A plethora of sustainable fabrics have emerged in recent times – but how legitimately good are they for the planet?
However, unlike food, where it’s clear what’s bad and what’s not, eco-friendly fashion is highly debatable. Does natural always equal good, and synthetic mean bad? For example, some might argue that vintage leather is acceptable but not polyurethane-based vegan leather.
“Fashion is one of the most harmful industries in the world,” Stella McCartney told the South China Morning Post.
“It’s completely unregulated, and we have no way of measuring our impact – we’re in a pretty dire situation, but what’s making it better is that this is a very fashionable conversation to be having,” she said.
For fashion to be truly sustainable, one has to look at all the materials used to make clothing, from farm (or factory) to fabric. In today’s feature, we’ll deep dive into the most popular sustainable fabrics, along with their pros and cons.
The most popular sustainable fabrics
With its light and airy material, cotton is one of the most popular fabrics used in clothing. Unfortunately, growing cotton is not friendly to the environment; conventional cotton requires tons of water and pesticides.
Its sustainable sibling, organic cotton, is grown using methods that have little impact on the environment. Production systems are kept to ensure the soil is kept fertile, there’s a limit on the use of pesticides, and third-party certification organisations, like GOTS, exist to make sure the producers meet the strict standards and regulations.
A more sustainable version is recycled cotton or clothing that use upcycled material from post-industrial or post-consumer cotton waste.
Pros: Fewer pesticides, nitrogen fertilisers. Less synthetic chemicals in freshwater sources and less water pollution. Less air pollution. Better dying, bleaching and overall production process.
Cons: Lower yield, less efficiency and less revenue.
Like cotton, linen is another natural fibre grown for its strength and softness. The fabric is light but can withstand extreme temperatures, absorb moisture, and is anti-bacterial.
Linen is derived from the flax plant, which requires minimal water and pesticides to grow. It can even thrive even if the soil is of poor quality. In addition, every part of the flax plant is used in other industries, so technically, nothing goes to waste.
Linen is also known to be fully biodegradable.
Pros: Uses fewer pesticides and fertilisers and requires less irrigation to grow.
Cons: When linen fabric is bleached or dyed, it can lose its biodegradable properties.
Hemp fabric is commonly used in clothing and even ropes because of its durability. It can also serve as natural protection from UV rays. According to SGS testing, hemp clothing held up 99.9 per cent effective in blocking UV-A and UV-B rays.
Hemp is a CO2-negative material, meaning it stores more CO2 than it emits. Its production requires few pesticides and herbicides, and it releases few toxins into the soil and the wider ecosystem. It also improves soil quality.
In addition, hemp fibres can be spun into fabric without the need for chemicals.
As long as hemp is organically manufactured, it is considered a sustainable fabric choice without added chemicals. It even gets softer through washing, which adds to its comfort level.
Pros: Use less water, natural UV protection, carbon negative, fewer chemicals.
Cons: Hemp production requires more nitrogen than cotton production.
Recycled Polyester (rPET)
Recycled polyester, also called rPET, is usually made from recycled plastic bottles and is a great way to divert plastic from landfills. Production of recycled polyester requires far fewer raw materials than that of new fibres, and because it skips the energy-intensive process of regular polyester, it also helps reduce emissions.
According to Tencate Fabrics, recycled polyester results in huge energy savings (up to 45 per cent) during the manufacturing process compared to virgin polyester. Choosing recycled polyester over its virgin counterpart also means a 20 per cent reduction in water consumption and 30 per cent less CO2 emissions.
However, because it is still made of plastic material, it releases microplastics with every wash.
Pros: Energy savings in production.
Cons: Releases microplastics during washing.
Tencel is a light cellulose fabric made from dissolved wood pulp. It has anti-bacterial and moisture-wicking properties. The fibre is made by the Austrian company Lenzing AG and has been getting more popular with fashion labels for its eco-friendly properties.
The fabric is 50 per cent more absorbent than cotton and needs less water and energy to make. In addition, the chemicals used to make the fibres are managed in a closed-loop system, meaning the chemical used is recycled over and over, reducing waste.
The solvents used in Tencel production are non-toxic, unlike those of viscose.
Pros: Requires less water, energy savings, fewer chemicals, anti-bacterial, recyclable, wood comes from responsibly managed forests.
Cons: More expensive to make, unable to withstand high temperatures, flimsy.
Piñatex fabric is made of ﬁbre from the leaves of the pineapple plant. It’s commonly used as an alternative to leather because of its versatility and tensile strength.
London-based company Ananas Anam made the fabric in 2018 and is currently working with farmers in the Philippines to source pineapple waste.
As a sustainability sourced textile, it requires less water, contains no harmful chemicals, and no animal products. However, it is not biodegradable. Pinatex contains polylactic acid (a thermoplastic polyester also known as bio-plastic) and polyurethane resin coating from petroleum.
Pros: Cruelty-free, vegan, affordable, more sustainable than synthetic leather.
Cons: Labour intensive, contains petroleum, non-biodegradable.
Econyl regenerated nylon fabric was introduced in 2011 by Italian firm Aquafil. It is made entirely from landfill and ocean waste, such as fabric scraps, industrial plastic, ghost nets, and old carpets.
The company collects waste and then cleans, shreds, and depolymerise it to extract nylon, transforming it into new nylon yarn.
Using a regeneration closed-loop system, manufacturing the fabric use less water and creates less waste than traditional nylon production methods – making the material more sustainable than virgin nylon.
However, because Econyl is made of plastic materials, like recycled polyester, it can also still shed microplastics that will end back up in oceans.
Pros: Recycled, less water and energy waste.
Cons: Can still shed microplastic.
Qmonos is a fabric made from synthetic spider silk. The fabric is made by fusing spider silk genes with microbial fermentation. It is said to be one of the toughest fibres in nature – seven times stronger than aramid fibre used for making bulletproof vests.
Qmonos can also be turned into film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber form. Furthermore, it’s lightweight, flexible, and completely biodegradable.
Compared to traditional silk made from the cocoons of silkworms, spider silk is entirely biodegradable and requires zero spider farming.
According to its creators, spider silk could be an excellent replacement for the same materials used in space exploration, sports, and the auto industry.
Pros: vegan, ethical, zero farming, zero waste, renewable, biodegradable, affordable
Cons: needs to be scaled up for mass production
Bamboo fabric is made from bamboo fibres. Historically, bamboo was only used for structural elements such as corsets or bustiers. Technology has helped make the bamboo fibre finer and more flexible for a wide range of textile applications, including menstrual pads pictured above.
The material is touted as eco-friendly due to the plants’ availability, high yield, and resilience. The bamboo plant also doesn’t require much water to thrive, needs no fertiliser, and self-regenerates its roots, so it doesn’t need replanting.
Unfortunately, most bamboo textiles are sourced from places where they use the same processing as Rayon, which uses a lot of water and chemicals. That is why the GOTS doesn’t include bamboo in its certifications yet, even if it’s a natural fibre.
Pros: Needs less water, planted chemical-free, self-regenerating, resilient, high yield.
Cons: Processing require chemicals, invasive plant (can take over other species), the fabric shrinks easily.
Corn husk, a lignocellulosic fibre generally discarded as waste, has the potential of being explored as a textile fibre. Corn or maize is the second-largest agricultural crop in the world. Cultivation of corn generates stover (stalk, leaves and husks) by-products that have been considered for a variety of uses.
Pros: High durability, pliability
Cons: Needs to be blended with other softer fabrics like bamboo or cotton to have “soft fabric quality”
Check the label
Aside from knowing what fabric your clothes are made from, you can also determine if a fabric is truly sustainable with a few certifications on its labels.
Here are a few examples:
Fairtrade certified – This means the product is traceable from farm to shelf, and it is produced following fair trade standards like having a safe working condition, fair wage and supporting farmers.
Oeko-text certified: Oeko-Tex textiles and fabrics are certified free of harmful chemicals and are safe for human use. Organic certification means that textile and fabric products are grown according to strict guidelines on using petroleum-based fertilisers, pesticides, and synthetic products.
Cradle to cradle: Cradle to Cradle certification attempts to measure your invention’s environmental and social sustainability in five categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.