How often do you consider the materials your clothes are made from before buying them? Most of us don’t give this much thought, although choosing sustainable fabrics is one of the best ways to reduce your environmental impact. Unsustainable options, on the other hand, can have a severe negative impact on the environment.
To help you better understand the best eco-friendly fibers to choose we’ve created this beginner’s guide to sustainable fabrics, introducing some of the best choices and explaining what makes them so eco-friendly. We’ve divided the list into three parts – natural fibers, innovative man-made materials and recycled fabrics. Throughout, we’ll mention some brands using these sustainable fabrics in their collections.
First come natural fibers, which have the longest history of the sustainable fabrics on this list – some having been used for millennia! These fabrics are made directly from plants, without any synthetization involved.
Linen comes from a plant you’ve likely heard of before – the flax plant. This versatile crop is highly adaptable. It can grow in poor quality soil, can do with very little water and doesn’t require the use of pesticides. The resulting fabric is strong and durable, which means that it will last you a long time and you won’t have to replace the garment any time soon.
Linen doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should be getting with such environmental benefits! If you want to give a linen garment a try, some of the sustainable fashion brands using it include Linenfox, Ode to Sunday or Magic Linen.
Hemp clothing, although having been used centuries ago already, is making a big comeback, thanks to the rise in popularity of sustainable fashion. Similar to the flax plant, the linen plant is very versatile and makes strong, durable fabric. It can be grown all around the world, with no need for pesticide use and very limited water consumption. Rather than needing fertilizer, the crop actually fertilizes the soil if grows in!
However, one thing playing against wider use of hemp fabric is the excessive regulation of cultivation of hemp plants. Even though the variety of hemp used to make clothing has almost no psychoactive effects, it still sometimes gets thrown in the same regulatory categories as marijuana. However, more brands are beginning to use it as regulations increasingly recognize the difference – you can try some high-quality hemp clothing from Thought, Cultiva Clothing or Hemp Horizon.
We’re adding organic cotton to this list, although it is certainly not as sustainable as hemp or linen, for one simple reason – it is much more accessible, both in terms of price and in the number of stores using it.
You may have heard before that growing non-organic cotton is problematic and involves a wide use of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as consuming large amounts of water. Organic cotton significantly improves upon this, as it removes harmful chemicals and pesticides from the production process. It also involves more thoughtful use of water and the application of water recycling or rainfall capture.
Innovative man-made materials
Aside from natural fibres, there are some exciting new innovations in the sustainable fabrics field! These materials have been created with the environmental impact in mind and often act as substitutes for unsustainable synthetic fibers such as polyester or acrylic, as well as synthetic leathers.
Tencel has seen a wide boom in use since it’s been created by the Australian company Lenzig AG. The material is made from wood pulp and any chemicals used in the production process are managed on a closed loop, which means that they return into production rather than being discarded after use.
Econyl is a sustainable fabric created by Italian company Aquafil. Contrary to Tencel, it’s not made from natural material but materials which would otherwise become waste, including waste fabric and industrial plastic waste. While the resulting fabric feels similar to Nylon, it’s created in a much more sustainable way: with lower water consumption, less waste and working on a closed-loop production system.
One common concern associated with the use of Econyl is that because it is made from plastic waste, it still sheds microscopic plastic fibers into wastewater just like nylon would. However, it’s important to note here that these particles would be shredded from the plastic waste nonetheless and by making them into Econyl, they get a new use while that happens.
If you want to give this innovative sustainable fabric a try, all of the brands using it are listed on the Econyl website!
Pinatex and other plant-based leathers
Animal-based leather and synthetic vegan alternatives both have a severe negative impact on the environment – that’s what makes plant-based leathers like Pinatex such a hit. Pinatex is by far the most popular plant-based leather made so far, being based on agricultural waste from pineapples. This makes the material extremely sustainable, as it prevents waste from going to the landfill, as well as giving pineapple farmers another use for their crop!
Having discussed some of the most sustainable fabrics being made today, we also want to pay some attention to recycled fabrics. As a rule of thumb, it’s always more eco-friendly to recycle a fabric than it is to produce a new one. Yes, some energy, water and other resources are often needed to make this happen, but the overall impact is much lower than creating new.
Recycling any fabric is great but it’s particularly useful for cotton, as there is so much cotton clothing being made and thrown away, as well as wool and cashmere, which otherwise have a very high environmental footprint.
While these most sustainable fabrics are most often being used by sustainable fashion brands, that’s not always the rule. There are many different factors that go into making a piece of clothing and the fabric it’s made from is just one of them. Because of that, we recommend that you always research a brand and its environmental commitments (don’t forget to check for proof that what they’re saying is actually true) before making a purchase. The good news is that more and more sustainable clothing is becoming available, and due to the increasing demand for plant-based clothing vs synthetic clothing, new fabrics are being innovated and these alternative fabrics are becoming more and more popular.