Sustainable fabrics are becoming more and more popular as people realize the environmental impact of their clothing choices. We all want to make sure that we're wearing sustainable clothing, made without harming the environment during the production process.
In my previous articles, I lifted the lid on why fast fashion is so bad, and revealed some amazing eco-friendly clothing brands that produce clothing from natural materials. I also briefly touched upon the concept of sustainable fabrics.
Today, I'll explain what makes a fabric "sustainable" and how you can choose clothes with these types of fibers in them.
I’ll also reveal some of the more popular fabrics that aren’t as natural or sustainable as you might think...I’m looking at you, cotton and wool!
Most sustainable fabrics produce fewer carbon emissions than their traditional counterparts. They do as little harm to the planet and human health as possible.
This checklist is a great starting place when looking to become more sustainable with your fabric choices.
Your fabrics don’t necessarily have to meet every criterion of this checklist. However, the more you can tick off, the better.
You need to be sure the materials used to make the fabric are actually as sustainable as they claim to be.
The best way to ensure this is to look for official certification marks on your fabric, clothing, bedding, etc.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic structure has been changed through genetic engineering.
An excellent place to start when looking to avoid GMOs is to look for the certifications mentioned above.
Sustainable fabrics should not be made with any crops that have contributed to soil erosion.
It’s common knowledge that most synthetic fibers either need a lot of chemicals during the manufacturing process or are made predominantly from a chemical-based material. Polyester and petroleum, for example.
The fewer chemicals used in fabric, the more sustainable it is.
Low or zero chemical use is also better for human health as our skin can absorb toxins from the fabrics we wear.
Clothing is the second most polluting industry (behind oil!).
Sustainable fabrics are ones made with low or zero waste and pollution.
The less water used to make fabric, the more sustainable it is.
Conventional cotton, for example, is prone to shrinking and so is washed (and shrunk) multiple times before being turned into clothing, etc. All that preshrinking is a waste of water.
Nobody, child or adult, should be forced to work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions to produce fabric.
Sustainable fabrics are produced in a way that is beneficial to everyone in the supply chain.
Any animal products used in fabric need to have been obtained in an ethical and cruelty-free manner.
The fast fashion industry churns out low-cost, low-quality clothing that doesn’t stand the test of time. It’s designed to be worn a handful of times and then discarded.
Sustainable fashion fabric is the exact opposite. It’s designed to be easily repairable and should last many years.
Emotional durability plays a crucial role in fabric sustainability. Items should not be designed to be part of a trend or fad. This leads to things being discarded way before they’ve come to the end of their usable life.
You can’t talk about sustainable fashion and fabrics without eventually coming back to the 3R’s.
Sustainable fabrics should...reduce the amount of natural resources used, reuse old fabrics and materials where possible, and be recyclable.
The more recycled materials used, the more sustainable the fabric.
One of the ultimate benchmarks of sustainable fabric is what kind of impact it has on the planet once it’s no longer needed.
If a fabric can biodegrade back to nature without leaching toxins, then it’s truly sustainable.
I’ve read all the reports...scoured all the reviews...tested all the options...and have come up with a list of all my favorite eco-friendly fabrics for sustainable living.
Each one of these fabrics (or fibers) meets most (if not all) of the checklist mentioned above.
For ease of reading, I’ve broken the list down into four main categories:
Using animals to produce fabric and fibers is not vegan. However, with a lot of care and attention, it can still be a sustainable practice.
Alpaca wool is the fleece of Alpacas.
Most alpacas are bred in the Peruvian Andes.
Alpacas are a great sustainable alternative to cashmere goats. Alpacas cut the grass they eat (allowing it to regrow quickly). Cashmere goats pull their grass feed clean out the ground.
Alpacas have soft padding under their feet. This means they do less soil erosion damage than cashmere goats or traditional wool-bearing sheep.
Another advantage alpacas wool has over sheep wool is the fact that it’s more hollow in structure. This extra space allows more warm air in and produces an incredibly insulating material.
Nope! I’m not joking! Camel wool is a thing!
In fact...it’s a pretty impressively sustainable thing!
Camel wool sheds naturally from Bactrian camels. No shearing. No docking. No mulesing.
Camel wool is 100% biodegradable and does not need any dyes or chemicals during the manufacturing process.
Ok...I know I gave cashmere a mild bashing above...so you might be surprised to read it's made my favorites in the very next section.
Traditional cashmere is not a very sustainable product. However, there are now producers popping up who are producing high-quality cashmere in a much more sustainable way.
Initiatives such as The Good Cashmere Standard are improving the lives of goats and farmers alike.
Recycled cashmere is also a nice way to give traditional cashmere a sustainable second life.
Down is soft, lightweight, and has excellent insulating properties. It’s a perfect option for bedding and jackets.
The main sustainability issue with traditionally produced down (bird feathers) is the barbaric act of live-plucking.
Live-plucking means that birds can be ‘harvested’ multiple times during their lifetime.
By only using down certified by the Responsible Down Standard, you’re playing your part in ending the torture of innocent birds.
Recycled down is also a sustainable option. Reusing down that has already been plucked saves birds from future plucking.
Leather is a tricky one.
It’s made from dead animal skin, so not exactly in the animal’s best interests.
However, when the skin used to make leather comes from animals raised for their meat, it’s effectively a by-product and complex to calculate the resources used for the leather part of the animal.
Leather gets much of its bad reputation from the environmental impact of the chemical and water-intensive tanning processes used.
You can get sustainable and eco-friendly leather. You just need to know where to look.
The Leather Working Group, for example, is leading the charge in promoting sustainable practices within the leather industry.
Merino wool comes from Merino sheep.
It’s often considered to be superior to sheep wool and has superb natural anti-odor properties.
Unfortunately, the Merino wool world is similar to the sheep wool world. Mulesing is rife and not partially well regulated (especially in Australia).
All is not lost, however. You can find sustainable Merino wool if you look hard enough.
I would recommend going organic and from New Zealand (where mulesing is not allowed).
The world of sheep wool is a bit of a minefield, to be honest.
It’s an incredible product. Naturally flame retardant, hypoallergenic, temperature regulating, and more.
It’s also probably not as eco-friendly as you think.
Buying certified organic sheep wool assures that pesticides and parasiticides have not been used and that the sheep are treated humanely. However, there is not much of an organic sheep wool market at present.
The Responsible Wool Standard is a leading certifier in the wool industry.
Silk is a natural and biodegradable fiber spun by silkworms.
Silk is a luxurious fabric, highly prized for its luster, shine, strength, and durability, and is particularly popular in high-end fashion design.
Conventional silk production kills the silkworm because the cocoon needs to be boiled to produce silk.
Ahimsa Silk, also known as Peace Silk, is a sustainable method that allows the silkworm to leave the cocoon before it’s spun to make silk.
Recycled and organic silks are also sustainable alternatives.
Yak wool has similar sustainability credentials as camel wool in that no human intervention is required to get the fleece off the animal.
It simply falls off. In its droves. All-year-round. Sounds a bit like my chocolate labrador!
Yak wool is considered a sustainable alternative to cashmere.
Plants are our friends. They’re not just good for eating. They can also be used to make some kickass sustainable fabrics and natural fibers.
Cork has found its way out of our wine bottles and into our closets.
It has become a key material for vegan bags and shoes for many years.
Cork is harvested from a cork oak by shaving away the bark (think nice big shavings of parmesan cheese).
Commercial cork plantations are fantastic at taking carbon dioxide out of the air. Once a cork tree has been shaved, it consumes way more carbon dioxide than most other species of tree.
Hemp is one of the world’s fastest-growing plants and belongs to the same family as cannabis.
It does not have any of the psychoactive effects of cannabis (so don’t get trying to smoke your hemp socks!).
Hemp is excellent for the health of the soil. The same crop can be replanted many times in the same field without the need for artificial fertilizer.
Traditional hemp is eco-friendly enough to be classed as sustainable. However, if you can find organic hemp, then that’s even better.
Linen is a natural fiber derived from the flax plant.
Flax can grow in poor soil. Making it an excellent crop for farmers who have land not suitable for growing food.
Linen fabric shares many properties with hemp fabric.
Traditional linen is eco-friendly enough to be classed as sustainable. However, if you can find organic linen, then that’s even better.
Ramie (also known as China grass, grass linen, and grass cloth) is a flowering plant in the nettle family Urticaceae.
Native to eastern Asia, it's one of the oldest plant-based natural fibers known to man.
I’m talking about natural rubber here...not synthetic rubber.
Synthetic rubber is basically plastic.
Natural rubber is made from a runny, milky white liquid called latex that oozes from certain plants and trees when you cut into them.
Natural rubber is an incredibly sustainable material, providing that the trees used are allowed to flourish and not harmed. It’s completely biodegradable and easy to recycle.
Obtaining rubber from an FSC-certified forest ensures that good environmental management is maintained throughout the supply chain.
There’s no getting away from it...conventional cotton is environmentally unsustainable.
Cotton production has been linked to soil erosion, soil degradation, pollution, water contamination, water scarcity, and much MUCH more!
This is such a shame because cotton is an incredibly versatile fabric when grown and manufactured in the right way.
The message here is a simple one. Yes, you can have cotton...but it really should be organic cotton.
Buying organic cotton ensures that best sustainable practices have been followed throughout the entire process (from farm to shop).
According to Vogue, “organic cotton uses 91% less water than regular cotton and it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions”.
The Global Organic Textile Standard is the ‘go to’ certification body keeping the organic cotton industry honest and sustainable.
Raffia has been utilized for millennia in Africa and Asia for a variety of applications, such as textiles, rope, baskets, and other items.
It’s produced from the raffia palm leaves. The leaves are harvested after they’ve been dried and stripped of their internal center, leaving long, thin strips of raffia.
You can read more about Raffia in my "What Is Raffia And Is It Sustainable" article.
Semi-synthetic fabrics and fibers are usually made by taking natural products and adding chemicals to enhance their natural properties.
This might not sound sustainable, but it can be with careful chemical use and management (such as a closed-loop system that keeps the chemicals contained and resued).
To be fair, I could have also included some of these options in the plant-based section.
Apple leather is a durable fabric that was originally known as Pellemela in Italy.
It’s a biodegradable, waterproof, and breathable vegan leather made from the waste produced by the apple juice industry.
Bemberg is the brand name for cupro. Cupro is a regenerated cellulose fiber made from cotton.
To be more accurate...it’s a fiber made from the fuzz found on the outside of the cotton seed.
The extracted cellulose is soaked in a bath of cuprammonium (hence the name cupro) to obtain yarn.
The entire process is performed using a sustainable closed-loop system. This ensures that no chemicals ever leave the factory or find their way onto rivers or oceans.
Spiber Inc., the company behind Qmonos (read on for more on Qmonos), now has a new fabric on the market.
Brewed Protein is a silky protein fiber created by fermenting plant-derived biomass.
According to Spiber Inc., “Brewed Protein materials can be processed into a variety of forms, with examples ranging from delicate filament fibers with a silky sheen to spun yarns that boast features such as cashmere-like softness or the renowned thermal and moisture-wicking properties of wool”.
Lenzing AG, the company that produces most of the world’s Lyocell and Modal, has recently released a new wood pulp-based fiber called Ecovero.
They claim it’s “the new standard in eco-responsible viscose”...and I think I have to agree with them.
Ecovero is made from sustainable wood and wood pulp sources. All of which meet the highest environmental standards (Oeko-Tex 100, FSC Certified, PEFC Certified, etc.).
Lyocell is made using a manufacturing process that uses a closed-loop system that recycles almost all of the chemicals used.
Lyocell is the generic name of the production process and fiber. Tencel is the brand name owned by Lenzing AG.
Tencel is 100% biodegradable and made from eucalyptus from PEFC-certified forests.
Eucalyptus trees grow quickly without the need for pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation.
Modal is made similarly to Lyocell...just using beech trees in the production process instead of eucalyptus.
Mrs. M told me the other day that a member of her yoga class buys yoga pants made from leftover orange skins.
At first, I was skeptical. However, after a bit of digging, there appears to be something in it.
Orange Fiber is made from citrus juice by-products, repurposing them to create silk-like cellulose fabric.
Turing oranges into silk. What a time to be alive!
After the revelation that we could make clothes from orange skins, I wondered what other fruits we could wear.
Step forward Piñatex...a leather alternative made from pineapple leaves.
This is a wonderfully sustainable product because it’s a natural byproduct of the pineapple trade.
We’re not big fans of spiders in the Miller household...unless you’re talking about The Simpsons episode with Spider Pig!
Love or hate the eight-legged terrors...there’s no doubting that the fact that their webs are stronger than steel is pretty impressive!
Qmonos fabric is a synthetic spider silk fabric that is biodegradable, strong, and lightweight.
Your early morning ‘cup of joe’ can now energize you from the inside...and then protect you from the elements from the outside.
Coffee grounds are now being turned into yarn, which can then be made into fabric...and it’s pretty impressive fabric!
If, like Mrs. M, you’re fully onboard the kombucha train, you’ll know all about SCOBY.
If, like me, you’re a manchild who loves cartoons, you’ll know all about Scooby.
I’ll leave the snack-loving pooch for another day...and concentrate on SCOBY.
Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) is a live culture used to make kombucha.
This same bacteria can be dried out and turned into leather.
It’s biodegradable, animal-free, and requires zero chemicals. It’s cheaper than traditional leather too!
*DAD JOKE ALERT* I’m a fungi at parties...especially when talking about vegan wool alternatives made from mushrooms!
Woocoa was created by students from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.
This vegan wool is made from natural fibers of hemp and coconut treated with enzymes extracted from oyster mushrooms.
Some fabrics and fibers might start off life being terrible for the environment, but if we can recycle them rather than tossing them in the trash, they then really start to up their sustainability game.
The Global Recycle Standard certification is a good one to look out for when shopping for recycled fabric.
Recycled cotton helps reduce the production of new cotton fabric by reusing what has already been produced.
Cotton is a dirty crop. Recycled cotton helps make it cleaner. The more recycled cotton we can make from old traditional cotton, the better.
The quality of the cotton sent for recycling is something lower than that of new cotton. This is why recycled cotton is usually blended with new cotton.
Not ideal...but still far more sustainable than fabric made from 100% brand new, traditionally grown cotton.
I deliberated for a while about whether or not to include recycled nylon in the list.
What swung it for me was the fact that a big chunk of recycled nylon comes from old fishing nets...and anything that keeps them out of the oceans has to be a good thing.
Recycled nylon is far from perfect. It’s one of the more expensive and resource-intensive recycling processes.
However, recycled nylon is still way better for the planet than new nylon. It keeps resources from landfill and waterways (and we’re back to those fishing nets again!).
Recycled polyester is made from recycled post-consumer waste plastic bottles.
There are two ways you can recycle polyester:
There is a lot to love about recycled polyester, but it’s not all good. Recycled polyester, like virgin polyester, is non-biodegradable and releases microfibres when washed.
All things considered, though, I’m happy to include it in the list.
The Council for Textile Recycling reports that the average U.S. consumer disposes of 70 pounds of textiles per year. So it makes sense to try and recycle as much of it as possible.
Waste fabric going to recycling plants can contain a broad mix of different fibers. This causes problems when trying to find a sustainable solution to separate the different fibers back to their natural states.
Big firms such as IKEA and H&M are trying to solve the sustainable textiles problem, but we still have some way to go before recycled textile is commonplace and sustainable.
I mentioned earlier that wool is not as eco-friendly as you think and that you should always try to go for certified organic wool.
I also mentioned that there are not many options when it comes to buying organic wool products.
The ideal solution, for the time being, might well be recycled wool...of all types.
It takes an existing product and turns it into a newer and more sustainable one.
The process of recycling wool is explained excellently in this report by European Outdoor Group and Greenroom Voice report.
Organic bamboo that has been manually processed is often referred to as bamboo linen.
Bamboo linen is a sustainable fabric because it does not involve using masses of chemicals.
Unfortunately, though, it’s not quite as simple as that. The vast majority of bamboo products on the market today have been heavily plasticized for longevity.
I’m not saying there are no sustainable bamboo products out there. However, you really need to shop around and tread carefully through the bamboo viscose greenwashing minefield.
Lace is traditionally made from silk. If the silk used is sustainable (such as Peace Silk, for example), the final lace product can be considered sustainable.
According to BodyEcology, there are six things you should look to avoid:
In addition, I would recommend thinking twice about buying the following:
There we have it. As things stand, this is my take on the ever-changing world of sustainable fabrics.
It really is ever-changing, though, and I can see this being an article I come back to many times to amend and update.
Environmentally conscious and sustainable brands are bringing new sustainable materials and to the market all the time. Existing fabrics are getting a sustainable makeover.
For me, the biggest disappointment of this journey was discovering that most bamboo fabrics are not the great green hope many say they are.
Which sustainable fabrics are hanging proudly in your closet? Have I missed your favorite? Do you do bamboo? Drop me a line and let me know.