What are the most sustainable fabrics you can buy? Which fabrics should you avoid? Here's what you need to know…
There are two sides to fashion sustainability: the ethical conduct of the manufacturers/sellers, and the fabric itself.
The leading cause of industry unsustainability is fast fashion. That is the trend toward inexpensive, rapidly produced clothing for a mass market by retailers responding to the latest trends – sometimes every two weeks.
The emphasis is on quantity over quality and rapid turnover rather than championing classic styles, quality fabric and construction. To achieve this, companies chose to manufacture oversees where labor is cheap and environmental regulations can be ignored.
Fifty years ago, 95% of the clothing sold in the US was manufactured here; today that figure is 2%. The average household spent the equivalent of $4,000 on 25 garments; today $1,800 is spent on 70 garments. That buying statistic translates to 80 billion pieces of clothing consumed worldwide every year.
The bottom line of fast fashion is disposable clothing. 12.8 million tons or 70 pounds per person ends up in landfills. Only a fraction of that clothing can decompose, the rest will remain intact for centuries.
The starting point of this unsustainable story is that huge amounts of natural resources that go into creating clothing through water, power and arable land use requiring increased pesticide and fertilizer use, CO2 emissions, chemical pollution and desertification of land.
Even though the ethical business practices of companies is important, this article will focus on the starting point – the different levels of fabric sustainability, before, during and after manufacture.
This is only one part of the overall industry, but does have the greatest impact in protecting the planet. In terms of the greatest polluters, the fashion industry is second only to the oil industry.
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Fossil Fuel Based Fabrics
First up, let's look at fossil fuel based fabrics…
Speaking of fossil fuels, polyester, nylon and acrylic are all oil byproducts and make up 65% of all clothing.
It’s cheap, versatile, adds elasticity and produces wrinkle-free garments.
Polyester is unsustainable for three major reasons:
It’s energy intensive to manufacture. 70 billion barrels of oil is needed to meet current fabric needs. The manufacturing process also requires large amounts of chemicals, water and fossil fuel.
Nitrous oxide is created in the processing with antimony used as a catalyst. Antimony is a carcinogen that is toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.
Thousands of microscopic beads of plastic are released into the water system every time you wash a polyester garment. These work their way through the system eventually ending up in your drinking water and the ocean where it’s ingested by fish, which you ultimately eat.
While not biodegradable, it’s recyclable.
As you can see, polyester isn't always a great choice.
The best news about polyester is that is can be recycled an infinite number of times. In fact, recycled fabric is softer and lighter feeling than virgin polyester, with no decrease of strength or durability.
It also requires about half as much energy to create recycled polyester and releases 75% less emissions.
Recycled polyester, also called rPET, takes existing fabric or PET (the plastic found in water bottles and other food and household containers) breaks it into chips which are heated, pressed through a spinneret to form thread to be spun into yarn and then fabric.
Although less water is used in the processing, it’s still energy intensive.
Recycled polyester takes plastics that would end up in landfills and repurposes it. The end result is an improved product.
However, microplastics will still be released with every washing and it’s not biodegradable. By 2030 20% of all polyester will be recycled. This is a start.
Natural Does Always Not Equal Sustainable
Buying natural products – plant and animal based – does not mean that you are being ecologically responsible. Polyesters are not the only unsustainable fabrics.
Cotton is arguably as harmful to the planet as polyester and is the second most common fabric used.
While it’s one of the most widely grown crops worldwide, it’s been called “the dirtiest crop on earth” because it requires more water, fertilizers and pesticides than any other crop.
Growing cotton consumes:
- 16% of all pesticides, 25% of all insecticides and 6.8% of all herbicides used worldwide.
- 2.5% of all agricultural land is used for its growth.
- 3% of the world’s water use is for irrigating cotton. It takes 700-1700 gallons of water to produce enough cotton for a single T-shirt.
The end result of concentrated cotton growing is that the land becomes infertile through repeated use. So much water is used in irrigation that it can create deserts out of once large water sources (read about the Aral Sea).
To add to these scary numbers, chemical defoliants used in mechanical harvesting remain in the fabric and are released throughout a garment’s lifetime. The alternative is hand picking which is still.
This is problematic because laborers, many of whom are children, endure horrendous working and pay conditions.
Other hazards of cotton manufacturing include harsh bleaching and dye usage, the waste of 2/3 of the crop grown as unusable and the release of micro-particles of fiber in the wash (just look at your dryer’s lint basket).
Denim is one of our most beloved materials. There are more pairs of jeans in existence than there are people. Unfortunately, a single pair of Levi jeans uses 3781 gallons of water in the manufacturing process, in addition to the 10-20,000 gallons necessary to grow the cotton.
The blue color is achieved using Azo dyes which can release carcinogenic chemicals.
Further processing of denim (sandblasting, stonewashing and shredding) involves additional chemicals or fine dust particles and significant health risks to workers; while decreasing the longevity of a garment.
In this case, feeling and looking good is bad for the environment and your wallet.
Organic cotton has a much smaller impact on the environment. Obviously, no toxic pesticides or fertilizers are allowed and because farmers rely on crop rotation, the soil isn’t depleted.
Organic farming also relies more heavily on rain over irrigation.
All in all, organic cotton uses 90% less water and 60% less energy than non-organic cotton. Most is hand-picked resulting in longer and softer fibers with the added bonus that the plant itself is not harmed.
In addition to the ecological benefits for everyone, the consumer benefits because the fabric is softer and with no harsh dyes you avoid skin sensitivities. If organic is important to you, you must look for a certified label rather than just relying on the manufacturer’s “organic” label.
The best is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) that ensures that your garment meets stringent environmental and ethical criteria throughout the entire supply chain. The only downsides to organic cotton are that it requires more land to grow and still releases microfibers.
Recycled (pre-owned) and reclaimed (scraps and left over fabric from manufacturers) cottons are also available and while still reliant on resource intensive cotton, it’s a huge step towards sustainability.
Recycled cotton relies mostly on existing garments that are sorted by dye color, shredded back into fibers, then re-woven to create new fabric. It keeps 25 billion pounds of waste from landfills and only uses 20% of the water that conventional weaving would.
However, unlike polyester, rewoven cotton is not as good as the original. The fibers are shorter and rougher and the production process is tedious. Recycled cotton is best used in blended garments.
Viscose: Natural, But Synthetically Produced
There are a number of fabrics made from wood pulp that go through enough chemical processing that they don’t quite fit the natural or synthetic categories.
The most common are viscose, rayon and modal which use birch, beech, oak, eucalyptus or bamboo pulp.
Depending on the growing, harvesting and processing conditions, these fabrics are almost always more sustainable than cotton or polyester.
Once the wood is turned into pulp, it needs to go through a softening process in a chemical soup before it can be filtered and spun into thread, then fabric.
The chemicals used are generally non-toxic. Viscose is the third most common fabric produced.
Most of the trees used in viscose are fast growing, regenerative trees. It becomes unsustainable when old-growth forests are cut down to clear land for planting.
30% of the rayon and viscose made comes from endangered and ancient forest pulp.
Ecologically, this is a chemically-intensive process that also uses a lot of energy and water. Irresponsible manufacturers will release toxic chemicals such as caustic soda, sulphuric acid and carbon disulphide into the air and waterways.
These are linked to heart disease, birth defects, cancer and skin conditions for workers, those living in surrounding areas and the environment.
The better manufacturers of any viscose use non-toxic chemicals and a closed loop process. This means that the chemicals are re-used and not released into the environment.
This also reduces the amount of water needed. Viscose is biodegradable.
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, requires no fertilizer or pesticides and little water to thrive.
Bamboo viscose is becoming more popular. While more expensive than polyester or cotton, the result is durable, silky fabric that is wrinkle resistant and safe for sensitive skin.
Tencel/Lyocell are trade names of very sustainable fabrics made from eucalyptus pulp. The manufacturers use trees grown on sustainable plantations. Even the waste water is recycled.
The result is a certified biodegradable fabric that is moisture-wicking, naturally wrinkle resistant, anti-bacterial and 50% more absorbent than cotton. It’s an extremely soft, luxurious fabric that is great for activewear and for the environment.
Sheep, Goat & Alpaca Wool
Not all wools are created equal, and some are more sustainable than others. All are moisture-wicking and will keep you warm. There is generally less chemical, water and energy use with wool.
Sustainability is more a function of how the animals interact with the land and issues of cruelty in the shearing process.
Cashmere is spun from goat hair, primarily from Mongolia. It takes the hair of 4 goats to produce one sweater. Because of cashmere’s popularity, goats have over-populated and over-grazed Mongolia. Their numbers grew from 5 million in 1990 to 20 million in 2009.
When goats graze, they rip the grass up from the roots. 90% of the land used to raise goats is now under serious threat of desertification.
Sheep wool is more sustainable than cashmere. Raising sheep fights against global warming by decreasing carbon dioxide levels. Sheep can be raised on non-arable land and are better at maintaining its viability than goats.
The sheep themselves contribute to the unsustainability of wool. They emit a lot of methane gas.
Finally, some sheep are sheared in a process called muling, where a bit of skin is removed along with the wool.
Even though it reduces the risk of infection, many people feel that this is overly cruel to the animals. New Zealand is known for their stricter regulations regarding the wool industry.
The greatest water use with wool comes in the dying and/or bleaching processes. Unfixed dyes, as well as the heavy metal dye fixatives pollute water systems.
Wool clothing has many benefits: it’s durable, insulating, retains up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp, and because it needs to be washed less often than plant or synthetic clothing, less water is used.
Alpaca wool has a number of advantages. One alpaca provides enough wool to make 4-5 sweaters per year.
They need very little water and food to survive, live in areas that aren’t arable, consume plants without pulling out the roots, and unlike goats, they have feet with soft padding that aren’t destructive to the soil.
Very little water and energy is expended in processing alpaca wool into fabric. It has the added bonuses of being soft, luxurious and hypoallergenic.
Leather: To Faux or Not to Faux
Let's take a look at real versus faux leather.
Leather is exceedingly unsustainable. The animals used in the leather industry are responsible for 14.5% of the methane output.
As a greenhouse gas methane is 20 times stronger than CO2.
One billion animals are killed every year for their leather. Leather manufacturers are the most wasteful, material-wise, of all producers because they must work around the shape of the hide.
One half of the total global output of leather is wasted by just the top 10 leather producers.
As bleak as those statistics are, the real harm in leather production comes from the chemicals used for tanning – 85% of which is tanned using chromium.
This is extremely toxic to the workers and the environment. It’s carcinogenic and bleeds into surrounding water systems.
Leather is generally tanned in countries that don’t have adequate environmental or safety regulations in place so in addition to health concerns, workplace injuries are common.
A very small percentage of leather is naturally tanned and uses vegetable dyes.
Faux leather is made from PVC or polyurethane – plastic products – and is not sustainable.
Piñatex is a leather-like product created from the waste leaves of pineapple plants which are cut down to allow for new growth.
Piñatex production utilizes some of the 40,000 tons of waste that would otherwise be left to either rot or be burned. Utilizing the leaves becomes a secondary source of income for the pineapple growers.
No additional water, fertilizer, pesticide or land is used to make Piñatex. It’s produced in long rectangular bolts so producing pattern pieces doesn’t involve the waste you get with hides.
No toxic chemicals are used in the process of transforming the fibers in the leaves into usable fabric. It can be dyed, printed and produced in any thickness. This vegan alternative looks, feels and is as durable as leather, all for 40% less.
The Best of the Best: Linen & Hemp
There are two natural fabric choices that are the best! Both linen and hemp are extremely sustainable, yet fashionable, long-lasting and comfortable choices.
They make durable that improves with repeated washings. Both are suitable year-round choices because the keep you cool in the summer, yet will retain heat in the winter.
Because no harsh chemicals are used in the processing, both hemp and linen are great choices for people with skin sensitivities.
Both plants are easy to grow without fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides. They thrive in poor soil with very little water in a variety of climates where no other crops will grow.
Not only do both plants yield fibers for fabric, the rest of the plant can be used for a multitude of other uses: food, medicine, paper and insulation.
Linen is made from the flax plant, a type of grass. It’s very fast growing – only taking a couple of months before it can be harvested.
In addition to being strong, it’s naturally moth resistant and can hold moisture without holding bacteria. Wearing linen reduces your exposure to solar radiation by almost half. It softens and strengthens the more it’s laundered.
There are only two potential sustainability downsides to linen:
Linen needs to go through a process called retting to soften the fibers. Dew retting is sustainable. However, if enzyme or water retting is used, there is more water usage and/or the possibility of chemicals leaking into water systems.
Pure white linen because it requires intense bleaching. Instead, choose natural colors such as ivory, ecru, tan and grey.
Overall, linen is a solid choice.
Industrial hemp is now legal to grow in the United States. Hopefully we will start to see an increase in domestic production to meet the long standing appreciation that Europeans have had for everything hemp.
Hemp farming is actually carbon positive – it returns up to 70% of the nutrients back to the soil when the low growing leaves decompose before harvesting. It also removes 1.63 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per ton of growth.
More hemp can be grown in a smaller amount of space than any other plant. It will happily grow in poor soil, but does require a minimum amount of water.
A comparison of hemp and cotton shows how much more sustainable it is: hemp requires 700 gallons of water to yield 2.2 pounds of fabric vs. cotton’s 7,000 gallons. Hemp yields between 2-3 times more fiber per acre than cotton.
It’s also 3 times stronger so your clothing will be more durable, last longer, yet still being easy care and comfortable with the added advantages of UV protection and mold resistance.
The only disadvantage of hemp is that it’s not colorfast so you won’t find vibrant colors unless harsh chemical dyes are used; however, undyed or naturally dyed hemp produces beautiful muted tones.
The Future of Sustainability
There are some amazing innovations becoming available that are decorative, practical and highly sustainable. Some are very high-tech, yet mimic natural products (lab grown silk), others are finding new ways of using plant waste that don’t further burden the environment.
In addition to Piñatex, banana plant fibers and coconut husks are now being used to create completely sustainable fabrics that have some amazing qualities. Recycling and reclaiming fabric, rather than throwing clothing away, is gaining popularity.
While fabrics are becoming more sustainable, ultimately it’s the responsibility of the consumer to choose their clothing wisely and support sustainability through careful fabric and manufacturer choice.