Hey guys! I often talk about sustainable fashion, how to shop green, how to take better care of your things, how to wash your clothes with the lowest impact, etc, but I don’t think I have actually made a list of the most sustainable fabrics, and you know, that might be good to have on hand. Also, I think it is important to mention that this post is specifically about the environmental impact of the fabrics, but when we are deciding to buy something, or support a certain brand there are other factors to take into consideration as well. Even if a brand is using 100% recycled cotton, it is still vital that they pay their workers’ fair wages, that they prioritize ethical supply chains, workers’ rights, etc, and far from all companies do that, actually, the majority don’t (find my list of eco brands I stand by here). This is especially important right now, where many fast fashion brands are looking into greener fabrics (or greenwashing their way there) while still neglecting to pay for ethical labour, so please have that in mind as well.
765,000 liters of water can be saved per ton of recycled cotton. The biggest issues with cotton lie through the supply chain, from the impact of fertilizer to water and land usage. The impact of washing and using cotton is fairly minimal, it can also be repaired and composted easily. Because the big impact of cotton lies in the production of it, using recycled cotton can seriously lessen its impact, and overall I love seeing recycled cotton used. You should however be cautious of greenwashing, still, look out for certification (I have a guide here), and notice how much of the product is actually made from recycled cotton, if it’s only 20%, it doesn’t really do much good. Saying something is made from “recycled” materials without disclosing how much of the material is actually recycled, or sharing any part of the process can be a good way to spot greenwashing so be aware of that. But when 100% recycled cotton is used, and the people making the clothing were paid fair wages, I am happy.
Only 0.7% of today’s production of cotton is organic, which is a huge problem. Cotton is the most cultivated non-food crop in the world, using a vast majority of pesticides and insecticides, organic cotton production also takes better care of the soil by using crop-rotation methods. When looking for organic cotton look for the GOTS certification, it is by far the most transparent and effective label.
Uses 60% less water than cotton. Linen is made from the flax plant, which can grow in poor quality soil and overall requires fewer resources than cotton to grow, making linen a comparatively lower impact material. Of course, it is always the most ideal when it is produced organically, but actually, even non-organic linen has a lower footprint than cotton.
Can produce twice the amount of fiber as cotton grown in a similar space, and uses 50% less water as well. One of hemp’s best traits is that you can grow it in the same soil for years and years without exhausting the soil because hemp refertilises its own soil. Hemp and linen share many of their great qualities and overall is a really good replacement for many cotton products.
Fun fact, Tencel is not a type of material, but a brand name. Tencel is a specific type of lyocell and other semi-synthetic fibers like rayon and viscose, developed by Lenzing, and in comparison to convention lyocell production, Tencel is made in a closed-loop system that generated a lot less waste, as well as uses significantly fewer resources, and recycled all the chemicals used, in that loop.
This is an artificial cellulose fiber that’s made from cotton waste products. Cupro is, like Tencel, made in a closed-loop system that reuses water and chemicals over and over and thus has a much lower wastewater impact than many other materials.
Now I haven’t seen a lot of clothes made in this material yet, but I think it’s going to take off. It has a lot of the same characteristics as linen, low impact production, can grow in poor quality soil, use fewer to no pesticides, etc, a pretty sustainable fabric that I am sure we’ll hear more about in the future.
Now synthetic rubber is made from plastic, but natural rubber is made from the milk of the Hevea tree, and harvesting the milk actually benefits the tree too, it is biodegradable and comes from a renewable resource, in comparison to its synthetic counterpart, which is something to appreciate.
(just a couple of ambiguous ones)
Now I want to add a couple of options that sometimes can be sustainable, but not always ( mean, overall I would also argue that very few things are always, inherently sustainable, there will always be certain expectations, variations, etc) However, these fabrics are the ones, I am careful with, that I always take a closer look at, and that needs more work.
Now bamboo has a lot of potential to be very sustainable, it grows really fast, it can grow in environments where nothing else can, and it technically does not require pesticides or at least a minimal amount. However, the supply chains of bamboo are still very untransparent, a lot of the time. And while bamboo has a lot of potential, unsustainable farming practices are still used. Next comes garment production. Bamboo is a really hard material, and making it a soft fabric usually requires a lot of chemicals, just like with other semi-synthetics like viscose, rayon etc, bamboo clothing is technically just bamboo-based viscose, and it isn’t inherently sustainable, but it can be. If you want to know more details, check out the impact video about bamboo here, or the specific impact video about bamboo clothing here.
Recycled polyester and nylon:
While the production impact of synthetics like nylon and polyester, when using recycled materials, is much lower than when using virgin materials, the upsides also stop there, and the materials leave behind the same issues no matter their recycled nature. We’re talking microplastic when washing and wearing, unable to ever break down, and furthermore, very few brands that make synthetic clothes have return products to take broken and worn out pieces back. This often means that they themselves do not recycle materials, but rather outsource them to a third or fourth party. There are also examples of brands saying that they are using ocean plastic, without evidence to support their claims. Furthermore, creating materials from ocean plastic, isn’t as simple as it is often advertised, most ocean plastic is brittle and basically impossible to work with, as such, to find enough workable materials, lots and lots of waste has to be sorted, and that is really expensive, so at this point in time, it is way more expensive than using virgin plastic. Read more here
This is a little bit of a hot potato, but wool can have a low impact, and a low carbon footprint, but conventional wool is often really far from sustainable, some farms do it better than average, but sadly there is not a lot of certified organic wool on the market at this point. The upsides to wool, it’s a renewable resource, it is completely biodegradable, and it is anti-bacterial. The downsides are that non-organic wool uses pesticides on pasturelands, some farmers use really unethical practices and methods maintaining their livestock (over time we have also bred sheep to produce so much wool that many of them cannot survive without human maintenance) In comparison to leather, wool often has a rosier image, as leather comes from dead animals, we tend to believe that farmers and sheep live in perfect harmony, helping each other out – however, the wool and meat industry is tightly connected, and one the sheep stop producing quality wool, they’re slaughtered. I do buy second-hand/vintage/reclaimed wool products, but I don’t support new wool production (it’s also not vegan soo). For more resources, read here
Many types of vegan leather are made from petroleum-based materials, aka plastic, which comes with all the same issues as nylon or polyester. As such, vegan leathers are not necessarily low impact, some of them are, there are products like apple leather or Pinatex that are made from discarded pineapple leaves that are definitely better than pleather. If you want to know more about my stance on wearing leather as a vegan, check out this post.