The fashion industry has a considerable environmental footprint, particularly from its fabrics. Textile production requires large amounts of water, energy, and chemicals. And then there is the issue of waste, with so much discarded clothing ending up in landfills.
Sustainable fabrics are made from natural or recycled fibers, and help reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact. The most sustainable materials offer water conservation, reduced carbon emissions, soil regeneration, and recyclability.
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When we pick up a cotton t-shirt or pair of jeans, it may not often cross our mind that a considerable amount of ethos and history is intrinsically woven into that item. Organic cotton is grown without pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers and is better for the environment than conventional cotton.
It also does not release microplastics in the wash, which are washed down sewage plants and into local waterways. This is why organic cotton is ideal for activewear and t-shirts.
The GOTS certification for organic cotton is an excellent way to check the authenticity of your fiber, as greenwashing is still common, and some brands will claim to be using organic cotton when they are not. Organic cotton will also be softer and healthier for the skin, as it hasn’t been treated with chemicals.
However, organic cotton can still have a high carbon footprint, as it must be processed before being made into fabric. The manufacturing process of ginning and dyeing can produce a lot of GHGs, as discussed in this article. Another sustainable fabric alternatives is cellulose fibers, which use a circular production model optimized for sustainability and have lower carbon footprints than organic and regular cotton.
Bamboo is a fast-growing, renewable resource that can be used to make fabric. It requires few pesticides or herbicides to grow and is hardy and durable. It is also able to absorb and hold dye well. Its natural fibers are soft and smooth, making it ideal for clothing. Bamboo fabric is breathable, thermal regulating, and can wick moisture away better than cotton or polyester performance fabrics. It is also naturally antibacterial and hypoallergenic, perfect for sensitive skin.
Bamboo has traditionally been used for building and crafts, including furniture and sarongs. It is also used for making musical instruments in Asia, including the slit drum known as a kagul and the flute like the ocarina.
Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants and provides a sustainable source of income for rural communities. A program has shown that producing bamboo briquettes can reduce poverty, empower women, and improve gender equity by giving them a stable and regular income. It can also help to reduce environmental degradation and climate change by substituting wood-based energy for fuel.
Recycled polyester (rPET) is made of plastic waste (such as old water bottles or food/household containers), turning it into fabrics to make fashion products. It’s considered a more sustainable alternative to new synthetic material because it uses fewer resources and produces fewer harmful greenhouse gas emissions than virgin polyester.
The fabric isn’t a fully-fledged closed-loop product as it can only be recycled a few times using mechanical processes before it loses quality. Still, it does reduce the need for fossil fuels to create the material and helps reduce plastic waste in our oceans. The resulting fabric is also less harmful to the environment than cotton, which requires high levels of water and pesticides, or rayon, which uses wood pulp that can cause pollution and deforestation.
The textile and apparel industry is one of the biggest polluters worldwide, but brands are moving away from virgin polyester and turning to recycled options. A good benchmark is when brands can use 20% recycled polyester and 80% pure fabric for a specific garment, reducing their environmental impact significantly.
The fashion industry gets a bad rap for being unsustainable, and it’s not surprising: only the oil industry has a worse track record. From resource consumption and pollution to long-distance transport and environmental hazards during disposal, our clothing impacts the planet at every step of its life cycle.
The good news is that there are plenty of sustainable fabrics. Plant-based options, like cotton and bamboo blends, are great alternatives to synthetic fibers that use harmful chemicals. Natural fibers from wood pulp, like Tencel and lyocell, use less water than rayon and are biodegradable.
Linen is also a great sustainable choice – it’s made from the flax plant, which traps carbon, proliferates, and doesn’t require fertilizer or much water. Plus, it’s moth-resistant, strong, and incredibly soft. Moreover, almost the entire plant is used to make linen fabric – so there’s very little waste.
Wool is another natural fabric, but it can be resource-intensive to produce and has associated ethical concerns involving the abuse of sheep. Try recycled wool to get all the warmth and durability of conventional wool without the heavy environmental impact.
There are plenty of eco-friendly fabrics if you’re looking to avoid animal products like wool and leather. For instance, organic cotton is grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to promote soil health and biodiversity. Recycled polyester is also a sustainable option, using post-consumer plastic bottles and other polyester waste to reduce the need for new fabric production.
Bamboo is another plant-based sustainable fabric that is lightweight, breathable, and increasing with minimal water or pesticides. It can be woven or knitted into clothing, accessories, and home furnishings. For those who object to shearing animals, there’s also reclaimed leather. Reclaimed leather is tanned with less-toxic methods and is used in furniture, shoes, handbags, and other clothing.