The M in EMPATHY: Material Sustainability

The M in EMPATHY: Material Sustainability

In this new article series, we wanted to dive right into our current rationale around each of our EMPATHY values to provide you with more transparency but also helpful information that you can take with you on your next purchase.

This is also a great exercise for Ethi as we’ll be able to set a baseline to continue to improve our knowledge and criteria for each value as we grow. As with sustainable fashion in general, we are a work-in-progress so any feedback will really help!


We hope that our first article on our Environment value was useful as this week we explore the ‘M’ in EMPATHY - our Material Sustainability value.

We define brands that fit the Material Sustainability value as those that create products through natural processes or through the use of organic materials.

Like our previous article, we’re going to highlight some issues caused by the fashion industry that make this an important area for our brands to address:

The problem with fashion
  • Non-organic cotton uses 22.5% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of all pesticides, on only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land (FAO, UNEP, WHO).
  • 1-3% of agricultural workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning with at least one million requiring hospitalisation each year (FAO, UNEP, WHO).
  • Plastic microfibers shed from our synthetic clothing into the world supply account for 85% of the human-made material found along ocean shores, threatening marine wildlife and ending up in our food supply (Forbes, 2017).
  • Synthetic or manufactured fabrics such as polyester take up to 200 years to biodegrade, which contributes to ever-growing waste.

The harm caused by non-organic fabrics like cotton can be seen in the Youtube video below.

Now if you have seen the video, it’s immediately obvious how non-organic cotton has impacted on the Indian cotton farmers and people. But what about us customers who only see the final product?

How does this affect YOU?
  • Man-made/synthetic fabrics such as polyester can contain toxins that may cause irritation or become uncomfortable on the skin.
  • Non-organic natural fabrics also can contain chemicals after treatment that are toxic to the human body.
  • Plastic microfibers from synthetic fabrics is released into our waterways after every wash that are consumed by fish and other aquatic life, which we then consume. It is estimated that Europeans eat up to 11,000 pieces of plastic a year (The Guardian, 2016) and it is scary that we don’t know what effect this has on people yet.
How fashion can help solve the problem

Organic natural fabrics

Examples of natural fabrics are cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, and wool. We’ve used cotton as an example because it is so widely used, particularly non-organic cotton, that the contrast in pesticide and chemical use, water consumption, and human harm is quite noticeable (see Youtube video below). It is also important to note that not all natural fabrics are made equal in terms of environmental impact, organic cotton is more water-intensive than bamboo for example. To find out more, we've previously written about sustainable fabrics here.

Sustainable Man-made Fabric

Have some faith in humanity! We can come up with innovation that doesn’t take from the environment! Take for example lyocell, a fiber (or tencel) made using wood pulp from sustainable tree farms. It’s a closed loop process that recovers all emissions and recycles chemicals in the process. Bonus point for lyocell: it’s also biodegradable! It’s also totally functional as it’s soft, antibacterial and easy to print on!

Recycled synthetic materials

Yes to more innovation! Polyester can be produced in a closed loop at lower emissions to the environment, and recycled polyester uses less than half the energy required to make new polyester!

Natural dyes

Simply avoiding synthetic dyes reduces the runoff of synthetic dyes and chemicals contaminating waterways and avoiding cancer and lung disease for people that work with these dyes. Natural dyes, however, are mostly found from plants or vegetation, and the production revives traditional methods of dying and is not harmful to people and the environment.

What does it mean for a brand to qualify for our ‘Material Sustainability’ value?

Naturally, any brands that are using organic natural fabrics such as the fabrics listed above would be in pole position to qualify for this value though there are other checks that we would like to see for further confidence. There are at least two independent organic certifications that can be sought:

  • Global Organic Textiles Standards (GOTS)
  • Organic Content Standards (OCS)

It makes it much easier for us to list your brand if you have been certified with the formal accreditation bodies because the supply chain is so complex. Check out this image of the touchpoints that can be certified:

Olaf Designs Studio - Brand example at Ethi

Olaf Designs Studio designs and produces their garments in Brisbane, Australia. They use all natural, organic fabrics such as linen, cotton, and hemp. Extracts from Olaf for each fabric:


Content: 100% Cotton

Where it's made: Our cotton twill is sourced from India from a factory that uses OEKO-TEX certified eco-friendly and sustainable practices, and 100% GOTS certified organic cotton.


Content: 100% Linen

Where it's made: Our midweight linen is made in Italy, in mills that are committed to fair conditions and zero noise, air and water pollution. It is dyed in small batches with low impact dyes in the USA.


Content: 100% Hemp

Where it's made: Our hemp broadcloth is grown and made in a fair trade factory in China, and is organic.

You can find OLAF Designs Studio pieces here on Ethi. 

So, what can we do?
  1. If you need to buy new, look for garments that are made from natural fabrics, ideally organic natural fabrics.
  2. Look for garments that use natural dyes for colour too - this combined with natural fabrics will mean that the colours soften over time for a beautiful look.
  3. Buy recycled synthetic fabrics, recycled polyester, for instance, should retain its durability and quality.
  4. Buy 2nd hand - there will be pre-loved garments that should be in good condition, ironically if made from polyester waiting for you to appreciate!
  5. Do your research! Apps such as Good On You can provide amazing information on brands whilst heading to our Material sustainability value on Ethi will give you a plethora of products made from natural and organic fabric!

A Final Note: 

Ultimately, we want to encourage people to buy sustainable because of its quality, its aesthetics, accessibility, and affordability - not because they have been guilt-tripped toward buying sustainably. We honestly hope that the words “sustainable” or “ethical” will be dropped in the future because that will be the new norm and fashion will simply be “fashion”.

However, in the meantime, we want to continue to provide you sustainable and ethical brands because we believe that you are getting better quality products with a large variety of styles, the convenience and ability to have all necessary information and catalogue under Ethi, and of course affordability.


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