While there are serious environmental impacts associated with many fabrics there are some whose impact is much less.
Organic cotton: Wear Organic is a project a campaign run by the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK). It aims to reduce the problems caused by pesticides used particularly in cotton and promotes organic and fair trade alternatives. It provides information for consumers on the environmental impacts of fabric production. Organic cotton garments are likely to be free from chlorine bleaches and synthetic dyes.
Hemp is a thoroughly ecological crop: highly productive, easy to cultivate and pest tolerant, so needing few or no agrochemicals whilst at the same time binding and enriching the soil with its deep roots. It is a traditional fibre, that went out of favour in the 1930s for political reasons, rather than practical ones. It is now at long last undergoing something of a revival:
Hemp clothing specialists include The Hemp Store, and The Hemp Trading Company, which offers ‘skatewear, boardwear, streetwear, clubwear’. Hemp yarn is available from the House of Hemp whose website contains a lot of useful information on hemp generally. Note: agricultural hemp, though versatile and productive as a fibre, oil and food plant, is useless as a narcotic!
Bamboo is the latest plant material to hit the eco-friendly fabrics market. It is described as hypoallergenic, absorbent, fast-drying and naturally anti-bacterial and comes from a very fast-growing plant. It’s not all good though, there are some concerns over the chemicals used in its processing, however less pesticides and fertilisers are used, and it is still a sustainable choice compared to most other fabrics. Bam Bamboo Clothing is a UK manufacturer specialising in bamboo clothing but increasingly other clothing suppliers are stocking bamboo fabric goods.
Linen is made from flax, another traditional fibre crop which needs few chemical fertilisers, and less pesticide than cotton.
Organic wool is increasingly becoming available: it is produced using sustainable farming practises and without toxic sheep dips. Cornish Organic Wool source organic wool from local farmers who are Soil Association accredited or certified with Organic Farmers & Growers Ltd (OF&G). They supply knitting kits and spun wool.
Recycled polyester Look out for full-on, hi-tech fleece jackets made from recycled drinks bottles, e.g. some outdoor fleece products by Patagonia. (Patagonia also offer a recycling service for their Capilene base layers, via their Common Threads garment recycling scheme.) Outdoor gear company VauDe’s eco-friendly range is both recycled and fully recyclable – everything, down to the zips and buttons, is 100% polyester. VauDe established the Ecolog Recycling Network for complete recycling of pure polyester materials in 1996.
Even some hi-tech waterproofs can potentially be recycled – if facilities exist. These include water-based coatings (applied without harmful solvents) and membranes such as Sympatex, which is 100% polyester. Avoid PVC, laminates and polyurethane.