Sustainable Fabrics

Sustainable Fabric: A Complete Guide to Sustainable and Ethical Fabric

Clothing is a basic human need, but it has become so much more with creativity and innovation. It can be a symbol of cultural identity or a means of self-expression. Using sustainable fabrics ensures we continue to enjoy wearing lovely clothes without endangering the planet.

Fast fashion has made clothing cheap but at substantial costs to the workers along the supply chain. Fashion should not cost the earth or the dignity of garment workers. Sustainable fabrics help make this possible by providing sustainable, ethical, and more environmentally friendly materials for our clothes. 

What makes a fabric sustainable

The exact measure of sustainability may differ from person to person; however, you'll find conventional standards against which we may measure sustainability.

Overall, a sustainable fabric should be ethically sourced from sustainable materials and have an eco-friendly production process. Further, we should be able to safely dispose of sustainable fabrics once they have reached their end of life. Most sustainable fabrics do not contribute to the pollution and waste we know the fast fashion industry for. 

We can determine the sustainability of fabrics with the following criteria:

Fiber 

Sustainable fabric fiber
Photo by Kiki Falconer on Unsplash

The first thing that determines how sustainable a piece of fabric is is the raw material used to make it. Most eco-conscious consumers favor natural fibers as a sustainable alternative to synthetics because they biodegrade.

Other people may consider recycled synthetic fibers sustainable as well. For sustainable fiber sourcing, the planting or extraction process must have a negligible environmental impact, if at all. Fibers whose cultivation or extraction put the environment in danger are not sustainable for sustainable textiles.

Not all natural fibers are as sustainable as they seem

One natural fiber that appears to have questionable sustainability is cotton. Cotton is one of the dirtiest organic fibers with one of the largest environmental impacts. Cotton farming requires heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, which pollute the environment and can cause harm to consumers. 

The global organic textile standards (GOTS) and Oeko-Tex certify clothes sewn from natural and chemical-free fabrics.

Also, the renewability of the source material of the fabric is an important criterion. It is impractical to exhaust precious limited resources to make clothing. If we do this, we are setting up the future generation to suffer from scarcity. Sustainable natural fibers are renewable because we source them from plants and animals without harming the soil or the animals.

Polyester accounts for 65% of fabrics used in the clothing industry. And made from fossil fuel, each synthetic garment comes from a non-renewable resource. The way around this problem is to use recycled fabric from polyester already in circulation. 

Environmental impact

Eco-friendly production is one of the core concepts of sustainable fashion. According to the EPA's Resource conservation and recovery act, many textile manufacturing companies generate hazardous waste2.

Fabrics undergo washing, dyeing, and bleaching with synthetic chemicals. These chemicals are unsafe for humans even when exposure is indirect3. Despite environmental concerns, some factories still release toxic chemical waste into their surroundings, polluting the water supply and endangering humans and wildlife.

On the other hand, they manufacture sustainable fabrics without jeopardizing the planet. However, the degree of eco-friendliness varies for each sustainable material.

Manufacture, production, and shipping all contribute to how well a sustainable fabric measures up

Another thing to consider is the distance the fiber travels before becoming a finished product. Transportation of raw textile materials contributes to the carbon footprint of clothing. Clothing made from materials that have been transported to different locations for every stage of production has a higher carbon footprint than fabrics manufactured locally. Therefore before you purchase imported fabrics, first search for locally made alternatives.

Innovative companies have various methods of production that require less energy and produce fewer waste materials. One such is the closed-loop production system that allows manufacturers to recapture and reuse 99% of the production materials4. Also, an energy-efficient fabric production process reduces energy consumption and waste.

Clothing labeled with EcoCert, Oeko-Tex, Cradle2Cradle, and Bluesign certify fabric and sustainable clothing materials produced without endangering the environment.

Fair labor practices

Our clothes don't produce themselves. Human input is still essential even with all the technology and machines available. So besides being environmentally friendly, our fabrics must be worker-friendly as well.

Many textile companies source labor from low-cost countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so on. These countries attract clients using cheap labor and speedy turnover time. This may be great for fashion retailers but comes at a high cost to the poor workers who sometimes have to choose between unemployment and hellish working conditions at garment factories. 

Choose sustainable fabrics with ethical production

Whereas they produce sustainable fabrics without social injustice. They pay the workers fair wages for the labor they provide. Also, the work environment is safe, with no dangers to the life and health of the workers.

A third party has examined fabrics with Fair Trade certification or Fair Wear approval. The fair external auditors determine that the company manufactured them in ways that don't infringe on anyone's human rights.

Of course, with some research, you can start to understand the exact practices that earned the clothing brand its certificates. 

Why should you choose sustainable fabrics?

The fashion industry's impact on the planet requires that consumers take steps to ensure their fashion choices are sustainable. And this starts with knowing what material is sustainable.

Waste reduction 

The world produces about 92 million tonnes of textile waste every year. We can put some of the blame for the enormous waste on fast fashion's policy of quantity over quality.

Clothing made from unsustainable fabrics damages easily. This is why a lot of clothing ends up in landfills too quickly. By 2025 municipal solid waste would have increased by 70%6. This will cause an increase in pollution, which the planet doesn't need more of. So choose high-quality, sustainable fabrics as they can help to reduce post-consumer textile waste.

You'll find sustainable fabrics more durable and made to last. Manufacturers produce them carefully considering the environment and workers, which often results in high-quality fabrics.

Sustainable fabrics can stand the test of time and endure wash and wear while maintaining quality. This makes them a lot more recyclable than regular fabrics. You can swap, resell or give your clothing a new lease of life at thrift stores after years of use when it is produced sustainably. 

Less pollution

Presently the fashion industry is the second largest contributor to environmental pollution. The sector is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming. 

One quality of sustainable fabrics is that they pollute the environment significantly less than their unsustainable counterparts. If they release pollutants at any point during their production, the amount is usually minor compared to unsustainable fabrics.

Recycling, closed-loop process, and eco-friendly production material and methods are the marks of sustainable fashion.

Resource conservation

Water is one resource most pressured by the textile industry. About 20% of the world's wastewater comes from the fashion industry.

Whereas the production of sustainable fabrics uses closed-loop systems that collect wastewater and other materials from the production process and recycles them repeatedly. 

Another resource that sustainable fashion aims to protect is soil. The soil is more than just ground to walk on or a bed for crops. It is a habitat for organisms vital to the ecosystem. Sustainable fashion ensures that farming practices do not damage the soil as such damage can affect the ecosystem negatively. 

Fair labor 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from socially responsible companies, you are helping to ensure fair labor in the fashion industry.

Types of sustainable fabrics

Many different fabrics have the word sustainable attached to them. Below is a list of top choices.

Organic cotton

Cotton spools
Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Cotton farming consumes a lot of water. The Aral sea is currently about 10% of its original size, and cotton production in the south Asian area is to blame. Conventional cotton consumes 6% of global insecticides and 16% of pesticides. This is more than any other single crop uses. 

Unlike industrial cotton, organic cotton consumes less water, uses no GMO seeds, and requires no chemical synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. This implies that organic cotton has less impact on the environment than industrial cotton.

Organic cotton uses less water than your standard cotton fabric

Cotton clothes also need a lot of water. A simple cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 gallons of water to make. There are innovative ways to use less water in producing cotton clothing and prevent waste.

Organic cotton fabrics made with resource and energy-efficient systems are the best choice. Always look for certified organic cotton to avoid greenwashing - the GOTS certification is one of the many certificates for organic cotton fabrics.

Read more: Organic Cotton Fabric & Sustainability

Organic Linen

Linen for clothing dates as far back as ancient Egyptian civilization. They make it from the fibers of the flax plant, which we can find in Europe. The flax plant does not require pesticides or fertilizers to grow and is biodegradable.

Linen has many great qualities, but the organic version is better and naturally moth resistant. Further, it is not water-intensive like cotton and does not damage the soil. It is durable and can last for years. It also has moisture-wicking qualities.

Chemical free sustainable linen fabric from flax plants

They produce organic linen with no harmful chemicals. It is unbleached and usually left with its natural hues of ivory, grey, tan, and ecru. This also means that manufacturers have applied no harmful chemical dye.

The entire fabric production process for organic linen is chemical-free and without harmful substances. They grow it without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. When you buy linen clothing, go for linen with organic and fair trade certifications.

Read more: Organic Linen Fabric & Sustainability

Bamboo

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing crops in the world, and it doesn't need any fertilizer. Its rapid growth rate and self-regeneration make it a highly sustainable source material for textiles, amongst other things.

Bamboo is softer than cotton and has a silk-like feel to it. Organic bamboo fabric is hypoallergenic and great for people with sensitive skin. It is also a durable, moisture-wicking, biodegradable, eco-friendly fabric. Three types of fabric are made from bamboo; bamboo rayon, bamboo lyocell, and bamboo linen. 

Bamboo fabric can vary in sustainability by type

Producers make bamboo rayon using a chemically intensive process, and the result is a finished product more synthetic than natural. On the other hand, they produce bamboo linen with an eco-friendly, although time-consuming mechanical method.

This fabric is not as soft as bamboo rayon, but they regard it as the 'original' bamboo fabric. You'll likely have to shop around for it as it's become something of a niche product.

They produce bamboo lyocell in a closed-loop system and consider it a greener alternative to viscose rayon. Although bamboo lyocell is expensive compared to its rayon, the lyocell process is an eco-friendly option because it uses less toxic chemicals and creates no waste.

To help ensure a sustainable source, look for manufacturers with sustainably sourced bamboo.

Read more: Bamboo Fabric & Sustainability

Modal

This type of fabric is a semi-synthetic fabric made from the pulp of beech trees. They originally developed modal in Japan as an alternative to silk. Clothing companies commonly use it in manufacturing activewear, underwear, bathrobes, pajamas, and beddings.

In addition to being breathable and silky smooth, modal is stronger than rayon. It has a high resistance to shrinkage and pilling and is pretty absorbent. 

They produce modal in a similar process to viscose-rayon; however, they require less sodium hydroxide and produce less waste.

Look for modal made from sustainably sourced raw materials

Lenzing AG is an Austrian company that manufactures TENCEL Modal, a trademarked version of modal that is better for the planet. They make their modal fabric from sustainably sourced beech trees. The company assures consumers its modal is carbon neutral, made with a closed-loop process, and they only use sustainably harvested forests.

When you shop for modal fabrics, look for those with FSC or PEFC certifications. This shows that the manufacturer sourced them from sustainably managed forests.

Read more: Modal Fabric & Sustainability

Recycled polyester

Polyester is one of the most frowned upon fabrics in sustainable fashion. This is because this is a synthetic fiber derived from a non-renewable material. It takes about 70 million barrels of oil to produce a year's supply for the world.

Polyester is not biodegradable. It breaks down into microplastic fibers that get into water systems and cause pollution. These microplastics are harmful to marine life and humans who consume them.

Recycled polyester fabric is better than new - but still synthetic

However, for practical reasons, polyester remains a top choice of durable fabric in the fashion industry. Therefore recycled polyester made from waste fabric is a sustainable option when polyester is necessary. It reduces the need for virgin polyester. They can also use various post-consumer waste plastic items like plastic bottles and industrial plastic waste such as fishing nets to produce recycled polyester fabric.

The recycled polyester fabric, a more sustainable alternative, helps keep plastic out of landfills and reduces plastic pollution. Using recycled fibers and recycled material also emits less CO2 than virgin polyester. 

You'll also find that recycled nylon fabric shares many of the environmental improvements over new virgin nylon when stacking up the benefits of recycled fabrics. However, the best choice for environmentally friendly fabrics will always be natural and organic.

Hemp

Industrial hemp is the variety of cannabis plants used in textiles production. Hemp grows fast, can survive in a variety of climates, and it is soil-friendly. Organic hemp is a high-value crop that has uses beyond textiles. We use it in medicine, food, cosmetics, construction, and more. Almost no part of the plant goes to waste. 

Hemp cultivation does not need herbicides as the plant will naturally overtake competing plants. Also, the plant is pest-resistant, so it rarely requires pesticides. The plant requires little water to thrive.

Give hemp fabric another look for its sustainable qualities

Even producing eco-friendly fabrics, hemp consumes less water than conventional cotton. It takes about 10,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton, while just 500 liters will produce 1kg of hemp fabric1. Also, hemp fabric processing is not chemically intensive. These qualities make it environmentally sustainable. 

Pure hemp fabric has a similar texture to linen and is more durable than cotton. Just like bamboo, hemp has hypoallergenic qualities and is breathable. Manufacturers also blend hemp fiber with other plant-based or synthetic fibers.

Seek hemp fabrics with certifications that prove they are organic, fair trade, and ethically produced to ensure a genuinely eco-friendly textile. Hemp fabrics labeled 'hemp viscose' are as bad for the planet as regular viscose. So make sure to look beyond the 'hemp' tag in clothing.

Read more: Hemp Fabric & Sustainability

Silk

Silk is a natural fiber from silkworms. Often considered a luxury material due to its price and feel, natural silk is soft, breathable, and feels warm in the winter but cool in summer.

Silk is fully biodegradable and produces little waste during manufacturing. Producing silk is not water-intensive. The bombyx Mori silkworms survive on mulberry tree leaves, a sustainable feed source because the tree is pest-resistant and grows easily. Silkworms may be tiny, but just like other animals, it is unethical and inhumane to harm them in producing silk. 

Sustainable silk fabric also means less harm to silkworms

The traditional silk-making method involves collecting the cocooned worms and boiling them to separate the silk. They do this to ensure the silk fibers do not break. However, 5,000 silkworms may have to die with this method to produce enough material for one silk kimono. In some places, they use the dead worms as a food source, but it results in waste when that is not the case. 

Peace silk allows the worms to develop into moths and leave their cocoon. They then collect the empty silk cocoons and process them. Some manufacturers also use wild silkworms raised in environments resembling their natural habitat. 

Choose silk with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), fair trade, cruelty-free international, or OTEX certifications. You might also want to take a look at Qmonos, synthetic spider silk that completely biodegrades and causes no harm to either spiders or silk worms.

Read more: Silk Fabric & Sustainability

Wool

sustainable wool
Photo by Kiki Falconer on Unsplash

Wool is one of the most loved natural fibers. It provides incredible warmth and is biodegradable and recyclable. Wool is durable, flame resistant, and moisture-wicking.

Wool is renewable as we don't have to kill animals to source the material for our favorite wooly jumpers. We harvest wool from the coat of hair found on the angora rabbits, sheep, alpacas, and goats. If producers don't harvest the wool, it will grow into a heavy coat that disturbs free movement.

Only buy wool produced with sustainable practices employed during farming under cruelty-free conditions. There are concerns about unethical wool production that neglect the welfare of animals and focus on profits.

Sustainable wool fabric for warmth and that natural cozy feel

Farmers harvest ethical wool, a sustainable choice, in the warmer seasons so that the animals are not at risk of complications from cold. Also, ethical wool farmers encourage hand shearing to prevent accidental cuts and avoid frightening the animal. The angora rabbit molts every four months, so it is most ethical to collect the fallen hair. Also, research has shown that wool reacts well to natural and sustainable dyes5

Some certifications sustainable wool fabrics may have; Responsible Wool Standard, ZQ Merino Standard, Certified Organic Wool and Certified Animal Welfare Approved.

TENCEL lyocell

They make lyocell from cellulose found in wood pulp. The trade name TENCEL belongs to an Austrian company that produces it.

Lyocell is biodegradable and easily compostable. This makes it easy to dispose of when it has come to the end of its life cycle. The manufacturing process produces minimal waste and reduced wastewater through recycling and reuse. Also, lyocell production does not require the use of toxic chemicals.

Read more: Lyocell Fabric & Sustainability

Deadstock/ reclaimed fabric

Eco-conscious people agree that buying second-hand clothes is a great way to make fashion circular and sustainable. Buying second-hand fabrics from recycled cotton and others also have the same advantage.

Clothing factories usually have leftover fabrics. This could happen when the factory purchases large amounts of stock, but fast fashion trends change so quickly that these fabrics become obsolete. The fate of deadstock fabrics is the landfill, but these fabrics can be reclaimed, reused, and sold as vintage goods.

Read more: Deadstock Fabric & Sustainability

Cupro

Cupro is soft to the touch and has a fine sheer texture. It works as a great vegan alternative to silk. Manufacturers make Cupro from clothing made with recycled materials. As such, it helps to extend the life of raw materials even further. They make the fabric from cellulose rayon fiber. The cellulose of choice is mostly cotton.

There are concerns about the effects of the chemicals used to dissolve the fiber material. The chemicals include copper, ammonia, and caustic soda. These chemicals are toxic and harmful to factory workers if they do not dispose of them quickly and adequately. 

To ensure that you are buying sustainable cupro, ensure the manufacturer has certifications showing they treat workers fairly. And do not put the lives and health of workers at any risk for the sake of profit.

Down

Down refers to the plumage found underneath the feathers of birds like geese and ducks. It is a by-product of the food industry. The material is fluffy, soft, and biodegradable. They use it as a natural alternative to synthetic insulation for winter coats and sleeping bags. Down itself is not a sustainable fabric. Instead, we use it to fill up clothing meant to provide warmth. It has a high heat-trapping ability and is lightweight. Some manufacturers may add feathers to the down to produce a blend. 

Down is durable, and its insulating benefits can last for decades. There are concerns about animal cruelty in down production, where they subject living geese to painful feather plucking.

In response, the Responsible Down Standard is a method of verifying ethically sourced down. The North Face brand set it up, and other sustainable fashion brands have adopted it directly or indirectly. NSF International is an auditing body that helps brands monitor the practices of their down suppliers. Choose brands that use NSF International or other credible methods to ensure they only use cruelty-free down.

Read more: Feather Down & Sustainability

Conclusion

Choosing clothes made with sustainable fabrics by sustainable brands is one way to help protect the planet and promote social justice. This guide provides you with the essential information you will need to make better choices when next you shop for clothes.

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1Cherrett, N., Barrett, J., Clemett, A., Chadwick, M. and Chadwick, M. J. (2005). Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester. Report prepared for and reviewed by BioRegional Development Group and World Wide Fund for Nature – Cymru. Stockholm Environment Institute
2Luz Claudio, 2007, Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry, Environmental Health Perspectives 115:9 CID: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.115-a449
3

Akarslan F., Demiralay H. (2015) Effects of textile materials harmful to human health. ICCESEN 2014. VOL 128. DOI: 10.12693/APhysPo1A.128.B-407

4Bick, R., Halsey, E. & Ekenga, C.C. The global environmental injustice of fast fashion. Environ Health 17, 92 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0433-7
5

Narayanan G. (2018) A review of some sustainable methods in wool dyeing. Sustainable Innovations in Textile Chemistry and Dyes.

6

Ipek Yalcin-Enis et al. (2019) Risks and Management of Textile Waste. Environmental Chemistry for a Sustainable World book series.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Kavya P K on Unsplash
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