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raw materials
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The range of materials used in fashion is extremely wide, and classified in a range of ways. Because we will be following the chronological steps in the supply chain, we are splitting this first section into two categories based on where it all begins: 

Natural materials that come from fields or forests 
+ Synthetic materials that come from petrol extraction facilities

The best thing about all natural fibres is that they can be farmed through Regenerative and Organic Farming Techniques, which means that they become Climate Positive fibres that restore soil health.


There are many methods for building resilient soils and we have our dedicated farmers to thank for that. Regenerative farming includes incorporating animals for grazing and natural fertilisers, building bio-diverse fields by planting trees, cover crops to conserve soil, rotating crops, intercropping, boosting soil fertility with fungal compost, and methods for no-till cotton, but it is important to remember that approaches to increasing soil health requires very context specific methods! 


Supporting farmers through intermediaries like BCI or CMiA that understand the local contexts of the regions farmers are working in is the key to ensuring we are not pushing a top down approach to sustainability, but understanding generational and indigenous methods that have long prioritised a symbiotic relationship with nature.


By prioritising soil health, growing fibres can literally reverse the negative impacts of traditional fibre cultivation and help to protect biodiversity :)


Certifications for Natural Fibers

+ RCS and GRS: Recycled 

+ REGEN ORGANIC (ROC): Regenerative

+ OCS and GOTS: Organic


+ Fairtrade


Let’s dive into some of the most common (and our favourite) natural fibres used in fashion:

What & How


Cotton is a crop that requires specific conditions such as a long frost-free period, ample heat and sunshine, and fertile sandy soil. And since it’s not a food crop, there are fewer regulations on the chemicals used during farming. But, there are many cotton projects out there that are prioritising soil health, as well as the communities and individual farmers who lead them.


It is pretty clear that the environmental sustainability of cotton production is directly linked to the amount of water and chemicals used in the farming process. But here are some numbers for you.


There is a range of data on cotton usage of pesticides: it covers 2.4-3% of the world’s cultivated land, and it accounts for 4.41% of the global pesticide use on crops at 122,481 tonnes in 2020 (ICACs Cotton Data Book 2022). Regardless of the exact value, we can agree that the use of chemicals is high.


Cotton has become very industrialised and is known to be grown in monocultures (an area where only a single type of crop is produced) with heavy pesticide use. However, according to IDH around 99% of the world’s cotton farmers across 70 countries are smallholder farmers, who produce 75% of the 25 million metric tons (Transformers Foundation 2023 Cotton Report) of global cotton production annually. Smallholders are farmers, mostly living in developing countries, that do not own large areas of land (often less than 2 hectares), rely on crop production for their livelihoods, and are very dependent on yields.


However, it's important to note that with proper management, cotton production does not have to be detrimental to the environment or the communities that grow it! There are many beautiful stories of farmers who choose to grow cotton in ways that respect the environment and provide a livelihood for their families. Learn more about these stories from the ground on Cotton Diaries.


Apparel made of cotton has been the fibre of choice for hundreds of years due to its versatility, breathability, and durability. But, things changed in 1958 with the invention of Spandex, a stretchy version of polyester, allowing garments to expand and retract back to their original shape. The issue with all materials similar to spandex (lycra and elastane to name two) is that they are made of a synthetic polymer called polyurethane. Like all plastic-based materials, it is not renewable, as it comes from fossil fuels, and has a high environmental impact in terms of raw material extraction and chemicals used in processing. Learn more about the extraction process in our Fossil Fashion article here.


Now most cotton items are mixed with other fibres for performance and aesthetic attributes.


With issues such as cotton's heavy pesticide use, soil degradation, and the negative impact of synthetic fibres on the environment, it can be confusing to know which fibres to choose. One solution is to opt for reclaimed materials, which are made from waste or by-products of other processes. Another option is to choose recycled fibres that are free of microplastics and fibres sourced from renewable sources or regenerative farming methods. Additionally, look for fibres that have the potential to be recycled or composted, this way you can ensure that they will not become waste after you are done using them. 

Best Practices


+ Regenerative Organic Certified™ is a newer certification that ensures that farms and products meet the highest standards in the world for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness.


+ Good Earth Cotton is climate positive cotton, meaning growing the cotton actually removes carbon from the air, and it is also 100% traceable with fibretrace technology. To learn more click here.


+ Organic Cotton is grown with NO PESTICIDES and non-GMO seeds. But, currently, only 1% of the world's cotton that is grown is organic cotton and with the influx of organic cotton products out there... something doesn't add up! Be sure to aim for traceable supply chains to know what’s going into your products. For an in-depth look at organic cotton click here.


+ Recycled Cotton is an amazing way to use the enormous amounts of textile waste as a resource! We would love to see a world where it's possible to have 100% recycled and recyclable apparel in a closed loop system. When using recycled material, you can avoid all the sourcing and processing steps required to make virgin material from scratch, so the impact is drastically reduced as you can imagine! But, of course it depends on the waste product you start with, whether you have to wash it and dye it again, and what processing steps are required. When recycled mechanically, it has a lower processing impact and requires less specific technology than chemically recycled cotton, but this reduces the length of the fibre, which is a measure for its strength. So, it is currently only possible to include a percentage of recycled cotton in a new fabric.


But! Never forget about balance :) The positive human impact farming fibres can bring should not be underestimated. More on that over at Cotton Diaries.


+ BCI Cotton stands for BETTER COTTON INITIATIVE. This program gives smaller farms guidelines on how to grow and harvest their crops in an environmentally friendly way through:

  • Using just the right amount of fertilizers

  • Using just the right amount of water for irrigation

  • Managing the planting such that water does not pool around the roots.

  • Controllling the use of pesticides.


+ FAIRTRADE cotton means that all farmers are guaranteed a living wage for what they grow and sell. Fair Trade also helps them to reduce their impact on the environment by reducing the use of chemicals and adapting to climate change patterns.​


Want to focus on the social impact of cotton? There are incredible farmer cooperatives and initiatives out there! 


Seed2Shirt is a vertically-integrated apparel manufacturer that works from the ground up — literally — for a transparent, diverse, and ethical supply chain created specifically to bring value back to the African diaspora communities they source from, via their Farmer Enrichment Program. This Program began with organic cotton farmers of Burkina Faso, who, in their transition to organic agriculture, were facing issues of soil nutrient depletion, less abundant yields, and less profit. Today, Seed2Shirt works with 8,400 organic cotton farmers (58% of which are women!) in 5-year partnership models, and with Black-owned production companies throughout the US — ensuring consideration of people and land throughout the *entire* process.

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