Explore an essential part of sustainable supply chain in fashion and learn about 10 of the most sustainable fabrics to wear or make clothes with.
If you’re interested in sustainable fashion, you might want to consider the importance of wearing sustainably made and sourced fabrics. Even if a fashion brand makes clothes locally, reduces fabric waste and pays its workers fairly, their fabric choices may stop them from being able to call themselves truly sustainable.
That’s why we’re writing about sustainable materials today, so that designers and consumers can make more informed choices regarding the fabrics they buy and help us reach our Sustainable Development Goals.
We’ll start off with an explanation of how to define sustainable fabric, before discussing where to find sustainable fabric suppliers and how to tell if they’re legitimate. Then we’ll discuss some of the most and least sustainable fabrics out there.
How do you define a sustainable fabric?
We can define sustainable fabric in three ways. Firstly, we need to ask where the material comes from. Does it come from stripping raw materials, damaging farming and agricultural practices, or from an animal? Or were the materials sustainably grown or recycled?
Secondly, we need to know whether the raw materials need any processing before they can be used to make fabrics. Some examples of sustainable fabric processing include weaving, knitting or using non-toxic dyes. However, many fabrics require bleaching, colouring with carcinogenic dyes, and chemical processing. One common example of the latter is the use of formaldehyde to prevent fabrics from wrinkling.
The third thing to consider is a fabrics end-of-life prospects – where is it going to end up, and is it going to negatively impact people or the planet? This is important because many unsustainable fabrics end up in the trash, and textiles make up 7.7 percent of municipal solid waste in landfills.
So when you’re choosing a fabric, it’s vital to consider whether it will last many years, or whether it can eventually be recycled or composted when it cannot be worn anymore. If a piece of fabric is sourced and processed in an eco-friendly way and has potential beyond its function as a piece of clothing, then it passes the test and can be considered a sustainable choice.
How to tell whether fabrics are sustainable
Now you know what a sustainable fabric is, it’s time to discuss how to tell whether a fabric is the real deal. Currently, in the fashion industry, brands are regularly using greenwashing tactics in order to convince consumers that their clothing is sustainable.
Greenwashing is when brands create false marketing materials or branding that suggest they are environmentally friendly, without actually committing to sustainable practices. In order to combat greenwashing and understand what your clothes are really made from, it’s a great idea to become familiar with clothing labels.
In our Sustainable Fashion: Standards, Certifications, and Schemes open step by Creative Skillset, we give a rundown of some of the things to look out for on your clothing labels when you’re trying to shop sustainably:
You’ve almost certainly seen the Fairtrade Mark before, which appears on product labels to show who has made your clothes, and that Fairtrade standards have been met. Most Fairtrade standards focus on ensuring that workers and producers get fair terms of trade, good prices, and longer lead times.
All of these things promote worker security, self-sufficiency and more sustainable practices. Regarding materials, if cotton is Fairtrade it will be indicated by either the Fairtrade Mark or Fairtrade Sourcing Partnership label.
Cradle to Cradle®
The Cradle to Cradle® certification is an eco-label that shows there has been an effort to create an eco-intelligent product. Fabrics or clothing items can be given Basic, Silver, Gold, or Platinum level certification based on efforts across areas including eco-materials, social responsibility, water efficiency, renewable energy and recycling.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was developed by leading standard organisations with the aim to unify the existing standards in the field of sustainable textile processing. This standard looks at all stages of fabric creation, including harvesting raw materials, the manufacturing process, and responsible labelling.
Made in Green
The Made in Green label certifies that a product has been manufactured in factories that respect the environment and universal rights of workers. This helps consumers understand exactly where their fabrics and clothes are coming from.
The International Oeko-Tex Association tests textiles for harmful substances and provides certifications for textiles that don’t use harmful chemicals in their manufacturing processes. If a textile article carries the Oeko-Tex STANDARD 100 label, the consumer can be sure that every part of the item is harmless for human health.
Where can I get sustainable materials from?
If you’re clothes shopping, you can check labels for any of the certifications we mentioned above, or research sustainable clothing brands and find some businesses that align with your values.
Speaking of fabrics more specifically, however, you’ll usually need to find a sustainable supplier. This will be especially important if you’re creating your own clothing line, as this requires access to plenty of fabric. In our How to find a supplier open step by Creative Skillset, we offer some suggestions. These include:
The leading event for sourcing sustainable materials, components and other fashion items, CO Expo (previously SOURCE Expo) is held online and collaborates with sustainable brands and designers. The event showcases businesses from Common Objective’s global supplier base, including fabrics and factories, and then matches them with buyers and brands.
One of the most famous supply trade shows to exist, Premiere Vision is held in cities all over the world. They display suppliers, ethical designers, and informative seminars, and the show is known to be a key destination for innovation in the fashion industry.
If you’re looking for something a little more low-key than a global trade show, the UK based Textile Forum could be a great place to source sustainable fabrics. The show is targeted at designers, major fashion retailers, start-ups, tailors, seamstresses and costumiers.
10 sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics
There are plenty of sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics out there, but these ten are the most commonly used at the present time. Some you’ve probably heard of, some you may not have, but hopefully, you’ll learn something valuable.
1. Organic hemp
Hemp is a versatile plant that can be used to make anything from food and building materials to cosmetics and fabrics. It’s actually one of the oldest fibres used for clothing, and it’s been used for hundreds of years due to its all-season suitability and ability to soften the more it’s washed.
Additionally, hemp is a very low maintenance plant. It needs little water, no pesticides and is naturally environmentally friendly. It even returns nutrients to the soil! If hemp is grown organically, without the help of chemicals to speed up the process, then it’s a truly sustainable fabric.
2. Organic cotton
Cotton is a natural fibre, and one of the most common fabrics out there, but conventionally it can cause a lot of problems. It is extremely water-intensive and chemical-intensive, which can have negative effects on the environment.
Organic cotton is grown in a way that doesn’t use pesticides or chemicals and is therefore significantly more environmentally friendly than regular cotton. You can double-check that your cotton is organic by seeing if it is GOTS-certified. If you want to go a step further, recycled cotton is an even more sustainable option.
3. Organic linen
The benefits of organic linen are very similar to that of hemp – it’s been grown for hundreds of years, requires little maintenance, and is biodegradable when left untreated. Plus, it’s soft, light, strong, and even naturally moth resistant.
Every part of the plant can be used in the creation of linen fabric, meaning there is also minimal wastage. Although the manufacturing process is relatively mechanically intensive and will release some emissions, the fabric is still one of the most sustainable options out there.
4. Recycled fabrics
We briefly mentioned earlier that recycled cotton is the best kind of cotton, and the same is true with many fabrics. The argument is the same one that we use for advocating buying second-hand clothes – using recycled fabrics means you don’t use up any new materials or resources and you prevent fabric waste.
Recycled polyester is an interesting sustainable fabric since traditional polyester is usually one of the worst offenders. It’s often made from plastic bottles, therefore, it reduces the amount of plastic waste sent to landfills and skips the intensive process that normal polyester goes through. However, it is worth noting that recycled polyester still releases microplastics when washed.
Lyocell is a lightweight fabric made from wood pulp, and it has some great properties, including being highly absorbent, anti-bacterial, odour-free and moisture-resistant. Since wood pulp is plant material, lyocell is biodegradable, helping to make it a sustainable fabric. The most popular brand of lyocell is Tencel.
The wood pulp does need to be chemically digested in order to create cellulose fibres, but the water and chemicals used during production are usually able to be recycled. This greatly decreases the amount of new chemicals and water being taken for production purposes.
Another recycled fabric, Econyl is a fibre made from synthetic waste including industrial plastic and ocean fishing nets. The result is extremely similar to nylon, making Econyl a kind of recycled nylon. Due to the recycling process, significantly less waste is produced and fewer resources are used compared to nylon production.
It is still worth mentioning that washing Econyl will lead to shedding microplastics that could end up in the ocean. So perhaps consider using a washing bag that prevents microplastics from escaping, or just sticking to products that don’t need to be washed often, such as trainers.
Vegan leather has become extremely popular in recent years, but many of the leather substitutes are made from plastic, which isn’t sustainable at all. Piñatex is a material made from pineapple leaf fibre, and is, therefore, a natural food by-product. This is especially great because pineapple leaves are traditionally discarded, but now a new purpose has been found for them.
Piñatex was manufactured by Ananas Anam in 2017, and the company works with farmers in the Philippines to produce this material. One downside to consider is that cultivating pineapples uses up a lot of resources, which is why it’s best that Piñatex is just made as a food by-product.
One of the most interesting fabrics we’ll be discussing today is Qmonos – synthetic spider silk developed using spider genes and microbes. Since it’s synthetic, no spiders are used in the process, making the fabric vegan-friendly and not harmful to any creatures.
The fibre is, amazingly, five times stronger than steel, making it extremely durable. Despite this, it’s a lightweight and flexible fabric. Although Qmonos is a great sustainable fabric choice, being completely biodegradable, it is worth mentioning that it’s very expensive and hard to find.
9. Deadstock fabric
This isn’t a type of fabric per se, but deadstock fabric is routinely used by brands claiming to be sustainable. Deadstock fabric is essentially old fabric that hasn’t been sold – it could be slightly damaged, it may have been over-ordered by the original owners, or it might be sold as fabric scraps.
Vintage deadstock is sustainable because these fabrics already exist, and there are no new damaging manufacturing processes involved in their creation because they were made so long ago. However, deadstock is not necessarily sustainable. This is because some factories purposely over-produce fabric, knowing that people will buy it at a discounted rate.
In addition, some deadstock fabrics may not have been used because there are too many issues – so you may be buying a low-quality fabric. As long as you stick to vintage deadstock, you’ll be choosing a sustainable option.
Many new sustainable brands will advertise their clothes as being made from soft, sustainable bamboo fabric. The truth is a little more complicated. Bamboo is actually a highly sustainable plant when grown in the right way, but often the way it’s manufactured into fabric is not so great for the planet.
Often, bamboo needs to go through an intensive chemical process in order to create fabric, and so the finished product is actually very similar to the unsustainable rayon. However, it is still a more sustainable option than regular cotton and polyester, so if you do a little research on the brand, you may still be choosing a relatively eco-friendly fabric.
Some unsustainable fabrics to avoid
Although there are plenty of great sustainable fabrics out there, and new fashion technology is ensuring that we get an even wider selection to choose from, most clothes are unfortunately made from unsustainable materials.
The biggest culprits are fast fashion brands, who tend to make very cheap clothes from these materials without paying workers fairly or ensuring safe working conditions. What’s more, because these clothes are so badly made, they often end up in the landfill or polluting the environment with microplastics and toxic chemicals.
Here are the top fabrics to try and avoid – even if you’re buying secondhand clothes, it might be worth factoring in fabric choice to the equation:
The least sustainable fabrics
- Polyester. This is short for any fabric made from a synthetic, man-made polymer, which means polyester is essentially plastic.
- Nylon. Nylon is a silky thermoplastic, often made from fossil fuels, that can be melted and turned into fabric fibres.
- Acrylic. This is a fabric made from plastic threads created through the use of fossil fuels like petroleum.
- Cotton. This is a natural fibre that causes problems due to high water consumption, high levels of pesticides and pollution when overfarmed.
- Rayon. This is a fibre that comes from natural wood pulp but requires harmful chemicals to convert it to cellulose, and can also be dangerous to wear.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a lot about sustainable fabrics, and you’re ready to go out into the world and make more eco-friendly buying choices. Whether you’re a designer, seamstress, or just a fashion lover, the fabrics you choose can make all the difference when you’re trying to be sustainable.
Making sure you do your research is one of the most important things to do when it comes to buying sustainable fashion, so we hope that this article will save you some time, but also inspire you to find some eco-friendly fabrics and brands that you love.