Sustainable Clothing Materials | Which Fabric is the winner?

By Silvia Borges of EnviroMom

Sustainable textiles are becoming increasingly popular. A decade or so ago, clothes made out of bamboo, hemp, or recycled polyester were close to unheard of. Now they are everywhere! But who takes first place for most sustainable fabric?

Hemp and natural (undyed) linen are up there. However, the definite answer is… it’s complicated. 

Some crops can be very sustainable to grow but not very sustainable during manufacturing! 

With so many options available and so many brands eager to make the most of the eco-appeal, it is important to understand the sustainability credentials of these increasingly popular textiles. 

Sustainable Clothing Materials: Shadows of plants on fabric

What Makes a Fabric Eco-Friendly?

In determining whether a type of textile is sustainable, there are many criteria one can take into account – making it hard to pick a clear winner. So, what makes a fabric sustainable?

Durability

The fashion industry is sadly responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Discarded clothing is a large part of solid waste found in landfills. In theory, clothes made from more durable materials should have a longer lifespan, but it is more complicated than that.

Part of the problem is the growth of so-called fast-fashion – cheap clothing items made by manufacturers who encourage people to buy as many items as possible. 

The bottom line is that the longer your clothes last the more sustainable they are. So, there is no point buying a top made from – let’s say – hemp (a very durable fibre) if that top ends up in a landfill within months. 

Use of resources to grow crops

All things being equal, crops that require fewer resources to quickly grow are more sustainable. For example, a crop that requires less water and less fertilizer such as bamboo is more sustainable to grow than a crop that is resource-intensive such as cotton. 

From a crop point of view, it is also important to think about deforestation, land re-generation and space requirements for growing. Bamboo is once again the ‘golden standard’ as it grows mostly vertically, with quick natural re-generation and in relatively small areas. 

Again, things get complicated as the production of textiles does not end with ‘growing crops’. These crops need to go through manufacturing processes. 

Processing crops into textiles – bamboo vs cotton

Some crops can be incredibly resource-efficient to grow but resource-intensive to be turned into fabric! In fact, the above-mentioned bamboo is guilty of that! 

Let’s take a look at the processing of ‘bamboo vs cotton’ as an example. Cotton bolls harvested from cotton crops are a soft and fluffy material pretty much ready to be spun into textiles. 

On the other hand, bamboo textiles are made from cellulose – basically, from their stalks. To turn bamboo cellulose into fabric requires intense processing to soften and make them into fabrics. While this processing can be mechanical – where cellulose is manually broken into strands – it is most commonly done through less labour-intensive chemical processes. 

Chemically processing bamboo requires the use of… chemicals! 

Is natural better than synthetic?

The short and simple answer is natural is generally better! 

One of the biggest downsides of synthetic fibres is again the chemicals involved in their processing. Another big problem is the necessary raw materials: for example, polyester is often made from plastics that derive from petroleum or coal!

Is there a place for synthetic fibres in the fashion industry? Probably! 

Waterproof items such as raincoats are more efficient when made from synthetic materials. Elasticized clothing such as underwear and jeans are often a mix of synthetics and natural fibres. 

Synthetic fibres can also be more durable and increase the lifespan of the product. Sadly, synthetic textiles are abundant in the fast-fashion industry and it is fair to say that when they end up in landfills, they will take even longer to decompose.

But what about recycled synthetics?

There is no doubt that recycling is a great way to divert things from landfills! 

Recycled polyester is, for example, made from discarded plastic bottles. While recycled materials have many advantages and do use fewer resources than synthetics produced from raw materials, it is important to remember that, overall, ‘reduce’ is better than ‘recycle’. 

Going back to recycled polyester, the existence of ‘plastic trash’ is a problem that should be, firstly and most importantly, reduced.  

Transportation

Emissions in the fashion and textile industries do not come only from planting, harvesting and manufacturing. Transportation is also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why, generally speaking, local is often more sustainable. 

The fashion industry – from textiles to clothing – are highly concentrated in South-East Asia, making transportation impacts pretty high. Is it possible to switch to locally produced textiles and clothes? 

The offer is currently very limited. The solution is to reduce, reuse and recycle. 

Sustainability issues beyond the environment

Sustainability is more than the environment. 

A textile should not be considered ‘sustainable’ if it relies on a workforce that is exploited and work under unsafe conditions. 

Before we start talking about different sustainable fabrics, let’s talk about what are sustainable fabrics and what you should know about synthetic vs natural fibres. 

Sustainable fabrics are fabrics that are made of recycled materials or natural materials. These fabrics aim to reduce harm to animals and to the planet through fibre properties, the production process, and more. 

Sustainable fabrics tend to help solve environmental issues such as emissions problems, waste build-up, water overuse, and soil destruction. And, they tend to work just as well as synthetic fibres. 

Sustainable Clothing Materials

Types of Sustainable Clothing Materials

Remember, “sustainable fabric” is a term that’s often used by brands. With very poor regulation across the world, the claim of sustainability is a very common one. So, it is important to be informed. Let’s take a look at common sustainable clothing materials that you might want to check out. 

Hemp

Hemp is a type of cannabis plant that’s fast-growing and doesn’t deplete soil nutrients. It also doesn’t require large amounts of water or pesticides, reducing the number of chemicals that growers apply to the soil. 

There are tons of hemp clothing benefits including the fact that it is highly durable. Due to its super-strong fibre, hemp clothes can last for years, saving you money on replacing your wardrobe over time. On top of that, it’s non-irritating to the skin making it ideal for clothes for those who struggle with skin sensitivities.

Similar to bamboo, it’s the fibres in the stalks of the hemp plant that provide the raw material that is spun into threads. Compared to bamboo, the stalks are just as strong (if not more) but more flexible and malleable. That means, from stalk to thread, a lot less chemical processing is required. 

Linen

Linen is a fabric that’s made out of the flax plant. Flax doesn’t need a lot of fertilizer to grow and can also thrive in different areas where other plants aren’t able to grow. 

Flax plants are also as close to zero waste as you can get. Growers can use every part of the flax plant so that there’s no waste involved in producing linen. Linseed oil and flaxseeds are examples of by-products of this highly versatile crop. 

Another advantage of linen is its high biodegradability. It breaks down a lot quicker than most fabrics. 

However, it is not all good news! 

Linen comes in natural colours that include ivory, tan and light grey. Anything other than that will require heavy bleaching and dyeing which is quite common. 

Bamboo

Bamboo is a regenerative plant that’s fast-growing and doesn’t need much fertilization and water. It’s a renewable and sustainable resource that can be used to create eco-friendly clothing methods. 

What’s great about bamboo is that it’s incredibly comfortable as well as absorbent. It’s a moisture-wicking product that makes it great for people who live in rainy climates or for use on waterproof clothing. 

The downside of bamboo is the manufacturing processing – which, typically, involves a lot of chemicals. 

Modal

Modal is a semi-synthetic material that’s made out of the wood pulp. 

The type of wood pulp that’s typically used for Modal is beech pulp. Modal is a soft and delicate fabric that’s biodegradable and limits waste and pollution’s impact on the environment. 

Once again, from wood to textile, the biggest issue here is chemical processing and the disposal of the chemicals that were used in obtaining the final product. 

Sustainable Clothing Materials cotton

Cotton and Organic Cotton

Cotton is still the most popular raw material for textiles and clothing, however, it is losing ground to other alternatives. One of the great advantages is the fluffy cotton bolls that cotton plants produce. These soft balls are very easily spun into threads and into textiles.  

Cotton is naturally white and its high absorbency rates make it very easy to dye.

Organic cotton is the same as regular cotton except that it’s produced without GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, or chemical-based pesticides. 

While that is a big step forward, cotton (including the organic version) has its issue. It is a resource-intense crop that requires a lot of water and land.

Silk

Silk is a material that’s produced by silkworms, who only eat mulberry tree leaves. Mulberry trees are easy to grow and are resistant to many different types of pollution. Since mulberry trees feed silkworms, they contribute to a low-waste product. 

Keep in mind that silk requires animal labour. It cannot be considered ‘vegan’. 

Silkworms are small creatures and they can only produce a limited amount of silk treads. It is no wonder that silk is quite expensive.  

Wool

Depending on how its produced, wool can be a sustainable fabric. Animal cruelty is the biggest issue here. 

Wool is typically obtained from the fur grown by sheep through shearing. Shearing is pretty much ‘shaving’ sheep’s fur – it involves blades and there are risks of cutting and infection for the animals. The way shearing occurs matters! 

If shearing is done ethically wool can be very sustainable as it is one of the most biodegradable materials. 

Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester is a chemical used in plastic water bottles and other plastic products that has been broken down into small fibres. Fabrics made of recycled polyester help keep plastics from going into landfills and are a great way to recycle the many disposable plastic goods we use on a daily basis. 

Recycled polyester is a great choice for clothes that can’t be formed out of 100% natural fibers, such as leggings. It’s a sustainable fabric because it can be reused and recycled to create other products and also generates a smaller amount of carbon emissions during the production process. 

So, Which Fabrics Are The Most Sustainable Clothing Materials?

While hemp and undyed linen can be considered more sustainable than other fabrics, the most sustainable fashion tip is to:

Reduce – avoid over-consumption of fashion items. Less is more when it comes to sustainable fashion. 

Reuse – give clothes a second life by either buying second-hand and by donating or re-selling your items after you are done with them

Recycle – take your old clothes to recycle programs. While this should be a last resort, it is no doubt better than seeing clothes piling up in landfills.


About the Author

This article was written by Silvia, the environmentally-conscious mom behind the blog EnviroMom. She is a busy mom to three kids and an avid indoor plant collector.