Conscious fashion can mean many different things, but one way to ensure a more mindful purchase is to shop for sustainably made garments with sustainable fabrics. With fast fashion production at a highly accelerated rate to meet demand, the textile industry ends up relying on virgin synthetic materials that are cheap and quick to produce.
However, these fabrics (polyester, nylon, or acrylic fabric) take decades or more to biodegrade, and textiles make up so much of the waste materials in landfills. It is time to slow down – it’s also time to take a closer look at our clothing labels, too.
But how can we discern which are sustainable fabrics and which aren’t? There isn’t exactly one “dream sustainable fabric” to solve every problem. All new material requires resources to produce, and while we love vintage and secondhand garments, those can also contribute to the microplastic problem depending on what they’re made of.
For starters, get familiar with the labels on your existing favourite wardrobe staples. The fabrics that work best for you will vary based on your values and needs. For example, you may want to avoid all animal products in your clothing, so your preference may be plant-based fabrics and recycled synthetics.
Perhaps you only want to wear fabrics that are completely biodegradable, or maybe your work requires the use of certain synthetics in your garments. All of this can change, too, if you have skin sensitivities or allergies to particular fabrics.
Another factor to consider when shopping: some fabrics will have a longer lifespan than others. You’ll want to consider all of these factors to help make the most educated and sustainable choice for your lifestyle and wardrobe.
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Sustainable clothing materials refer to fabric that comes from eco-friendly resources, like sustainably grown fibre crops or recycled materials, and are often created as alternatives to unsustainable fabrics. How the fabrics are made in the manufacturing process also determines just how sustainable they are.
How do you know sustainable fashion materials when you see them on clothing racks? It’s all about reading the labels! A few labels to be on the lookout for when you’re looking to make an eco-friendly purchase include:
What are the sustainable fabrics to look for on tags? There are many different eco-friendly fabrics to choose from, the most popular being bamboo, industrial hemp, recycled polyester, wool, TENCEL, soy cashmere/silk, and organic cotton.
Bamboo is a fast-growing, regenerative crop that doesn’t require fertilization and is often touted as a sustainable material when mechanically processed (otherwise known as bamboo linen or bast fibre).
However, there are concerns about the lack of transparency around land clearing and harvesting methods around ‘sustainable fabrics’ like this, as well as chemically processed bamboo which uses the same acids found in rayon viscose (something to ask a brand about before purchasing a garment).
That said, when properly made, bamboo is incredibly absorbent, comfortable, and moisture-wicking, making it a favourite among eco-friendly fabrics with sustainable brands.
ECONYL® was first introduced by Aquafil in 2011; today it’s a popular sustainable alternative to virgin nylon since it’s made from regenerated nylon waste. Sourced from industrial plastic, waste fabrics, and fishing nets, this upcycled nylon goes through a closed-loop system in production, conserving water and reducing waste.
As with virgin polyester, nylon, and plastic, ECONYL® can still shed microplastics, so it’s worth trying a washing bag or washing infrequently.
Organic hemp fabric is a specific type of cannabis plant, and because of its association with marijuana, it typically requires a speciality license to grow. It’s quick-growing, doesn’t exhaust the soil, and doesn’t require pesticides. Also, the plant absorbs CO2, its cultivation improves soil health by replenishing vital nutrients.
Hemp creates a durable fabric that’s non-irritating for the skin and has many uses, so it’s often used in place of organic cotton. This fabric is often more expensive, making it less accessible to everyone.
Organic linen is made from the flax plant, which can be grown without fertilizer and planted in areas where most other crops cannot thrive. Flax can also be used in its entirety (seeds, oil, and crop), meaning there’s no waste.
This natural material is also naturally moth-resistant and biodegradable – as long as harmful chemicals are left out of the process. The downside to linen fabric is that it can be expensive as it’s often made overseas.
Modal is a semi-synthetic textile made from wood pulp but mainly that of beech trees. While the wood pulp is natural, the production process involves chemicals like sodium hydroxide – but lower than the amount needed for rayon viscose.
The naturally occurring yet human-made fabric is generally more delicate and softer than its lyocell sibling (see Tencel below), so it’s a more sustainable fabric commonly used for undies, PJs, sheets, and towels.
Organic cotton is produced without any toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds (GMOs). This usually implies a sustainably managed fabric production process compared to conventional cotton production, though it is not always a given without proper certifications or transparency.
Keep in mind that organic certifications can be expensive, but if possible when shopping for sustainable fabrics, look for a GOTS or OCS certification when shopping for organic cotton. In addition, you can also look into recycled cotton; recycled or upcycled cotton are also eco-friendly fabrics as they’re kept from landfills, making their environmental impact significantly lower.
While there’s an ongoing debate on leather versus vegan leather, Piñatex presents a sustainable alternative to both animal byproducts and controversial textiles. First developed in 2017 by Ananas Anam, the material comes from leftover pineapple leaves that would otherwise be burned. It can also naturally biodegrade unless it’s mixed with petroleum-based resin, which is sometimes the case.
Reclaimed fabrics (often called deadstock) are leftover fabrics or raw materials from manufacturers. It can also mean vintage fabric, eco-friendly fabric, or any unused raw material purchased secondhand from a fashion brand that would otherwise be tossed. While not necessarily sustainable fabrics in themselves, by using deadstock, makers turn these into sustainable textiles that stay out of landfills and use something that’s already been made.
Recycled polyester is PET (the chemical used to create polyester) from plastic bottles that have been broken down into fibres. The recycled fabric keeps plastic out of landfills and can be recycled many times over.
When a garment can’t be made from 100% natural fibres (for example, stretchy garments like underwear or leggings), we recommend looking for recycled fabric as it’s a more eco-friendly fabric than its virgin counterpart, generating fewer carbon dioxide emissions in production.
Silk comes from silkworms that subsist on a diet of only mulberry tree leaves, which are resistant to pollution and easy to grow. This plant’s characteristics make the production of silk a fairly low-waste ordeal. But as silk requires animal labour, it’s essential to vet brands and ensure they’re using ethical production methods, so be sure to look for Ahimsa silk (or Peace silk).
Tencel™ is a branded version of lyocell, a type of rayon derived from cellulose fibres that come from wood pulp. Unlike rayon viscose, lyocell and Tencel™ go through a closed-loop process where chemicals are reused and less dangerous to humans. Tencel™’s founding company Lenzing utilizes eucalyptus wood, sustainable practices, and responsible sourcing not guaranteed in other lyocell production processes.
Wool can be a sustainable fabric, depending on how it’s produced. Fibershed, for example, creates Climate Beneficial™ Wool on Carbon Farming landscapes where carbon is captured and put back into the soil. Wool is also compostable, incredibly insulating, and doesn’t shed plastic microfibers.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of animal abuse in the wool production industry, so while they are a natural fabric that makes environmentally friendly materials, it’s essential to vet brands to verify sourcing and production methods. While wool isn’t for everyone, it is a fabric that many sustainable brands are turning to. Look for the ZQ certification.
Sustainable fabrics are such an essential contribution to today’s over-consumed and -produced fashion industry. Instead of common fabrics and waste fabrics made with toxic chemicals with a deeply negative environmental impact used today, sustainable clothing materials like recycled cotton, recycled nylon, deadstock/waste fabric, and other environmentally friendly and natural fabrics made with natural fibre make much more sustainable alternatives.
If you’re interested in sustainable clothing and seeing a more sustainable fashion industry, eco-friendly materials are one of the best places to start.