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Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Fabrics

Jan 04, 2023 Emmeline Clein

By now, we’ve all seen the Instagram ads for athleisure garb made from recycled plastic, not to mention Reformation’s water-saving TENCEL wrap dresses. You’ve seen the statistics about greenhouse gas emissions from the fast fashion industrial complex, and know that the crop tops lining the shelves of Forever 21 are not exactly moral purchases. But, the sustainability (or not) of the fabrics that cover our couches, chairs, and pillows gets talked about far less often. 

However, the same rules still apply, whether or not we're paying attention. The production process for synthetic fabrics like polyester, used in both clothes and furniture, usually goes like this: petroleum (yep, the same fossil fuel that gets turned into gasoline) undergoes an industrial process that transforms it into fabric fiber, usually polyester. On top of the greenhouse gas emissions from fiber production, every wash on a synthetic material puts little bits of microplastic into the water, and if you eventually trash something upholstered in a synthetic fabric, it won’t decompose in a landfill. 

In contrast, natural fibers, like hemp, linen, and organic cotton, are not made straight from fossil fuels. Similarly, semi-synthetic upcycled fabrics use some fossil fuels during production, but are made by deconstructing used items – water bottles, old clothes, and more – and repurpose their parts to create fibers. Both options produce far fewer emissions than traditional fabrics. Some synthetic fabrics, like polypropylene, are completely recyclable, which works toward neutralizing the carbon emissions involved in producing them. 

If the science is confusing, or you’re getting overwhelmed in West Elm, the Higg Index is an easy way to check out how sustainable the fabric you’re considering is. Created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, it ranks fabrics based on the sustainability of their product. Polypropylene comes out on top, followed closely by organic cotton. Polypropylene will be making its Sabai debut this fall, coming to the site in the next few months. Before you buy that polyester pillow on sale, try to make purchases that use some or all of these fabrics!

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