Zipping up an eight-year-old cotton-poly grime gray hoodie and preparing to write this blog, I recall promising to investigate why cashmere or mohair would be good choices for looking professional while working from home in your chilly corner (er—“home office”). I looked forward to finding evidence justifying buying myself a beautiful cashmere sweater: knee-length, hooded, in soft kitten-gray. Hours of research later, it is much harder to justify purchasing new cashmere, or any other kind of clothing (whether from animal, plant, or synthetic sources), than previously thought.
Natural fibers from animal hair make up less than two percent of those available commercially, according to Sarah Young of The Independent, and for all 7.647 billion of us to choose to wear such warm, natural, sustainable fabrics whenever the temperature dropped would require an adjustment in the supply chain, to say the least. Using textiles from plant and synthetic sources is no guarantee of better environmental outcomes. This post will pinpoint some of the more interesting facts about how different fibers are made, and where industry innovations make it possible to dream once more of justifiable consumption.
Thread made from goats’ hair, such as mohair and cashmere, should be a sound choice for warm fabrics for many reasons. It naturally repels insects and has been used for this purpose in the linings of rugs for centuries. Goat hair does not absorb heat, meaning it keeps your core temperature stable. The fibers are strong and resilient, yet biodegradable and long-lasting enough to be passed from one generation to another. Yet all of these benefits stem from its natural origins, and there we run into a problem: the habitat where most cashmere is produced tends to be fragile and finite.
In the People’s Republic of Mongolia, where livestock herding is a staple of the economy, overpopulation of cashmere goats to meet demand for the hair they shed each spring has created desertification. NPR’s Rob Schmitz reported in 2016 that small, rippling sand dunes are all that remain where high grasses grew just thirty years ago, and that the average temperature in this part of Mongolia has increased by 4 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a shocking number to those familiar with the negative impact of a rise of even one degree. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/12/09/504118819/how-your-cashmere-sweater-is-decimating-mongolias-grasslands
Afghan farmers also rear cashmere goats for their hair, but their industry is underdeveloped and threatened by conflict. If you are still determined to own a new piece, your best source might be the small producers dotting the countryside across the United States. Just be warned: good goats’ hair does not and should not come cheap.
Cotton gets uncomfortable
Everyone likely to read this probably owns clothing made from cotton, but there’s no solution there: a Patagonia study found that the cotton industry had a larger footprint than the makers of synthetic fabrics because of pesticides. https://www.greenercleaner.net/natural-or-synthetic-textiles/ It is also a major consumer of water, with ten to twenty thousand gallons of water going into the making of just one pair of jeans. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/fabrics-environment-fast-fashion-eco-friendly-pollution-waste-polyester-cotton-fur-recycle-a8963921.html
Athletic wear goes farther than you do
Materials like spandex, nylon and polyester, perfected in the laboratories of DuPont, and often manufactured in China or Indonesia, are ubiquitous and often inexpensive, but we are talking about petroleum-derived fabrics that release plastic microfibers into the environment every time they are washed. If you need to buy a polyester fleece jacket, you should consider the fact that it may be around for a long, long time, and show up in places you didn’t expect.
Rayon and TENCEL actually do derive from biopolymers, i.e. plant fibers
Rayon and the fabric known by the trade name TENCEL derive from cellulose, the molecule that is a major component of plant cell walls. (See image of the cellulose molecule at the start of this post.) Although companies using biopolymers like to brag about their products being “made by photosynthesis,” that explanation willfully neglects to mention a large component of the process.
To make biopolymers, you might start with, say, wood chips, dissolve them in carbon disulfide, pass the resulting mixture through tiny holes to create hair-like threads, and then treat those threads with acid. (Cellophane is made the same way, except that the mixture passes through a thin slit to form it into sheets.) As far as sustainability goes, the makers of TENCEL do use mostly Austrian beech wood, and reuse the processing chemicals and water involved, earning the right to claim that they use one of the cleanest textile production cycles in existence.
Without more resources to study the energy used in the chemical processing of synthetic and recycled fabrics, I think we can nonetheless safely conclude that the only truly sustainable sweater must be either second-hand, upcycled, or very pricey. The good news is that even Walmart sells previously owned cashmere on its website. Other sustainable-clothing leaders such as Patagonia already sell plenty of new clothes from recycled or “upcycled” fabric, and still others will follow suit. (Get it?!) :^)
Lastly, we might all do just as well to pay attention to caring for the clothes we already have. It’s a good idea to invest in a drying rack as well as a mesh sweater-dryer and some insect-repelling storage accessories. Something like cedar wood packing balls should deter insects from infiltrating your storage bins and eating holes in the front of your Brooks Brothers best!
Beier, Mike. “Natural Versus Synthetic Textiles: Which Is Better?” Greener Cleaner, March 3, 2015.
Schmitz, Rob. “How Your Cashmere Sweater Is Decimating Mongolia’s Grasslands” National Public Radio Broadcast, December 9, 2016.
Young, Sarah. “The Real Cost of Your Clothes: These Are the Fabrics With the Best and Worst Environmental Impact.” The Independent, December 19, 2019.
Le Couteur, Penny, and Jay Burreson. Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed History,
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003. 77.