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Green Is The New Black

A Guide to Sustainable Fabrics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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sustainable fabrics

The fashion community is abuzz with a plethora of different sustainable fabrics. We’re always hearing of new innovations — from pineapple leather to algae fabric. 

This can get overwhelming pretty quickly. As a consumer, it can be hard to know the pros and cons of each. Which is a greenwashy gimmick and which is the real deal? The newest fad may not be the best option out there.

Well, that’s what we’re here for. We put together some tips and tricks for you, and also took a deep dive into the different fabric options in the market. So without further ado, here’s our ultimate guide to sustainable fabrics.

What to look out for:

When you’re looking at which sustainable fabrics to go for, there are a few things to think about:

> Is the material sourced from plants, animals, or synthetics? Is it virgin or recycled material?

> The fibre itself might be plant-based and organic, but how was the fabric created? Has it been processed with chemicals? What about synthetic dyes and finishes?

> How durable is the material? Can it pass the #30wears challenge?

> What does its end-of-life look like: Can it be recycled or composted? 

> Are the farmers and garment workers being compensated fairly? What about ethical working conditions?

> Are buzzwords like “natural”, “eco-friendly”, or “organic” backed by certifications from reputable organizations? These include GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)Global Recycled Standard (GRS), Standard 100 by OEKO-Tex, etc. GOTS is a textile processing standard for organic fibres and includes ecological and social criteria. GRS is a product standard that tracks and verifies the contents of recycled materials in a final product. And a Standard 100 by OEKO-Tex means that the product doesn’t contain any chemicals or toxins that are harmful to human health. 

The clear winners

These are our top picks when it comes to sustainable fabrics. Certifications are key, so keep a close watch for those. 

Organic Linen 

Linen is one of the most underrated sustainable fabrics out there. It’s also so classy — we love a smart linen shirt and trousers for a chic work look, or a summery linen dress perfect for that weekend brunch. It’s made out of flax plant fibres and provided it’s free of chemical dyes or finishes, can be composted. The plant requires virtually no pesticides or fertilizers to grow, making it a very clean crop. Of course, always opt for organic where possible, but linen is one of the rare fibres where even the non-organic version is pretty clean. It also uses very little water compared to some of its thirsty competitors — it can grow well with just rainwater, and with no irrigation. Plus, the process of turning the flax into linen fibres is pretty straightforward and chemical-free. 

It’s also a super sturdy material. It can withstand high temperatures, is moth resistant, and stays bacteria-free even when it absorbs moisture. A note of caution here is that when you do buy linen, go for neutrals (creams, beiges, and greys). Avoid bright white linen, because chances are it’s gone through an intensive bleaching process. 

Organic Hemp

Hemp has a similar texture profile to linen and is made from the hemp plant (which belongs to the same family as cannabis). It’s a super easy plant to grow for a number of reasons. It’s a fast and densely growing plant and easily outgrows most competing plants, reducing the need for toxic herbicides. It also doesn’t require chemical pesticides as the plant naturally eliminates pests. The plant requires very little water to grow, making it suitable for many different kinds of climates. Compared to cotton, hemp uses 50% less water per season. And like linen, hemp requires very little processing to convert it into a fabric. Finally, as a plant-based fibre, it’s suitable for composting. Despite the plant’s various benefits, to be safe, it’s always good to go for GOTS certified organic hemp to ensure that it’s absolutely free of harsh synthetics. 

As a fabric, hemp has some very versatile qualities. It can keep you warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and protect you from harmful UV rays. It’s also a very durable fabric, which means it can last a long time. And we’re all about that #SlowFashion. When looking at sustainable fabrics, organic hemp is an easy winner. 

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is a pretty good option. It may not be hyped up in the same way that some of the ~sexier~ sustainable fabrics (like algae fabric or pineapple leather) are, but it is a solid choice. Soft, airy, and breathable, organic cotton has all the qualities of conventional cotton but without most of the nasties. Make sure that it’s certified organic by organisations like GOTS — this is the only way to tell if a fabric is actually organic or not. It’s free of chemical pesticides, insecticides, or fertilisers, grown with non-GMO seeds, and uses less water. Fewer nasty chemicals means healthier working conditions for farmers and workers, and water body and food supplies aren’t contaminated. It’s also safer to wear clothes made from organic cotton because they don’t contain the toxins that are commonly found in clothes made from conventional cotton. Finally, organic cotton can be composted (provided it’s free of chemical dyes or finishes), while conventional cotton can’t. This is because the toxins can potentially seep into the soil, contaminating it. 

Note: Right now only about 0.7% of the world’s cotton is organic, so definitely look out for that certification. 

Tencel Lyocell

TENCEL is a brand name owned by the Australian company Lenzing AG. It typically refers to Tencel Lyocell, which is a kind of rayon. It’s usually made from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees. The wood pulp is dissolved by mixing the chips in a solvent, chemically treated, dried using a process called spinning, and then spun into fabric. 

While it may not be as good as organic cotton, linen, or hemp, Tencel is a good replacement for conventional cotton or silk (although it’s worth noting that it is slightly pricier). It’s made in a closed-loop process during manufacturing, which means that nearly 99% of the chemical solution used in the manufacturing process is recaptured and reused. It also requires less water and energy to produce than conventional (but not organic) cotton. As long as it’s not blended with a synthetic like nylon, Tencel itself is biodegradable and can be composted in backyard bins. Tencel is naturally white, so no bleaching is required. 

Algae fabric

The hottest new innovation in sustainable fabrics, fabric made from algae is truly revolutionary. Get this. According to Advanced Functional Materials, the fabric will be made from living, breathing algae. This means that the clothing will be photosynthetic — absorbing CO2 from the air and releasing oxygen, just like any other plant. How freaking cool is that?!

Using a 3D printing method, scientists created an engineered photosynthetic material from algae that is strong enough to make clothing. Algae on its own was not tough enough, so researchers fortified the algae with bacterial cellulose (an organic compound excreted by bacteria) to make it more resilient. The technology is mind blowing. The researchers used bacterial cellulose as the “paper” and live micro algae as the “ink”, and then used a 3D printing method to coat the algae onto the cellulose.

A major benefit of algae is that it doesn’t grow on land, so deforestation won’t be an issue. It also grows very fast, making it easy to grow on a large scale, and uses much less water than materials like cotton, wool, or silk. As a natural material, it’s fully compostable.

Although still in its initial phases of development, we’re very excited to see the future of this one!

Recycled wool

If you’re looking for something cosy for the winter, recycled wool is the way to go. To make sure it’s genuinely recycled, look out for a certification by GRS. There are some ethical concerns about animal welfare when it comes to how the wool is retrieved from the sheep. Mulesing the sheep (removing the sheep’s skin to prevent parasitic infections, usually without anaesthetic) is a particularly inhumane practice, so definitely opt for mulesing-free wool. 

However, recycled or pre-loved wool is a great option. It’s biodegradable and lasts a long time, and diverts used wool garments from landfills. It also uses less water and reduces land use for sheep grazing. 

Pineapple Fiber

Pineapple fibre (or Piñatex) is a plant-based material made from pineapple leaves and is a good alternative to traditional leather. The pineapple leaves are a by-product of pineapple harvests, which is a big plus — no new resources are needed to produce it, and the fabric is created out of agricultural waste. Nextevo is a Singapore-based company that’s creating pineapple fibre and works with farmers in Thailand and Indonesia to source the leaves. It provides the farmers with a supplemental source of income in addition to the fruit harvests. Nextevo’s pineapple fibre is OEKO-Tex Standard 100 certified, which means it’s free of nasty toxins that are harmful to human health.  

Although it’s a plant-based fibre, pineapple fibre is not necessarily 100% biodegradable. This is because it typically contains polylactic acid (a bio-plastic) and a polyurethane resin coating. Although bio-plastics are lauded as being a sustainable solution to traditional plastics, research has found that they don’t decompose as rapidly as one would hope. Additionally, even if they do biodegrade, many leave a toxic residue behind, contaminating the soil. 

Getting slightly murkier…

These sustainable fabrics are still pretty good options, and are definitely better than their synthetic or virgin counterparts. But there are certain things to keep an eye out for if opting for these materials, whether it’s at the processing stage or care instructions.

Bamboo

Bamboo is one of the world’s most sustainable resources. It’s fast-growing (it can grow up to three feet a day), doesn’t require pesticides or fertilizers, and self-regenerates (which means it doesn’t need to be replanted). It’s also an incredibly purifying crop — it can remove pollutants from the air, soil, and water through a process known as phytoremediation. However, with the boom in demand for bamboo over the past two decades, natural forests have been cleared to make room for more bamboo. From a biodiversity standpoint, this is pretty concerning. 

The other major issue with bamboo is when we turn the plant into fibre. Turning the hard, fibrous bamboo into a soft silk-like fabric requires chemicals. And lots of them. Similar to Tencel, the bamboo chips are soaked in a chemical solution containing caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and carbon disulfide before being spun into a yarn. These chemicals are incredibly toxic and have been linked with serious health problems such as kidney disease, heart attacks, and strokes. This can be hazardous to the workers that are exposed to them and to the environment when these toxins are released in wastewater. 

Bamboo isn’t all bad. Transparency is key if you’re opting for bamboo, because it’s super important to know how the fibre was processed — especially if it was in a closed-loop system (like lyocell) or not. Additionally, bamboo linen is a great option as it’s converted to a fabric mechanically, without the use of chemicals. The issue with this one is that it’s not available everywhere, since the process is time consuming and expensive.

Rayon: Viscose and Modal

Rayon is made with cellulose (or wood pulp) from fast-growing plants like eucalyptus, bamboo, sugar cane, and pine. Like bamboo fibre, the process of converting the cellulose to a fibre requires a lot of toxic chemicals, energy, and water. The untreated waste from rayon production is usually dumped and can pollute waterways. 

The second major concern with rayon production is its link to deforestation. “Every year, 3.2 billion trees are cut down to make paper packaging or fabrics such as rayon and viscose. Many of these trees come from the world’s most Ancient and Endangered Forests,” according to Canopy, a sustainable clothing nonprofit.

Viscose, modal, and lyocell are all different kinds of rayon (it’s confusing, we know). If you’re opting for rayon, look out for an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certification, which means that the fabric is made from sustainably harvested forest products. Lenzing is a good example (and see our discussion of Tencel Lyocell above). 

Recycled polyester 

Fabrics like ECONYL are made from recycled plastics, including recovered fishing nets, industrial plastics, and waste fabrics. Others use recycled PET bottles. Recycled polyester is commonly used in athletic wear and bathing suits. It’s definitely a better alternative to virgin polyester as it diverts waste from landfills, requires fewer resources, and generates lower CO2 emissions. 

But here’s the problem. Recycled or not, polyester is a nasty material, and microfiber shedding remains a concern. Microplastics are tiny little pieces of plastic, less than 5mm in length. When we wash synthetic clothing made from plastics like polyester or acrylic (recycled or virgin), a type of microplastic called microfibres are released. These fibres detach from the garment and are released into the wastewater, which then flows into sewage treatment facilities. The problem with microfibers is that they’re so small, most of them can pass through filtration processes and ultimately make their way into large water bodies.

Microfibres can easily be ingested by marine animals, causing widespread damage to the species and even potentially the entire ecosystem. One of the nastiest properties of microfibers is that they can absorb other toxins or chemicals in the sewage. These toxins can then leach into the oceans or the bloodstreams of the marine animals that ingested them. And we’re sure you know what happens next. The microfibers can cause gut blockage and other health concerns which impact the growth and reproduction of the species, and the impacts can even make their way up the food chain to humans. Textiles account for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution. 

If you want to opt for fabrics like ECONYL, try and pick ones that don’t need to be washed too often (like shoes or outer layers). And when you do wash them, use washing machine filters, bags, or balls like the Cora Ball, PlanetCare, or a Guppy Bag to catch the microfibers.  

The dirtiest of the lot

So dirty we don’t want to waste your time on them. These are the well-known culprits that we all know to stay away from. The sustainable fashionistas in us won’t approach them from a mile away. The dirty offenders’ list includes:

> Virgin polyester

> Leather

> Fleece

> Nylon

> Spandex (lycra or elastane)

> PVC

> Fur

> Faux-fur

> Angora

A final note

While it’s definitely great to support brands that are using sustainable fabrics, we always say that nothing beats shopping secondhand. Participating in a clothing swap with your friends is a great option too. Not only does it give you a fun wardrobe refresh, it’s also totally free. Finally, repair where you can, donate if something is in good condition, and recycle or compost the rest where possible! (Check out our guide to dressing green).

FEATURED IMAGE: by Gin Patin from Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Three people sitting on large green net

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Jyotika is a writer based in New Delhi. She writes about sustainable living and eco-friendly brands, covering fashion, food, travel, and wellness. Previously, she was the fashion manager at her family's bespoke fashion business, where in addition to her other responsibilities she worked on improving textile sourcing from local artisans to encourage grassroots production, as well as conducting sustainability workshops with employees regarding the eco-friendly disposal of fashion materials.

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