By Vinita Baravkar
‘Sustainable’ is a word that features on the labels of a lot of products in the current market, and for good reason. Now more than ever there are new opportunities to make a difference as a consumer and people are turning the tide to say yes to sustainable fabrics.
But sustainability is a big topic. Sometimes it can be difficult to navigate what materials meet the criteria and are worth us looking out for. Natural fabrics can differ in quality and aren’t always created or processed equally.
That’s why we’ve created a guide to what a sustainable fabric is, as well as the five most sustainable fabrics that we think can have a positive impact.
By the end of this post, you’ll have your hands on a short shopping list that’ll help give back your purchasing power for the planet without compromising on the quality of your clothes.
As a surfer of the web, you've likely noticed the definition of sustainability differs depending on the context. But what these definitions have in common is the acknowledgment that sustainability is about having a reduced impact on people and the planet.
In textiles, we can determine the sustainability of a fabric based on three key questions:
A sustainable fabric will likely come from recycled materials or a fibre crop, organically grown without pesticides or the heavy use of fertiliser, and will be manufactured in a way that doesn’t involve strong chemicals.
But how a sustainable fabric is processed isn’t just about its impact on the land. A truly sustainable material will also take into account the social dimension of production and ensure the rights of workers who are helping to manufacture it.
For example, in 2013 the collapse of garment factories in Bangladesh killed over 1,000 people, highlighting to the world the poor labour conditions faced by workers in the fashion industry.
Thankfully, sustainable fabrics are on the rise. But with complexity often comes confusion — a golden opportunity for proponents of greenwashing. So with that, let’s get into five of the most sustainable fabrics you know you can trust.
It’s estimated that almost half of the world’s textiles are made from cotton. Unlike its conventional counterpart, however, organic cotton is grown without irrigation or the use of harsh chemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides.
Though organic cotton items are sold at a slight premium on the market, its reduced impact means every dollar spent is helping propel the needle towards positive change.
Importantly, organic cotton also produces items of high quality that are made to last. Brands like Bhumi are driven by the ability to give people the chance to experience sustainable luxury whilst also having a positive impact.
One of the oldest fibres known to humans, linen is a fabric made from flax plant fibres. Biodegradable and incredibly versatile, linen has been historically used to make a wide variety of products.
Though linen is made from the stalk of the flax plant, other parts of the crop can also be used in creating valuable items meaning growing linen leaves little to waste.
However, the sustainability of linen, like with all materials, is in the way it’s grown and manufactured.
Organic linen, which retains linen in its natural form without the use of toxic dyes remains completely biodegradable, and the flax plant can grow without irrigation or pesticides making it a fabric that ticks all the boxes when it comes to having a low ecological footprint.
A cousin of flax, hemp is also an incredibly strong fibre that has been praised for its ability to absorb carbon and through its long roots, improve soil health.
Unfortunately, the use of hemp has been historically controversial since the fibres used for fabrics come from the same family of plants as marijuana. A silver lining of its prohibition means that few pesticides have been permitted for its production, though hemp naturally reduces pests.
Having made a recent comeback into the fashion world, we’re beginning to re-discover the high-quality, flexible nature of this forgotten plant fibre. To shop for organic hemp, check out Vege Threads, a sustainable Australian brand selling five-star hemp products below.
It’s well known that conventional cotton is a dirty crop and shopping for organic cotton is the sustainable option.
But it’s not the only alternative.
Buying recycled cotton products means that you’re saying yes to cotton that’s already in the supply chain, preventing the creation of additional waste and using fewer resources.
The quality of recycled cotton will depend on where it was sourced from and is likely to be less than when it was originally manufactured. To increase the quality brands tend to blend recycled cotton with polyester, one of the least sustainable materials. The good news is that some companies may blend it with organic products or like Everywhere Apparel make clothes directly out of the material.
Though it can be easy to hit the shops in search of the newest sustainable fabric, sometimes some of the best options lie in looking at what’s already around us.
Opting for clothing that’s made from fabric that has already been produced reduces the creation of additional waste and the use of resources required for growing new materials from scratch. By shopping for secondhand fabrics, you’re not only minimising waste but saving often good-quality products from making their way to landfills.
Of course, some fabrics will still be more sustainable than others depending on how much they’ve already been used and what raw materials they’re sourced from. The key is to remember that natural and organic fibres are always better when it comes to having a positive impact.
If we consider a sustainable fabric to have positive environmental, economic and social benefits compared to their conventional counterparts, the sky is the limit in terms of what eco-friendly textiles can be developed using innovative methods.
Piñatex is considered a pioneer when it comes to the world of textiles. Leaving behind the formulae for traditional vegan leather (which is often made entirely from plastic), Piñatex is formed from pineapple leaves. Not only does this mean a repurposing of agricultural waste, but Piñatex manufacturer Ananas Anam has also been able to have a positive social impact by introducing new jobs and supplying additional means of income to current farmers.
Despite it’s positive impacts, it’s important to note that Piñatex isn’t 100% biodegradable, with 20% of its base material being made from plastic. That being said, this plastic is vegetable based, comes from a renewable source and is biodegradable under controlled conditions, making it significantly more sustainable than traditional leather products.
Econyl is a fibre akin to recycled nylon, made from discarded products including industrial plastic and ocean fishing nets. The use of recycled materials means reduced waste and resources in comparison to nylon production.
That being said despite its innovation, Econyl’s sustainability is nuanced. That’s because the fabric still sheds micro-plastics when washed suggesting its use should be limited to products like shoes that don’t need to visit the washing machine as often.
A new innovation by textile company Bolt Threads, Microsilks is replicating the production of spider silk fibres, without the spider. Praising the strength, durability and softness found in spider silk fibres, the company is using bioengineering and fermentation technologies to create a biodegradable material that can be manufactured into various fabrics.
The finished product has already been featured in a collaboration with designers noted for their contribution to sustainable fashion like Stella McCartney.
The producers of mycelium-based material MycoTEX, NEFFA has moved on to establish its own manufacturing method which would enable the production of custom products grown from biomaterials.
If it sounds like it's from the future it is. The brand already has already produced its first home compostable garment.
Sometimes it simply isn’t enough to know what qualities make a fabric sustainable. In a current climate where practices like greenwashing are rampant, it takes more to differentiate and understand where your textiles are truly coming from.
This is where certifications come in. Found on clothing labels, certifications ensure that you’re buying products that have been made with fabrics grown and manufactured in a way that meets sustainability standards.
Of course, not all certifications are created equal, and each one may address different aspects of sustainability. For example, Fairtrade certification standards have a focus on promoting worker’s rights, compared to Oeko-tex which tests final products for harmful substances but still allows for the general use of chemicals, pesticides and dyes.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is considered a platinum-standard certification that looks at all stages of textile creation from seed to shelf. So if you’re looking at a GOTS-certified label, you can be sure you’re shopping sustainably. It’s for this reason brands like Bhumi ensure all products are GOTS-certified before reaching consumers.
Though some fabrics rank better than others when it comes to their sustainability, there are some materials that are simply better to avoid.
Polyester is a popular synthetic fabric made of compounds typically derived from unsustainable resources such as petroleum.
Nylon is a synthetic, silk-like thermoplastic made from raw materials such as crude oil. The manufacturing process is highly energy intensive, with large quantities of water being required to cool down nylon fibres. Vast amounts of waste materials are also produced, and since nylon is entirely synthetic it will remain in the environment for hundreds of years.
Acrylic fibres are made from a synthetic polymer called acrylonitrile, which depends on fossil fuels for production. Acrylic has raised concerns over being carcinogenic, harming workers, consumers and the environment.
Rayon is a semi-synthetic fibre made from wood pulp from plants such as eucalyptus and bamboo. Even though rayon is sourced from natural raw materials, the conversion of cellulose into fabric requires the extensive use of harsh chemicals.
Spandex, known by some as Lycra or Elastane, is a super stretchy fabric synthesised in laboratory settings. Spandex, like many non-biodegradable textiles, makes up a large portion of the global waste problem, with micro-plastics entering waterways reducing water quality and harming aquatic life.
Hopefully you’ll come away from this article knowing a bit more about what makes a sustainable fabric and some of the best materials currently out there. For a summary of the fabrics mentioned, check out the comparison table below.
If you’re feeling ready to start your sustainable shopping journey, be sure to check out GOTS-certified brands like Bhumi. With products skilfully handcrafted using organic linen and organic cotton, you can be rest assured you’re buying not only for yourself, but for people and the planet.
Bamboo as a plant has some fantastic qualities. It’s fast-growing, improves soil quality and can store four times the amount of carbon than standard trees.
But in spite of its green appearance, there’s still no organic certification for bamboo and the most common way it’s processed involves the use of harsh chemicals.
Dyes containing lead, mercury, and heavy metals are commonly used in the manufacturing process causing harm not only to you, but factory workers and waterways.
So next time you see a ‘green’ bamboo product on the market, remember the destructive nature of processing for this textile and choose to shop organic instead.
Both certified organic linen and organic cotton will fair well when it comes to having a low environmental impact. That said, organic linen requires fewer resources in the production process and is generally more durable when compared to organic cotton.
Short answer: yes. By buying secondhand clothes, you’re essentially bypassing the manufacturing process which in the textile industry is responsible for immense carbon emissions, water use and the exploitation of animals and workers.
You’re also buying an unwanted item that may have otherwise ended up in landfill — doing your part to slow down the treadmill of fast fashion. In fact, big organisations like Oxfam are praising secondhand as the answer to sustainable fashion.
However, like with most things there are some caveats. Some second-hand clothing stores receive garments that have travelled extensively across the globe to be sorted. On top of that, not all secondhand fabrics are equal, with products made of synthetic fibres still causing potential problems after purchase through the shedding of micro-plastics.
That’s why the sustainability of secondhand items still comes down to looking at the raw materials. Yes, you’ll be reducing demand for intensive manufacturing in the short term, but opting for secondhand items made from natural and organic materials will always be better.
Natural fibres are naturally-occurring compared to synthetic fibres which are manufactured using chemical processes. The main difference between the two when it comes to their sustainability, largely lies in their end-of-life prospects.
Natural fibres like cotton are biodegradable and break down significantly faster compared to synthetic materials like nylon and polyester, which aren’t biodegradable and will persist for hundreds of years as waste material in the environment.
Firstly, congratulations on coming up with your own business idea. Thankfully there are many resources online such as the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) database to help guide people to find sustainable fabric suppliers in their area.