Fabric selections have a significant role in sustainability. The environmental effect of a brand may be considerably reduced by using natural textiles like cotton, linen, and hemp instead of synthetic ones like polyester.
Fast fashion contributes to pollution, water waste, and soil degradation – but this can be avoided by choosing sustainable fabrics. Here are five key things to remember when sourcing sustainable fashion fabrics.
Check the Price
The good news is that sustainable fabrics are becoming more accessible and affordable. The best place to start is with the basics, so look out for natural textiles like cotton, wool, and silk. These fibers are known to be the most eco-friendly compared with their synthetic counterparts.
However, consider biodegradable materials for fashion fabric sourcing if you want to go further. These are a great choice because they break down into smaller components when washed and avoid polluting the ocean with microplastics.
Other sustainable options include cactus leather, pineapple leather, and a new semi-synthetic ECOVERO, which uses closed-loop processes to reduce water consumption and carbon emissions. The best thing about these fabrics is that they perform as well as polyester and nylon but are made from renewable and sustainable plant-based sources.
Another option is regenerated cellulose, which uses waste plastics, fishing nets, and other industrial waste to create a recycled fiber that performs as polyester and nylon but is fully biodegradable. This is a great choice for clothing that doesn’t need frequent washing and is a great alternative to polyester.
Check the Origin
The first thing to look out for is where a fabric comes from. For instance, bamboo is often touted as a sustainable fabric because it grows quickly and doesn’t require much water or pesticides. But it could be better for the planet if the old-growth forests are cut down to make it grow. To turn bamboo into soft, durable fabrics, it’s also treated with harmful chemicals during processing.
To find sustainable bamboo fabrics, choose those made mechanically or using less-toxic chemicals during processing. You can also look for modal and TENCEL, made from cellulose fibers from dissolving wood pulp (from trees like eucalyptus and beech). Choose modal, and TENCEL made with recycled yarns or organic cotton, as these use significantly fewer chemicals.
Another option is to buy deadstock fabric sourced from clothing off-cuts and manufacturing scraps. This reduces manufacturing waste and keeps garments from ending up in landfills. This type of fabric is also common among zero-waste and upcycled fashion brands.
Check the Production Process
When choosing sustainable fabrics, it’s important to consider how they are processed and dyed. Ideally, you want to find sustainable fabric options that are azo-free and use closed-loop dyeing. This reduces water waste and pollution and prevents carcinogenic dyes from forming.
Many unsustainable fabrics require harmful processing methods, causing environmental damage and human rights abuses. These include cotton, which uses a lot of pesticides and fertilizers that pollute soil, water systems, and the air, and polyester, which is essentially plastic created through fossil fuels. Nylon and acrylic are other synthetic textiles that are also a huge environmental concern, as they take up to ten times more energy to produce than natural fabrics like wool, cotton, and silk.
Some protein-based fabrics, such as ethical wool, angora, alpaca, and cashmere, are earth-safe. Still, checking whether they have been harvested from animals raised in cruelty-free conditions is essential.
Check the Quality
It’s not enough to know where a fabric comes from and how it was made; you must ensure the quality is up to scratch. Sustainable fabrics are often independently tested to ensure they’re soft, durable, and safe. Many suppliers will show you independent fabric test reports, so look at them.
It’s also important to consider whether the fabric is vegan if you have ethical concerns. Animal fibers/fabrics cause problems when grown unsustainably, as they contribute to mass deforestation, water pollution, and harmful environmental chemicals. Look for sustainable alternatives like hemp, ramie, or bamboo, which are fast-growing and don’t require water or pesticides.
You should also avoid fabrics made with single-use plastic, as they release microplastics into the environment when recycled. Instead, opt for recycled polyester, made with repurposed plastic bottles and a go-to for sustainable activewear brands. You could also try recycled modal, lyocell, or tencel, created using a closed-loop solvent system that’s safer for the environment.
Check the Certifications
The use of sustainable fabrics has become increasingly popular due to growing concerns about the environmental damage caused by the textile industry. On average, the textile sector releases 1.22 – 2.93 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, and this has prompted both small and large fashion brands to consider how they can reduce their negative impact on the environment.
For example, avoiding organic cotton (which requires huge amounts of pesticides and water) in favor of GOTS or recycled polyester can make a big difference. Other options include linen, hemp, soy cashmere/silk, and lyocell (made from sustainably-managed eucalyptus trees).
Look for fabrics certified by reputable organizations such as GOTS, Ecocert, or Bluesign for the most sustainable choices. These organizations monitor the manufacturing process to ensure it is sustainable and socially responsible. For example, GOTS certification requires that the fibers used are sourced from a Certified Organic crop and that they have been processed using environmentally friendly methods such as closed-loop solvent systems that reuse the dissolving agents. This significantly reduces waste and water usage.