A Conscious Consumer's Guide To Fibers: Part 3

Fibers To Consider Buying Second-Hand

The most efficient way to recycle any fabric is to give it a new owner. Recycled fabric is great, but the process of breaking down fabric garments into new garments takes time and lots of energy. ‘Reuse’ comes before ‘recycle’ in the buyerarchy of needs for a reason. Recycling is an amazing undertaking, but we have to remember that it is not a magical fix for overconsumption. 

Today, we continue our series by taking a look at durable, high-quality fibers that have ethical or resource concerns that make then less than ideal to produce but great to wear. 

Image Credit: Sarah Lazarovic

Image Credit: Sarah Lazarovic


Last week we talked about organic cotton (A Conscious Consumer's Guide to Fibers: Part 2, Best Fibers For New Purchases), but what about conventional cotton?

Conventional cotton, or cotton that is grown with the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides, is overall one of the most resource-intensive fibers to create. Cotton requires more chemicals in its growing phase than other natural fibers, accounting for the consumption of 4% of the world’s pesticides and 10% of the insecticides. Cotton also requires a larger amount of water than most other textiles: 4 times as much water as linen and approximately 6 times as much water as polyester. One cotton t-shirt uses roughly the amount of water a person drinks in 3 years

On the plus side, garments made from 100% cotton won’t shed microplastics as they are washed and can often be recycled or even composted. Cotton usually takes only around 5 months to decompose where synthetic materials, like the fibers we discussed in Part 1, take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to biodegrade. 

The comfort, versatility, recyclability, compostability, and skin-friendly properties of cotton makes it an ideal fabric to purchase second-hand. Read more about cotton in A Conscious Consumer's Guide to Fibers Part 2. 


Views on the animal ethics of leather are very personal and cultural, so opinions as to leather’s sustainability vary. Aside form animal rights issues, there are hefty environmental impacts that come along with leather manufacturing. 

The reason leather is great to thrift is that it is very durable, even really old leather often has a lot of life left in it. One thing to consider before buying and wearing leather, even second-hand leather, is that by wearing it we contribute to the demand and social and cultural acceptance of it.

Making new leather includes the use of many toxic chemicals and, of course, animal lives. Some companies source their leather more ethically than others, but there is no getting around slaughtering the animal for it’s hide. 

The most prevalent chemical used in tanning leather is called chromium. More than half of the world's leather is made in countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin American, many of which do not have the infrastructure to dispose of the chromium and other chemicals in a safe way so it ends up in their local waterways. Approximately 90% of leather tanning uses chromium tanning. 

Reusing, recycling, and repurposing the leather we already have in the world are the best options we have. And if we must have new leather, make sure the animal in its entirety is being used for other things, and support cattle farmers who maintain ethical treatment standards for the animal.


As we talked about in Part 2, wool is pretty incredible as a textile, but the complexity of the ethics behind it are too vast to endorse it as a sustainable textile. 

Wool is biodegradable, recyclable, durable, anti-bacterial, breathable, and wrinkle-resistant. All of this makes it a great fiber to wear, but also an easy fiber to care for. Wool’s odor resistance means it can be worn many times before washing leading to lower energy and water consumption in the customer use phase and a longer life span for the garment overall, as frequent washing often breaks down clothes more quickly. 

One of the best mimicries of wool is acrylic, in Part 1 of this series we went over the numerous issues with acrylic. Read more about wool in A Conscious Consumer's Guide to Fibers Part 2.


Silk is such a beautiful, durable fabric that it is easy to forget that it comes from worms. 600 billion silkworms are killed in the name of silk each year. However, silk is an ancient fabric and has ties in many cultures which means there is already a lot of it in this world, making it accessible and practical  to thrift.

Despite its unique and amazing properties, silk didn’t make it into Part 2 of this series as one of the best fibers to buy new because of it’s ethical concerns and resource intensive nature. Like leather, animals die in its production. But, unlike leather, silk is a product of silkworms rather than their skin. Silk comes from the cocoons the worms spin around themselves. To unravel the silk string all in one continuous strand the cocoons cannot be split open, so the worms are steamed or boiled inside before they become moths. 

Things To Remember

Giving clothing a second life is a great way to make sure we get as much use out of resources as we can. All the fibers that are great to buy new (read Part 2 of this article to see that list: Best Fibers to Buy New) are also great to buy used, but the reverse is often not true. Some fibers should be purchased almost exclusively second hand. Fibers that are resource-intensive to create or involve complicated animal rights issues are especially great to buy second hand. 

As we all know, the most important part of conscious consumption is just consuming less, but there will always be a need for some purchases. Of course, we couldn’t cover every single pro and con or even every fiber, but by discussing the main ones we hope to have made you feel like you have a better grasp on how to judge your clothing purchases. 

Now Go Forth And Consciously Consume!

Read Parts 1 And 2 Of This Guide To Learn How To Make More Conscious Decisions About Future Clothing Purchases

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"We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we'll also have a lot more joy in living."

Thich Nhat Hanh