Sustainable Fabrics – The Ugly

The good, the bad and the ugly

The Ugly

Fur – Our grade F

Eighty-five percent of the fur industry’s skins come from animals living captive in fur factory farms. These farms can hold thousands of animals, and their farming practices are remarkably uniform around the globe. As with other intensive-confinement animal farms, the methods used in fur factory farms are designed to maximize profits, always at the expense of the animals. (source)

The most commonly farmed fur-bearing animals are minks, followed by foxes. Chinchillas, lynxes, and even hamsters are also farmed for their fur. Fifty-eight percent of mink farms are in Europe, 10 percent are in North America, and the rest are dispersed throughout the world, in countries such as Argentina, China, and Russia.


Contrary to fur-industry propaganda, fur production destroys the environment. The amount of energy needed to produce a real fur coat from ranch-raised animal skins is approximately 20 times that needed to produce a fake fur garment. Nor is fur biodegradable, thanks to the chemical treatment applied to stop the fur from rotting. The process of using these chemicals is also dangerous because it can cause water contamination. (source)

  • Animal rights violations
  • Non biodegradable due to chemical treatments
  • Environmental impacts

Polyester – Our grade F

Polyester is made from petrochemicals, this synthetic is non-biodegradable and unsustainable.  Polyester fabric covers a range of polymer fiber, but mainly refers to polyethylene teraphthalate (PET). It’s the same stuff plastic bottles are made from.

Polyester requires petroleum (crude oil) , a non renewable source that is categorized as fossil fuel and other chemicals to produce, as well as energy to heat and power the process that severely impacts the environment.  It’s not biodegradable, but can be recycled- although it is recycled into a lesser form of plastic.


  • It is made from synthetic polymers that are made from esters of dihydric alcohol and terpthalic acid.
  • non renewable petroleum source
  • environmental impacts of manufacturing







Acrylic – Our Grade F


The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption from wearing clothing made out of acrylic fabric, as well as inhalation and ingestion.

Acrylic fabric manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which are extremely dangerous to the health of factory workers.

Modacrylic fiber

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

  • acrylonitrile may cause cancer, according to the EPA with similar effects to cyanide.
  • manufacturing acrylic fabric has both health and environmental impacts.



Rayon(Viscose) – Our grade D-

This is another artificial fibre, made from wood pulp, which on the face of it seems more sustainable. However, old growth forest is often cleared and/or subsistence farmers are displaced to make way for pulpwood plantations. Often the tree planted is eucalyptus, which draws up phenomenal amounts of water, causing problems in sensitive regions. To make rayon, the wood pulp is treated with hazardous chemicals such as caustic soda and sulphuric acid. (source)


  • recycled wood pulp that must be treated with chemicals like caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid to survive regular washing and wearing.
  • Water intense manufacturing process
  • Many harmful chemicals
  • Renewable resource



Acetate and Triacetate – Our grade F

Similar to Rayon, Acetate and Triacetate are made from wood fibers called cellulose and undergo extensive chemical processing to produce the finished product.


  • Created from wood fibers
  • Water intense processing


Nylon – Our grade F

Nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Making polyester uses large amounts of water for cooling, along with lubricants which can become a source of contamination. Both processes are also very energyhungry.


  • made from petroleum and is often given a permanent chemical finish that can be harmful.
  • Water and energy intense processing
  • Non-biodegradable




PVC – Our grade F

Polyvinyl Chloride, more commonly known as PVC or just vinyl, has been in widespread usage since the early-mid 20th century.

Polyvinyl chloride – PVC – is the most toxic plastic for our health and it’s not so good for the environment either.  First, it’s made from petroleum, one of our scarce natural resources.  PVC is strong, resistant to oil and chemicals, sunlight, weathering and flame resistant. It’s everywhere around us.


PVC is not biodegradable nor does it degenerate. Items made from PVC will retain their form for decades and the breakdown that occurs is just granulation

  • Made from Vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen
  • Workers making PVC infused fabrics are exposed to many toxic chemicals
  • Hazardous by-products are formed throughout the PVC lifecycle.
  • Non-biodegradable
  • Releases toxic dioxins to the environment



Aramid – Our grade D-

Aramid fibers are man-made high-performance fibers, with molecules that are characterized by relatively rigid polymer chains.


These fibers are a class of heat-resistant and strong synthetic fibers. They are used in aerospace and military applications, for ballistic-rated body armor fabric and ballistic composites, in bicycle tires, and as an asbestos substitute.

  • Releases volatile toxins which may be inhaled
  • Very strong and durable
  • Useful in military and police applications for example bullet proof vests
  • Non-biodegradable


Spandex/Lycra/Elastane – Our grade D-

Spandex, Lycra or elastane is a synthetic fiber known for its exceptional elasticity. It is stronger and more durable than natural rubber.  Spandex  is another polymer fabric (like polyester) but with totally different properties.  Pieces of the polyurethane chain allow for stretching, hence the rubber-like quality.

Because of its elasticity and strength (stretching up to five times its length), spandex has been incorporated into a wide range of garments, especially in skin-tight garments.


Also like polyester, the process of making spandex takes raw materials, toxic chemicals, and a lot of energy.  Spandex doesn’t have a super long life, which means you have to keep buying new tights and leggings, bikinis and banana hammocks.

Created from polyurethane, a known carcinogen

  • Blends well with other fabrics
  • Creates form fitting and highly durable garments
  • Can be a cause of contact dermatitis
  • Non-biodegradeable


Polyolefins – Our grade D-

Polyolefin is also called Olefin or Polypropylene. Of all the fibers, this fiber may least familiar to you. Since its development in 1961, polyolefin has been used almost exclusively in the home furnishings area and the high performance activewear market, for such items as backpacking, canoeing, and mountain climbing apparel. However, within the last few years producers of this fiber have made in-roads into the mainstream apparel market.


  • Coating used to make many fabrics water resistant
  • Inhalation of volatile chemicals known to cause lung cancers
  • Non-biodegradable

Anything static resistant, stain resistant, permanent press, wrinkle-free, stain proof or moth repellant. – Our grade F

  • Many of the stain resistant and wrinkle-free fabrics are treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), like Teflon

There are also many new and experimental fabrics – stay tuned will discuss next month

Click here to read about which ethical fabrics you should be considering: The good

The good, the bad and the ugly

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11 thoughts on “Sustainable Fabrics – The Ugly

    • Fur IS biodegradable, but when you put it through a chemical process which is intended to make it NOT biodegrade, it loses that quality. I’m pretty sure those homo sapiens from thousands of years ago where putting their furs in chemicals…

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  6. This article contains a lot of misinformation and should be redrawn. Yes, many materials are made from toxic reagents. But the product that results form the reaction is harmless. The salt we put in food is formed from the reaction of sodium (a strongly caustic and flammable metal) and chlorine (a deadly gas).
    Please learn chemistry before posting such articles.

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