Updated September 12, 2023.
Understanding whether natural or synthetic fabrics are better for the environment is confusing. As I mentioned in Part 3 of this article series, we need to stop the overproduction of all textiles. But if we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created, we can make better choices about our clothing purchases. Today, we will review the most common types of animal-based fabrics used in fashion.
Humans have used wool from sheep since about 10,000 BCE.1 “Wool is gorgeous and durable. It has the magical capacity to resist odors, wrinkles, and stains,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. It provides warmth and can last for many years. Today’s wools are less itchy, softer, and sometimes even machine washable. But it is not always the most sustainable option.
As of 2015, people raised more than 1 billion sheep around the world, producing 2.5 million pounds of raw wool. But if not cared for properly, sheep and goats can overgraze areas which lead to soil erosion and desertification. “Fertilizers and pesticides are often used on pastures and the sheep themselves, driving up wool’s chemical impacts.”2
Sheep release methane and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Sheep farming – like cattle farming – also uses large amounts of water and land. Some even identify wool as one of the worst environmental offenders on the market.
Merino Wool & Mulesing
Merinos, typically raised in Australia, have very soft wool. People have specifically bred them to have wrinkly skin because this means they can obtain more wool per animal. But animal rights advocates typically advise against merino sheep products because the sheep are essentially mutilated.
The wrinkles collect urine and moisture, which attracts flies. The flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the larvae (maggots) eat the sheep’s skin. To combat what is referred to as ‘flystrike,’ farmers use a cruel procedure called ‘mulesing.’ This is where they restrain the sheep and cut sections of their skin away without any painkillers or anesthetics. These wounds can get infected and kill the sheep. If the wounds heal, the skin forms scar tissue and creates a smooth surface that doesn’t create a moist environment for flystrike. This is an inhumane practice that should be outlawed.
Worse, “after the sheep become too old to produce wool efficiently, they are shipped to the Mideast to satisfy the huge Muslim demand for halal meat.” Companies do not usually ship them under humane conditions and many sheep die on the way there.3
Most consumers believe that shearling is sheared wool – but it isn’t. It is sheepskin, meaning the sheep’s tanned skin with the wool still attached to it. Shearling refers to a young sheep, a yearling who has been shorn just once. A shearling garment is made from a sheep or lamb shorn before being slaughtered for meat. Some industry members call shearling ‘a byproduct of the meat industry.’ But it can take dozens of individual sheep skins to make just one shearling garment.
Recycled Wool Clothing
Buying clothing made from recycled wool is a very eco-friendly option. As Patagonia wrote on their website: “Wool is a natural fiber that insulates, breathes and lasts for a long time. Producing wool, however, is resource-intensive. It requires vast amounts of land for grazing sheep, water to clean the fiber, chemicals to treat the wool and dyes to color the finished product. We use recycled wool to extend the useful life of fiber that has already been produced. As a result, we can make clothing with the same great qualities as virgin wool at a fraction of the environmental cost.”4 Buy products made from recycled wool whenever possible.
Cashmere is made from the soft undercoats of cashmere goats, mainly in China, Mongolia, northern India, and Iran. The fibers are very fine and delicate and feel almost like silk to the touch, and it is warmer and lighter than sheep’s wool. It is one of the most expensive forms of wool because the production and manufacturing process is complicated.5
But two things happened: world demand increased and Mongolia transitioned from a Communist economy to a freer market. So lower quality cashmere clothing entered the market. Also, herders quadrupled the number of goats from 5 million in the 1990s to 21 million by 2018.6 Goat herding clears entire grasslands which causes dust storms and air pollution. It sometimes also causes starvation of the goats.7
There are different grades of cashmere. Sometimes producers mix it with other fibers, which can make it less expensive. But not everyone agrees that this is a good thing. As New York Times writer Tatiana Schlossberg wrote, “Making cashmere a less-than-luxury item…puts the responsibility for making the right choice on the consumer, and that’s not fair. It’s not within your control how some company sources and produces its cashmere, or the size of the herd that they got it from. That should be the corporation’s burden – whether they pay more to source better or they pay for the associated down-the-line impacts – or governments should make sure they act responsibly. And that may make cashmere cost more (upfront, though the long-term health and environmental costs would be less).”8
Be sure to purchase sustainable cashmere. “When shopping for cashmere, shop with brands that are transparent and can reveal where they source their fiber and the steps they’ve taken to source it sustainably.”9 You can also look for regenerated or reclaimed cashmere, which is “made from postmanufacturing waste, such as cuttings gathered from the factory floor. Regerneated cashmere is 92 percent less damaging to the environment than virgin cashmere.”10
Silk is a gorgeous fabric. It is a natural fiber that is shiny and durable. It has a long trading history across the world. “Silk is the epitome of luxury due to its high cost to produce, soft feel, and elegant appearance…Different weaving processes result in different types of fabric, including crepe (a rough crinkled texture), organza (a thin, sheer fabric), and chiffon (a lightweight, plain-weave fabric with a slight stretch).”11
But it takes about 2,500 silkworms to spin a pound of raw silk. Elizabeth L. Cline explained how people harvest silk:
“Silk is produced by the saliva of silkworms that feed on the leaves of mulberry trees. A single silkworm can spin almost three thousand feet of usable silk thread while making one single cocoon. To extract the silk, a silkworm’s cocoon is boiled and the filaments unraveled.” This process creates very little waste but kills the silkworms. “However, fertilizers and insecticides are often used to grow the mulberry trees, and more energy is used to make silk than for most other textiles.” Some silk is dyed using heavy metals that can be toxic.12
There are organic silks and safe-chemical certifications available, so look for those because they have a lower impact on the environment. Other options include peace silk, which is made without killing the silkworms. A company called Bolt Threads manufactures a lab-grown silk alternative made out of yeast and sugar.13
Humans have been wearing animal skins and leather for thousands of years. Today, companies mass-produce leather with a lot of harsh and hazardous chemicals. “Leather is a $100-billion-a-year business before it is turned into shoes, luggage, or coats.” Consumer demand for leather rises by about 5 percent per year.14 The leather tanning industry produces a lot of solid waste and wastewater and has many polluted lands and rivers.
Governments regulate the leather industry in most places now, but there are exceptions. For example, some Bangladeshi tanneries don’t provide leather workers protective gear even though many people stand directly in vats of chemicals. The tanneries also dump untreated toxic wastewater into local rivers. “The leather-tanning district of Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, has been named one of the most toxic places in the world, although efforts are underway to clean it up.”15
The leather industry is not known for being green or ethical. Cow leather is the most common type, and cows take a huge environmental toll. “The planet’s cattle herds and the fertilizer-and pesticide-intensive way they’re raised and fed are major drivers of deforestation, land degradation, climate change, and water pollution. Cows are also a major emitter of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.”16
Buy leather for items you intend to keep long-term. If you take care of it, it will last many years. The Leather Working Group certifies and audits leather tanneries on their environmental standards (see Additional Resources below). Responsible companies are transparent about where they source their leather, how they tan the leather, and the environmental and ethical conditions.17 You can also look for upcycled leather at Recyc Leather.18
Humans historically used the furs of animals they killed to stay warm. But today, most people wear furs for fashion only. Animal farms raise and keep animals in cages explicitly for the purpose of killing them for their fur. Most of the time, the animals live in horrible conditions. Almost always, the farms waste the rest of the animal after slaughter.
Don’t buy fur.
If you must have a fur item for your closet, please consider a faux fur option. They look just as nice and are just as warm and comfortable as real fur. However, as always, you must be wary of the faux products you buy, as reporters have exposed major retailers selling real fur mislabeled as faux.19 Remember, a good company will be transparent about its production line.
“Killing animals is the most destructive thing you can do in the fashion industry. The tanneries, the chemicals, the deforestation, the use of landmass and grain and water, the cruelty – it’s a nonstarter. The minute you’re not killing an animal to make a shoe or a bag you are ahead of the game.” -Stella McCartney, quoted in Fashinopolis20
Down is a layer of fine feathers sourced from geese and ducks, which helps keep them warm in colder temperatures and in water. Companies commonly use it to insulate jackets, coats, and sleeping bags. But the practices the industry uses to collect it are questionable. “The vast majority of the 270,000 metric tons of commercial down produced each year is a byproduct of goose and duck meat industries in Asia and Europe, where the birds might be live-plucked or force-fed for foie gras before heading to the slaughterhouse. Animal welfare advocates consider these cruel practices that they want to see eliminated from down’s complex supply chain.”21
Elizabeth L. Cline recommends shopping with brands certified by Textile Exchange’s Responsible Down Standard (see Additional Resources below), which verifies high animal welfare standards.22
Read Labels, Buy Second-Hand
Always read labels to see what you’re buying. If something isn’t familiar, use your smartphone while in the store and do a quick internet search on the materials. Sometimes just looking up the name of a product or materials is all you need. Before I wrote this article, I almost bought a pair of shoes made with shearling. I thought that shearling was just sheared wool. I decided to look up what shearling meant, and thank goodness I did! Once I understood that those shoes contributed to the death of an animal, they were no longer attractive to me and I didn’t buy them.
“Any animal-based fiber comes with tremendous ethical responsibility.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet23
You can look for sustainable or organic materials certified by organizations such as the ones listed under Additional Resources below. There’s a lot to know, which is why sometimes it’s easier to buy second-hand. Buying used ensures that you’re not directly supporting a certain type of textile production and it reduces overall demand. Giving an article of clothing a second chance also keeps it from going into a landfill or cluttering the landscapes of developing countries. In my next article, I’ll review types of synthetic fabrics. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Fibershed.org is a nonprofit fostering the resurgence of small-scale farmers and regenerative farming practices around the world.
Global Textile Standard (GOTS) “is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS-certified final products may include fibre products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, as well as food contact textiles and more.”
Organic Content Standard (OCS) is “a voluntary global standard that sets the criteria for third-party certification of organic materials and chain of custody.”
bluesign is has specific safety and environmental requirements. “Made of bluesign® APPROVED fabrics and accessories with approved chemicals, these products are produced in a resource-conserving way, with reduced impact on people and the environment.”
Cradle to Cradle Certified “Product Standard provides the framework to assess the safety, circularity and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance.”
Oeko-Tex certifies products and all their components as free of harmful toxins.
The Leather Working Group (LWG) is a “not-for-profit that drives best practices and positive social and environmental change for responsible leather production.”
The Responsible Down Standard (RDS) “incentivizes the down and feather industry to treat ducks and geese humanely and…gives companies and consumers a way to know what’s in the products they buy.”