The fast fashion industry can be a dirty place. It’s the second-largest water polluter, responsible for up to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This makes one thing clear - your fashion shopping decisions matter.
The supply chain in the industry is complex, but perhaps none of the parts is more impactful than the very beginning of the process - sourcing and producing the material. The type of fabric used to make that t-shirt will largely determine how much environmental and social harm it ends up causing — or it will determine the good practices that help reverse the damage. But don’t fret, you’re in the best possible place to learn how to shop better by knowing your fabrics.
How to pick eco-friendly fabrics
First and foremost, eco-friendly fabrics don’t pollute and generate waste. Garment workers source and process them in an eco-friendly way. Farming for these fabrics doesn't damage the soil and ecosystems with harmful pesticides and herbicides. Sustainably produced fabric use alternatives to chemically-intense bleaching and dyeing.
Consider energy consumption. Innovative companies often use closed-loop production systems that allow them to recapture and reuse most of the production material (learn more about closed-loop and circular economy in our guide). Transportation of raw textile materials is also something to keep in mind as it contributes to the carbon footprint. Clothes made from materials that have travelled the world many times to finally end up in your local department store have a higher carbon footprint than fabrics manufactured locally.
Eco-friendly fabrics don’t necessarily have to be natural, but most eco-conscious consumers still favour recycled cotton, linen, or hemp because they biodegrade. Quality also matters. Sustainable fashionistas should aim for durable pieces that last for many years and can be properly recycled, composted or reused when their time is due. Currently, people only recycle a tiny percentage of clothes. An overwhelming majority sadly ends up in landfills or is incinerated.
Fair wages and a safe work environment
And finally, a key part of sustainably made clothing is to ensure worker-friendly conditions in places where garments are produced. Workers must get paid fair wages and be able to work in an environment that is safe for their health - if this condition is not met, those cotton pants are not sustainable even if the fabric has been recycled ten times over.
With these basics out of our way, let’s now dive deeper into the most eco-friendly fabrics and their advantages and possible shortcomings. (In our selection of top sustainable fabrics, we were guided by an “Environmental benchmark for fibers” developed by Made-by.)
Cotton is a top-favourite fabric for many. It’s light, soft, breathable and used in just about every type of garment - bras, shirts, mattress protectors, baby clothes, you name it. If you’re looking for the most sustainable cotton, go for recycled cotton, a far better alternative to conventional stuff.
Recycled cotton is made using cotton waste that is first separated by type and colour, then typically machine-shredded into crude fibers and respun back into yarn. Note that recycled cotton must be blended with other fibers, plastic or natural, for strength and durability. This makes it a bit harder to know for sure whether recycled cotton is pure cotton and can be composted. An alternative to shredding is a chemical cellulosic process which has its health risks depending on the chemicals used.
In any case, using recycled cotton saves heaves of electricity and loads of water that is needed in the production of virgin fibres. It’s estimated that one t-shirt that contains only half of the recycled cotton fibres saves up to 2,700 litres of water. Tellingly, in the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, recycled cotton fibre scores a 1, compared to 11.9 for organic cotton and 60.5 for conventional - the lower the value, the more sustainable the material.
What's the deal with organic cotton
Speaking of cotton, let’s briefly discuss the organic type which has been all the rage in the fashion world recently. Producers of organic cotton don’t use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and the process is believed to use less energy and release fewer greenhouse gases.
But organic cotton production is far from perfect. It yields fewer fibres than genetically modified (conventional) cotton, and, by extension, requires more land which needs to be irrigated. By some estimates, you’ll need twice as much water to grow organic cotton to produce the same pair of jeans.
The answer to the water dilemma, however, is not straightforward. Proponents claim that organic cotton requires less water over time, largely because the soil in the organic growing systems stores water more efficiently. Moreover, 80 percent of organic cotton globally is grown in rainfed conditions, rather than relying on surface or groundwater irrigation, according to a 2021 report by the Textiles Exchange.
Hemp is one robust plant. It grows all around the world, in hot, cold or dry places. It requires very little water (less than a third of what is needed for cotton), no pesticides, and it naturally fertilizes the soil. Besides being a carbon-negative material, hemp also likes to grow. It yields 1200-2000 kilos of fibre per ha, compared to cotton which yields 300-1100 kilos.
Hemp clothes will help you keep warm in winter and cool in summer. It gets softer the more you wash it. It’s also sun-protective and antimicrobial, very strong and resistant to mildew, mould and pests such as moths. Hemp is biodegradable, but it is more difficult to recycle. When the fibers are mixed with cotton to make a softer fabric, they are difficult to separate.
One disadvantage of hemp is that production requires more nitrogen fertilizer than other textiles. It’s also more energy-consuming because the fibres extracted from hemp are coarse and need mechanical softening. All this contributes to a higher price.
Organic linen’s sustainability characteristics are very similar to hemp. The flax plant grows without pesticides and with little water. When the fibres are not dyed or chemically modified, organic linen is fully biodegradable.
Linen is both light and breathable, strong, naturally moth resistant and can absorb moisture without holding bacteria. Its sturdy quality makes it ideal for making linen clothing, upholstery or household pieces such as towels and bedding. Its heat-regulating properties are the reason why brands often use the fabric for summer clothing.
There are some downsides, too. Producing (organic) linen is typically a lengthy and time-consuming procedure. Unlike hemp, linen also isn’t high yielding. It usually comes at a higher price and it wrinkles easily as everyone with a linen shirt knows all too well.
Polyester is one of the most widely used fabrics. It’s synthetic, thus non-biodegradable, which is a serious concern if polyester-made garments aren’t properly disposed of.
The eco-friendlier alternative is the recycled version. rPET, as it’s commonly known, retains all the good qualities of virgin polyester - it’s durable, moister-resistant and can be used to make everything from light stretchy activewear to fluffy sustainable fleece - but manufacturing it generates 79 percent less carbon emissions than producing new material. In addition, recycled polyester helps reduce the need for more crude oil to make plastic that is eventually turned into fibers.
There are two ways how to recycle polyester. One is mechanical, where machines shred and melt the fabric to make new yarn. This process can only be done a few times before the fiber loses its quality. Manufacturers will therefore mix in some virgin polyester to make it sturdier. Chemical recycling, on the hand, involves breaking down the plastic molecules and reforming them into yarn. This process preserves the quality of the original fiber, but it is more expensive.
Keep in mind that although rPET has many sustainable features, it’s still plastics. Washing polyester-made clothes will shed plastic microfibers that often end up in the oceans, harming marine life and potentially our health. Together with nylon, polyester is the main source of microfiber pollution, responsible for 35 percent of all microplastic waste in oceans.
What you can do about it? It’s best to wash less and use a microfiber filter such as PlanetCare’s that captures more than 90 percent of the microfibers before they leave the washing machine.
Econyl - recycled nylon
Nylon is in many ways similar to polyester. Both are synthetic, durable, water-resistant, made of fossil fuels and thus non-biodegradable. One difference is that nylon uses more energy in the production process and accounts for proportionally higher carbon emissions.
Now, meet Econyl, a form of recycled nylon, made from plastic waste such as carpet flooring, fabric scraps and abandoned fishing nets. Econyl was created by an Italian firm Aquafil. They recycle waste products and regenerate them into new nylon yarn by first cleaning and shredding waste, then depolymerising it to extract nylon which is transformed into yarn to make textile products. Aquafil claims the process reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 90 percent compared to the material from oil.
The same microfiber warning applies to recycled nylon, too - washing nylon-made clothes without a filter pollutes the oceans.
Lyocell is a lightweight fabric made from wood pulp, in most cases eucalyptus. This is an important fact as eucalyptus trees grow quickly, without a lot of water or any pesticides. Lyocell is highly absorbent, anti-bacterial and moisture resistant. Its production doesn’t demand toxic chemicals and most of the dissolving agents can be used repeatedly. Lyocell is also very soft - like if fleece and satin would have a baby. Austrian firm Lenzing manufactures the most popular brand Tencel.
The fabric, however, is very delicate. You should cold (or hand) wash lyocell-made clothes. Make sure to always check the care label for instructions. Confused by the signs? We explain all of them in our article.
Sustainable leather alternatives
Finally, let’s look at the popular leather alternatives. This must be the most exciting category of sustainable fabrics - the amount of inventiveness here is mind-blowing.
Piñatex, for example, is a material made from the leaves of pineapples. The fibers are extracted by removing the membrane of the leaves. They are then washed, dried and formed into a non-woven mesh substance. Piñatex production requires little water and no harmful chemicals.
Corn leather is another potential leather alternative. This semi-natural material is half corn waste and half polyurethane. It’s important that corn is produced in an eco-friendly way otherwise it can be harmful to the wildlife and ecosystems.
Cactus leather is made from the leaves of Cacti, keeping the core intact. Once garment workers cut the leaves, they mash and sundry them for three days and then mix them with non-toxic substances to manufacture a leather-like texture.
And last but not least in our portfolio of eco-friendly fabrics - mushroom leather, made of mycelium which is a thread-like structure of the fungi. The most-popular mycelium is extracted from the oyster mushroom.
Bottom line - do your own research on eco-friendly fabrics
Keep in mind that greenwashing in the fashion industry is very real. Brands will often use lofty promises and buzzy words to appear more environmentally friendly than they really are. We encourage you to do your research which includes learning if and how the products are certified. There are a couple of trusted stamps of approval that you can lean on when you search for eco-friendly fabrics, such as:
- Fair Trade certification or Fair Wear approval make sure the company manufactured clothes in ways that don't infringe on human rights
- The global organic textile standards (GOTS) and Oeko-Tex certify clothes that are sewn from natural and chemical-free fabrics
- EcoCert, Cradle2Cradle, and Bluesign certify fabrics produced without endangering the environment
Going for sustainable fabrics is a wonderful first step toward making your wardrobes more eco-friendly. Before purchasing, we encourage you to check the label and learn about the fabrics, and how they're sourced, handled and transported. Step by step, t-shirt by t-shirt - towards a greener and healthier life!