The structure of this guide
In the clothing industry, most fabrics can be grouped into 3 big families.
On one side, we have the clothes made from natural fibres and on the other side, we have the clothes made from man-made fibres, which can be split into regenerated fibres and synthetic fibres.
Thereby, this guide is structured the same way.
For most products, the assessment of eco-friendliness must be made considering the entire product life cycle. From the extraction of raw materials until the disposal of the product.
Clothes are no exception.
That’s why, in this comparison, we don’t only focus on whether a fabric is biodegradable or easy to recycle. Instead, we also take into consideration factors like the use of chemicals and pesticides, the amount of water needed for the raw material or the impact on wildlife and the workers.
Fabrics Made from Natural Fibres
Natural fibres need less explanation, their name is pretty much self-explanatory.
They are the fibres that grow naturally and they come either from plants (cellulose), either from animals (proteins).
They are not man-made.
By definition, theses fibres are biodegradable and compostable. Meaning that they should be the most sustainable solution.
Unfortunately, we’ll see that it’s not always the case.
Silk is a protein based fibre made with the excretion from the bombyx mori caterpillar, aka the silkworm.
It takes up to 2500 silkworms to produce a single pound of raw silk. That’s why silkworms need to be cultivated, in order to obtain enough silk for the production of clothes. This is called sericulture, or silk farming.
That’s also why silk is so luxurious and expensive.
The main problem with sericulture is that the silkworm is killed in the process of collecting the silk. Indeed, silk filaments are collected by immersing the cocoon in hot water to get rid of the sericin that cement the filaments. And that process also kills the worm inside the cocoon.
Despite that ethical problem, silk is a highly renewable resource. One single silkworm can lay up to 500 eggs.
Also, silkworms feed on leaves from mulberry trees, which doesn’t need pesticides and fertilizers to grow. However, as so many silkworms are needed to produce a small amount of silk, it also takes many mulberry trees to feed them.
Finally, silk isn’t a local resource. Silk farms are mostly located in India and China where chemicals can be used to clean the silk.
Wild silk is the ethical solution to killing silkworms.
As suggested in the name, silk is collected from wild silkworms, after they hatch from their cocoon. No sericulture and no killing involved.
The main downside of wild silk is quality. It’s rougher than traditional silk, less strong and its structure isn’t uniform.
This results in less premium and luxurious silk.
Cotton is everywhere.
It’s the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world and it covers around 95% of the world’s natural textile fibre demand.
That’s a shame…
It may be a biodegradable natural fibre, but its current production method is far from being sustainable. Demand has to be met and that “requires” unethical methods.
The main problem with cotton is the tremendous quantity of water required for its production. Take a t-shirt from your wardrobe. It can take up to 29.000 litres of water to produce the 1 kilogram of cotton your t-shirt is made of. That’s the amount of water a healthy person would drink in 27 years…
Cotton is not only very thirsty, its conventional farming process also involves loads of agrochemicals to make it grow faster. 25% of all insecticides used every year come from cotton producers.
This is a major threat not only for the soil, wildlife and freshwater ecosystems, but also for the health of the workers and people living in the farming area.
And let’s not talk about the allergic skin reactions that all these chemicals can cause on the end-user.
Being biodegradable, cotton can still be a great eco-friendly fabric… as long as the right production method is used.
This is what farmers are trying to achieve with organic cotton.
Organic cotton is a more sustainable alternative to conventional cotton. It is done by using growing methods that have a low impact on the environment and that provide safe working conditions.
Which means no chemicals and GMO are used and the cotton is handpicked rather than machine-picked.
Being handpicked, organic cotton will also be purer, softer and stronger than regular cotton. Hence, we get a more durable product.
To reduce water consumption, organic farmers are using a soil rotation system in order to maintain soil fertility (traditional cotton grows on the same soil). That way, nutrients retain water longer and less irrigation is required.
Organic cotton is also hypoallergenic. No chemical dyes and whiteners are used in the manufacturing of organic cotton. They resort to safer, natural alternatives that prevent skin allergies.
The “downside” of this ethical and eco-friendly process? Premium organic cotton also means premium price. But the earth, the workers and your skins will thank you… big time!
Linen is not only a great fabric for summer, it is also one of the best eco-friendly fabrics on the market.
Made from the fibres of the flax plant, linen is often compared to cotton, being both natural plant fibres. But ultimately, linen is stronger and more durable than cotton. It’s actually considered to be the world’s strongest natural fibre.
Known for its capacity to absorb moisture without holding bacterias, linen is also organic, recyclable and biodegradable (when untreated obviously).
But its main advantage over cotton and other fabrics is how eco-friendly its growing process is. It grows naturally, without chemicals, and doesn’t need more water than rain can provide. To take the example of cotton again, linen needs 60% less water to grow.
The sad thing about linen is its general adoption. It remains somehow a premium product and represents only 1% of global textile consumption. It is mostly used for bed linens, towels or napkins.
Hemp, this scratchy, ugly, brown fabric…
Hemp is way more than that and can actually be soft and beautiful.
Did you know that hemp is part of the family of cannabis plants? Meaning that not only it is a densely and fast growing plant, but it is also very little water-demanding.
Hemp doesn’t need any chemicals and fertilizers to grow and as it is naturally pest resistant, no pesticides are used.
In fact, growing hemp is actually beneficial to the soil, the same way a forest is. Hemp plants have strong and deep roots that prevent the soil from erosion and remove toxins.
Aesthetically speaking, today’s technology allows turning hemp fibres into linen-like fabric while keeping its properties. It can also be blended with cotton for a softer feel.
In addition to being very eco-friendly to grow and manufacture, hemp makes a very durable (better than cotton), biodegradable and healthy fabric.
It is comfortable, hypoallergenic, breathable, protects from UV and absorbs moisture.
What’s not to love with hemp?
Wool is a tricky one.
Environmentally-friendly speaking, wool is not a bad student. Obtained from the hair of the sheep, it is entirely natural, renewable and doesn’t need any chemical to produce.
The only considerable environmental downside is the methane released by the sheep and the water they need to drink. Imagine the amount of methane and water it represents in a country like New-Zealand and its 45 000 000 sheep…
But the real problem here is rather ethical.
Sadly, investigations from organisms such as PETA are showing that cruelty towards sheep is almost a standard in the industry. Sheep are often beaten, kicked or even killed for their wool by heartless workers.
And no need to go far to witness that barbarity. It happens here in the UK as well.
Then, make sure the wool is taken from well-treated sheep before buying wool clothes.
Fabrics Made From Regenerated Fibres
Both regenerated and synthetic fibres are man-made, but regenerated fibres have the particularity to be made from cellulose (such as wood pulp).
What does it mean in terms of sustainability?
Cellulose is an organic and natural compound, which means that when unblended with synthetics or not dyed with chemicals, fabrics made of that compound are biodegradable and compostable.
Be careful though, as many clothes use a blend solution of regenerated fibres (or natural fibres) with synthetics for better resistance or reduced cost.
Once again, read the tag.
Moreover, as explained below, many regenerated fibres are source unethically and involve harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process.
Depending on where you’re from this fabric could be referred to as viscose or rayon (which is actually often used as a generic name for regenerated fibres).
Viscose is a low-cost, mass-produced fabric made from the wood pulp of fast growing trees and plants, before being dissolved in a chemical solution and then turned into yarn.
When first created, it revolutionized the fashion industry as this versatile fabric allowed to create good-looking and smooth fashionable clothes at an affordable price. It’s a cheap similar looking alternative to silk, somehow.
But as expected, this lower cost translates in poorer fabric quality and thereby, lower durability.
Due to being a biodegradable fibre based fabric from renewable plants, it is often considered as an eco-friendly fabric and a better alternative to synthetics.
It is the case, but only to some extents.
As mentioned earlier, the wood pulp is dissolved into a chemical solution during the manufacturing process. This is a mandatory step to make the fabric strong enough to handle regular wearing and washing.
Unfortunately, this process is highly polluting and releases a big amount of chemicals into the air and water, some of them being a dangerous threat to the workers and closeby inhabitants. Around 50% of hazardous waste can’t be reused and ends up in the environment.
In addition to that, much of the viscose used by famous clothing brands appears to be sourced from unethical viscose factories in India, China and Indonesia. These factories have low standards regarding pollution and they extract most of the wood pulp from endangered forests, contributing to deforestation.
Finally, it feels like the harm done to forests is for nothing as around 70% of the tree is wasted during the wood pulp “extraction”. Quite a waste in comparison with hemp, where the remainings of the plant can be used for other purposes.
Good news is that some efforts are made to get more eco-friendly viscose. Brands start to source viscose from ethical factories and viscose is increasingly being manufactured using the lyocell process (see further in this post) in order to reduce waste.
Modal came as a solution to some of the durability issues of viscose.
It is made of cellulose from beech trees and has a texture similar to silk and cotton. Its extra softness, its resistance to wear and washing temperatures, and its capacity to absorb water make it a popular fabric for activewear and underwear.
Modal and most regenerated fibres have a really similar manufacturing process to viscose (described above) and thereby they tend to share some flaws, such as chemical processing.
However, some big companies like Tencel developed solutions with low environmental impact.
In this case, the manufacturing process of Modal is done in closed loop, which means that the water and the majority of the chemicals used are captured and can be reused. They also source Modal fibres of beech wood from sustainable forests around Austria.
Unfortunately, Tencel isn’t the only provider of Modal fibres on the market and many retailers source their Modal from cheaper and less transparent (understand way less eco-friendly) providers that face the same accusations as the ones listed in the Viscose chapter.
Lyocell (mostly Tencel)
That fibre, made from the cellulose of eucalyptus trees gives a fabric with a very similar texture to viscose or modal fabric. But being a more uniform fibre, lyocell fabrics generally offer better breathability and moisture absorption.
The main producer of Lyocell is Tencel and for that reason, lyocell is often referred to as Tencel.
Tencel uses the same closed loop manufacturing process as for its Modal fabric and logically goes by the same sustainability standards (renewable energy, recycled water, sustainable wood sources…).
Even though Tencel produces both lyocell and modal in a sustainable way, there is still a major difference between these two fibres, in terms of eco-friendliness. Once again, the manufacturing process differs.
Instead of using caustic soda to dissolve the plants, Tencel’s lyocell process uses NMMO, a non-toxic, organic compound. And thanks to the closed loop process, that solvent can be reused at a 99% recovery rate.
Which makes Tencel’s lyocell the most eco-friendly fibres of the three regenerated fibres cited so far.
Acetate and Triacetate
We won’t go far in the description of these two fibres. For the record, acetate is the first man-made fabric and the first one using cellulose.
Acetate and Triacetate are used as a cheap substitute to silk as they are similar in appearance.
But the similarities end here.
Acetate fabric is not durable at all and for that reason, it’s mostly used for short-term wear or occasional wear. It also doesn’t handle the heat and extra wash care is required.
Triacetate is basically the evolution of acetate. It’s more durable, easier to take care of and more heat resistant. However, it is still a relatively weak fabric and it shares the same sustainability flaws as its little brother.
Same as for the other regenerated fibres, acetate and triacetate are made from cellulose. Yet again, the problem lies in the manufacturing process.
They undergo extensive chemical process during the manufacturing and some of these chemicals are highly toxic and hazardous, such as caustic soda and sulphuric acid. That manufacturing process also requires a lot of resources, including water.
Compared to viscose, acetate fabrics are less durable and as, if not more, chemical extensive.
This is also a tricky one. Is bamboo fabric really sustainable?
When you read bamboo on the tag of some clothes, don’t stop there thinking it’s automatically green.
Because it will most likely not be the case.
It all comes down to the manufacturing process.
Your greenest option is bamboo linen. That natural bamboo is obtained mechanically, without the use of chemicals.
That’s great, but the result is far from the soft fabric you’d like on your skin. Coupled to the fact that the manufacturing process is expensive and labour intensive, you won’t see it often in the market. That’s why we didn’t include bamboo linen in the natural fabrics section.
So how are most bamboo clothes made?
You may have guessed it: through the viscose process. Thereby, bamboo viscose also goes through that chemical and not eco manufacturing process described in the viscose chapter.
Moreover, there is no proof that bamboo fabric keeps bamboo’s natural qualities once it went through the chemical process.
There are some manufacturers offering bamboo fabric made by using the lyocell process though. However, few brands are actually using that bamboo lyocell.
Meet the vegan cashmere.
There is a lot to like in soy fabric. In addition to being non-animal based, it is also easier to care than cashmere.
In terms of sustainability, it isn’t as straight forward.
The great thing about soy fabric is that it’s made from the waste of the processing of soy oil byproducts (such as tofu).
It’s basically taking organic waste and turning it into a great fabric. Thereby it is also biodegradable and compostable.
It is soft, lightweight, wrinkle resistant and machine washable. And it is also moisture absorbent, breathable, UV resistant and anti-bacterial. A great durable option for activewear.
However, the first ecological problem comes again with the manufacturing process. In order to become a fabric, the plant needs to undergo a chemical process. The process is similar to lyocell’s as it uses a closed loop system that allows to capture the chemicals and reuse them.
The issue here is that the process requires the use of formaldehyde, a harmful irritant classified as a possible human carcinogen. It remains unclear if the final wearer is exposed to that chemical. But let’s not forget the workers…
The next issue is the source of the soy crops, as the global soy industry heavily relies on GMO crops, which require a big amount of pesticides and water to grow. Soy production is also guilty of deforestation and habitat destruction in the rainforest, where much of the soy is coming from.
We might argue that being made from the waste of the byproducts of these crops undermines that last issue. But the real solution is to look for organically grown soy, which is not always easy as it is a really expensive process. Hence the success of GMO soy.
Fabrics Made From Synthetic Fibres
Synthetic fibres are the second man-made category of fibres used for clothes. Unlike regenerated fibres, they are entirely obtained through a chemical process, usually from byproducts of petroleum or natural gas.
They are extremely popular in clothing, especially amongst cheaper brands.
But how sustainable are they?
Let’s start with the most famous one.
Polyester is the king of the fashion industry market.
And that’s a king we’d like to see overthrown…
In terms of convenience, it’s a great fabric. There is a reason why it’s the king. It is very durable, resistant to stretch, easy to wash and it dries fast. It is also mildew resistant and that’s its main advantage over natural fibres.
Sustainability speaking, it must be one of the worst fabrics though.
No need to go into details of what chemicals it is made of, polyester is a polymer and the fabric is basically plastic. The most common kind of polyester is also made of petroleum, one of the world’s biggest pollutant.
Useless to say that polyester isn’t biodegradable. They are also hard (understand expensive) to recycle.
Unlike natural fabrics (including regenerated fibres), polyester can’t be dyed using a natural process. It needs a stronger and chemical dye, which is difficult to treat and doesn’t really decompose. These dyes are dangerous to human, and especially to the workers.
These toxic dyes are also guilty of causing several environmental problems as they often end up in the water streams around the factories.
Finally, the manufacturing process. Again, we won’t go into details. In a few words, polyester is really thirsty. A large amount of water is required to cool down the manufacturing process.
On the bright side, more and more brands are starting to use polyester made from recycled plastic bottles as an alternative. It’s a better option, but it is still not biodegradable, it still involves chemical dyes and the health issue unfortunately remains.
Nylon is particularly used for items that need the ability to stretch and come back to normal without losing their shapes, such as tights, underwears and activewear. It is also durable, resistant to tear, to sunlight and to water.
However, nylon is also really bad to breathe and has low moisture absorbency. To overcome these disadvantages, it is often blended with other fabrics.
Nylon is a polymer mostly made from coal and petroleum. Again it’s a kind of plastic and it shares the same sustainability threats as polyester.
But in addition to that, its manufacturing is energy intensive and also creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Again, there is a bright side.
More and more brands start to adopt nylon made of recycled plastic (mostly from the ugly fishing nets polluting our oceans). That recycled nylon, such as Econyl is also made in a closed loop, in order to considerably use less energy and reduce waste and gas emissions.
Acrylic is the synthetic cousin of wool.
That fibre is soft and bulky, making it a cosy option for warm clothes and garments. It does tend to lose its shape over time though, unlike wool.
Again, acrylic is derived from petroleum, making it difficult to recycle and not biodegradable.
But the most controversial element of that fibre is that it is made from polyacrylonitrile, a plastic known for being a carcinogen. It is proven that workers in acrylic factories are considerably more inclined to develop cancer.
What are the risks for the wearer?
Finally, the manufacturing of acrylic is also a highly energy-intensive process.
Depending on where you live, that fibre can be named spandex, elastane or by elastomeric, its generic name. It is also often tagged as Lycra, Cordura and Supplex (which are actually 3 brands of elastomeric)
Want to know what these last 3 brands have in common?
Their producer: Invista, a subsidiary of the infamous Koch industries.
If you don’t know them, just remember this: Koch industries generates 24 million metric tons of greenhouses gas a year. Which rank them amongst the top 30 polluters of America’s air, water and climate.
Elastane is another non-eco-friendly polymer that requires many chemicals to manufacture in an energy-intensive process. It is obviously not biodegradable.
The particularity of elastane is that it can be stretched up to 500% without breaking and then get back to its initial shape. That feature is something that is not possible to achieve with natural fibres yet, and that’s why elastane is a “necessary evil” in clothes that are susceptible to wear and tear.
That’s also for that reason that elastane is present even in eco-friendly clothing that requires that elasticity.
Good news is, it’s never used alone as a fabric and only a small amount is necessary. Elastane fibres are always blended with other fibres (organic cotton for example) to create a final stretchy fabric.
We hope you’re still wearing clothes after reading this guide.
The fashion industry is clearly a big mess. Even the fabrics that sound eco-friendly are hiding some dark secrets.
But at least now you know.
What’s really to remember here is that nowadays, which such huge demand and under the limits of current technologies, shopping sustainably is not really about getting 100% green clothes.
Ranking the most sustainable fabrics would be more informative than useful. That would lead you to spend a huge amount of time and money into seeking the sustainable graal.
Obviously, if you have the means, go for it.
Instead, we can only encourage you to make as sustainable and healthy choices as possible.
- Try to avoid these harmful chemical fabrics such as acrylic or polyester.
- When shopping for sustainable alternatives, be careful of greenwashing. Bamboo isn’t always as green as it sounds.
- Same goes for wool and cotton, make sure it comes from ethical and organic sources.
- You don’t have to ban cheaper brands. Take Inditex (the group owning Zara and Oysho), they actually offer some eco-friendly clothes made from Tencel or organic cotton for example.
- Sometimes, spending a little more can get you more durable clothes. See it as a small inversion.
That concludes this guide, we hope it helps you to see clearer in that fashion mess.
We haven’t listed all the fabrics here as we mostly focused on the popular options that you will actually find in a shop.
It isn’t a sustainable fabrics guide either, but more an assessment of the sustainability of these popular fabrics.
However, if you have a green fabric you’d like us to share, please let us know in the comments!
Time to build your sustainable wardrobe!
Here is some inspiration…
- Relaxed Top Made from Tencel and Organic Cotton
- Decontracted Vest Top Made from Hemp and Organic Cotton
- Summer Trousers Made from Tencel
- Playsuit Made from Recycled Polyester
- Casual-chic Top Made from Hemp
- Casual T-Shirt (for men) Made from Hemp and Organic Cotton
- Elegant Bikini Bottom Made from Econyl
- Skinny Jeans Made from Organic Cotton, Tencel and Recycled Polyester
- Comfortable Trousers Made from Organic Cotton
- Pack of Underwears and Socks (for men) Made from Organic Cotton
- Ankle Socks 10-Pack Made from Organic Cotton