When trying to make more conscious fashion choices, the fabric is a key thing to consider. Not only will the items be kinder to planet, but sustainable materials, especially naturally derived fibres, will be more durable and last a lot longer in your wardrobe than other fibres. Meaning you won’t need to buy as much as often. So whether you’re looking for investment pieces or scouting out second hand finds, here are some sustainable fabrics to look out for.
Quick note – when looking at these fabrics, there are a few things I am taking into account:
- Resource use – Whether the growing and manufacturing process requires a lot of water, land or harsh chemicals to produce and there is little impact on the planet.
- Ethical manufacturing – Those making the fabrics, throughout the whole supply chain, are treated and paid correctly.
- Quality of the fabric – So you can love and wear the clothing for years.
- End of life – Will the fabric outlive us in landfill? Are there recycling schemes in place to create a circular process?
Starting off with one of my favourite sustainable fabrics from the list – Linen. Linen is a natural fibre which has been used for clothing for thousands of years. It’s derived from a flax plant which can be grown on land unsuitable for food crop, and could even help re-cultivate polluted soils. Even better, you can use every part of the flax plant to create worthwhile products, so none of the plant is wasted and it requires very little water.
Linen is such a versatile fabric and can be used for so many things – clothing, bedding, curtains, napkins – the list goes on. Due to it’s breathability and durability its a very popular fabric (meaning its becoming more and more affordable and accessible), especially for the summer. And so long is it is untreated it will be completely biodegradable.
Another natural fibre. Wool naturally grows on animals and has been used for many years. It creates a high quality, versatile material that is breathable and very easy to care for. It also has a very unique ability which means although it can keep you warm in the winter, it will also keep you cool in the summer. When it hasn’t been blended with synthetics or dyed, it is also completely biodegradable.
However the ethics of wool aren’t black and white. It is argued that because certain wool-growing animals must have their wool sheered, it is okay. Some vegans will also wear wool for this reason. However there are some things to consider:
- The treatment of wool-growing animals. With high demand for certain wool fibres, mass production can create complex supply chains and we cannot always guarantee the animals are treated fairly.
- The environmental impact of farming. Intensive sheep farming uses methods which are impactful on the planet and could also lead to deforestation.
When shopping for woollen items I would recommend first looking for second hand and vintage options. And if you are looking for a new garment look for standards and certifications which ensure the fair treatment of animals.
Regular cotton is a very popular fibre, and although it is a natural fibre, requires a lot of resources to produce. In fact, it takes around 20,000 litres of water just to make one white t shirt and a pair of jeans (that’s about 13 years worth of drinking water). It also might require pesticides to grow, and can sometimes have a large carbon footprint. Not to mention the ethics and human impacts of cotton.
But there is a more sustainable alternative which we are seeing more and more! Organic cotton does not use pesticides and is grown from a seed that has not been genetically modified. This also has long term health and work benefits to farmers who do not ingest pesticides and can use the chemical free land for longer. However, some things to look for when buying organic cotton:
- Look for the BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) certification. Although can’t be a strong guarantee, it does encourage sustainable farming practices.
- Look for closed-loop water systems, which saves so much water.
- Don’t fall for the greenwashing trap. Although many fast fashion brands are marketing items as ‘organic’, the meaning of this can be a bit allusive, and these brands still aren’t addressing their larger sustainability issues.
Econyl uses synthetic waste, such as plastic bottles, waste fabrics and fishing nets, which is regenerated into a fibre that is pretty much the same as virgin nylon. Nylon is a massive component for making swimwear, rainwear and activewear, however, has a massive environmental impact as it uses a lot of water and produces a large amount of nitrous oxide. On top of that it won’t biodegrade.
Econyl is a great sustainable alternative to that. It uses less water and also helps clear up the oceans. However, the downside is it is still a synthetic material. Meaning it will release micro plastics, so I recommend getting a guppy bag or micro plastic filter to prevent them going into the waterways. And once you no longer need the garment, look into circular systems to help avoid it going into landfill.
There are too many tree fibres to include in this list – but bamboo is one to watch! The crop itself is very sustainable and requires very little resources. And although it is still more sustainable than cotton, bamboo fabric isn’t as easy to determine.
To create bamboo fabric, the pulp has to go through a chemical manufacturing process until they become soft. And sometimes these chemicals can enter waterways. Some bamboo fabrics are better than others, this post by Good On You gives a great overview if you want to know more. However for now I would recommend trying to find second hand options where possible, or look for items made from Lyocell (also known as its brand name, TENCEL) which uses less chemicals than other bamboo fabrics.
When people hear of hemp, they most likely think of the baggy hippy-ish khaki clothing, I’ve definitely been guilty of that in the past. But hemp is an amazing fibre which has been used for thousands of years and there are some amazing brands selling beautiful hemp clothing.
Hemp is an incredibly sustainable fibre, it used the least amount of water and very little land to cultivate. Even better, it naturally reduces pests meaning there is no need for hard chemical pesticides which hurt the soil, and hemp will even return 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil. It is very similar feel to linen, and can also be blended with other materials such as cotton to make it slightly softer. Its very durable and versatile, meaning it will last you a lifetime, and of course it is biodegradable when untreated.
However, hemp doesn’t automatically mean organic as some farmers still use harsh fertilisers, so just double check what you are buying is organic!
There are obviously lots more fabrics which are claiming their seat at the sustainability table but these are the ones I see most often and which are becoming more and more accessible. And if this is helpful I’ll do another post with even more fabrics to look for when shopping, or even some fabrics to avoid.