Eco Friendly Sustainable Fabrics To Look For

More than 90 million tons of fabric are discarded annually [1]. And it’s no secret that fast fashion has, unfortunately, become the primary fashion model for decades.

The increasing uptake in fashion consumption has created intersectional issues surrounding not only disposal but production and ethics as well.

With the knowledge that our clothes can make an impact, it is now more important than ever to make sustainable fabrics part of our daily routine. Despite the prevalence of unsustainability in the textiles industry, there’s still hope.

Here are some of our favorite sustainable fabrics.

Cotton

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Cotton is one of the most popularly used fabrics in the world. Cotton can be loosely grouped into three different fiber lengths [2], and these largely determine the quality and cost of cotton.

Longer fibers are much more expensive to produce than short-staple fibers, which is the kind we typically see in most cotton clothing.

But while cotton production may seem simple, it hardly ever is. In fact, cotton production uses up around 6% of all global pesticide use—more than any other major crop globally [3].

On top of that, cotton is also a very thirsty plant. Water use may vary from one location to another, but making a single cotton t-shirt takes roughly 2,700 liters of water [4]. This number equates to at least 1,000 days of the average woman’s daily water intake requirement!

Fortunately, cotton can be produced in a manner that aligns with sustainable living and doesn’t involve harmful chemicals or destroy our soil and water systems. Here are some of your options.

Organic Cotton

We’re pretty sure you’ve heard of organic cotton. As much as conventional cotton is frowned upon in terms of sustainability, its organic counterpart is one of the most popular and well-loved sustainable fabrics.

Organic cotton is produced without GMOs and toxic chemicals like inorganic pesticides, and it also takes less water to grow. The organic alternative is quite simply the better choice.

However, one of the most significant downsides to organic cotton is that it can be expensive to produce. Not relying on conventional chemicals to boost production has a substantial impact on pure cotton yield, which may translate to higher prices.

So, while the organic version may be the more ideal alternative, we have to acknowledge that the widespread use of organically-produced cotton will take some systemic overhauls. This, in turn, requires plenty of financing that isn’t always readily available for small-time farmers.

Organically-produced cotton can come from numerous locations such as the US and India.

Whenever you’re shopping for these organic, sustainable fabrics, make sure you check for certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). If you’re interested in learning more about this certification, we have a more detailed discussion below.

Recycled Cotton

Another sustainable alternative to conventional cotton is recycled cotton! In fact, recycled cotton is even more sustainable than the organic variant [5], although it doesn’t necessarily begin as an organic fabric.

Recycled cotton is typically made from post-industrial and post-consumer recycled cotton that is bound to end up in landfills. Because recycled fabrics like this help divert waste from polluting our environment, we think it’s one of the best uses of discarded waste materials.

In effect, it’s one of the most sustainable fabrics you will ever find.

However, recycled cotton is still not widely available, and the organic variant remains the more popular option. In our review of numerous sustainable fashion brands, we’ve only seen a couple integrate recycled cotton into their pieces.

We are hopeful that recycled fibers like recycled cotton will become more commonplace and become more commercially available.

Organic Hemp

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Hemp has been around for thousands of years [6], and it is used for a variety of purposes. Y0u can find this eco friendly natural fibre in shirts, hats, jeans, canvas, and even rope!

Hemp is frequently linked to the psychoactive plant Cannabis sativa. It is this connection to the plant, which is famous for the drug marijuana, that has contributed to the slow commercial uptake of this fabric.

But connecting it to marijuana is quite misleading. The Cannabis sativa plant used to make hemp into fabric has incredibly low levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the drug that causes psychoactive effects.

In the sustainability niche, however, hemp isn’t known for this connection. Instead, hemp is well-known as one of the most sustainable fabrics your clothes can be made of.

More specifically, we are referring to organic hemp. While the non-organic option can still be a good, sustainable fabric in some instances, it isn’t always guaranteed. Non-organic production of hemp could involve chemical retting, which isn’t an environmentally friendly practice.

On the other hand, organically-produced hemp is made only with the most sustainable practices. If you see hemp fabric with organic certifications from USDA, GOTS, EU, and ECOCERT, those are trusted markers that you are buying a sustainable product.

Hemp isn’t only valued for its sustainability, though, and its popularity is also due to it being an incredibly durable fabric.

In actuality, durability and sustainability often go hand in hand. Materials that last longer have a lesser environmental impact and are typically more sustainable.

Hemp is also very breathable and is not prone to pilling. Hemp has long strands of fiber that help keep it together even after many washes.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history and qualities of hemp, feel free to go to our comprehensive guide here.

Organic Linen

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Linen is a natural fiber that is made from the flax plant. When made organically, linen is one of the most sustainable materials since base production doesn’t require much in terms of water, chemicals, or fertilizers.

Flax fibers were actually the very first fibers used by humans, at least as far as we know. There have been flax fibers discovered in caves from more than 30,000 years ago! These fibers were twisted, and the likely scenario was that they were used for ropes or strings [7].

Flax has been used for clothing as early as 8000 BC. With such a rich, lovely history, linen remains a well-beloved fiber now highly valued for its luxury. Making up around 1% of all fabric consumption worldwide, linen is already one of the rarer fabrics, to begin with.

Linen is a beautifully versatile fabric that has a lovely texture and excellent breathability. Because linen has some thermoregulation properties, it can be suitable for warm or cool weather.

Linen is also a surprisingly durable fabric, which is always a valuable consideration when discussing sustainable living. The material is also quite strong (stronger than cotton, even) and doesn’t peel, which significantly lengthens the useful life of your fabric.

Linen’s natural colors range from a light beige to a light gray, and achieving a white color often takes a lot of bleaching. As such, we wouldn’t recommend linen that has been heavily processed.

That said, conventionally-produced linen still has its cons. Just like with hemp, linen can undergo chemical retting, which, as we know, isn’t a sustainable process.

So although growing linen isn’t likely to generate a significant impact, harvesting and processing most likely will.

Not to mention all the dyes that may be used to color the fabric. On its own, linen is fully biodegradable, but this biodegradability may be impacted by certain dyes or processing methods.

To circumvent these risks of unsustainable production, you can opt for organically-produced linen. The organic alternative is similarly fully biodegradable and is typically made with non-toxic or natural dyes.

The downside is that the organic variant isn’t the most accessible fabric. Overall, organic linen only takes up a very small fraction (~1%) of total linen production, making it the more expensive option.

There aren’t many brands that offer organic linen, although we have come across a few (Coyuchi, for example).

If you cannot source linen organically, we would highly recommend looking deeper into the manufacturing processes of the brand. If you can safely determine that the process is sustainable (i.e., no chemical retting), you can just go for it.

If not, then you may want to opt for more popular organic fabrics such as cotton or hemp.

Tencel Lyocell

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Tencel Lyocell is another one of the most sustainable fabrics available. Heavy emphasis on the Tencel part of the name as this indicates that the lyocell was made in the most sustainable manner possible.

Tencel is a brand name under Lenzing, a fabric manufacturer. Manufacturing lyocell is not always a sustainable process, especially if made under questionable conditions.

Ensuring your lyocell is Tencel brand guarantees that this fabric was made in a closed-loop system, significantly reducing the impact of the material itself.

But why is lyocell so loved in the first place?

Tencel is completely biodegradable. Made from wood pulp, this fabric is considered a semi-synthetic fabric. Although the base material comes from natural fibers, the process chemically alters the product to the point that it would be incredibly misleading to don it completely natural.

We talk more about how to make lyocell here.

Lyocell is the third generation fabric in the family of rayons, along with modal and viscous rayon. Among the three, lyocell is by far the most sustainable option. The rayon family is composed of fabrics that can be derived from plant cellulose, extracting fibers through a chemical process.

Many people love lyocell because it is a really breathable and soft fabric perfect for humid weather. Lyocell is often used in the same ways as cotton. Although lyocell is frequently made for lighter fabrics, it can also be made for heavier weights like denim.

You will often find lyocell in eco friendly undies, pajamas, and other clothing that require plenty of comfort.

Flax fibers were actually the very first fibers used by humans, at least as far as we know. There have been flax fibers discovered in caves from more than 30,000 years ago! These fibers were twisted, and the likely scenario was that they were used for ropes or strings [7].

Flax has been used for clothing as early as 8000 BC. With such a rich, lovely history, linen remains a well-beloved fiber now highly valued for its luxury. Making up around 1% of all fabric consumption worldwide, linen is already one of the rarer fabrics, to begin with.

Linen is a beautifully versatile fabric that has a lovely texture and excellent breathability. Because linen has some thermoregulation properties, it can be suitable for warm or cool weather.

Linen is also a surprisingly durable fabric, which is always a valuable consideration when discussing sustainable living. The material is also quite strong (stronger than cotton, even) and doesn’t peel, which significantly lengthens the useful life of your fabric.

Linen’s natural colors range from a light beige to a light gray, and achieving a white color often takes a lot of bleaching. As such, we wouldn’t recommend linen that has been heavily processed.

That said, conventionally-produced linen still has its cons. Just like with hemp, linen can undergo chemical retting, which, as we know, isn’t a sustainable process.

So although growing linen isn’t likely to generate a significant impact, harvesting and processing most likely will.

Not to mention all the dyes that may be used to color the fabric. On its own, linen is fully biodegradable, but this biodegradability may be impacted by certain dyes or processing methods.

To circumvent these risks of unsustainable production, you can opt for organically-produced linen. The organic alternative is similarly fully biodegradable and is typically made with non-toxic or natural dyes.

The downside is that the organic variant isn’t the most accessible fabric. Overall, organic linen only takes up a very small fraction (~1%) of total linen production, making it the more expensive option.

There aren’t many brands that offer organic linen, although we have come across a few (Coyuchi, for example).

If you cannot source linen organically, we would highly recommend looking deeper into the manufacturing processes of the brand. If you can safely determine that the process is sustainable (i.e., no chemical retting), you can just go for it.

If not, then you may want to opt for more popular organic fabrics such as cotton or hemp.

Sustainable Silk

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Silk is one of the most popular premium fabrics in the world. It is prized for being a strong, lustrous fabric that gives off plenty of shine, often used in premium sleepwear and dresses, among plenty others.

Unfortunately, silk isn’t the most sustainable fabric, nor is it very ethical. Silk production often results in the death of silkworms, and so many other interrelated issues behind the scenes.

One popular alternative to silk is peace silk or Ahimsa silk. This type of silk is touted as a cruelty-free alternative to silk. Through this specific method of silk harvesting, the silkworms don’t have to die.

Instead of being boiled (as is customary in conventional production), the silkworms are free to break out of their cocoons. You can read more about this process here.

Unfortunately, this tends to be a very simplistic version of the actual process. Because as much as we would like to tell you otherwise, peace silk isn’t very sustainable or ethical. More often than not, the silkworms still die a few days after coming out of their cocoon.

One type of silkworm, the Bombyx mori, has now been entirely domesticated and can no longer fly due to the size of its body. The species is also now incredibly sensitive to environmental odorants.

In our research on ahimsa silk, we can reasonably conclude that it isn’t yet a sustainable solution.

Nevertheless, certain types of fully vegan silk have recently made rounds in the sustainability niche. Products such as lotus silk and micro silk are really good, environmentally friendly alternatives to animal silk.

Microsilk, in particular, is proof that we can innovate our way towards a more sustainable alternative.

This unique fabric is made from spider silk genes and is completely vegan since it only uses yeast, water, sugar, and spider DNA. To be clear, there are no spiders used for the final product.

Microsilk is still not commercially produced, but some brands have already started to produce using this novel material.

Plant Leather

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Leather is somewhat of a controversial topic in sustainable fashion. On one hand, leather is incredibly long-lasting and will probably outlast most of the pieces in your closet (even with regular use).

The downside is that conventional leather production does involve animals, and that’s not the most ethical practice. Even if you are not vegan, leather still poses some serious environmental concerns about production.

For instance, leather tanning typically takes a copious amount of dangerous chemicals that frequently cause environmental and health problems for workers and the nearby community.

To add to that, leather is frequently made in areas where there may be lax regulations on worker health and safety.

There has been an increasing interest in more vegan alternatives to leather throughout the last couple of decades. And like with many other sustainable materials, innovation heeded the call. Here are some of our favorite eco friendly alternatives to leather.

Pineapple Leather

Pineapple leather has appeared numerous times in our work here at Puratium. This plant-based pineapple leather, also known as Piñatex, is used in shoes, wallets, belts, and even bags!

Made from pineapple leaf fibre, this vegan leather uses food waste from pineapple production. By utilizing the pineapple industry’s by-products, Piñatex production is naturally low impact and very socially responsible.

Ananas Anam, the brand behind Piñatex is also a B Corp! They source their pineapple leaves from farmers in the Philippines, providing local communities with additional streams of income.

Farmers often suffer from wildly varying produce prices, so any added revenue from their harvest is always welcome. Plus, making material for pineapple leather does not require any additional processing on the farmers’ part, so it’s a pretty sustainable material to use as a leather alternative.

Do note, however, that pineapple leather is not biodegradable. This is true for most plant leathers as there is currently no viable 100% plant material that can mimic all the qualities of leather.

Piñatex has a high-quality Polyurethane (PU) backing that helps keep it sturdy and durable. Nevertheless, Ananas Anam continuously looks for better alternatives to make this plant leather more sustainable.

Cork

Cork is yet another fan favorite. This incredibly versatile material is a fantastic fabric for leather products—think belts, wallets, and other items you might consider when you think of leather.

Cork fabric is harvested from the cork oak tree. The best part is that these oak trees don’t need to be cut down to harvest the cork! The process doesn’t need any machinery and can be easily done by experienced workers.

The production process begins by stripping the cork bark from the tree itself. This is easy to do in a sustainable manner, and as much as 50% of the tree’s bark can be harvested without affecting the tree’s survival [8].

From there, cork is boiled, pressed, and processed into a beautiful fabric that is durable, abrasion, and water-resistant. If you want to know more about how cork is made, check out our guide here.

Cork is an incredibly sustainable natural fiber because the cork oak tree has a commercial lifespan of up to 150 years! And provided that it is harvested responsibly, a cork oak tree can produce bark numerous times over.

In addition to this, cork also absorbs plenty of carbon dioxide during bark production. This actively lessens the greenhouse gas emissions of cork production.

Recycled Synthetics

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Synthetic fabrics have now become integrated into our everyday life. From the nylon in your bike shorts to the spandex in your hosiery, it seems like synthetics can no longer be avoided.

To an extent, it can be impossible to avoid synthetic fabrics entirely. This is especially true if you play sports, do yoga, or require clothing that is best made with synthetic materials. Unfortunately, there are still no commercially viable options for certain performance synthetics.

While we would not typically recommend synthetics, we also know that there are cases where we cannot avoid them. And for those scenarios, we need a more sustainable alternative.

Important: Always remember that even more sustainable synthetics like those made from recycled fabric will still release plastic waste in the form of microplastics when washed. For this reason, make sure to take steps to reduce microplastic shedding, like using a special laundry bag that catches the microplastics before they end up in our oceans, where they could harm ocean life.

Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester is essentially just the recycled counterpart of virgin polyester. Recycled polyester is typically made from post-consumer waste that is processed into a new fabric, giving the material a new chance at life.

More specifically, recycled polyester is often derived from discarded plastic bottles! This opens up an excellent opportunity to create something more eco friendly from products we would otherwise simply discard.

Reports indicate that recycled polyester generates around 79% fewer carbon emissions than virgin polyester [7]. Knowing that, would we say that it’s the optimal solution? Absolutely not.

Aside from the fact that recycled polyester still generates microplastics, there’s also the central issue of recycling itself.

More often than not, rPET is recycled through a recycling process that involves chopping up the plastic into chunks and melting them down before extruding into a new synthetic fiber.

The problem with this manufacturing process is that it cannot be done again without considerable degradation of the fabric. This is one of the most significant limitations of rPET that needs to be discussed more.

At the moment, there are options for chemical recycling, but these aren’t scalable on a commercial level. As a result, it would be challenging to recycle rPET repeatedly.

With that, it’s crucial that we buy rPET only when the situation calls for it. For example, you may need a lightweight, waterproof bag for a sport or a hobby, and the best material available is recycled polyester. In those instances, rPET may be a good choice.

But we would never recommend rPET as your go-to fabric. Whenever you’re shopping for rPET, always keep in mind that many brands frequently use this type of material as a greenwashing tactic.

Although rPET has its merits, some brands only use it as a performance tool to signal that they are doing something eco friendly when really, all they’re doing is misleading their customer base.

In conclusion, rPET, made from synthetic waste, can be a sustainable fabric in some scenarios. However, we still recommend digging deeper into brand practices to eliminate the risk of being greenwashed into making a purchase.

Recycled Nylon

Nylon is another one of the most popular synthetic fibers. The chances that you probably have an item in your closet that has some nylon in it are high.

Invented in the 1930s, nylon is now one of the most pervasive synthetic fabrics and appears in many conventionally produced clothing. But, being synthetic, nylon is not biodegradable, and its disposal creates waste fabric that ends up in landfills.

Put simply, nylon is not a sustainable fabric.

That said, recycled nylon is the most viable alternative to virgin nylon. It is made of pretty much the same material and only has a fraction of the environmental impact since it comes from an already produced product.

Also called Econyl, this recycled fabric can result in up to 90% carbon savings and is less water and energy-intensive.

Econyl is frequently made from recycled materials such as fishing nets and other nylon-based products. Although a more sustainable option, do keep in mind that even recycled nylon is just another plastic.

What Makes a Sustainable Fabric “Sustainable”?

It is no surprise that the fashion industry is one of the world’s largest polluters.

The good news is that increasing knowledge of the danger of conventional fabric production has also led to innovative techniques to produce more sustainable alternatives. The bad news? It can be difficult to tell which is which.

The fashion industry is full of greenwashing techniques designed to make consumers think they are making a more ethical and sustainable choice when in reality, it’s just another marketing scheme.

There isn’t a particular set of standards that would qualify a certain fabric as sustainable. However, sustainable materials are always viewed through the lens of their environmental impact, lifecycle assessment, and the social aspect of production.

If you’re a beginner, navigating through so many different fabric characteristics may get confusing. You can use the following standards to guide you in shopping for more sustainable and ethical products for your closet.

Note: We want to highlight that these certifications should be used as guides. They are not completely accurate, nor do they represent absolute sustainability. Like with any other third-party certification, these ones hold their own set of issues (such as how they set their own standards for what is considered sustainable). Nevertheless, they remain valuable aspects of our fight for more sustainable fabrics and better production processes.

GOTS

If you’ve ever shopped for eco friendly fabrics, you have most definitely heard of GOTS, which stands for the Global Organic Textile Standard. It is one of the most trusted certifications and has a fantastic body of standards behind each label.

GOTS can certify a wide array of products including yarns, fabrics, clothes, personal hygiene products, and more. This means that the organization can certify every part of the supply chain for clothing.

Some brands choose to purchase GOTS-certified yarns and fabrics, while others take it a step further and certify the products themselves. In either case, having the GOTS certification is an excellent way to back producer claims and ensure customers that they’re buying truly sustainable products.

GOTS does not only certify based on ecological criteria but also focuses on socially responsible practices. This means that each material or product with the GOTS certification is made ethically and sustainably.

Currently, there are two types of GOTS certifications. An “organic” one, aka made of at least 90% organic materials, and “made with organic ingredients,” which are products with at least 75% organic components.

GOTS is most commonly associated with cotton, but any natural fiber that can be made organically may be certified.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)

FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council. An FSC certification guarantees that trees were sourced from sustainably managed forests and did not contribute to our growing issue of deforestation.

An FSC certification is particularly important for sustainable fabrics that are generated from wood pulp.

This is true for Tencel lyocell, modal, cork, as well as some bamboo fibers. Since these types of fabrics are typically made from wood (or grass, in bamboo’s case), they need to be harvested responsibly to avoid harming forests and wildlife.

Many sustainable fabric manufacturers make use of the FSC certification to signal their use of sustainable harvesting practices. For instance, Tencel modal, apart from being made in a closed-loop system, uses only sustainable managed forests.

In some cases, an FSC certification alone is not enough to guarantee sustainable production. For example, viscose rayon can be made with FSC-certified trees, but we still wouldn’t consider it sustainable if the soaking and extruding process is quite environmentally damaging.

Fair Trade

Fair Trade is not exactly a sustainability certification from an ecological standpoint. However, it does contribute to the sustainability of fabric in terms of social equity and responsibility.

The fashion and textile industry is notorious for its low wages, sweatshop conditions, and unethical outsourcing of labor. Whenever you’re buying from a clothing brand, there is always that risk of unethical labor conditions within the industry.

And it isn’t just with sewing and finishing. Unethical labor practices are also frequently found on farms, especially in developing nations.

The Fair Trade certification ensures that workers were paid fair wages and work under ethical conditions. Products bought Fair Trade are also purchased at a premium, which helps workers earn a true living wage.

OEKO-TEX

OEKO-TEX offers a variety of different certifications for textile and leather brands. Their primary focus is ensuring and verifying the safety of a product or textile throughout the production process, from raw materials to finishing.

Perhaps the most common OEKO-TEX standard you will see among clothing labels is the “Standard 100” certification. This certificate essentially verifies that the material was not made with any harmful substances.

However, OEKO-TEX also has a standard that goes above and beyond this. Their “Made in Green” standard ensures that a certain product was not made with harmful chemicals AND was made under environmentally friendly conditions.

This certifying body has independent partner institutes that test textiles for health and safety standards at all levels of production. You can read more about OEKO-TEX here.

Bluesign

Bluesign is a holistic certification. Like the others, they guarantee that a product was made under only the best possible conditions.

Any product with the Bluesign symbol is guaranteed to have been produced under sustainable conditions both for people and the environment. We especially like that they included the labor factor in production, and they didn’t just focus on the environmental impacts.

Bluesign products must be made of at least 90% Bluesign-approved fabrics and at least 30% Bluesign-approved accessories. Of course, the goal is still to get that number up to 100%.

You can read more here.

Final Thoughts

Navigating the world of sustainability can be a daunting (and difficult) task. There are plenty of greenwashing pitfalls, and corporations have gotten incredibly good at masking their damaging practices using “green” strategies.

Thankfully, it isn’t a lost cause. There are still genuinely sustainable brands on the market that prioritize sustainable materials.

We hope this list of the most sustainable fabrics will help you shop for more sustainable and ethical clothing.

Resources:

  1. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle#:~:text=And%20globally%2C%20an%20estimated%2092,on%20landfill%20sites%20every%20second.

  2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/cotton-fibre-and-plant

  3. Cotton

  4. https://www.projectcece.co.uk/blog/445/is-cotton-bad-for-the-environment-the-no-fluff-truth/#:~:text=The%20problems%20of%20cotton%20production,of%20harmful%20pesticides%20and%20fertilisers.

  5. What Are the Most Sustainable Fabrics?

  6. https://www.britannica.com/plant/hemp

  7. Oldest-known fibers to be used by humans discovered

  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3990040/

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