There are many materials out there. Too many. It often overwhelms people when trying to shop more sustainably because it can be very confusing. Here I’ll explain to you which fabrics are sustainable and which to avoid as much as you can. I also want to talk about bamboo because there’s a lot of controversy around that and many misconceptions concerning bamboo fabric. Finally, I’ll answer a common question which is ‘is denim sustainable?’.
If we wish to make the fashion industry sustainable, brands must stop using harmful and toxic fabrics that are bad for the environment and choose more sustainable ones. As consumers, we can bring about change by simply shopping in a way that aligns with our ethics. If more people stop buying clothes made from unsustainable material, we will force companies to become more eco-friendly because at the end of the day, making a profit is their priority.
Most Sustainable Fabrics
This includes recycled cotton, recycled polyester, and any other material. Recycled materials are always better than producing brand new ones. While it is possible to recycle nearly all textile material, it doesn’t happen enough. Too many people throw their clothes away in the bin, and fast fashion brands prefer to make new clothing rather than recycling their scrap material and old clothing.
Textile recycling needs to become more widespread as recycled fabrics are after all the most environmentally friendly. If you have the choice, opt for recycled material. You can find this information out by looking at the label or doing a quick search on the company.
It’s better for the environment because it requires less energy and processing which in turn, produces fewer carbon emissions. Also, recycling polyester and nylon doesn’t use up more finite resources. And when it comes to natural fibers like linen and cotton, it’s also better because fewer crops need to be grown.
Cotton can only be sustainable if it is organic. Conventional cotton is extremely harmful to the environment. That’s because non-organic cotton uses many chemicals, is very pesticide intense, and is often genetically modified (GMO).
On the other hand, organic cotton doesn’t have any of this. It’s completely natural which means it doesn’t pollute the water and soil. In addition, organic cotton does not use nearly as much water as conventional cotton which is another benefit. If that wasn’t enough, organic cotton has a lower carbon footprint too.
Pesticide use is very harmful to the environment. The biggest issue with it being eutrophication. But these chemicals are not just bad for the planet. They are also bad for your health which is yet another reason you should choose organic cotton.
This lightweight and biodegradable material is the go-to fabric for many sustainable companies. They can turn cotton fabric into clothes towels and so much more.
Note: Even though organic cotton is very sustainable, always choose recycled cotton if you have the option.
Linen is a natural fiber that comes from a flax plant. This plant needs less water than cotton and the best thing about it is that none of the plant is wasted according to Good on you. Therefore, it produces less waste.
The fabric is a durable, yet breathable material that can be used in many different ways. From dresses to bedding. Its versatility is what makes linen so popular. It also has a luxurious look to it.
Since it’s a natural fiber, it can biodegrade at the end of its lifecycle, considering it hasn’t been treated with dyes or other chemicals.
Also, did you know that linen is naturally antimicrobial? That’s right. Linen is definitely one of the best textile materials out there.
This is another natural material and considered one of the most sustainable fabrics. As you’ve probably guessed, this one is also biodegradable. Hemp has gained a lot of popularity lately in the sustainable fashion industry.
Additionally, hemp fabric has many desirable qualities including durability and breathability.
It doesn’t need chemicals such as pesticides/ fertilizers to make it grow or other chemicals to manufacture it. It requires less water compared to other plants and hemp grows faster too. What’s not to love about hemp?
Always make sure though that the hemp that you are buying is certified organic. Otherwise, we can’t be sure if the farmers used any chemicals on it (even though it’s not needed).
Did you know that it’s possible to turn wood pulp into fabric? That’s right. Tencel is an alternative to the very unsustainable viscose (more on that below). It is a new, innovative fabric created from cellulose and developed in Austria.
Tencel is actually a brand name. The fibers it’s made out of are called Lyocell fibers. They specifically developed this material to have a low environmental impact.
While both viscose and Tencel come from wood pulp, Tencel does not cause that much harm. It uses less energy and water. Plus, it’s not toxic.
Econyl is a relatively new material that was created with circularity in mind as it is created with waste material. This waste fabric includes old fabric and old fishing nets. They then process it to make nylon yarn.
However, it’s important to note that this one does have a downside. Like other synthetic, plastic material, this one too sheds microplastics into the water. Getting something like a Cora Ball is a good solution to this problem. This is a new piece of technology that catches microplastics in the washing machine so that they don’t end up in the ocean.
Another innovative material recently developed is called Piñatex. The craziest part is that it comes from pineapple leaves. I love this material so much because it does so much good for the planet. It reduces waste and helps local farmers at the same time.
However, it’s not the perfect option as the final material is not actually biodegradable but it is certainly a much better option than leather.
This just shows how good humans are at innovation. If we came up with more solutions like these, we could really improve the state of the planet. Sustainable fabrics like these need to be used more in the near future.
Least Sustainable Fabrics
The least sustainable ones are primarily synthetic fibers but not always the case as you will soon see.
Polyester is plastic and because of this, it releases microplastics into waterways every time it’s washed (or if it ends up in the ocean).
Like many other man-made fabrics, it is petroleum-based and therefore won’t biodegrade. Sadly, landfills are filling up with this material and will stay there for hundreds of years.
Despite its harmful environmental impact, it still dominates the fashion industry. Polyester makes most up most of our clothing. If you don’t believe me, go into your wardrobe as check all the labels of your clothes. Because of fast fashion, and increased demand for clothing, polyester manufacturing has also increased due to its cheap price.
The best we can do now is to recycle the polyester that already exists and make new clothes from it. You will see this referred to as rPET (i.e. recycled polyester).
You will find this material mostly in sportswear. Nylon is another harmful fabric to the environment. It is a massive contributor to plastic waste and similarly to polyester, it also sheds microplastics.
Like all plastic materials, it comes from a finite source, crude oil. But that’s not all. From the beginning till the end, nylon is unsustainable. First of all, it needs to be retrieved from the ground which is energy-intensive and destroys natural ecosystems. Moreover, during production, it releases toxic pollution and wastes even more energy.
But like with most fabric, nylon is recyclable. There are some companies that already use recycled nylon so that they produce less new plastic while making the fashion industry more circular.
Also, known as viscose rayon and a cheap choice for fast fashion brands. Even though it comes from a natural material, it has made the list of most unsustainable fabrics.
It’s technically a semi-synthetic material. Viscose is made out of cellulose found in wood pulp. As it comes from wood pulp, it causes massive deforestation. Deforestation causes its own set of problems including biodiversity loss and contribution to climate change. But to turn those natural fibers into viscose, it also requires a lot of water and energy. The manufacturing process is very chemical intensive too.
Don’t be fooled. Just because something says it’s ‘natural’, doesn’t mean it is good for the planet or people.
Leather is yet another material that is natural yet unsustainable and here’s why. First of all, it’s not ethical as animals need to die for us to acquire their skin. The meat industry and leather industry and two separate things. Don’t think that the leather comes from already killed animals.
Additionally, it needs to go through many processes before it reaches the high street like tanning and bleaching all of which cause harm.
The best eco alternative to leather is Piñatex (which I talked about above). So far, that’s the best alternative but it’s quite new so not many brands are using it yet.
Other unsustainable fabrics
While these above are the worst fabrics for the environment, there are others. Wool, acrylic, fur, and acetate are some other textile materials you should avoid when buying new clothes.
They are all very polluting to the environment and/or unethical.
Always be aware of what you are buying and don’t fall victim to greenwashing. Know who made your clothes and where they come from.
What about bamboo?
This one is a more complicated one.
Bamboo itself is considered one of the most sustainable materials on the planet. This is due to the fact it’s the fastest-growing plant and can grow in many different conditions. It’s a versatile and renewable source and while bamboo toothbrushes and chopping boards might be sustainable, bamboo fabric is far from that.
There’s a misconception that bamboo fabric is very sustainable but many fail to realize that the process that turns bamboo into fibers is very intense.
The manufacturing process that produces bamboo is not that different from that of viscose. They are after all both made of a type of pulp that requires a lot of processing to be made into a fabric. Therefore, it harms the surrounding environment as well as the workers since they are breathing in toxic chemicals.
Additionally, most bamboo originates from China, and most times there’s little transparency so while bamboo is eco-friendly in itself, we can’t know if farmers follow sustainable practices.
The best alternative to bamboo fabric is hemp. It’s also fast-growing and needs little water like bamboo but causes less harm.
Common question: Is denim sustainable?
It depends. That’s the answer to most sustainability questions. Buying denim from fast fashion companies is not sustainable. That’s for certain.
They usually make denim out of (conventional) cotton. So if you want to become more eco-friendly, you need to find eco brands that make sustainable denim from organic fabric. Currently, most of the denim industry is not good for the planet.
But why? Well, the main concern stems from the fact it uses non-organic cotton. As I mentioned above, making cotton is very pesticide and water-intensive. Also, many dyes were probably used to make your favorite jeans which contain toxic chemicals.
If you want to buy denim, choose smaller and eco-friendly brands. And make sure they are transparent about how they make it. We can make denim better for the planet. It doesn’t have to continue to be unsustainable. Brands like Kuyichi and MUD Jeans make it clear that denim can in fact be sustainable and ethical.
Always check the label. Don’t turn a blind eye. Be aware of what you are buying.
Become a more conscious consumer. We can all play our part and try to make ourselves more sustainable. One by one, we can change the fashion industry. Fashion and clothes shouldn’t cause so much damage as it is now.
Try to choose sustainable fabrics as much as you can and try following the principles of slow fashion instead of fast fashion.
Know the impact of your clothes and know where you are putting your money. If we want to make the world a better place, consumers need to become more responsible and realize that what they are purchasing is in fact having an impact on the world.