Just Our Regular Reminder That Natural And Sustainable Are Not The Same Thing

by: Courtney Sanders | 2 months ago | Features

Image: this is Patagonia's tee with the lowest carbon footprint to date. It's made from sustainable recycled cotton and recycled polyester.

We have been posting a lot recently about how governments are moving to regulate environmental sustainability claims, which we’re really excited about. In the mean time, here is a little reminder that natural fabrics are not necessarily sustainable. Natural fabrics can have harmful human and environmental impacts whereas sustainable fabrics should not. If we actually want to make, sell, and wear clothes with reduced impacts, it’s critical we understand the difference between sustainable fabrics and natural fabrics, and do not use the term sustainable when we simply mean natural.

The world sustainable has many definitions, and the world sustainable in fashion has many more definitions (which will hopefully be clarified by regulation). In lieu of an industry definition, I’m going to use the Oxford Dictionary definition: “The degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.” When we apply this to sustainability in fashion, then, it should mean that fashion production is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.” This is true (with nuances) for sustainable fabrics, but this is not true for natural fabrics, many of which cause such negative impacts to the people and the environments involved in production, that production rates cannot be maintained at a certain rate or level.

The most glaring example of this is conventional cotton. Yes, we know we talk about conventional cotton a lot, but that’s because understanding how socially and environmentally damaging this crop is compared to its sustainable alternatives is critical to understanding how damaging fashion industry production can be and how big the difference between natural and sustainable can be. It is no exaggeration to say that conventional cotton kills people and the planet and organic cotton does not.

Conventional cotton is considered one of the dirtiest crops in the world. It used 2.4.% of the world’s cultivated land but 16% of the world’s insecticides. These chemicals have devastating health impacts for the people who grow conventional cotton, including infertility, cancer, and death. These chemicals also degrade the quality of the soil and water, as well as the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. This doesn't even discuss the complicated economics of pesticides and GM seeds in cotton farming, whereby cotton farmers often get indebted by having to invest in them. Some have linked the high rate of suicide among cotton farms to these high levels of debt.

Organic cotton is grown without these chemicals, which means it has reduced environmental and human impacts compared with conventional cotton, which means we consider it sustainable. It does, however, require a lot of water to grow. Because recycled cotton is – yep! – recycled, it has even fewer negative impacts on people and the planet, and is arguably more sustainable still than organic cotton.

On Well Made Clothes we define sustainable really strictly. For a label to meet our sustainable value, 80% of its products must be made using sustainable materials, or sustainable production practices. We consider sustainable fabrics to be organic cotton, recycled cotton, regenerative organic cotton, hemp, certified-closed loop cellulose fabrics, hemp, recycled nylon, and recycled polyester. We consider sustainable practices to be closed loop-certified production and the use of low-impact dyes.

It’s complicated, we know, but it also matters, because if we actually want to shop and wear clothes that don’t have harmful human and environmental impacts, it’s critical we understand the difference between natural and sustainable and do not use the term sustainable when we simply mean natural. Being precise with definitions so customers can shop sustainable product confidently is the only way we’re going to create a better – and, yep, sustainable – future for fashion.

If you would like to shop (actually) sustainable tees, you can do so here.




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