Did you know that the fashion industry contributes to around 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions? Or that it is one of the biggest consumers of water and energy?
As responsible shoppers, it is our responsibility to be concerned about the entire life cycle of our clothing.
By understanding the production process that goes into making fabrics and where they end up after use, you will be able to make more conscious choices as you buy your clothes and other fashion items.
In today’s post, we take a look at sustainable fabrics, why they are great for us and the environment and how to distinguish between sustainable and non-sustainable fabrics.
What Does ‘sustainable Fabric’ Even Mean?
So when we talk about sustainable fabrics what exactly are we referring to?
It can be quite confusing to define what sustainable fashion means especially when the fashion industry has free reign over the term “sustainable”.
Generally, sustainability in the fashion industry means any fashion piece, be it a shoe or a piece of cloth, during its production process, does not impinge on workers’ rights, animal rights, or harm the environment.
Sustainable fashion items require low water and energy to produce. They are also recycled from waste, they are biodegradable and do not cause soil erosion.
Popular sustainable fashion materials include:
- Recycled fibers
- Plant-based fibers
- Animal-based fibers
- Semi-synthetic fibers
What Are the Most Sustainable Fabrics?
There are a number of sustainable fabrics that a sustainability-conscious person can consider when shopping for fashion items. Let’s take a look at some of the most sustainable fabrics in the industry:
Linen is a natural fiber that’s produced by the flax plant. Linen requires a considerable low amount of resources such as water, energy, pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers compared to cotton or polyester.
The beauty of flax is that it can grow in poor soil which is not used for food production. In some cases, it can even rehabilitate polluted soil. Flax also absorbs a high level of carbon, therefore, cleaning the air instead of polluting it.
Hemp is one of the eco-fabrics most often associated with the hippie subculture common during the late 60s and early 70s. The fabric has, however, come back into popularity. The reason being it is an extremely sustainable crop.
Hemp is a fast-growing crop and does not exhaust the soil nor require pesticides. The fabric produced from hemp is strong, durable, and does not irritate your skin unlike most man-made fabrics popular in fast fashion stores.
Traditional cotton requires an extremely high amount of water and chemicals to be produced. A better alternative to traditional cotton is organic cotton.
Organic cotton is harvested without any toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds. A sustainable fashion brand will likely produce its fashion items using GOTS-certified organic cotton. Such cotton has been traced from start to finish and is highly regulated.
If you want to buy pieces made from organic cotton, check the label for organic cotton. Also, organic cotton will feel a bit better than traditional cotton due to less damage from chemicals in the production process.
Organic hemp & linen
While we’ve already mentioned hemp and linen in the plant-based eco-fabrics section above, organic hemp and linen deserve another mention.
These two fabrics are produced from very versatile crops that require very little water, no pesticides, and even grow in poor-quality soil.
Linen on its part replenishes the soil and absorbs carbon making it very good for the environment.
Ethical and responsible fabrics
Alpaca fiber is produced from the fleece of Alpacas mainly bred in the Peruvian Andes. Alpacas are considered to be more eco-friendly because of the manner in which they eat grass. They cut the grass they eat instead of pulling it out. This allows for the grass to keep growing.
Additionally, Alpacas have soft padding under their feet. The padding is more gentle for the soil than goat or sheep hooves. Alpacas also need very little water and food to survive and produce enough wool for 4 or 5 sweaters per year. In comparison, a goat needs 4 years to produce just one cashmere sweater.
Silk is a renewable protein fiber produced by silkworms. It is also a renewable and biodegradable resource.
However, some manufacturers use chemicals to produce silk. These chemicals kill the silkworm. It’s therefore important to go for organic silk such as “Peace Silk”, Tussah, and Ahimsa silks which allow the moth to evacuate the cocoon before it is boiled to produce silk.
Conventional wool is not an eco-friendly fabric. However, there are some sustainable wool options such as Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), which is produced under sustainable practices that protect the land and treat the animal decently. Certified organic wool does not require pesticides and parasiticides during production.
Normal cashmere has a huge impact on the environment. However, its alternative, sustainable cashmere addresses these environmental problems.
Leather is produced from dead animal skin. Even though it is a byproduct of animals raised for their meat, it still causes a negative environmental impact during the tanning process.
Fortunately, there is eco-friendly leather that is chrome-free and is made by tanneries that recycle and purify wastewater.
Reclaimed fabric is material leftover from manufacturers, vintage fabric, or any other unused fabric that is bought secondhand. Most manufacturers and large brands are left with pieces of fabric that they can’t use anymore.
Eco-friendly brands can then buy this leftover material and reuse it instead of having it thrown away and end up in landfills. Using reclaimed fabric is a great way to combat textile waste.
Recycled polyester is an ethical fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. This is a great way to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills. Another benefit of recycled polyester is that it requires far fewer resources to produce and generates fewer CO2 emissions.
However, recycled polyester is still non-biodegradable and takes years to decompose once it is thrown away.
Recycled Nylon just like recycled polyester, diverts waste from landfills and its production uses much fewer resources than virgin nylon.
Most of the recycled nylon produced comes from old fishing nets, nylon carpets, tights, etc.
Recycled nylon tends to be more expensive than new nylon. However, it has many environmental advantages.
Recycled cotton is one of the best recycled fabrics that saves a lot of water during production. For every ton of cotton recycled 765,000 liters of water can be saved. It also requires far fewer resources than conventional or organic cotton. This makes it a great sustainable option.
Recycled wool is another very sustainable fabric. Recycled wool saves a considerable amount of water during production and avoids the use of chemicals for dyeing, thus reducing air, water, and soil pollution.
Sustainable futuristic fabrics
TENCEL® is a light cellulose fabric, that is created by dissolving wood pulp. Tencel has increasingly been growing in popularity recently. It is believed to be 50% more absorbent than cotton and requires less energy and water to produce.
The chemicals used to produce Tencel are managed in a closed-loop system, thus reducing dangerous waste.
Piñatex is a great vegan leather alternative. It is made from pineapple leaf fiber. This material is a cruelty-free replacement for leather, it is natural and also sustainable.
Because Piñatex is made from a food by-product, it reduces waste and sustains the farming communities that grow pineapples.
Econyl is another great sustainable fabric. This fiber is produced from recycled synthetic waste such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets. The waste is regenerated into a new nylon yarn with the same quality as nylon.
The regeneration process uses less water and creates less waste than traditional nylon production methods.
Econyl is best for manufacturing seldom-washed items like sneakers and bags because traditional washing of Econyl can still shed plastic microparticles that can end up in the ocean.
Qmonos is synthetic spider silk developed through the fusion of spider silk genes and microbes. The fiber is believed to be five times stronger than steel, but very lightweight, more flexible than nylon, and entirely biodegradable.
Spiders are not farmed or harmed during the manufacturing process, making Qmonos a more sustainable and ethical alternative to silk and nylon.
Refibra™ is an organic fiber produced with cotton scraps and wood. The production process is environmentally responsible, and additionally, uses recycled material (cotton scraps), leftover from the textiles industry.
Orange Fiber is an innovative fabric made from orange skins. This fiber can blend with other materials.
When used in its purest form, the orange fiber features a soft and silky hand-feel. It is lightweight and can be opaque or shiny according to production needs.
Which Non-eco Fabrics Should You Avoid?
There are several fabrics that should be avoided completely because they either require a lot of water and energy to produce, they contain harmful chemicals, cause soil erosion, are non-biodegradable, cause animal cruelty, or are non-renewable.
Cotton is one of the most common fabrics but it is also highly harmful to the environment and people as well.
20,000 people are believed to die of cancer and miscarriages every year as a result of the chemicals sprayed on cotton.
Cotton is mainly produced in dry and warm regions but requires a lot of water to grow. 20,000 liters of water are needed to produce a kilo of cotton. It also requires a lot of pesticides and insecticides. 10% of the pesticides and 25% of the insecticides used globally are used on cotton.
99% of the world’s cotton farmers work under poor working conditions and are paid low wages. Child and forced labor are common practices in cotton farms.
Related article: Fast Fashion Industry
One billion sheep in the world are bred to produce wool. This extensive sheep farming is what makes wool a non-sustainable option. Extensive sheep farming has had disastrous consequences on the environment.
One of the consequences is overgrazing that leaves vegetation without enough time to grow back before it is consumed. It also weakens the soil and leaves it vulnerable to erosion and desertification.
Sheep also release methane, a gas that is 25 times worse for global warming than carbon dioxide. Sheep also have to be cleaned in insecticide baths that contain substances hazardous to the farmers. These harmful chemicals also leave residues of those harmful chemicals that may remain in the wool and make their way into our clothes.
The highest environmental and social damage from leather is linked to the tanning process. Chromium, a highly toxic chemical is used to transform animal skins into wearable leather. 80% of the world’s leather production uses chromium putting about 16 million people in the world at risk. Such chemicals are often dumped into rivers, polluting freshwater and oceans.
Also, most of the tanning factory workers work under harsh conditions and do not wear adequate protection. This causes them to suffer from skin, eye, and respiratory diseases, cancer, and more due to exposure to chemical substances.
Cashmere fiber is produced from cashmere goat hairs. High demand for cashmere means the rearing of millions of goats to keep up with the demand. Because goats pull grass out by the roots instead of cutting it, the grass does not grow back, leading to land desertification.
Polyester is the most common fiber and can be found in 52% of our clothes. Polyester is a synthetic fiber produced from petroleum, a nonrenewable fossil fuel.
The process of transforming crude oil into petrochemicals releases toxins into the atmosphere that are dangerous to humans.
Polyester also requires a lot of energy to be produced. In addition, it is also a non-biodegradable fiber. Furthermore, every time you wash a polyester garment, it releases 700,000 plastic microfibers that end up in rivers and oceans.
Related article: Fashion Industry Statistics
Rayon, Viscose, Modal
70 million trees are cut down each year to make clothes. 30% of rayon and viscose clothing comes from endangered and ancient forests and causes massive deforestation. Thousands of hectares of rainforest are cut down annually to plant trees specifically used to make rayon.
Rayon is a fiber derived from wood pulp, especially from eucalyptus trees. The trees go through a process involving a lot of chemicals, energy, and water to turn them into rayon.
Viscose, modal, and lyocell are different types of rayon.
Viscose is the most common type of rayon. Its production involves a lot of chemicals that are very harmful to the environment.
Modal is produced from beech trees with a similar chemical-intensive process to viscose.
Other Synthetic Fibers
Acrylic, polyamide, nylon, polypropylene, PVC, spandex, and aramid are common synthetic fibers manufactured from petroleum. These fibers have a very similar impact on the environment as polyester.
Bamboo is usually sold as an eco-friendly material. This is partially true, as the bamboo plant is one of the most sustainable resources. It grows very quickly and easily. It does not need pesticides or fertilizers, and it does not need to be replanted after harvest as it grows new sprouts from the roots.
However, to turn bamboo into a fiber, the bamboo plant has to be processed using strong chemical solvents that are potentially harmful to the health of manufacturing workers, the environment, and even the person who buys garments made from bamboo.
Why Choosing Ethical Fabrics Could save the World
Choosing fashion items made from various sustainable fabrics could make a huge difference not only to the environment but also to the factory workers as well as to your health.
Recycled fibers are one of the best sustainable options that save natural resources as they require less oil to produce and emit less carbon dioxide during manufacturing.
If more people were to choose ethical fabrics there would be less demand for harmful fabrics that emit a hefty amount of greenhouse gases per year. This would result in less global warming.
Organic fabrics such as organic cotton reduce water consumption by 91%. This is a huge impact considering water is still a limited resource in many parts of the world.
By reducing our consumption of non-ethical fabrics, we also reduce the number of harmful chemicals used to dye, bleach, and wet process garments. Those chemicals often cause diseases or even deaths among farmers and factory workers.
Switching to Sustainable and Ethical Fabrics
Switching to sustainable and ethical fabrics may seem like a difficult thing to do given the popularity of non-sustainable fabrics. However, it is possible if you are invested in making the shift and you are aware of what to look out for.
First, always look for a GOTS certification on the care label of a garment when shopping for eco-friendly options. A GOTS certification is a mark that the fabric has ticked all (or most) of the boxes to be considered sustainable.
Second, be aware that not every natural fiber is necessarily sustainable. Cotton, for instance, is natural but is not always sustainable because of the environmental impact it causes when it is being harvested.
Third, go for ethical fashion brands. Most fashion brands will not be open about the sustainability of the fabrics they use. However, many ethical fashion brands are transparent about every aspect of their creations and will often have a section or page on their website dedicated to the fabrics they use.
The simplest way to get started is to simply ask yourself “what is my garment made from?”. This will cause you to be more conscious about what you wear.