It can be overwhelming to decipher clothing labels these days, especially with the abundance of potentially sustainable fabrics available. Some of the innovations in fabric production may seem bizarre, such as those made from apples or pineapples. Additionally, there are various manufacturing processes, certification schemes, and conflicting practices for each fabric.

However, consumers must understand these differences to promote a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry. The materials used in clothing production have a significant impact on the environment, contributing to water consumption, microplastic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, rainforest destruction, and landfill waste.

By choosing eco-friendly fabrics, consumers can take a significant step towards building a more sustainable wardrobe. Therefore, before asking #whomademyclothes, it is essential to ask, “What are my clothes made of?”

What are “Sustainable Materials”?

Sustainable materials are those that are used for ‘eco-friendly’ clothing and home goods and are designed to minimise environmental degradation. Conventional fabrics, such as cotton, viscose, and leather, have historically been developed with profit in mind, resulting in unsustainable farming, deforestation, and petroleum drilling. Additionally, chemically-intensive material processing, including plasticizing, bleaching, softening, and dyeing has contributed to poor end-of-life prospects and tremendous amounts of textile waste. Sustainable fabrics, on the other hand, significantly minimize the impact of their conventional alternatives through organic and chemical-free farming, the use of recycled materials, circular manufacturing processes, and sustainable prospects for end-of-life disposal. As environmentally friendly fabrics become more readily available, clothing brands are using them to create a better fashion future.

Sustainable Fashion Fabrics

Organic cotton tops our list of sustainable fabrics as it is one of the most natural options available.

Unlike conventional cotton, which is known as the “world’s dirtiest crop,” organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. It is also processed without any chemicals, resulting in a fabric that uses 62% less energy and 88% less water.

Various certifications are used to ensure that sustainable and ethical cotton is used. These certifications confirm that the cotton was grown without chemicals or machine harvesting and processed without any chemicals, resulting in a chemical-free final product.

The most common certification for organic cotton is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Other certifications, such as fair trade, ensure that farmers receive fair pay and work in safe conditions. However, the absence of exposure to chemicals in the field is already a significant component in ensuring their safety.

These are a few sustainable fabrics to consider.

Recycled Cotton

Recycled cotton is a sustainable alternative to traditional cotton production, as it is made from either post-industrial or post-consumer waste. This means that your favorite eco-friendly clothing items, such as underwear or jeans, could be made from fabric scraps or recycled cotton garments.

By using recycled cotton, there is no need for additional cotton farming, and textile waste is diverted from landfills. However, it can be difficult to regulate and certify recycled cotton, as it is challenging to trace its origins.

Additionally, it can be challenging to determine whether recycled cotton is pure cotton and suitable for composting, as garments can be recycled into recycled cotton even if they contain up to 4% synthetic fibers.

Hemp

Hemp fabric is an incredibly eco-friendly natural material. It has a high yield and doesn’t require excessive amounts of water or chemicals to grow. Additionally, it has the added benefit of phytoremediation, which means it can restore soil nutrients and remove impurities like heavy metals and toxins.

One of the most exciting things about hemp clothing is that it’s considered a carbon-negative raw material. This means that it actually absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere than other plants.

While hemp can be slightly more expensive than other sustainable fabrics due to its unique properties and more challenging growing process, it’s worth the investment. Hemp clothing is naturally sun-protective and antimicrobial, making it a great choice for everyday wear.

In the past, there was no way to certify organic hemp, but that has changed in recent years. Now, several certifying agencies under the US Department of Agriculture oversee the organic hemp farming process. As more people become aware of the benefits of hemp, we can expect to see it become even more popular in the future.

Linen

Linen and hemp share many similarities in terms of sustainability and the lightweight, breathable fabrics they produce.

The key difference lies in the fact that organic linen is made from the flax plant, which requires minimal fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation inputs to grow.

However, unlike hemp, organic linen is not as high-yielding and is typically grown in specific climates, mainly in Europe, making it a more luxurious commodity.

Despite this, linen remains a popular eco-friendly fabric that has been used for centuries in everything from clothing to bedding.

Bamboo Linen

Bamboo is a highly sustainable plant that can be harvested without causing harm to the plant itself. Due to its rapid renewal rate, it is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world.

Similar to hemp, bamboo is an excellent absorber of CO2 and requires minimal resources to thrive. It can even survive on rainfall alone.

However, it is crucial to ensure that bamboo is sourced from sustainably managed forests and processed mechanically rather than chemically. Organic bamboo fabric in its raw form is the best option, as opposed to bamboo rayon/viscose which is plasticized using harmful chemicals.

It is essential to note that sustainable bamboo fabric is only a small fraction of what is available on the market.

Deadstock

Deadstock fabric completes the trio of frequently used sustainable fabrics that are recycled. Unlike recycled polyester and nylon, deadstock is solely made from other garments, including vintage clothing, off-cuts, manufacturing scraps, and unsold clothing, also known as “deadstock.”

Since it doesn’t require any processing, the dyes, and patterns remain as they are, resulting in a lower manufacturing footprint. Additionally, it prevents valuable materials from ending up in landfills.

Lyocell

Out of all the sustainable fabrics available, lyocell fabric has gained significant popularity due to its eco-friendly properties. Although technically a type of rayon fabric, lyocell is a semi-synthetic or cellulosic fabric made from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees, which requires minimal water and pesticides.

However, it’s important to note that not all lyocell fabrics are created equal. The most sustainable option is TENCEL™ lyocell, which is trademarked by its Austrian manufacturer, Lenzing. This fabric is sourced from sustainably-managed forests and produced using a closed-loop manufacturing process that reuses 99.5% of the water and dissolving agents.

It’s crucial to be aware that other lyocell fabrics may not use this closed-loop manufacturing process, which is a critical component of lyocell’s sustainability. Therefore, it’s essential to do your research and ensure that the lyocell fabric you’re purchasing is sustainably produced.

Modal

Modal fabric is a type of semi-synthetic fabric that is highly regarded for its comfort and breathability. It is a popular choice for those seeking an affordable alternative to silk, especially for garments that require a drapey quality, such as fair trade dresses.

Modal is made from beech trees, like lyocell made from eucalyptus wood pulp. While it is less wasteful and uses fewer chemicals than traditional rayon/viscose production, the chemicals used in modal production are more caustic than those used for lyocell manufacturing.

Unfortunately, not all modal the production is done in a closed-loop system, which means that it is important to seek out transparent users of lyocell or opt for carbon-neutral TENCEL™ modal.