What Tags Tell You About the Sustainability of Your Clothes

The following post was written by Jon Millner, the spring 2014 communications intern in the University Sustainability Office.

Every fabric has a story – where it came from, who produced it and what environmental impact it has. With so many unique fabrics in stores today, it can be challenging to make sustainable decisions when shopping.  What fabrics are the most sustainable? What are the pros and cons to each type of fabric? Here’s a rundown:

Nylon and Polyester

These fabrics are often used in athletic apparel.

Cons: Synthetic fabrics made from petrochemicals, nylon and polyester require a substantial amount of water and energy to manufacture and can produce harmful toxins in the process.

Pros: Look for items made from recycled polyester or nylon, which use less energy and produce fewer chemical emissions and waste. These recycled blends, which are more common than you think, are sometimes created from recycled plastic bottles – such as NC State’s Earth Month t-shirts as well as the university’s signature red graduation gowns.


Common in dresses, shirts and linings of clothing items.

Pros: With its origins from wood or bamboo, this plant-based fabric has the ability to grow naturally and without the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Cons: The production process of rayon involves chemicals and lots of energy and water. Look for brands that offer supply chain transparency, so you know more about where the fabric originates and how sustainable the manufacturing process is.


Almost everyone has something cotton in their closet.

Cons: Growing cotton often involves pesticides and insecticides.

Pros: Several industry-level initiatives are underway to make cotton production more sustainable, such as the rise of organic cotton, which is grown according to a certified organic standard and has a lower environmental impact.


Commonly found in coats and sweaters.

Pros: A natural fabric typically made from the hair of animals such as sheep.

Cons: Sheep farming often uses pesticides and insecticides, and whitened wool requires harsh chemical dyes and bleaches to produce. Look for organic wool, which is more responsible and eliminates the use of pesticides, chemicals and dyes.


Pros: A relatively new fabric growing rapidly in popularity, bamboo is made from a plant that reproduces quickly and requires less pesticide and fertilizer use.

Cons: Production can involve some harsh chemicals, so look for manufacturers committed to sustainable practices.


Pros: Linen is made from flax, a crop that needs little pesticides or fertilizers.

Cons: Linen blends can contain fabric material that is not as sustainable. Look for high quality blends.


Check out your clothing tags – how does your current wardrobe rate? How might you look at clothing tags differently when you shop in the future?

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