synthetic clothing and material, “the use of fossil fuels brings with it other detrimental issues including oil spills, methane emissions and wildlife disruption and biodiversity loss”, Wilby says.

Powney agrees, adding that she avoids using materials like polyester in Mother of Pearl’s garments because of the “global plastic pandemic” we are currently in.

“It doesn’t stop at the manufacturing stage either, every time you wash a polyester garment it releases microfibres into our waterways causing immense damage to marine life and vital ecosystem,” Powney says.