Toast is a UK brand that focuses on natural fibers.
It’s jarring when you realize how much of your fashion is made of plastic.
Sure, you knew that some cheap accessories — see-through backpacks, flip-flops, promotional sunglasses — are obviously made of plastic. But when you realize that polyester, nylon, and almost all vegan leather are also another type of man-made material molded from petroleum, it can turn your fashion world upside down.
Then, when you find out that tiny plastic microfibers are washing into our rivers and oceans with each wash cycle, and that we are drinking, eating, and breathing in these toxic microfibers… well, that is some sort of dystopia.
You look in your closet, checking labels and seeing that polyester lurks in the majority of your pretty blouses and sundresses, and suddenly you feel a deep disgust with how you’ve been shopping. You realize how many greenhouse gas emissions are embodied in the clothing you own, and that much of your clothing will take 500 years or more to biodegrade once you’re done with it.
So you vow to only buy natural fibers from now on, and banish plastic not only from the usual places — the kitchen and bathroom — but from your wardrobe as well.
Having attempted to do just that for probably five years now, I can tell you: It’s not easy. But I do have some information, tips, and tricks to share with you to help you down that path. Come with me. I’ll show you the truth about how to get synthetic fabrics out of your closet.
1. Learn your fashion materials.
First, let’s get familiar with what you have in your closet right now. I know you were already planning on doing a Marie Kondo sesh in your bedroom, so let’s work in one more small step while you’re going through your clothing: check the tags. Apparel brands are legally required to describe the composition of fabrics and materials in their products, and it’s often a blend of two or more synthetic and natural fibers. The fabric names that you will see that are plastic are as follows:
- Polyester: This is the most popular textile in the world, accounting for more than half of global fiber consumption. Its popularity owes to the fact that it is cheaper than natural fibers, easily produced, durable, and has technical properties that natural fibers don’t have, such as being waterproof, stretchy, and/or wrinkle-free.
- Nylon: Less popular than cotton, you’ll see this synthetic fiber in stockings and some technical gear.
- Acrylic: This is the least popular synthetic fiber, though still more popular than what it replaces: wool. You’ll find this in cheap sweaters and some faux fur products.
- Polyvinylchloride a.k.a. PVC a.k.a. vinyl: An extremely toxic material to produce, PVC also continues to off-gas toxic fumes once it is in your home or on your body. (Side note: please check your shower curtain to see if it’s PVC. If it is, get rid of it!) Despite this well-known fact, some popular vegan brands continue to use it because it mimics leather so well.
- Polyurethane a.k.a. PU: This is not as toxic to produce or own as PVC, but it is still a type of synthetic plastic that replaces leather in fashion accessories.
- Elastane a.k.a Spandex a.k.a. Lycra: A synthetic fiber added to natural fibers to give them stretch. You’ll find this in underwear, bathing suits, bras, and more.
Once you start looking at the labels for clothing you own and clothing you’re thinking about buying, you’ll start to become familiar with what polyester feels like, versus cotton and silk, what acrylic feels like versus wool, and so on. It will become second nature to feel a fabric and intuit whether it’s natural. This is a crucial part of becoming a conscious fashion consumer, and actually feels quite empowering once you get the hang of it!
2. Refrain from throwing everything out and buying new things.
I know I said you should do your label checks during your Marie Kondo cleanout (or just whenever you pull something out and wear it) but I am not saying to throw away every single synthetic thing you own. (The exception to this rule is anything PVC — it’s currently off-gassing toxic fumes into your environment. Dump it.) Getting rid of half your wardrobe isn’t environmentally friendly at all. It’s wasteful, and merely serves to add to the flood of clothing getting dumped on your local resale shops. Some of your lowest quality polyester “donations” will probably wind up in Ghana, where unwanted clothing doesn’t get put into the landfill, but winds up in the streets and clogging storm drains.
Instead, keep the items that you love and will wear, and continue to use and wear them until they fall apart. This will be a long process, and that is OK. Unfortunately, synthetic clothing can’t be cut up into absorbent rags the way cotton items can (another mark against synthetics), so when they are no longer wearable, I suggest stuffing them in the takeback bin at H&M.
3. Understand the limitations of natural fibers.
As you embark upon this journey, it’s important to understand what positive aspects of synthetic fibers you might have to give up, so you can work around these challenges. Here are the things that are difficult to get free of synthetic fibers:
- Stretch: This is almost always achieved with synthetics. Yes, one can get a limited amount of stretch through knitwear, whose structure allows for stretch in some directions. But knit fabrics won’t yield the same performance qualities — lightweight, tight, slimming, opaque — of super-stretchy polyester or nylon fabric. Often, you’ll have to be ok with even the most sustainable underwear brands having 5 to 8% synthetic fiber mixed in with the silk and organic cotton.
- Shiny, sparkly things: Stella McCartney has said she won’t use sequins in her fashion for this reason.
- Ultra-packable, lightweight
You intuitively knew all this. Just think about the aesthetic of natural and vintage clothing, which is either loose and flowing, or perfectly custom fitted with darts and seams to fit your exact body shape. It’s usually not shiny or “modern” looking. So as you redo your wardrobe, you’ll find yourself investing in more classic shapes instead of super-sexy, Kardashian-style ones. (A transition you might find yourself making as you move beyond your early twenties anyway!)
When traveling, you might have to pack either fewer pieces of clothing, or a larger suitcase, because natural fibers are not as lightweight as synthetics. (Though, I would argue they are infinitely more comfortable and healthy for long plane rides.) You’ll also have to pack a mini iron or steamer. But a compromise you can make is packing semi-synthetic fabrics, such as rayon, viscose, Tencel, or Modal. These are lightweight fabrics that are manmade from plants. Read more about them and how to choose the eco-friendly kind that isn’t destroying the rainforest.
4. Avoid synthetics in your everyday clothing.
I just went over the qualities that are best achieved through synthetic fibers. But there are plenty of items of clothing that don’t need any synthetics at all to be successful. When you see something from a high-quality brand made with a natural-synthetic blend, it sometimes to extend the life of the garment. But purely synthetic basics more often than not is a choice that was made to save money.
- Formal shoes
- Winter peacoats
The above items you can and should buy in 100% natural fibers. They will probably be more expensive than the alternative. If that is a problem, I suggest you buy fewer items that you love and wear more, or…
5. Be thoughtful about buying secondhand.
Buying secondhand and vintage is the most sustainable and affordable way to get new-to-you clothing. But beware: In my experience, most clothing available in thrift shops is made of synthetics. That’s because most clothing in general is made fo synthetics, sadly. My most recent unnecessarily synthetic purchases — white blouses — were found in a thrift store. I was happy to find affordable white blouses (because I ruin them quickly) but after a few years of wearing cotton, the synthetic blouse really chafed against my skin.
It’s still way better than buying cheap new clothing made from virgin (a.k.a. never recycled and pulled straight from petroleum) polyester, so don’t feel bad if that’s what you decide. Just be aware that it might be a challenge to find used clothing only in natural fibers.
But one category in which vintage excels? Jeans. You’ll find amazing vintage, non-stretch jeans that are 100% cotton in vintage stores.
6. Buy bathing suits and workout clothes made of recycled material.
The swimsuit brand with the least synthetic fiber is Natasha Tonic, which combines cotton, hemp, and Lycra into made-in-LA bikinis and one-pieces. That’s a great option — especially if you want to treat your skin and private parts to something healthier — but you’re not going to find a bathing suit that is made of 100% natural fibers. There are crochet cotton bikinis out there, but if you read the fine print, you’ll see that you’re not supposed to wear them in the water. They’ll stretch out and the tie knot will be hard to undo. (I’ve tried it. Yup.) So the next best thing is to buy are bathing suits made of recycled water bottles or used fishing nets. Here’s our roundup of my favorite bathing suit brands that do just that.
The same goes for yoga and workout clothes. If you feel really strongly about not using synthetics, then you can do your yoga in cotton drop-crotch pants and your HIIT workouts in 80s-style cotton shorts and a t-shirt. But if you want that sexy yoga butt and support from a sports bra, you can either compromise and buy mostly-natural-fiber-blended-with-some-synthetic pants and tops from Bamford, Icebreaker, Natasha Tonic, Asquith, or People Tree; or go fully synthetic made from recycled water bottles. (Here I break down whether clothing made from recycled water bottles is sustainable.) We’re working on an athletic gear roundup, but for now, check the Athletic box in our shopping guide to see all the brands that use sustainable and recycled materials.
7. Buy long-lasting, secondhand technical gear with a warranty.
High-performance rain jackets, winter puffy coats, and lightweight camping gear will always come in synthetics. The alternative is traditional, heavy, low-performance waxed canvas and shearling that would require you to hire a sherpa just to go hiking for a weekend! (Ah, the good old days of only rich white guys going on expeditions.)
The answer here is to buy secondhand gear that is guaranteed to last for a long time, that you can bring back to the retailer for repairs. Patagonia is famously good at this, with its Worn Wear program. You can bring your worn out Patagonia gear to a repair event, or buy used Patagonia gear. Here’s a list of outdoor brands that have a lifetime guarantee or offer repairs. (Note: “lifetime” means the expected life of the product with normal use, not your lifetime.) REI also has a used gear store. And Buy Me Once only sells brands that are guaranteed to last and offer repairs.
8. Avoid products marketed as vegan.
If you’re trying to be 100% vegan and wear 100% natural fiber, you’re going to have a hard time. Especially if you live outside of the tropics. Any product that is being marketed as a vegan alternative is going to be made of synthetics.
- Vegan leather shoes, belts, bags are made of polyurethane (PU) or toxic PVC.
- Vegan silk is usually polyester or acrylic. It can also be a cellulosic material, like bamboo rayon, viscose, etc. If so, check that it is certified rainforest-free and produced in an eco-friendly closed loop system.
- Vegan winter coats are synthetic puffers with synthetic fill instead of down, or polyester/acrylic wool.
- Vegan knit sweaters are made of acrylic yarns, which is an extremely chemical-intensive and unsustainable material.
To get around this, look for certified cruelty-free alternatives, such as certified down, regenerative wool, and artisan-made, vegetable tanned or upcycled leather products. Read more about the topic of vegan fashion’s synthetic problem.
9. Ask your fave brands for alternatives.
Have you found something you just adore, but it only comes in virgin synthetics? Let the brand know that they’re about to lose your business! It might take a year for them to go through the process, but every customer who tells them that they would prefer clothing in natural or recycled fibers helps convince them to make the switch.
In the meantime, here’s a list of brands where you can be sure to find almost 100% natural fibers:
- Ace & Jig
- People Tree
- Amour Vert
- Alternative Apparel
- Nicholas K
- Mara Hoffman
- Apiece Apart
- Older Brother
- Par en Par
- Ryan Roche
10. Support a carbon fee and preferential tariffs for benefit fibers.
I briefly mentioned above that natural and recycled fibers are often more expensive than synthetic fibers made from petroleum. There are two ways to fix this for everyone:
- Institute a carbon fee and dividend, which would raise the price of using virgin petroleum to make our clothing.
- Change our tariff system to put higher tariffs on virgin synthetics and lower tariffs on fabrics and clothing made of natural, recycled, and sustainable (or “beneficial”) materials. Read more about that here.
If you’re really into the idea of supporting natural fibers, you should also follow the work of Fibershed, whose focus is building regional, sustainable networks of growing and processing natural fibers around the globe.