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The Eco-Conscious Closet: A Guide to Sustainable Fabrics

You’ve probably already heard some shocking statistics about fabric production, and its associated waste.

But did you know it takes 20,000 liters of water to make a single t-shirt and pair of jeans? Or that a garbage truck’s worth of textiles is sent to the landfill or burned every second?

You’ve probably already been told to buy less. But what about when you really need (or want!) something new? What are the most sustainable fabrics?

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What are sustainable textiles? 

You might think of natural-sounding materials like cotton, hemp, or maybe even bamboo, but are these really sustainable?

In addition to environmental sustainability (Does it take chemicals to produce? Does it break down?), sustainable fashion and textiles factors in social sustainability (Who produces it? How are they treated and paid?) and economic sustainability (Can people actually afford it?). 

The most sustainable materials employ a closed-loop or circular system, recycling waste and putting it back into production. They must be durable, ethical, and affordable.

Cotton likes to call itself “the fabric of our lives,” but should it be? Let’s break down some of the most sustainable fabrics out there, and you can decide for yourself. 

Wondering which fabrics are the most sustainable? Don't give in to the greenwashing. We'll give you the low-down on the most sustainable fabrics, here.

Sustainable Fabrics List

Below we give you the low-down on some of the most sustainable fabrics currently on the market.

Don’t see your favourite textile on the list? Try replacing it with a more sustainable alternative, or search for it at your local (or online) thrift store.

Recycled Cotton: Making Old Clothes New Again 

Used to make everything from t-shirts to jeans, cotton can be found in almost every closet. It sounds natural—and it is—but not all cotton is equal. Cotton crops guzzle water and are prone to pests.

Organic cotton doesn’t use pesticides, but it makes up only 0.7% of total cotton production and still doesn’t solve the water use issue.

Enter: recycled cotton. Through a mechanical process, cotton materials are broken down and then spun back into yarn to make new garments. This saves water and energy, and much of the material has already been dyed, affording you colors with less guilt.

The system isn’t perfect though. Clothes must be collected as well as processed, and the process of recycling can weaken the fibers. 

Shop Recycled Cotton Clothing at Toad & Co

Recycled Nylon: A Net Gain?

Nylon is a synthetic fiber found in everything from fishing nets to pantyhose. It doesn’t easily break down, making it infinitely recyclable. As a stretchy, tough material, recycled nylon is great for form-fitting garments and high-performance sportswear.

One fiber you’ll hear a lot about is Econyl®, developed by Italian manufacturer Aquafil. Aquafil has been working to innovate and establish closed-loop processes.

However, it still can’t avoid some environmental production costs, and as non-natural material, recycled nylon will shed contaminating microfibers. 

Recycled Polyester: From Bottles to Models

If only we could take all of our plastic waste and turn it into clothes… Well with recycled polyester we can!

Recycled polyester (rPET) fiber is made from both post-industrial and post-consumer waste. It’s used in a wide variety of clothing including sports jerseys, collared shirts, and winter jackets.

rPET fiber is strong and achieves almost the same quality as virgin thread. It also has plenty of supporters, with major brands like Patagonia on board.

However, as with any recycled synthetic, we have to consider the environmental cost of processing and the microfibers released over the course of wearing and washing. 

Linen: Natural and Cool Since 8,000 BC

A natural fiber from the flax plant, linen is biodegradable and has been used for thousands of years. As a plant, flax doesn’t need much water to grow and can thrive even in poor soil. Every part can be used, resulting in little waste.

Linen is often used to make loose, breathable shirts, pants, and dresses. It’s light, durable, and resistant to both moths and bacteria.

Although not as sustainable as recycled fibers when considering land and water use, you don’t have to worry about microfiber pollution

Sustainable fabric guide

Hemp: High-quality Fabric That Grows Like a Weed 

Hemp is another naturally eco-friendly fabric that has been used for thousands of years due to its durability and tendency to grow almost without effort. As a plant, it replenishes the soil, absorbs carbon dioxide, and provides a high yield.

Hemp material has many of the same properties as linen: it’s biodegradable, light, strong, and naturally antibacterial. Hemp clothing, which can be anything from t-shirts to dress pants, even blocks UV light.

Hemp has suffered from its association with marijuana in the US, but it’s starting to make a comeback. 

Fruit Leathers: Sweet Alternatives for Vegans

Innovative companies have turned to fruit waste to make everything from shoes to purses.

Headquartered in London, Ananas Anam makes a material they called Piñatex from pineapple leaf fiber. Not only are they environmentally sustainable in their “cradle to cradle” approach, but they support rural farming communities in the Philippines.

In Denmark, Leap makes Apple Leather using waste from cider and juice products.

Over in the Netherlands, Fruitleather Rotterdam’s fruit of choice for their vegan leather is mango.

Wood Pulp Fiber: A Old Resource Meets New Technology

Companies with new techniques are turning to wood as another plant-based source for clothing.

Some fiber names you’ll hear are Tencel™, used to make everything from a kind of denim to intimates, and Burla Viscose, developed as an artificial silk.

The companies that make them source and process sustainably, and the results are fully biodegradable.

Bamboo: Untapped Sustainability Potential 

Many materials are already made of bamboo, and bamboo is a great source because it can be grown quickly and organically, and if untreated, it’s biodegradable.

However, consumers need to be vigilant, as bamboo products suffer from a lot of greenwashing. Even though bamboo can be grown organically, it isn’t always. Most bamboo on the market is processed chemically or using large amounts of water.

If you want bamboo, search bamboo fabric that is certified organic, dew retted, and naturally colored, but considering how hard this can be, it might be best to avoid it altogether.

Spider Silk: Sustainable Fabric of the Future?

Although it’s called spider silk, no spiders are harmed in the process. Rather spiders, with their ability to create a super strong silk without the addition of heat, serve as the inspiration for this lab-made fiber. The resulting material is incredibly strong and requires very little energy to process.

However, the challenge has been scaling up and bringing spider silk products to market. Japanese company Spiber partnered with The North Face to create the limited-release Moon Parka in 2019, so keep an eye out for more of this fabric in the future.

Anything You Buy Second-Hand: Still Number One

For as cool as these sustainable materials sound, the most sustainable material of all is still something you can buy or get second-hand. Material innovation is an important part of the fashion industry of the future, but for the average consumer, your local thrift store is still the most sustainable choice. Bonus points if you can walk or ride your bike there. 

There’s an abundance of information about sustainable fabrics and a lot of new companies making remarkable materials. So next time you need something new, search for an environmentally-friendly choice over settling for fast fashion. Instead of a tale of degradation and woe, your garment will have a fascinating sustainable story to tell. 

Morgan Brittingham

Monday 15th of August 2022

Thank you for sharing this information! It's so important that people know how and where to shop for sustainable materials. Becoming more eco-conscious in my consumer practices is why I opened my vintage sewing supply shop, and why I sew my own clothes! It's great to have these additional resources to share with my clients.