As you may already know, the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters globally. Fabric production is the main reason this industry is so harmful. Due to this, the search for eco-friendly materials to satisfy the textile demand has picked up.
As consumers, we also have the power to change what's happening in the fashion industry today. The first step we can take against fast fashion is getting informed on which fabrics are good for the environment and which aren’t. To make it easier for you, we compiled a list of fabrics that you absolutely need to avoid while also showing you the most sustainable and environmentally friendly ones so that you can spot them when you go out shopping.
What Exactly Are Sustainable Fabrics & What Makes them Eco-Friendly?
Sustainable fabrics, like ethical wool, are fabrics that are made from natural, recycled, or eco-friendly materials that don’t harm the environment. What makes them eco-friendly is their contribution to reducing the negative impact of the textile industry on the environment by not polluting nor damaging it during their production, use, or disposal.
Why should you purchase sustainable clothing material?
When you decide to buy clothing made from sustainable materials, you are buying quality while also helping reduce your carbon footprint. Eco-friendly clothing manufacturers make their products last so that you don’t find yourself in the situation of getting rid of a garment that got damaged the second time you use it.
Sustainable fabrics also help reduce waste and conserve water by not polluting it. Plus, they don’t contribute to deforestation or use toxic chemicals. Sustainable clothing materials are simply better for the people and the environment in general.
How does Fast Fashion impact the environment?
Fast fashion impacts the environment in many ways. At first sight, most of the clothes it produces end up in landfills, creating tons of waste. But behind the scenes, it’s much more than just that.
Fast Fashion encourages the exploitation of natural resources such as water and plants in order to manufacture clothes as fast and as cheaply as possible. It generates a LOT of greenhouse gases (up to 1.2 billion tons annually), and it pollutes waterways by using toxic chemicals. It’s more than evident that sustainable (slow) fashion is the way to go when it comes to protecting the environment.
So… What Are the Most Sustainable Fabrics?
Recycled & Organic Cotton
Conventional Cotton, as you may already know, is one of the least sustainable fabrics to produce. However, there are a few sustainable alternatives that can give you the same breathable, soft, and durable fabric but without harming the environment. Those alternatives are recycled and organic cotton.
What Makes Recycled Cotton a Sustainable Fabric?
Recycled cotton is hands down the most sustainable way to wear cotton. Its sustainability relies on the fact that it prevents fashion waste from ending up in landfills by recycling what is already available. Plus, it uses way less water and energy to produce.
Used garments, old upholstery, and any textile leftovers can be used to produce recycled cotton. However, the production of recycled cotton fabric is quite limited at the moment, and most brands blend it with new, traditional cotton in order to achieve good quality. But as long as the negative impact on our environment declines, we consider it an excellent sustainable option. Just search for certifications and standards like Global Recycle Standard (GRS), Recycled Content Standard (RCS), and Oeko-Tex 100.
What Makes Organic Cotton An Eco-Friendly Textile?
Organic cotton fabric has the same quality as traditional cotton, but it takes the heavy negative impact on the environment out of the equation. It’s grown from non-GMO seeds without the use of chemicals, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers and uses about 62% less energy and 91% less water than traditional cotton.
Also, growing organic cotton encourages ethical work conditions for farmers as this type of fabric doesn’t expose them to harmful chemicals.
Make sure to look for these third-party certifications: USDA-Certified Organic, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Organic Content Standard (OCS), Bluesign, Better Cotton Standard, Fair Trade, and Oeko-Tex 10.
As versatile as cotton and as light as linen (while also being one of the most durable natural fabrics in the world), organic hemp is a fabric that every person who thrives for a green closet loves!
Hemp comes from the plant’s stalk with the same name, and it’s basically the sober cousin of marijuana, but why do we love organic hemp fabric so much? Well, it’s soft, strong, highly breathable, sun-protective, and antimicrobial. What more could you ask for in a sustainable fabric?
Even though this organic fabric tends to be a bit more expensive than others, its benefits make it totally worth it.
Why is organic Hemp considered an environmentally friendly clothing material?
Organic hemp is considered eco-friendly, mainly because of its low water consumption (take notes, traditional cotton), biodegradability, and the lack of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers required for its cultivation. Also, the plant absorbs CO2, its cultivation improves soil health by replenishing vital nutrients, and it can grow in the same place up to 14 times without damaging the soil.
Even though the authorities in some countries don’t love it as much as we do, organic hemp is simply one of the most sustainable fabrics around.
Organic linen is a natural fibre that we’ve been cultivating for centuries, but it just doesn’t seem to get old. And for a good reason.
The fabric is derived from the flax plant, and it’s super strong, increasing its longevity. In general, organic linen garments are durable, thick, and breathable, thus ideal for hot seasons/areas. They don’t retain bacteria nor absorb moisture.
What about organic linen makes it a good textile option?
First and foremost, this fabric is almost identical to hemp when it comes to sustainability. That already makes it a good textile choice. It absorbs CO2, and it doesn’t require fertilizers; it’s biodegradable and more. They literally share the same environmentally friendly qualities. Plus, cultivating organic linen can even rehabilitate polluted soil!
We have a sustainable semi-synthetic fabric over here! TENCEL™ is a breathable and lightweight fabric produced from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees by the Austrian company Lenzing AG. In reality, TENCEL™ is a variation of Lyocell, and they are almost the same thing. But TENCEL™ is only commercialized by Lenzing, and it’s the most eco-friendly and high-quality Lyocell.
P.S: It’s remarkably absorbent and quite soft, perfect for sensitive skins.
Certifications include Oeko-Tex 100, Forest Stewardship Council.
Why Tencel is an Eco-Friendly Fabric
TENCEL™ is an eco-friendly fabric as it’s made only with natural fibers and chemicals that are constantly reused in a closed-loop system, which minimizes the impact on the environment. On top of that, the fibers are collected only from sustainably managed forests, and the water they require to grow is minimal.
Modal is a semi-synthetic fiber, similar to rayon obtained from reconstituted cellulose from beech trees. It has made a name for itself in activewear because of how flexible, comfortable, light, and soft it is. But... Is Modal part of the eco-friendly textile group? Yes, but only TENCEL™ Modal.
What makes Modal a part of the eco-friendly textile group?
Even though modal uses similar production processes to rayon, Lenzing’s TENCEL™ Modal only uses trees from sustainably harvested forests (PEFC “Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification” certified) and reduces the usage of chemicals thanks to the same closed-loop production system that TENCEL™ Lyocell uses.
Also, their fabric is carbon-neutral and has a lower water consumption than cotton so just try to stick with Lenzing AG when it comes to Modal. Look for the same certifications as Tencel.
Would you believe us if we told you that not all polyester is completely bad? We swear!
Recycled polyester, also known as rPET, is the not-so-evil version of virgin polyester. And that’s because it involves recycling what already exists. It uses PET, a material found in clear plastic water bottles, and recycles it to create the fabric.
It's super versatile, and several companies are already using it to create t-shirts, leggings, and even yoga mats. But how does this fabric help our environment?
Recycled Polyester helps our environment; how?
Virgin polyester has damaged our environment in many, many ways (more on that later on in this post). Still, its recycled counterpart mainly helps our surroundings by reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. In addition, its production requires 59% less energy than virgin polyester, and it doesn’t contaminate air, soil, or water as much.
Apple Eco Leather
Do you love how leather looks but absolutely hate that it’s made out of the skin of animals? (Same here). Well, if you’re vegan or just feel an aversion towards the unethical treatment of animals, you’re going to find your place on Apple Eco Leather.
This fabric is made by the Italian company Frutmat, and it uses leftovers from the apple juice and compote industry to create handbags, notebooks, and even running shoes. “But which part of the industry?” you might ask. Well, you’re not going to believe this… Apple skins!
What does eco-leather bring to the sustainability table?
Around 1 billion animals are killed per year to make leather, but Apple Eco Leather seeks to reduce this number by creating nice-looking accessories without damaging a single animal.
Even though this fabric still gets mixed with some plastics to ensure longevity and stability in some products, in comparison to faux leather made from 100% fossil fuels, Apple Eco Leather has a lesser CO2 impact on the environment and on its own is fully biodegradable! And is typically certified by Oeko-Tex 100.
This one may make you feel like you’re close to the arachnid family while you wear it, and that’s because it’s made from microbes and spider silk genes. The soundtrack from Spider-Man plays in our heads.
From Japan’s Spiber Inc., Qmonos was born from the desire to create a fabric tougher than steel and more flexible than nylon but gentler to the environment. Its developer claims that the fiber is up to 5 times stronger than steel, but its most outstanding quality is its sustainability.
What type of sustainable clothing material is Qmonos
Qmonos is a sustainable synthetic clothing material that is 100% biodegradable. Also, it doesn’t harm spiders during its making, making it more sustainable and ethical than regular silk.
First, a fabric made out of apples, now, a material made out of pineapples. Fruits are earning their place on this post!
Pinatex is an innovative textile fabric that comes from pineapple leaves, which are traditionally discarded or burned. It has already been endorsed by different fashion designers, who have used it to make handbags and even sample shoes.
What type of textile fabric is Pinatex?
It’s a sustainable and cruelty-free replacement for leather that reduces waste and helps the people who harvest this delicious fruit. Just keep an eye open for some Pinatex brands. They sometimes cover the fabric in non-biodegradable resins. Look for the seal of approval from Oeko-Tex 100.
Besides TENCEL™ and Modal, Lenzing AG recently released a new type of viscose fabric: Ecovero. They are ruling the market of eco-friendly materials, and for a good reason. They are very transparent regarding their fiber-making process, and the quality they offer is remarkable.
This fiber is made from wood pulp, and it basically has the same properties as traditional viscose fabric (lightness, soft feel, versatility) but with less impact on the environment.
How does Ecovero help the environment?
Contrary to conventional viscose, Ecovero helps the environment mainly by not deforesting tropical forests around the world. Instead, it’s made from a wide variety of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC certified wood from trees sourced in forests in Austria and Bavaria. This also makes its CO2 emissions lower than traditional viscose, as its transport routes are shorter. Also, it consumes half the energy and water of its counterpart.
Whether you want a t-shirt or some bedsheets, Bamboo Lyocell ticks many boxes in the eco-friendly textiles path.
This fabric it’s a significant improvement from viscose, its predecessor. It has antibacterial properties, is breathable, hypoallergenic, and very absorbent. Furthermore, bamboo cultivation itself is quite cost-effective, fast, and easy to maintain.
Why is Bamboo Lyocell a real contender in the sustainable fabric race?
Like TENCEL™ Lyocell, Bamboo Lyocell is also made in a closed-loop system that reuses the chemicals and water needed to break down bamboo pulp. The fabric’s also biodegradable with a decomposition rate of around eight days, making it a good bet in the sustainable fabric race.
Most brands will carry the following third-party certification: Oeko-Tex 100, Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), FSC.
Pandas love bamboo, and so do we, but if we’re talking about bamboo-only fabrics, they better be organic!
Bamboo by itself consumes more CO2 than dome trees, and it doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizers to grow. Plus, the fabric is super comfy and long-lasting, but what really matters is how the plant is processed.
To turn bamboo into a piece of fabric, most of the time, it’s processed with strong chemicals that can be harmful to both the environment and the manufacturing workers. However, organic bamboo doesn’t mess up with nasty chemicals.
How sustainable is Bamboo Fabric really?
Bamboo processing is done in a way that controls chemical use, and it earns a point on sustainability. But to be 100% organic and earn more points on sustainability, the fabric has to be made with mechanically processed bamboo fibers. However, it makes up just a tiny amount of what we find in the market.
We encourage you to search for third-party certifications like Forest Stewardship Council, USDA-Certified Organic, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Organic Content Standard (OCS), Fair Trade, Oeko-Tex 100, and Bluesign.
This way, you can be sure that the garment you want to buy is made out of organic bamboo and avoid getting greenwashed by companies that claim their shirts are made out of something they are not.
The Least Sustainable Fabrics
Rayon: The Greenwashed so-called “Sustainable Fabric”
Rayon is basically the epitome of greenwashing in the textile industry, period.
Just because it is made from the cellulose of plants, generally derived from wood pulp, doesn’t mean it is eco-friendly or sustainable. This fabric has even been classified as a better and more sustainable alternative to polyester or traditional cotton, but in fact, it’s terrible for the environment.
The fiber itself is biodegradable and non-toxic, but the issue arises when it comes to the way companies transform it into fabric.
How Rayon Really Impacts the Environment
Contrary to its second cousin TENCEL™, Rayon contributes to the massive deforestation of rainforests by cutting down thousands of hectares each year, just to plant trees specifically used to produce rayon.
It’s processed with lots of toxic chemicals, energy, and water. This not only harms the environment by polluting it, but it also harms factory workers. Solvents used during the manufacturing of this fabric can be very toxic to humans, which can lead to health problems. Fast fashion couldn’t care less about either of these nasty consequences, so many companies continue using this fabric while calling it “sustainable.” Shame on them!
Polyester, the most common fabric used in fast fashion… Ugh, we can’t stress enough how bad it is for the environment, for real. But first things first, what exactly is polyester?
It’s a synthetic, man-made polymer that is derived from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, air, and water. And we already know how “sustainable” fabrics derived from that nonrenewable fossil fuel are… Not at all.
What Makes Polyester bad for the environment?
Everything about its existence makes it bad for the environment, honestly. But specifically, this fabric is characterized as being energy-hungry, non-biodegradable (it may take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to break down in a landfill), and highly toxic to water streams because of the chemical dyes that most manufacturers use.
If all of this wasn’t enough, each time we wear a polyester garment, it releases up to 700.000 plastic microfibers that end up polluting rivers and oceans. Not to mention the amount of CO2 it produces, nearly 40% of all CO2 emissions from the fashion industry come from polyester manufacturing.
Acrylic is another synthetic fiber derived from petroleum, polyester’s BFF. This fabric can be found in hats, gloves, sweaters, and pretty much any garment whose function is to keep you warm. But we’re sure the environmental impacts it causes will not give you a warm sensation.
How does acrylic fabric affect our environment?
Acrylic fabric affects our environment by being destructive. Its production is energy-intensive, it pollutes waterways with toxic chemicals, it’s dangerous to the health of factory workers, and the final product is not biodegradable by any means. Long story short, it has the same impact on the environment as polyester. Try to avoid it at all costs!
Nylon is also part of the world’s dirtiest industries as it’s another fiber derived from petroleum. Not only can you find it in clothing like tights, but also in toothbrushes, umbrellas,, and more.
It's a versatile, flexible and durable fiber, but it's not worth owning a product made from this material if it means supporting the fossil fuels industry and polluting the environment when the product is no longer useful.
Why is Nylon a bad clothing fabric choice?
Besides being part of the petroleum industry (you already know the damages it causes), the production of nylon fabric creates nitrous oxide. This greenhouse gas has 300 times the warming potential of CO2. Also, manufacturing nylon takes enormous amounts of water and energy, making it a terrible clothing fabric choice that doesn’t even biodegrade.
Ah, cotton. A biodegradable fiber that’s breathable, soft, and top-tier quality… Is there anything wrong with it? Well, yes! Traditional cotton has earned its place as the world’s most polluting fabric, and many people still don’t know why. Yup, cotton comes from a natural source, but just like rayon, that doesn’t mean it is good for our environment.
What impact does cotton have on our environment?
Traditional cotton is thirsty. Like REALLY thirsty. This is the primary way it damages our planet by requiring up to 2,700 liters of water to produce just one single cotton t-shirt.
Also, it requires a lot of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers to grow that pollutes waterways and are dangerous to farmers and communities. Nobody likes to have toxic water near them.
But what should you do with the cotton garments you already have in your closet? Just try to make them last as long as possible.
What fabric is the best of the best? What textile rings in as the absolute most sustainable clothing material on the market?
After dipping our toes in the waters of 10 different types of environmentally friendly fabrics, we can say that our absolute favourites are organic hemp and TENCEL™. If you're looking for something naturally sourced, hemp is a good choice because of its high durability and versatility, plus the benefits it brings to the environment. Not only does it not pollute it, but it can even improve the life of the soil where it’s planted. How cool is that?
On the other hand, if you are looking for something semi-synthetic, TENCEL™ is another good option as it has the advantages of synthetic fabrics without being a complete nightmare for the environment.
We couldn't choose just one as it depends on what each person is looking for in terms of comfort, flexibility, and durability. Still, those are our favourites within the two main categories of materials. At the end of the day, you decide which fabric best suits your needs. Just make sure you continue down the bright path of sustainable fashion!
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