What Is Sustainable Fabric?

What Is Sustainable Fabric?

When purchasing an outfit, we know we're making much more than a fashion statement.

For better or for worse, we're also making an environmental impact. That's why, when it comes to clothing and fabric, we believe in quality over quantity.

And what better way to prioritise quality – and the environment – than by choosing sustainable textiles and eco-friendly fabric?

Sustainable fabrics offer loads of benefits for the planet, your wardrobe, and even your bank account.

We're going to dive into questions like "what are sustainable fabrics?" and "is cotton biodegradable?" But first, let's discuss what sustainable fabric really is.

What's in a label? So what do we look for when we're choosing sustainable fabrics?

Whether you're a clothes maker or a fashion lover who doesn't love fashion's impact on the planet, choosing sustainable fabrics is one of the first things we can do to make our wardrobes more eco-friendly.

But there is a lot of debate about which fabrics are truly sustainable. Do natural always equal good and synthetic equal bad?

What happens when we wash or dispose of our clothes?

The items collected for recycling are initially divided into two - one that can be worn and one that cannot be worn.

They are again separated based on their material and their colour. The textile is pulled into fibres. Then these fibres are cleaned and mixed with other fibres, if necessary. The fibre is then spun to manufacture yarn.

The yarn is woven, dyed or printed, and finally stitched into clothes.

Several recycling units recycle old or thrown away clothes.

Charity homes that get a large number of used clothes as donations generally resort to recycling clothes.

They send clothes that are not worthy of being worn or that are extra to recycling units.

They get paid for them in return.

Studies show that reusing old clothes results in a considerable decrease in CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

There is no doubt to the fact that recycling textiles is a sustainable practice. This kind of practice is beneficial to the environment. It is highly recommended in the textile industry.

This step will help reduce the carbon footprints left behind by the industry. It will thereby help reduce the overall cost of manufacturing textiles.

Sustainability is advisable for everybody, and recycling is a step towards the same!

Conscious fashion can mean many different things, but one way to ensure a more mindful purchase is to shop for sustainably made garments.

With fast fashion producing at a highly accelerated rate to meet demand, manufacturers end up relying on virgin synthetic materials that are cheap and quick to produce.

However, these fabrics (like polyester) take decades or more to biodegrade, and textiles, in general, make up 7.7 per cent of municipal solid waste in landfills. So not only is it time to slow down—but it's also time to take a closer look at our clothing labels too.

But how can we discern which fabrics are sustainable and which ones aren't? There isn't exactly one "dream fabric" that will solve every problem.

Because, at the end of the day, all new fabric requires resources to produce, and while we love vintage and secondhand garments, those can also contribute to the microplastics problem depending on what they're made of.

For starters, get familiar with the labels on your existing favourite wardrobe staples!

The fabrics that work best for you will vary based on your values and your needs.

For example, you may prefer to avoid animal products in your clothing, so plant-based fabrics and recycled synthetics might be right.

On the other hand, perhaps you only want to wear fabrics that biodegrade, or maybe your work requires the use of certain synthetics in your garments.

All of this can change, too, if you have skin sensitivities or allergies to particular fabrics.

Another factor to consider when shopping sustainably is that some fabrics will have a longer lifespan than others.

The most optimal choice for you will be the one that will allow you to waste less, purchase fewer, and wear your items for longer. 

What Is Sustainable Fabric?

Sustainable textiles are materials derived from eco-friendly resources like natural fibres and recycled materials.

For many years, the idea of sustainable textiles was basically synonymous with natural fibres.

Natural fibres such as cotton, wool, silk, and bamboo are more sustainable than synthetic fibres, including polyester, nylon and acrylic.

But while natural fibres are more sustainable, there are still environmental concerns to consider.

Cotton, for example, requires a great deal of water and pesticides to thrive. And, contrary to popular belief, comparing cotton fibre to recycled polyester fibre, the latter would be more sustainable.

Today, we are seeing advances in yarn technology that use recycled plastics for synthetic yarns and landfill degrading polymers that disintegrate when discarded.

Best Sustainable Fabrics To Look For In Fashion

Bamboo

Bamboo is a fast-growing, regenerative crop that doesn't require fertilisation and is often touted as a sustainable garment fabric—though there are concerns about land clearing and harvesting methods (something to ask a brand about before purchasing a garment).

That said, bamboo is incredibly absorbent, comfortable, and moisture-wicking, making it a favourite with sustainable brands.  

Recycled Cotton

Cotton is one of the most common and most used fabrics. This natural fibre is light and breathable, which makes it a wardrobe staple.

But growing cotton can be problematic: conventional cotton is one of the thirstiest and most chemical-intensive crops to grow.

It requires a lot of pesticides and, as a result, has a negative impact on the planet and the people who grow it.

Organic cotton, a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton, has been booming in the last few years.

It aims to minimise the environmental impact of cotton production by removing harmful pesticides and other chemicals from the production process.

Check if your organic cotton is GOTS-certified to ensure high standards in production.

If you're looking for the most sustainable cotton, however, go recycled. Recycled or upcycled cotton is made using post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste.

According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, recycled cotton is a more sustainable alternative to both conventional and organic cotton.

It has the potential to help reduce water and energy consumption and help keep cotton clothes out of the landfill, which is why we consider it one of the most sustainable fibres on the market.

Because it uses a lot of water, pesticides and takes up land which could otherwise be used for crops, cotton is not often considered sustainable.

That is unless it's organic cotton! Yet, organic and sustainable cotton is a very in-demand fabric choice when it comes to ethical shopping.

This is because it's grown and manufactured to minimise the environmental impact and support livelihoods and communities.

Organic cotton is one of the most natural fabrics out there.

It's grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilisers and processed with no chemicals.

From an ecological standpoint, organic cotton farming uses 62% less energy and 88% less water than conventional cotton (which is, to the surprise of many, one of the single dirtiest crops around). 

Several certifications are used with sustainable and ethical cotton to tell us that the cotton was a. grown without any chemicals or machine harvesting, and b. it is processed without any chemicals leaving the final garment chemical-free.

Other pertinent certifications ensure fair pay and safe conditions for farmers (though not being exposed to chemicals in the field is already a huge component in that regard).

Reclaimed (Deadstock)

Reclaimed fabric (often called deadstock) is leftover fabric from manufacturers. It can also mean vintage fabric or any unused material purchased secondhand which would otherwise be tossed.

By using deadstock, makers keep textiles out of landfills and use something that's already been made.

Organic Hemp

It seems like hemp is everywhere at the moment.

However, marijuana's 'sober cousin' is extremely versatile: it's used as food, a building material, cosmetics and has been cultivated and used for hundreds of years as a fabric.

The great thing about hemp is that it's grown all around the world, and it requires very little water, no pesticides, and naturally fertilises the soil it grows in – making it much better for the environment than other crops.

In a previous article, we mentioned that hemp is one of the most eco-friendly natural fabrics around.

It's high-yielding, its growth is healthy for the soil (thanks to a process called phytoremediation), and it requires much less water than cotton. 

The main reason our hearts are racing for hemp clothing?

It's considered a carbon-negative raw material. This is because it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Because hemp tends to be slightly more expensive than other sustainable organic fabrics because it has so many benefits (like being naturally sun protective and antimicrobial) and is harder to grow, however, we can expect to see more of it in the future.

One of the oldest fibres in the world, hemp helps keep you warm in winter and cool in summer and gets softer the more you wash it. For all these reasons, we also consider hemp one of the most sustainable fabrics out there.

Modal

Modal is another semi-synthetic material made from wood pulp but mainly that of beech trees. The naturally occurring yet human-made fabric is generally more delicate and softer than its lyocell sibling.

Viscose

Another sought-after sustainable clothing material is viscose, but again, this depends on how it's made!

Viscose is a semi-synthetic type of rayon fabric made from wood pulp and is often used for silk.

Viscose such as Lyocell, Tencel, Modal, and Refibra are made from sustainable forests and have a much kinder chemical process that doesn't use nasty chemicals.

The process to make Lyocell is completely waste-free, for example, as every product is recycled somehow. In addition, this sustainable material is absorbent, lightweight, breathable, and soft.

Cork

Cork fabric has left the board and the bottle to make it onto our bodies. 

The material has become a popular one for vegan bags and shoes, and for a good reason! 

Cork is sustainably harvested from a cork oak (yes, it's from a tree) by simply shaving away the bark. In fact, Quercus suber can be harvested—and should be harvested—to extend its life. 

While the tree is regrowing the bark, it consumes more carbon dioxide than most types of trees. Thus cork plantations can actually act as a carbon sink.

Once it's been harvested (which can sustainably happen to mature trees every 9 to 12 years), the cork can be laid out in the sun to dry and then just requires water to transform it into something suitable for fashion. 

Applications of Sustainable Fabrics

How are people currently using sustainable fabrics? You've probably heard that discarded clothing accounts for the greatest volume of textiles in landfills.

Unfortunately, this is true — and many people are avoiding "fast fashion". As a result, opting for more sustainable fabrics and thrift or rented clothing instead.

But nondurable goods (those meant to last fewer than three years) are another significant source of waste. For example, the EPA estimated that 1.5 million tons of towels, sheets, and pillowcases were generated in 2017.

Where is the greatest need for sustainable textiles today? It's become increasingly evident that the push for sustainability needs to shift away from individual consumers. Instead, industries such as the medical field, hospitality, transportation, and the military can greatly benefit from using sustainable textiles and functional fabrics – fabrics that perform with additional functionality beyond that found in conventional textiles.

Frequently Asked Questions About Fabrics

What is the meaning of sustainable fabric?

Sustainable clothing refers to fabrics derived from eco-friendly resources, such as sustainably grown fibre crops or recycled materials. It also refers to how these fabrics are made.

Is buying fabric sustainable?

Fabric that has been "recovered" or "reclaimed" from old or unworn clothes is even more sustainable and ethical than purchasing fabric by the yard. So while the content of the fabric may not be organic, for example, this is kind of like using the remnants or scraps of designers in our home sewing.

Are recycled fabrics sustainable?

Recycled cotton prevents additional textile waste and requires far fewer resources than conventional or organic cotton. This makes it a great sustainable option. However, the quality of the cotton may be lower than that of new cotton. Recycled cotton is therefore usually blended with new cotton.

How is nylon sustainable?

The production of nylon is similar to that of polyester, with similar environmental consequences. Like polyester, nylon is made from a non-renewable resource (oil) in an energy-intensive process. However, Econyl is made of nylon waste from landfills and oceans in a closed-loop process and is infinitely recyclable.

Organic Linen

Linen is almost identical to hemp in terms of sustainability.

The fabrics are also both super light and breathable. The only difference? Linen is derived from the flax plant. 

Its growth requires very little fertiliser, pesticide, and irrigation. However, unlike hemp, linen isn't as high-yielding.

Linen is another natural fibre we've been growing for centuries. Similar to hemp, it's derived from a very versatile crop: the flax plant.

Linen requires minimal water and pesticides and even grows in poor-quality soil. Plus, every part of the plant is used, so nothing is wasted.

Linen is strong, naturally moth resistant, and, when untreated (i.e. not dyed), fully biodegradable.

In addition to being good for the planet, it is also light and can withstand high temperatures, absorbing moisture without holding bacteria. What's not to like?

Natural, sustainable fabrics have the advantage of being biodegradable and avoid using plastics that go hand in hand with the fossil fuel industry.

However, not every natural fabric has made a list, with bamboo, wool and leather bringing their own complex issues, which means we're cautious about recommending them outright.

Fashion is all about innovation, so what is the industry doing to create new sustainable fabrics? Here are some of the new types of high-tech synthetic fibres that have also made it onto our list.

As you know, linen's general popularity and reliability mean it is a favourite fabric in everything from linen clothing to linen sheets.

Silk

Silk comes from silkworms that subsist on a diet of only mulberry tree leaves, which are resistant to pollution and easy to grow.

This plant's characteristics make the production of silk a fairly low waste ordeal.

But as silk requires animal labour, it's essential to vet brands and ensure they're using ethical production methods, so be sure to look for Ahimsa silk (or Peace silk).

Wool

Wool can be a sustainable fabric, depending on how it's produced. Fibershed, for example, creates Climate Beneficial™ Wool on Carbon Farming landscapes where carbon is captured and put back into the soil.

Wool is also compostable, incredibly insulating, and doesn't shed plastic microfibers.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of animal abuse in the wool industry, and so it's essential to vet brands to verify sourcing and production methods.

Nevertheless, while wool isn't for everyone, it is a fabric that many sustainable brands are turning to.

Types of Sustainable Fabrics

Aside from natural fibres like cotton and wool, what are sustainable textiles typically made from? Current sustainability trends include:

  • Blended fabrics utilise fibre technology that reduces synthetic microfiber pollution.
  • Advanced recycled and biodegradable fibres, such as Econyl, which is made from synthetic waste like fishing nets and industrial plastic.
  • Biodegradable polyester such as CiCLO.
  • PFC-free hydrocarbons are incorporated into the fibre, allowing for the retention of functionality for up to 80 washes — longer than conventional coatings.
  • Antimicrobial coatings that reduce the need for washing, such as PurThread.

Reading garment labels is key, and you can't always take brands at their word.

A truly conscious company will make transparency a top priority and have a section or page on their website dedicated to the fabrics they use.

However, many brands don't, and that's where this background information comes in handy. You'll know the imposters from the real deals in no time! 

Read more

Why Is Ethical Fashion Expensive?

Why Is Ethical Fashion Expensive?

What Are Ethical Issues in Fashion?

What Are Ethical Issues in Fashion?

Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

Is Fast Fashion Ethical?