What do we mean when we say a fabric is “sustainable”?
The first thing that comes to mind is that we’re talking about how fast a piece will wear down or tear, but that’s not right! The points that fall under sustainability are how eco-friendly a piece is, how ethically it was made, and how friendly to the environment its production is.
Consider any fabric:
First, we want to know if it was ethically produced.
Where was it made?
We might want to know the fuel expended in shipping – its carbon miles (or kilometers, but that’s a bit of a mouthful).
Will the fabric stand the test of time?
Can it be recycled?
These are all great questions – but the first and foremost question any consumer should be asking is, “What is it made from?”
All fibers are divided into natural and synthetic.
Natural fibers are those produced by plants or animals that can be spun into a fabric – such as silk, wool, hemp, bamboo or cotton.
Synthetic fibers are made from chemicals consisting of superior properties to natural fibers such as cotton or silk. Synthetic textiles are made from either inorganic products or a mixture of organic ones and chemicals.
It seems simple: Natural fabric is better. But natural does not always equal sustainable. Often the production of natural fabrics causes just as much harm to the environment as the production of synthetic ones.
So, let us look at some of the fabrics below and examine their eco-friendliness, their production process, and their uses, as well and pros and cons.
alpaca sheep don't require insecticides to be injected into their fleece
don't require antibiotic treatments
alpaca wool very long-lasting, wrinkle/frame-resistant, and extremely durable
warmer than wool
has no lanolin which makes it hypoallergenic
easy to grow without pesticides and quick to replenish itself
bamboo fabric processing is extremely toxic
manufacturing of bamboo does raise environmental and health concerns.
about 50% of hazardous waste from rayon production (including the bamboo variety) cannot be recaptured and reused and goes directly into the environment
antibacterial properties of bamboo fabric are not scientifically proven yet
*** Bamboo fabric can be considered more sustainable if it is produced using a mechanical rather than a chemical process. The mechanical process is the same eco-friendly process used to make linen fabric from flax or hemp.
cheap cashmere is produced with chemicals and carcinogenic dyes
cashmere may also be blended with other fibers, such as non-sustainable polyester
*** from an eco-perspective, cashmere is long-lasting and highly durable
uses more pesticides than any other crop in the world
pesticides can remain on garments long enough and irritate consumers' skin
requires more water than organic cotton from irrigation due to poor soil quality
still use a lot of water but less than inorganic cotton
safer for farmers because it does not use toxic chemical treatments
promotes and enhances biodiversity and biological cycles by maintaining healthy soils
harsh chemical herbicides aren’t necessary
hemp naturally reduces pests, so no pesticides are needed
returns 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil
requires very little water
fabric production can be done organically through a mechanical process that requires no chemicals
*** cheap linen is treated with chemicals in fast-fashion retailers
requires very little pesticides
linen is in its most green form when it’s in a natural shade or dyed with natural dyes
linen is also a bit wrinkly and does not require ironing thus saving energy
*** some people question modal eco-friendliness
*** can be dyed with harsh chemicals (many containing heavy metals)
modal is a high yield cellulose biodegradable fiber
absorbs 50% more moisture than cotton which keeps it odor-free and uses less energy from washing
machine washes and tumble dries without shrinking (durability fabric)
*** Lenzing Modal® is made from sustainably harvested beech trees and is bleached with an environmentally friendly method
made from petrochemicals which are very polluting to the environment
nylon is non-biodegradable
releases nitrous oxide when manufactured
all “permanent press”, “easy care” or “crease-resistant” cotton fabrics are treated with the toxic chemical, formaldehyde
made from polluting petrochemicals as well
non-biodegradable and lasts a very long time in landfills
produced from renewable cellulosic plants (such as pine trees, bamboo and beech trees).
non-environmentally friendly manufacturing process (uses chemicals and heavy metals)
natural plant fibers
requires less water than cotton
naturally resistant to bacteria and grows healthily without pesticides
one of the strongest natural fibers (8 times stronger than cotton)
it takes thousands of grubs to create a small amount of silk
the silkworms die during the process of extracting the silk
the pupae are a rich source of protein, which makes them a popular snack across many Asian countries
the outer-cocoons are also used as fertilizer or to stuff pillows
many silks are also dyed with toxic chemicals
SILK VEGAN (Peace Silk)
this kind of silk is made from the worm casings gathered only after the moths have emerged and moved on
but this ethical option is not widely adopted as the end product is not as soft
*** watch out for soy blends with polyester and inorganic cotton
made from byproducts of soy oil processing
good for bras and panties because its soft and silky
can be certified organic, sustainable, eco-friendly
*** not all Tencel fabric is made from sustainable wood, and can also be dyed with high-chemical dyes
non-chemical alternative to viscose
fiber made from the wood pulp of Eucalyptus trees (eucalyptus grows quickly without pesticides, fertilizers, genetic manipulation or irrigation)
extremely environmentally friendly process (uses less energy and water)
biodegradable and recyclable
absorbs perspiration, doesn’t allow bacteria growth, remains odor-free which means fewer washes to save energy
biodegradable and renewable fiber
scouring (washing) and processing wool use harmful chemicals that pollute the environment, and copious amounts of water
mass-producing wool often leads to the inhumane treatment of animals
sheep are often treated with dangerous insecticides to ward off ticks and lice
biodegradable and renewable fiber
feed and forage used for the sheep from the last third of gestation must be certified organic
synthetic hormones and genetic engineering of the sheep aren't used
sheep being grazed in smaller paddocks for shorter periods of time, allowing the paddock to be in recovery for most of the time - better for soil
organic yarns are often left in their natural state or use non-toxic, organic dyes
made according to Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS)
it is usually made from recycled plastic bottles
buying recycled polyester means you’re minimising waste and cutting out the fossil fuel industry
It is made using post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste
according to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, it is a more sustainable alternative to both conventional and organic cotton
help keep cotton clothes out of landfill
Of course if you look hard enough, no fabric is ever truly and fully sustainable. The production process of sustainable fabrics is more expensive, but clothes made from them will often have higher quality, and overall last longer.
In any case, this chart should help you make a more deliberate decision on what fabric to use for your next project))