The ongoing damage to the environment caused by fast fashion has inspired more people to discover and use sustainable fashion. But there’s a lot of information out there about sustainable fabrics, and not all of it is accurate.
You need answers to which are the most sustainable fabrics, why you should use them, and multiple other questions that you probably have about switching to sustainable fashion. Let’s dive into what sustainable fabrics are and how buying them reduces your impact on the environment.
What Makes a Fabric Sustainable?
A sustainable fabric meets several criteria, most notably an eco-friendly and ethical plant-based source instead of a synthetic one or one grown with methods that damage the environment and exploit workers.
Sustainable fabrics use materials sourced from forests and farms where environmental and ethical best practices are applied. This means using fewer resources by minimizing the amount of water, plants, trees, and other natural materials necessary to their production.
The best sustainable farms don’t use harmful pesticides or synthetic fertilizers either.
Another benchmark for sustainability is a fabric’s manufacturing process. The raw materials used in eco-friendly fabrics are natural and completely biodegradable, so no toxic waste makes its way into soil, water, or the atmosphere.
Climate change, deforestation, industrial plastic pollution, water and energy waste, and other environmental damage seem too overwhelming to many people. Tackling them may appear impossible, but easy, practical changes—like switching to sustainable fabrics and clothing—can make a bigger difference than you think.
Sustainable textiles come with none of the baggage of traditionally produced fibers. They address environmental and ethical concerns in a handful of meaningful ways.
Saving natural resources
The EPA estimates that only 14.7% of all textiles are recycled every year, and less than 1% of clothing materials are recycled and used to produce more clothes. The sad truth is that 87% of clothing material is either sent to landfills or incinerated, neither of which is good for the environment.
The low volume of recycled fabric used in the fashion industry means the need for more natural resources to produce more clothing, which just gets thrown out and ends up in landfills, and even more resources are needed to replace those.
Water is another natural resource used and wasted by the fashion industry. It takes approximately 2,500 liters of water to make just one shirt with conventional cotton, for example. A simple switch to organic cotton—as many sustainable brands have done—reduces water use by 91%. Sustainable brands also avoid dyeing their textiles, one of the thirstier parts of the conventional production process.
Countless resources, including trees, plants, plastics, crude oil, and coal are used to fuel this never-ending cycle.
Sustainable fabrics relieve the pressure on virgin resources because they need fewer raw materials. Some are made from recycled materials, eliminating mining and similar harmful techniques, while other fabrics use a closed-loop production system to capture and reuse water in development. For example, over 70,000 barrels of crude oil are saved per year in the production process of swimwear when made with the more sustainable ECONYL rather than new nylon yarn, which is made from petroleum-based plastic.
A whopping 7.7% of all municipal solid waste is clothing. In fact, post-consumer waste is one of the largest environmental challenges associated with fast fashion. Waste fabric takes up to 200 years to decompose, during which time it releases toxic chemicals and dyes into the soil and generates greenhouse gases as it decomposes.
Sustainable fabrics are made to last longer, so fewer garments will end up in the trash. Some sustainable fabrics are made from recycled materials, including plastic, fish nets, and other fabrics. These recycled fabrics keep more waste out of landfills.
Eliminating toxic chemicals
Synthetic and unsustainable fabrics include multiple chemicals, such as formaldehyde, lead, and even mercury. These leach into marine environments and soil, damaging everything they come into contact with.
Sustainable fabrics avoid their use in several ways, such as using organic and sustainable dyeing alternatives or skipping the dye entirely.
Reducing your carbon footprint
The global fashion industry was responsible for 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 alone, about 4% of total emissions that year. Some estimates even go as far as to claim fast fashion contributed 10% of global emissions. That equates to the same greenhouse gas emissions as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany combined. The primary culprits of these emissions are virgin polyester, nylon, and acrylic, each of which is made from fossil fuels, including petroleum, and manufactured in plants powered by coal.
An eco-friendly fabric cuts out many of the chemicals and energy needed to make a synthetic fiber. A natural fiber will be easier on the environment and has nowhere near the carbon footprint of fast fashion materials.
Saving animal lives
While it might not really be news to you, especially if you’re reading this article, the fashion industry kills animals. Leather is one of the leaders in this, and the belief that the material is simply a by-product of the meat industry doesn’t hold water. The production of leather slaughters an estimated 430 million animals every year.
But it’s not just cows. The fashion industry exploits many animals in its quest for high quarterly profits:
- Silkworms to make silk
- Goats to make cashmere
- Sheep to make wool and shearling
- Lambs to make karakul lamb fur
- Camels and llamas to make vicuña
- Tibetan antelope to make shahtoosh
These animals are treated horrendously before eventually being brutally slaughtered. Roughly handled and beaten, they’re often killed using the cheapest possible means. Electrocution, bludgeoning, and gassing are all common. Some animals are dismembered and skinned alive.
Sustainable fabrics are cruelty-free alternatives that don’t engage in such practices. Vegan alternatives don’t use any animal parts or by-products, ensuring none are harmed during product development.
The fashion industry destroys forests worldwide, with 80% of deforestation in the Amazon being tied to cattle raising, which includes leather. It’s also responsible for 90% of deforestation in Queensland, Australia.
Deforestation accelerates climate change—thanks to less carbon dioxide and similar gases being recycled by forests—creates poor-quality soil, encourages erosion, and worsens flooding and other natural disasters.
Deforestation also drives wildlife from their homes, almost always leading to injury, starvation, and death, and many face the threat of extinction. Eco-friendly brands use only sustainably managed forests when sourcing their materials, avoiding the destruction that cotton production and other materials have on forests.
Encouraging fairer & safer working conditions
Endless hours, inhumane working conditions, less-than-minimum wage, and other factors all contribute to modern day slavery in the garment industry in multiple countries around the world, even developed, Western ones. (Reader: If you think it’s tactless to equate sweatshops with slavery, think again. Many critics equate these conditions to slavery.)
Fast fashion brands capitalize on low-wage migrant workers, often desperate and vulnerable, to keep costs low and pass the savings onto customers. How else would that $10 dress cost $10?
Sustainable options promote fair and safe working conditions for all workers involved in a fabric’s production. They show a greater awareness of economic and workplace conditions at all stages of the production process while advocating for improved wages and better working conditions, and creating more economic opportunities.
How to Identify Sustainable Fabrics
It’s one thing knowing what sustainable fabrics are, but it’s quite another to tell whether or not it’s the real deal. Greenwashing—the practice of saying a product is environmentally friendly when it isn’t—is rampant in fast fashion. Brands that engage in such a practice create marketing materials that mislead or outright lie to consumers.
So, if companies are not above outright lying, how can you separate a harmful fabric from a more sustainable alternative? Checking the labels and looking for particular certifications is how.
If a brand is sustainable, it won’t hesitate to highlight that and any recognition it receives, so you won’t have to look hard. Here are six organizations and certifications to look for.
1. Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Cradle is an independent and science-based certification that focuses on promoting environmentally friendly clothes. It’s recognized by Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon, and many other international retailers. Here’s how its certification process works:
- Ensuring products are safe for the environment, wildlife, and humans
- Creating a circular economy
- Protecting the environment with clean energy
- Safeguarding natural resources
- Implementing safe and equitable working conditions
2. Fairtrade Certification
You might have seen the Fairtrade Mark on a few of your clothes before, not knowing what it means. Sustainable fabrics and clothes that earn this certification pass strict standards. Here’s exactly what brands with this certification commit to:
- Improving quality of life for workers involved in the production process
- Enabling farmer groups to become stronger organizations
- Protecting workers’ rights
- Implementing environmental and sustainable best practices during a product’s development
- Empowering farmers to take greater control of their businesses and communities
- Working toward gender equality
3. Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100
Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100 tests fabrics for 100 of the most harmful chemicals used in the production of fabrics and clothes. It not only takes regulated chemicals into account—those that are banned from use in textiles—but also unregulated ones. Many legal chemicals that are used in fabric production are still harmful to the environment, animals, and people.
The Standard 100 also looks at environmental best practices and social responsibility to ensure sustainable fabrics are as sustainable as possible.
It’s also becoming increasingly commonplace within the sustainable fashion industry. Companies in over 60 countries have been certified by the Oeko-Tex Standard 100, despite it being voluntary.
4. Made in Green
Made in Green is related to Oeko-Tex but serves as an independent certification in practice. It ensures that leather products and textiles are made under socially responsible working conditions. The certification process also reassures consumers that these are sustainable fabrics made in environmentally friendly facilities.
They’re tested for harmful chemicals throughout the production process, with the certification highlighting these chemicals’ absence. It also certifies social responsibility, traceability in the supply chain, and consumer safety.
5. GOTS Certified
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) unifies existing standards in the textile industry and outlines best practices for brands to follow when making sustainable material. It looks at natural fibers and clothes across the entire supply chain and provides independent sustainability certification.
Having one set standard for producers and retailers to abide by increases transparency in the sustainable fashion industry. GOTS certification is also found on personal hygiene products, mattresses, home textiles, and even some food contact textiles and lets consumers track the products back to their source.
6. Forest Stewardship Council
Beech trees and eucalyptus trees are used in several fabrics—notably rayon—while forests are cleared to make way for crops and farmlands that fuel the fashion industry. The Forest Stewardship Council focuses on brands that use any kind of tree when making products.
Certification ensures the products are sourced from only sustainably managed forests and that brands follow environmental best practices when doing so. The Forest Stewardship Council has become increasingly notable in recent years, with brands like IKEA partnering with the nonprofit to reduce deforestation worldwide.
10 Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Fabrics
There are plenty of sustainable materials out there. Chances are, when you buy from a truly sustainable fashion company, it’s one of these 10 specific sustainable fabrics.
1. Organic cotton
Cotton is a sustainable fabric because it’s a natural fiber that can be grown sustainably. But it needs chemical pesticides and a great deal of water to grow in enough volumes to meet demand, making it less sustainable than consumers might think. Enter organic cotton. Organic cotton doesn’t use pesticides at all, instead focusing on environmental best practices.
The lack of these chemicals makes organic cotton more sustainable than its virgin counterpart, as no chemicals leach into the soil or water.
2. Organic hemp
Organic hemp is one of the most versatile materials on the planet and is used in everything from food and construction to clothing and cosmetics. It can be grown year-round and doesn’t need much water, pesticides, or maintenance to flourish. Organic hemp even returns nutrients to the soil, making it more eco-friendly than other sustainable fabrics.
Sustainable brands ensure the material is grown free from chemicals to make it as sustainable as possible. It’s also known to get softer with each wash, making it one of the more appealing fabrics for clothing and bedwear.
3. Recycled fabrics
Cotton, polyester, wool, and many other fabrics can be recycled and turned into fabric for more clothes. Furthermore, some fabrics can be made from non-fabric materials, such as recycled plastic. Using recycled wool, cotton, and other fabrics prevents fabric waste, and no further resources are required to create them.
Recycled polyester is one of the more interesting recycled fabrics, as virgin polyester is one of the most harmful synthetic fabrics you can buy. Recycled polyester is made from plastic bottles and reduces the amount of waste that makes its way to landfills.
Recycled plastics aren’t perfect, however. They still release microplastics into the environment as they biodegrade. These particles, about 5 millimeters in length, choke aquatic creatures and prove deadly to marine life.
4. Organic linen
Organic linen is a lot like organic hemp as it offers many of the same benefits. It’s fully biodegradable when left alone, doesn’t need much maintenance or resources when grown and harvested, and can be used in the same ways.
Every part of the plant can be used to create organic linen, resulting in zero waste. The manufacturing process creates some carbon emissions, but this is minimal compared to synthetic and unsustainable alternatives.
Organic linen also doesn’t need any of the toxic chemicals seen with other materials. It’s one of the more sustainable fabrics you can choose.
Econyl is similar to recycled nylon in that it’s made from recycled synthetic waste, using fishing nets and industrial plastic to create a new fiber. The recycling process results in less waste and uses fewer resources than traditional nylon production methods, making it the more sustainable option.
The unfortunate news is that these plastics will still end up being thrown out, even if not in the form of fishing nets. Microplastics and chemicals will continue to leach into oceans and soil. Like recycled polyester and similar synthetics, the process delays the inevitable.
Lyocell is made from wood pulp and boasts multiple positive properties. Antibacterial, moisture resistant, odor free, and absorbent, it’s a great fabric for sportswear and similar items. Wood pulp is a natural product and makes lyocell one of the more sustainable fabrics you can choose.
Wood pulp used to create lyocell needs to be chemically digested before it’s fit for use. These chemicals are put through a closed-loop system, a recycling process in which the chemicals are collected after use and reused with subsequent fabric batches. The process also reduces the amount of water needed to create the fabric.
Qmonos is one of the more interesting sustainable fabrics. It’s made from synthetic spider silk and doesn’t use any actual spiders. Spider silk genes and microbes are used to make the fabric, and the resulting material is vegan friendly.
Clothes made using qmonos are more durable and lightweight than alternatives, but it is hard to find and can be quite expensive.
Vegan leather is a sustainable alternative to animal leather. It’s cruelty free and doesn’t kill any animals during its production. Not all options are eco-friendly, however, with many being made of plastics. These leach chemicals into the environment and increase carbon emissions.
Pinatex isn’t one of these.
A natural food by-product, it’s made from fibers from the pineapple leaf. It’s completely biodegradable and doesn’t harm the environment as it breaks down. The only downside is the amount of resources needed to create Pinatex. Since it’s a food by-product, the environmental harm must be weighed against the fact that the main product, pineapples, feeds the local community.
9. Deadstock fabric
Deadstock fabric isn’t exactly a type of fabric, but it’s a term regularly used by fashion brands touting their sustainability. It comprises old pieces of fabric that went unsold for various reasons. It could simply be slightly damaged or even over-ordered by a store that no longer needs it. It’s exactly the same quality as the fabric that was sold but remains leftover.
The fabric is environmentally friendly because it recycles fabric that otherwise would’ve been thrown out or left unused. It does have its drawbacks, however. Manufacturers routinely over-produce fabrics knowing they’ll eventually sell leftovers at a discounted rate, undoing many of the perceived benefits deadstock fabric has.
Bamboo is touted as one of the most sustainable fabrics you can choose, but the reality isn’t as cut and dry as many would believe. It’s only sustainable when grown in the right way and often needs to go through a chemically intensive process before it’s suitable to be used in fabrics and clothing. That proves toxic to the environment, but organic bamboo avoids all this, making it even more sustainable.
While it’s more sustainable than polyester and nonorganic cotton, it’s more comparable to rayon viscose in terms of sustainability. Bamboo made using a closed-loop system is an even more sustainable option than rayon viscose, given it reduces the resources needed to create the end product. It also limits the harmful chemicals that end up in the environment and oceans by 95%.
When shopping for bamboo clothing, choose organic bamboo to be as sustainable as possible.
Where to Get Sustainable Materials
Sustainable fashion is more popular than it’s ever been, and sustainable materials are found in increasingly more garments. High street brands have capitalized on this as more and more retailers focus on sustainable practices. Taking a look down the high street, you should be able to find more than a few sustainably made clothes.
Speaking of environmentally friendly clothes, finding a supplier to help make your own clothes or start an eco-friendly fashion brand isn’t difficult. You’ll have more than a few places to source your sustainable fabrics from.
Here are a few.
Perhaps the most well-known trade show to focus on sustainable options in the fashion industry—and other topics—the Common Objective (CO) Expo collaborates with and promotes sustainable designers and brands. Held online, it’s accessible to anyone in the fashion industry and showcases CO suppliers worldwide, matching them with brands and buyers.
Focusing on the United Kingdom’s fashion industry, the Textile Forum brings together representatives from start-ups and large retailers and designers, and everything in between. The focus on the UK makes it an easy way to source local materials if you’re already based there.
Premiere Vision hosts trade events all over the world and encourages innovation in sustainability and other areas within the fashion world. It highlights ethical designers and suppliers while holding informative seminars focused on eco-friendliness, ethical working conditions, and environmental best practices, among other topics.
Brands That Use Sustainable Fabrics
The fashion industry naturally drives the environmental impact synthetic fabrics have. Thankfully, eco-friendly fabrics are becoming increasingly more popular. Multiple brands use sustainable fabrics in various capacities:
- Zara aims to have 50% of its products in its Join Life range by the end of 2022.
- Afends—100% of its products are suitable for composting at home.
- Plant Faced Clothing is a 100% vegan brand.
- Ninety Percent
- MUD Jeans—About 40% of their products are recycled jeans.
- Lucy & Yak
- TOMS donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold.
- Patagonia uses 100% organically grown cotton and boasts 87% recycled clothing.
- Levis has lowered the greenhouse gas emissions in its production process by 25% and uses 80% less water in its products than it previously did.
- Adidas is already using recycled materials and plans to add recycled cotton to this list from 2024 onward. It also commits to fair labor practices and is powered by 20% renewable energy.
Avoid These Unsustainable Fabrics
While the number of sustainable fabrics out there are increasing, most clothes are still made from unsustainable materials. These primarily comprise synthetic fabrics, but semi-synthetic fabric—a blend of natural and man-made materials—is also common. Semi-synthetic fabrics aren’t as sustainable as the eco-friendly fabrics I listed above, but they’re better than full synthetic.
Clothes made from these fabrics feel cheap because of the low-quality materials they’re made from. They usually end up in landfills because they’re so badly made they tear and break quickly. Here are the most unsustainable clothing fabrics:
- Polyester: Created using a man-made polymer, polyester is essentially a plastic. Even recycled polyester eventually leaches chemicals into the environment and releases microplastics into waterways and oceans.
- Nylon: A thermoplastic, nylon is made from fossil fuels. Recycled nylon increases the lifespan of the material, but by then the environmental damage has already been done.
- Acrylic: Fossil fuels are vital to making acrylic, another plastic. It leaches microplastics and chemicals into the environment in the same way as polyester.
- Cotton: Conventional cotton is a natural fiber, but it’s unsustainable thanks to the high water consumption and pesticides it needs to grow. Cotton harvesting also needs a lot of energy use and the burning of fossil fuels, such as in tractor fuel. You could try recycled cotton, which is available from some retailers, but even recycled cotton requires natural resources to produce.
- Rayon: Made from wood pulp from eucalyptus trees and beech trees, harmful chemicals are used to turn this wood pulp into a light cellulose fabric These can then leach into the environment and affect marine life and wildlife. Not all rayon fabrics are created equally, though. For more info, read my article all about rayon fabric.
What Are the Most Sustainable Fabrics—Wrapping Up
Now that you know more about sustainable fabrics, you can make more informed clothing choices in the future. Whether you’re a fashion lover who wants to decrease your environmental impact, or a designer who wants to keep the manufacturing process as eco-friendly as possible, choosing the right fabrics is essential.
Organic cotton, bamboo, pinatex, and other sustainable fabrics, such as modal fabrics, are the future of eco-friendly fashion. Organic fabrics and plant-based synthetics reduce waste, lack harmful chemicals, respect workers, and are sourced from sustainably managed forests and farms.
Be sure to choose one of these fabrics on your next shopping trip and you’re well on your way to sustainable living.