A few journal entries back, I shared my interview with Robyn of Abel Wear, a non-profit that aims to provide jobs and skills training for women with the sustainable production of locally-made garments. In this entry, Robyn and I share our findings on the topic of sustainable, eco-conscious fashion and its relationship to the environment and our individual well-being. We take a look at the raw materials used to make synthetic versus natural fabrics and dyes, and how these impact our health and the world in which we live.

The following notes contain only a fraction of what is a vast pool of information pertaining to the topic of sustainable clothing. But it is my brief introduction to this research that has me reconsidering how and what I consume by means of fashion. Maybe it will have you reconsidering your choices, too.

For your consumption, our notes:

We must think of our clothing the way we do our food.

In North America, it is common knowledge that much of the food available to us (as well as personal care and household products), contain harmful pesticides, preservatives, and other toxic chemicals. That said, thanks to continued research, more of us are becoming familiar with the negative impact of these toxins on both our bodies and the environment. Earlier this year, a really great article was published in the NY Times, all about the different toxic chemicals that could be circulating in your body, depending on your individual exposure to certain products and environmental factors. And, resources like The Environmental Working Group (EWG) exist to help educate and support us and our understanding of the toxic chemicals and pollutants present in our food and everyday use items. As a result of this shared research, there has also been an increase in the availability of food, personal, and household products that are organic, non-gmo, and free from toxins (particularly in larger cities, but also widely available online). This is great, because what we ingest and what we put on our skin gets absorbed into the body and processed by the organs and organ systems to be used as fuel to keep our machine (the body) running smoothly. The fewer the toxins, the better.

But, did you ever think about the materials that make up your clothing and how they might also contain toxic chemicals? Just like those found in personal care and household products, and how they too are absorbed through the skin? Yes, toxic chemicals that can act as hormone disruptors and which can suppress the immune system are likely hiding in your wardrobe. Many synthetic materials contain toxins that are used to make a material more desirable, more marketable, and less expensive to produce. Add toxic dyes, chemically treat the material with garment finishes like “wrinkle-free,” and you’ve got a cocktail of toxins to be concerned about.

Skin as its own living, breathing entity.

From the perspective of well-being, it’s important to consider the materials coming into direct contact with your skin. Skin is the largest organ. It has a microbiome that helps protect from foreign invaders, and a lot of what we come into contact with on a daily basis can interfere with this protective barrier. Although it may not be commonplace for us to think about the materials we are wearing and how they might be the worst offenders, many synthetic or man-made materials can cause skin irritation due to a lack of breathability and built up moisture, never mind the interaction between the actual materials themselves and your skin. Natural fabrics like organic cotton, linen, and hemp allow the skin to breathe. Because clothing comes into prolonged contact with your skin, toxic chemicals found in synthetic materials and dyes are often absorbed into the body. This is especially problematic when the body is warm and the skin’s pores have opened to allow for perspiration.

Oh, then there’s the environment — let’s keep it clean.

Similar to how mass agriculture and the manufacturing of toxic personal care products negatively impact the environment, so too does the fashion industry. With recent news articles (see BBC, NY Times, NY Mag) that have surfaced calling urgent attention to how we must act now in response to the severity of climate change, our choices to produce and consume less and better has never been so important. The amount of water it takes to produce synthetic dyes and materials is far greater in comparison to the that of natural materials and dyes. It can take up to 8,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of chemical dye, whereas the water used for extracting natural plant dyes is recycled over and over again. Then there’s the chemical pollutants from synthetic material-making, which industry workers are exposed to on a daily basis. Not only is the creation of these man-made materials damaging to the planet’s resources and ecosystem, but also to the community and its people. In contrast, natural practices honour the environment. These processes give back to the planet, by using materials that can be broken down, renewed, and reused.

Wearing Abel Wear’s organic cotton blouse.

Wearing Abel Wear’s organic cotton blouse.

Below, some of the hard facts about synthetic, man-made vs. ethical, eco-conscious materials:

The dark side: fast fashion, the environment, and you.

  • Chemical dyes are made using petrochemical sources and synthesized in a reactor, which mixes them with other additives to produce a final product colour. This process requires up to 8,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of dye.

  • On the other hand, for extracting natural plant dyes, water is reused in all processes and any plant waste created from the process can be used as a fertilizer for use in agricultural fields. Therefore, plant or vegetable dyes represent a sustainable resource with respect to nature. Unlike synthetic dyes made from oil, they are renewable.

  • Conventional dye treatments also pollute nearby water resources by releasing hazardous toxic waste.

  • Many synthetic dyes contain chemicals that have caused numerous cases of 'textile contact dermatitis' amongst their handlers. Skin allergies and health hazards to the people who produce the dye, as well as the consumer. 

  • Emissions from manufacturing depend on the material produced. Polyester and other synthetic materials are the worst offenders when it comes to carbon emissions.

  • Polyester is a synthetic fibre derived from petroleum, which contributes to one of the world’s largest polluting industries in the world, oil manufacturing. Brands like Patagonia use recycled plastics, manufacturing wastes, and worn-out garments (including their own) to create polyester fibres, therefore lessening their dependence on petroleum as a resource for raw materials.

  • A single synthetic garment (think: acrylic, polyester, and rayon) can release up to 1,900 microfibres during wash. These fibres are ending up in our oceans on a massive scale, greatly harming marine life.

  • As I mentioned in my journal entry regarding skincare, the EU has been proactive in banning dangerous toxic chemicals in many of their personal care products, but this also extends to dyes formulated with toxic chemicals. Therefore, while extensive research and testing has been done to identify the harm of these synthetic chemicals and dyes, in North America, we are using a lot of these toxic substances. 

Choosing ethical and eco-conscious materials.

  • Natural dyes and materials like organic cotton, linen, and hemp are allergen-free alternatives to their synthetic counterparts.

  • Often obtained from sources like flowers, leaves, vegetables, bark roots, and even minerals, natural dyes are not harmful to the environment. They are biodegradable and created from renewable sources that pay homage to Mother Nature, rather than violate her.

  • Unlike synthetic materials that contain petrochemical dyes and toxic garment finishes (chemicals and processes added to clothing to make them wrinkle-free, stain resistant, flame retardant, anti-static, odour resistant, etc.), clothing made using eco-friendly fibres and botanical dyes possess natural benefits. Many plant dye materials naturally contain anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties, and as already mentioned, are even hypoallergenic. Not to mention, many also naturally provide the wrinkle-free, stain resistant, flame retardant, anti-static, and odour resistant properties we so desire. 

  • Plant pigments are an incredible alternative to their synthetic counterparts thanks to their high availability as a colouring agent

Why I’m so excited to be working with companies like Abel Wear:

Abel Wear’s mission is to “fight poverty with fashion for community economic development.” It’s about nurturing the environment through its community, by providing growth and opportunities for its people. And it’s about creating garments with integrity, using sustainable and ethical practices that support and give back to the planet.

Abel Wear practices sustainable development by using natural materials and dyes, like the beautiful organic cotton blouse that Robyn gifted to me this summer (and which I’m wearing in these photos). Airy, light, feminine, and a piece I can feel good about wearing. Plant dyes used by Abel Wear for these blouses include: madder, lac, weld, marigold, indigo, and pomegranate.

Abel Wear’s commitment to sustainable fashion extends to their collaborations with many other local brands, including Vancouver’s Novel Supply Co. — this zero waste collaboration has Abel Wear using scrap materials from Novel Supply Co.’s adult clothing, along with natural plant dyes, to create their kids’ line. Other exciting partnerships have taken Abel Wear international, to places like Rwanda, where they have worked with non-profits to create change through clothing and income generation. More exciting projects, both collaborative and with their own designs and collection to come!


Sustainable fashion for the future.

When we compare synthetic to natural materials in clothing production, it should be no question as to which is the better, more ethical, sustainable option. Simply by outlining the points above, you can see that natural is not only better for the planet, but also your individual well-being. What we put on our skin, wear on our bodies, and with which we surround ourselves gets absorbed and assimilated into the bloodstream, and delivered to the various organs and systems within the body.

In the final and third instalment of this feature series, I’ll be sharing my recommendations for how you can lessen your carbon footprint by transitioning to a more sustainable wardrobe.

Sources + Recommended:
Ecotextile News
Environmental Working Group (EWG)

Genevieve KangComment