13 Sustainable Fabrics to Shop for the Most Eco-Friendly Wardrobe
These days, it’s a pretty well-known fact the fashion industry as a whole isn’t doing much good for the planet (although the extent of its damaging practices isn’t always clear). That said, there are numerous brands, both old and new, that have begun revamping their production practices, joining the ranks of companies like Patagonia, Reformation and Stella McCartney, which have been focused on eco-friendly, sustainable methods since day one. But how can we as shoppers tell which pieces in our digital shopping carts are truly eco-friendly and which are simply “greenwashed” (more on that below)? One of the best places to start is to look for pieces made from sustainable fabrics.
WHY SHOULD WE SWITCH TO SUSTAINABLE FABRICS?
According to Sustainable Jungle—a website (and podcast) that gives tips, tricks and hacks for a more sustainable life—the fashion industry is the second largest contributor of carbon emissions, following the behemoth that is the oil industry. Sure, switching to more sustainable fabrics won’t turn things around in a heartbeat, but it’ll give Mother Nature some reprieve in the long run. Fast fashion brands—whose entire M.O. is to churn out as many clothes as possible, then dispose of all that material as new trends emerge at lightning speed—have a direct impact on the consumption of water used to make their fabrics, microplastic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, rainforest destruction and landfill waste. Popular synthetic fibers, such as nylon, take 30 to 40 years to decompose, while lycra and polyester can take over 500 years to fully break down. So, the short answer is: Switching to sustainable fabrics is good for the environment.
How can I tell which fabrics are sustainable?
Confusingly, “sustainable” fashion can refer to a wide variety of qualifiers, but there are a number of different certifications that can help you to figure out which brands fit your needs. Some apply to companies as a whole, while others refer to the manufacturers of specific materials, so it’s always a good idea (and a refrain we’ll return to again in this article) to do a little extra research and check out a brand’s “About Us” page or read the product descriptions of the pieces you like to get the full scoop.
1. B Corp
Achieving a Certified B Corporation stamp of approval is a rigorous process that looks at both a company’s environmental and social impacts. It was developed by the non-profit B-Lab as a way to measure how much good brands are doing across a wide range of categories (like how/where it sources its materials and ensuring ethical working conditions and wages). While you can probably feel pretty good about shopping at a B Corp-certified brand, it might be worth it to really look into what areas it scored well in before assuming it’s super eco-friendly.
Backed by the Swiss organization Bluesign Technologies, this certification looks into every step of the production process and is awarded only to those companies committed to manufacturing products in the most environmentally-friendly, health-conscious way possible. Both brands as a whole as well as individual products can earn Bluesign status.
Cotton has the potential to be both one of the most and least sustainable fabrics (more on this later) but looking for brands with the Better Cotton Initiative’s stamp of approval is one quick way to determine whether or not you’re buying something eco-friendly. This certification ensures the fibers were obtained from farms actively working to reduce their environmental impact while also improving the livelihoods of workers, however, it does not necessarily mean they are organic or abstain from using pesticides or GMOs.
The Global Organic Textile Standards help to verify that fabrics have been made using organic materials and can be applied to both brands and dyehouses, farmers, mills and other producers within a supply chain. In fact, in order for a brand to get GOTS certification, the entire supply chain must meet a strict set of environmental and social standards. There are few clothing brands that can claim GOTS standards, but many use GOTS-certified suppliers, something you can find out from their websites or in product descriptions.
5. USDA Organic
The United States Department of Agriculture Organic seal verifies that natural fibers, like cotton, cashmere or silk, were made without any pesticides, fertilizers or GMOs (FYI, this can also be applied to food suppliers). The USDA also recognizes GOTS standards, which is why you’ll very often see the two paired together. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the USDA Organic certification only applies to the actual fibers used to make a T-shirt, and not the dyeing or finishing processes, so it is important to check those out on a brand’s website as well.
Oeko-Tex (which is somehow shorthand for the International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile and Leather Ecology) grades a number of different products, but the qualifier most often seen in the fashion industry is the Standard 100. It focuses on ensuring that both the methods used to make clothing and the actual clothes themselves are safe for humans, i.e., no harsh chemicals, pesticides or dyes are used at any point.
This independent certification grades materials on their environmental impact from start to finish. Are they made in an ethical, sustainable manner? Are they biodegradable or, conversely, can they be used repeatedly in perpetuity without degrading or diminishing in quality? Cradle to Cradle uses five categories—material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness—and awards passing brands with either a basic, bronze, silver, gold or platinum seal based on its findings.
Fabrics made from recycled materials do have a leg up on sustainability compared to newly produced fibers, but there is still the possibility that the recycling process can involve harmful chemicals or leave you with something that’s not itself recyclable or biodegradable. The GRS verifies that brands are being responsible in their commitments to ethical and eco-friendly production methods while using recycled materials. It’s most often used to relation to specific fabrics, like recycled cotton or cashmere, as opposed to brands, so be sure to check out the descriptions and material breakdowns of the item you want to buy before adding to cart.
How do I know a brand isn't just greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a type of performative activism in which corporations push environmentally-focused initiatives in an attempt to cover some of their other not-so-green behaviors. One popular example is Chevron’s infamous “People Do” campaign in which the company implied their pipes essentially helped save endangered species. Not only was that untrue, but the famed oil company’s practices were simultaneously violating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as well as spilling oil into wildlife refuges, according to Business News Daily. So, if you want to make sure that a brand is practicing what they're preaching, take some extra time to do a bit more research into their practices and ethics.
The 13 Most Sustainable Fabrics
Even without the above certifications, some clothes and accessories can still fit under the umbrella of sustainable fashion if they’re made from the sustainable materials listed here. However, just because a label says “organic cotton” doesn’t mean it wasn’t then treated with toxic dyes in the finishing process, so once again we suggest digging a little deeper rather than taking labels at face value.
Natural Sustainable Fabrics:
1. Organic linen
Linen comes from the flax plant, which requires very little water and can grow in poorer quality soil than either cotton or hemp, and can be used in its entirety so nothing goes to waste. In addition to being breathable, moisture-wicking and lightweight, linen that hasn’t been treated with dyes (excluding some natural dyes) is also fully biodegradable. It’s excellent for keeping you cool—as anyone with a set of linen sheets will tell you—and even has some antimicrobial features that prevent bacteria from growing between the fibers, leading to unwanted odors. One of the biggest downsides of linen, however, is that it can often be expensive, as most flax farms used for producing the fabric are found oversees.
2. Organic hemp
Hemp is technically a plant in the cannabis family but doesn’t have any of the psychogenic abilities of marijuana and has been used to make fabric for hundreds of years. It grows much faster and requires less water than cotton, doesn’t require pesticides, doesn’t deplete the soil the way many crops do and, most impressively, is actually a carbon-negative crop, meaning it removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than it emits. Like linen, hemp fabric also has antimicrobial properties and has a natural UPF to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. It also gets softer with every wash, meaning you’ll want to hang onto that T-shirt for much longer than you would a cheap synthetic style.
3. Organic cotton
Regular cotton crops require a ton of water and heavy pesticides are used regularly and with abandon. Denim in particular tends to involve lots of chemical treatments and water pollution. That said, it is entirely possible to grow cotton organically, i.e., without the use of chemicals, pesticides or GMOS. It also uses less energy and water, yet still produces the same soft, breathable fabric we all know and love. This is where those certifications mentioned earlier, specifics the GOTS and USDA Organic seals of approval, can really come in handy so you can have a better idea of exactly what you’re getting.
4. Recycled cotton
The most sustainable form of cotton, however, is recycled cotton, which is made from post-industrial and post-consumer waste and uses even less water and energy than organic cotton to produce. While cotton is biodegradable, it takes a very long time for tightly woven fabrics to decompose in landfills, so recycled cotton has the added benefit of keeping apparel and home goods from winding up there. That said, it’s possible to buy recycled cotton that has up to 4 percent of synthetic fibers (like spandex to add stretch), which further impedes the material’s ability be composted, so anything made from recycled cotton may not be pure cotton. Any company touting its use of recycled cotton should also be providing ample information about how and where the fibers were sourced and if they qualify for any of the aforementioned certifications.
5. Bamboo linen
Bamboo has a somewhat complicated relationship with sustainability, and you’ll have to do some digging to figure out whether or not your bamboo frock is actually eco-friendly or just a victim of greenwashing. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet, can survive on rainwater alone, consumes as much or more CO2 as a tree and can be harvested without actually killing the plant—all wonderful, earth-friendly qualities. However, bamboo processing isn’t as well monitored or regulated as cotton, linen or hemp, and all too often involves harsh chemicals or harmful land-clearing methods. We suggest looking for organic bamboo linen (bamboo rayon/viscose aren’t sustainable or eco-friendly) and doing a thorough check into how a brand’s bamboo was sourced and manufactured before you buy.
6. Wool and cashmere
Some will argue that wool, cashmere and other animal-sourced fabrics can never be made in an eco-friendly manner, but we don’t necessarily agree. Like bamboo, there are a lot of complications involved in sourcing wool from sheep, alpacas or camels, but there are definitely ways to do things in a sustainable fashion. Using the above certification labels can definitely help, as can learning about the different animals from which wool can be sourced (alpacas, for example, don’t destroy their environment the way other livestock, like cows, can) as well as the local regulations in different areas (New Zealand has very strict animal welfare standards). Look for brands that are upfront and honest about their manufacturing processes and don’t be afraid to email or reach out on social media if you find you have more questions. (P.S., Sustainable Jungle has a good explainer for those who want to learn more about ethical wool.)
Synthetic Sustainable Fabrics:
Tencel is the trademarked name of a type of lyocell created by the Austrian manufacturer Lenzing, which is why you’ll often see it written in all caps or with a TM afterward. Lyocell generally is a semi-synthetic fabric made using wood pulp from eucalyptus trees, and in the case of Tencel only sustainably managed forests are used. It’s breathable, wicks away moisture and has anti-bacterial properties that make it an excellent choice for activewear, swimwear and underwear. It requires very little water and energy to produce, compared to most other fabrics, and while it is made using chemicals, the process is a “closed-loop system,” which means that more than 99 percent of the solvent (AKA the chemical stuff) can be recovered and reused over and over.
There is a lot of debate about the sustainability of leather, but one thing that is pretty universally true is that most vegan or faux leathers (AKA pleather) are bad for the environment—with some exceptions. One is this fascinating new material from B Corp-certified company Ananas Anam, which is made from by-products of pineapple harvesting that would otherwise be burned or go to waste, and was developed by Dr. Carmen Hijosa. Brands like H&M and & Other Stories have begun implementing the sustainable fabric into their accessories collections, so fingers crossed we soon see more brands investing in this innovative new material.
Created by the Italian company Aquafil, Econyl is made from synthetic waste like recycled plastic, waste fabric and fishing nets pulled from the ocean that are woven and spun into a new nylon yarn. Like Tencel, it uses a closed-loop system that prevents significant chemical runoff, and also requires very little water to produce. It’s become super popular with eco-friendly swimwear brands and is a durable and more sustainable alternative to synthetics like nylon or polyester. One downside, however, is that because Econyl is made from plastic it can release microplastics, or tiny non-biodegradable particles, into the ocean and waterways through your washing machine. However, a washing bag like GuppyFriend ($35) can help trap those tiny pieces before they hit the pipes.
Modal is another semi-synthetic fiber made from the pulp of trees; this time beech trees. It is generally softer and more delicate than lyocell, and also uses a closed-loop system of production that recycles both the water and solvents used. Lenzing’s Tencel Modal is able to reuse a whopping 99 percent of the chemicals involved in manufacturing within the closed loop, making it one of the best synthetic options available (it’s also carbon neutral). That said, not all modal is quite so environmentally friendly. We feel like a broken record saying it, but again, see what brands have to say about where they sourced their modal, and consider doing a quick check on the original fabric company if you can find it, too.
Spiders aren’t exactly beloved creatures, but there is one thing the fashion industry can learn from these creepy crawlers: how to produce strong, lightweight silk. Qmonos is a new material inspired by spider silk and it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. The Japanese fabric was developed by combining spider silk genes and microbes to produce fabric that’s tougher than steel, super-lightweight and 100 percent biodegradable. It also doesn’t involve farming or harming spiders (for those who are concerned). Qmonos feels a bit like traditional silk or nylon, and although it isn’t easy to come by yet, The North Face has been experimenting with it in recent years, so hopefully, other brands will soon follow suit.
12. Recycled Polyester
Made from old plastic bottles, recycled polyester—aka rPet—is a good option because not only is it as flexible as regular polyester, but it also diverts harmful material that ends up in landfills and oceans. Though it still releases plastic microfibers, which are harmful to the environment and once disposed of, take anywhere between 20 to 200 years to decompose, on the upside, it’s an infinitely better option than regular polyester. A 2017 study found that manufacturing rPET generates 79 percent less carbon emissions than producing its counterpart, and it has a 90 percent lower carbon footprint than nylon. So, while rPet may not be the best option, it’s certainly a better alternative.
13. Scoby Leather
If you brew your own kombucha, you may actually be halfway to making your very own leather from scratch because this type of sustainable material is made from the Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast—Scoby—that’s used to make the fizzy, probiotic drink. A bit more fermentation, drying, some molding and out comes this type of vegan leather that is biodegradable, takes way less energy to make and harms no animals in the process.