12 Characteristics of Sustainable Fabrics (with Examples)
If you are curious to learn more about sustainable fashion, you might have read about many different examples of fabrics and materials that don’t leave (as much of) a footprint on the planet. But what is it that makes such materials sustainable? Let’s look at the characteristics of sustainable materials used for clothing.
Sustainable fashion aims to decrease the impact on the environment of materials used for apparel, including the source of materials and the production process of clothing. There are many different aspects of sustainable materials and many ways to obtain a more sustainable industry.
1. Sustainable Fabrics Are Sourced from Certified / Responsible Materials
Our clothes are made of fabric. Fabric is produced in a million different ways and can consist of a million different fibers. But from wool to cotton, and from polyester to piñatex, everything needs to be produced. Trees don’t grow T-shirts, right?!
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 22% of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the industry sector. This sector includes all the products and materials we use, like food, clothing and general STUFF.
To make the industry sector more sustainable and eco-friendly, several things can be done:
becoming more energy efficient
using better, more sustainable energy sources
There are many different sectors within industry, and the production of clothing covers two important parts: the textile industry and the fashion industry. The textile industry means from plant/tree/animal/raw material to fabric, and the fashion industry covers the process from fabric to garment.
It is important to understand the difference and to take into consideration that every piece of clothing undergoes at least two different processes before it becomes a garment: from resource to material, and from material to end-product.
Within the textile industry (the production of fibers and fabric), you can divide different types of fabric into two different categories: synthetic fibers and natural fibers. The most important synthetic fibers are polyester and rayon. Natural fibers can be plant based (cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo) or animal based (different types of wool or silk).
The production process of each fiber is very different and the degree of sustainability can vary incredibly! In general, natural fibers are more sustainable than synthetic fibers, but with recent technology synthetic fibers can be recycled and reused, cutting in waste, energy, and water usage.
It is hard to pin one fabric down as the most sustainable fabric, as it will depend on the production process and the manufacturer. Besides, every fabric has its pros and cons given that everything is processed.
Now it is time for the good news! As of the present (anno 2020) there are so many initiatives, possibilities, alternatives and options available to help you make a more sustainable decision.
One of my favorite web shops that focuses on everything, really, is Girlfriend Collective (click link to go to their homepage). And by everything I mean: reducing, reusing, recycling, saving water, saving waste, representation, transparency, love! Definitely worth checking them out!
Here are some of my favorite examples of certified and/or responsible fabrics:
Organic alpaca wool
Organic rayon (check for Eucalyptus!)
Organic cotton (GOTS certified)
Recycled PET (Polyester)
Funky new fabrics like leaf-leather, piñatex and cork
2. Sustainable Fabrics Don’t Use (Much) Chemicals
The production process of many materials can be highly chemical. Imagine, petroleum is turned into a fitness outfit. How, really? Wood pulp is turned into a cool T-shirt. How, really? A bamboo branch is turned into socks. How, really? A cocoon from a silkworm is turned into a fancy dress. How, really!?
Really, HOW?!? Of course, fabrics are made in a chemical process where stuff is added in order to get the desired outcome. It is logical, but potentially disastrous, too.
Chemicals are used during different stages of the production process. Some materials are treated with chemicals before they become an actual fabric, like silk, wool, or cotton. Other materials require chemical processing, like leather and rayon. Other fabrics are just made of chemicals altogether like polyester (dirty petroleum!).
Even natural fibers can be chemical, as large-scale production often requires chemicals and pesticides to prevent infestation of the animals, plants, or fibers themselves. Especially cotton, silk and sheep wool are infamous for the amount of chemicals used.
For example, leather uses a lot of different chemicals in order to get the look and feel that is so desired of leather items. The process to produce leather is called tanning, and there are many different ways to make it (all with their pros and cons! For more information, Wikipedia has a full-page explanation!)
The chemicals that are used during the production process often end up in the water during the washing stages (either at the factory itself, or even when you wash items as a user!) and this will end up with Mother Earth, polluting rivers, forests, even entire oceans!
During the production process of fabrics and other materials used for clothing, it is important to keep in mind that the factory workers might be at risk, too. And I am not talking about sweatshops! (They are terrible, too, and I will talk about that further down below!!!) I am talking about the chemicals that are used that can harm workers.
For example, to produce rayon, Carbon Disulfide is added to the wood pulp to extract the cellulose from the fiber. CS2 can cause serious harm to workers, especially when limited or incorrect safety measures are taken.
Also, the chemicals used to produce leather not only harm the environment, but the workers, too!
Opt for fabrics that use little or no chemicals to save the Earth! Here are my personal favorites:
Organic cotton with baby alpaca
Rayon products from Patagonia
Oeko-tex certified linen
3. Sustainable Fabrics Cause Less Waste
Every production process causes waste, which is possibly inevitable. However, the amount of waste can definitely be improved to obtain a more sustainable production chain. According to Forbes, a large amount of waste comes from cutoffs from the production process (this section doesn’t even talk about the waste caused by consumers!!!).
While many people quote that the fashion industry as one of the most polluting industries in the world, these numbers are incredibly hard to track and pin down because everything is related, and everything we do causes waste.
Ecocult did a much better job at estimating how polluting the fashion industry really is! (link goes to article)
Some of the waste causes water pollution when chemicals end up in rivers, oceans, and through the earth. Other waste-related problems cause air pollution and are caused by emissions. Then there is land pollution due to exhausted terrains, cutting forests, pesticides…
Chemicals often end up in the environment when products are dyed, when chemicals are added to make items waterproof, windproof, color-proof, non-iron, wrinkle-free, odor-free, softer, and ironically enough even to make them more durable!
To decrease your ecological footprint, opt for garments that are untreated and naturally resistant to water, wind, wrinkles and smells. Opt for garments that are undyed, or if you do want something colorful, opt for items that are easily dyed, so that less chemicals are used. You can even look for natural dyes!
Here are some of my favorites when it comes to materials that cause less waste:
Fabrics that take dye well: alpaca wool, rayon, silk or cotton
Fabrics that are naturally wind-resistant: wool (from alpaca, merino, qiviut, yak)
Fabrics that are naturally water-resistant: wool (most types)
4. Sustainable Fabrics Use Less Water
If the production process causes waste, and chemicals are added to the material, and fabrics are painted, it probably needs something else to mix all that with, right?! Yes, water, ladies and gentlemen. A lot of water is used to produce clothing.
Cotton is infamous for using large amounts of water. Cotton is naturally prone to shrinking, so in order to give customers a non-shrinkable product, it is washed. And washed. And washed. Until there is nothing left to shrink. And when you wash, you use water. Other materials, too, like wool use large quantities of water to rinse the fibers before they are spun into yarn.
Levi’s has developed a technique that helps them produce jeans with a reduced water usage of 96%! Read more about their Waterless Techniques by clicking the link!
Here’s a list of my favorite fabrics when it comes to saving water:
5. Sustainable Fabrics Are Made With Love
When discussing sustainability, there is an important social aspect that can not be ignored. The social aspect of many fast fashion brands is basically absent, and many of their products are produced in infamous sweatshops.
Sweatshops are known for their lack of labor rights and legal standards. Many employees are illegal, work long hours, and earn low wages. There is no such thing as a minimum wage, maternity leave, and child labor can still happen! On top of that, the workers might be exposed to health hazards as they often work with dangerous chemicals.
Sustainable fashion not only focuses on the environmental aspects of the fashion industry, it also recognizes the need to improve its social standards. Anti sweatshops movements have surged and have earned successes big and small.
The difficulties with fighting for workers’ rights in sweatshops is that many laws are regulated on a local level and governments often don’t want to acknowledge their lacking legal protection. On the other hand, people are often happy to get their hands on any work, and they will take up any work available to them - illegal or not. Just closing down a factory might cause thousands of people to lose their jobs, income and way to provide for their families.
Another negative aspect of the sweatshops is that their focus is on quantity, not on quality. The materials used, the production process in general, and the finish of garments is done inaccurately and can cause an extra decrease in quality.
Most sweatshops use materials that are available in large quantities, are easy to work with and are cheap, like polyester, cotton, wool, and rayon.
More exclusive fabrics are therefore often used in garments made with a bit more love, especially locally grown or sourced materials. The best thing you can do is always research the brand that you are buying from to see if they really treat their workers well!
Here are some of my favorite fabrics that are (most often) used for fair production:
Super exclusive wool fibers like yak, qiviut, vicuña and cashmere
Anything from tiny brands that go for quality over quantity (hemp, cork)
6. Sustainable Fabrics Don’t Harm Animals
Mass production is not good for workers, nor for the environment. It is also really bad for the animals that produce the fiber for the material that is used. Sustainable, animal based fibers should therefore treat the animals with care.
Wool is one of the most used animal fibers for clothing, and many sheep are kept for mass wool production. Mass production focuses on quantity over quality, and the animal treatment is often far below par. Tiny cages and limited space to move, poor quality food and rough treatment are some of the problems that arise in the wool industry.
Other cases are known that are even more extreme, like mulesing (link to Wikipedia), accidents during shearing, castration without anaesthesia, (link to Farm Animal Welfare Education Centre) and hurting the animals on purpose. Honestly, the sheep industry is not very pretty.
On top of that, large-scale production of cattle can cause an increase in greenhouse gases. According to The Conversation (link to article from 2016), farming livestock can contribute up to 18% of greenhouse gases globally!
Fortunately, there are many ways to improve the quality of animals’ lives, and many organic brands, sheep farms, and wool producers are emerging!
Looking for organic alternatives is important, as small farmers can assure the quality of life of the sheep, goats, alpacas or rabbits. On top of that, they will (should) receive veterinary care accordingly, will be shorn carefully and in agreement with their shearing or shedding season, and might even have the opportunity to live in their natural habitat and/or climate!
Here are some of my favorite animal fibers that you can often find organic and sustainable:
Organic sheep wool
Organic merino wool
Organic cashmere (hand combed)
If you want to avoid animal fibers altogether, opt for vegan fibers. Be careful to avoid highly synthetic fibers like polyester, or controversial fibers like bamboo, seaweed, and vegan leather. While they are often vegan-friendly, they might still harm the environment!
7. Sustainable Fabrics Are Durable
The first six characteristics show how important it is to find ethically sourced materials, fabrics that leave as little impact on the environment or the workers as possible, and are as natural and animal-friendly as possible. Additionally, the durability of a fabric can make a huge impact on the climate.
When an item is durable, it means it lasts for a long time, even with frequent use. Think of your coat that will keep you warm every day during winter, shoes that you wear often, or a scarf that never loses its shape.
Durability means that you don’t need to replace an item after wearing it five times. A durable fabric is designed to do what it should do: be worn and used without falling to pieces.
One of the great disadvantages of synthetic fibers is that they are not durable. They will lose their shape, start to pill, will easily get holes in them, or just start to look old after only a few wears. Natural fibers are generally stronger.
Durability can chemically be added to synthetic fibers, but of course, this might negatively impact the environment or the safety of the workers.
Another aspect of durability that you could consider is how easily a fabric ignites. As you can imagine, flame-retardant fabrics might still burn a hole when exposed to a flame, but not melt entirely. Most types of wool are known to be flame-retardant!
Burning desire to know more? Read more about flame-retardancy in an article I wrote specifically about alpaca wool: Is Alpaca Wool Fire-Resistant?
Here are some examples of natural fibers (animal and plant based) that are praised for their durability:
8. Sustainable Fabrics Are Emotionally Durable
For an item and fabric to be sustainable, it is important that they are emotionally durable, meaning that they are not part of some kind of rage or hype. For many of the newly discovered fabrics, this might be bad news, as many of them are marketed as sustainable, without actually knowing whether or not they really are.
For all other fabrics, the importance of emotionally durable fabrics is that they are everlasting, classic, timeless. Many fabrics (think glittery tops, jeggings, ripped jeans, see-through fabrics, and-so-on) are designed to last a limited time, to match a certain fashion trend. Emotionally durable designs avoid this and focus its design on a style that is not necessarily linked to fashion.
The idea of emotionally durable fabrics goes beyond the short life-span of its design. It looks at the durability of the fabric, too.
Of course, whether or not you are emotionally attached to a garment also depends on its design. And I happen to find a lot of very comfortable items for a very long time in my wardrobe. The tight, uncomfortable, but oh-so-pretty designs just don’t seem to last as long.
Beware of one-trick-ponies! If you’re buying a shirt for one party, a dress for one evening, an outfit for one occasion, you are much less likely to buy something really expensive, because it’s just for one night, right?! So instead of investing in a pure silk dress, you might go for a cheap polyester option. If such dilemmas arise, think twice before you buy something. Ask yourself if you can reuse the item for a different occasion, or borrow the piece from a friend.
Besides, there must be a reason why my mother always says that all those things we claim to be fashionable right now are very similar to the things she used to wear back in the days. So, why even bother keeping up with fashion?! Old trends seem to come back in style from time to time anyways.
One trend that seems to be timeless is comfort. Nobody will argue against something that just sits nice, right? So, when you are researching your emotionally durable item, remember to look for fabrics that feel good, and will feel good a year (or five) from now.
Opt for emotionally durable fabrics instead of trendy, fast-fashionable items.
Wool - nothing beats a chunky sweater
Silk - always stylish and shaping!
Alpaca wool - drapey and comfortable
Linen - every occasion (summery!)
Cotton - classic and versatile
9. Sustainable Fabrics Are Harmless to the Body
Some fabrics don’t only cause harm to the environment, but also to your own body. Natural fibers like wool can cause skin irritation for people with sensitive skin, depending on the quality of the wool fiber. Many synthetic fibers can cause a range of discomfort to the body, like rashes, skin irritation, and even skin infection. Even for those who don’t have sensitive skin!
Itching to learn more? I wrote a full article on whether or not Alpaca Wool is Itch-Free. Click the link to read it!
The problem with synthetic fibers is that they are often not very breathable. When a fabric is breathable, it will move the air around so that the fabric doesn’t feel clammy on the body. When it is not breathable, it means that the air stays underneath the fabric, causing the body to overheat.
When the body overheats, it naturally produces sweat to cool down. The sweat, then, needs to go somewhere, and the best place to go is by getting absorbed into the fabric, which natural fibers are great for! Synthetic fibers: not so much. When the sweat is not absorbed by the fabric, it gets trapped underneath the fabric and can cause skin infection.
While many synthetic fibers have been treated to become more breathable, the fiber itself is not naturally breathable or good on the skin. When they have been treated, it is done with chemicals, like formaldehyde, which can be harmful to the skin and the environment. Not only your skin will be exposed to the chemicals, but also our planet as garments get washed and chemicals end up in the water.
According to Business Insider, chemicals that are used to make clothing waterproof, wrinkle-free and stain-resistant have been linked to adverse health effects, not only skin irritation, but even cancer! (Click the link to go to the full article!)
To be safe, clothes that have been treated to be waterproof, stain-resistant, wrinkle-free, non-static, or any other versions of -proof, -resistant, and -free, are best to be avoided. Chemical dyes used for coloring can be potentially harmful, too, especially jeans (as most producers have swapped the organic indigo dye for a synthetic one).
All types of wool, alpaca, merino, yak, qiviut, cashmere, camel, etc. are known for being harmless to your skin, especially undyed and untreated. If you have sensitive skin, stick to low-micron count fibers (the extra soft ones!). While they might be more expensive, it is worth the investment as they will be naturally wind-resistant, water-resistant, stain-resistant, odor-resistant, wrinkle-free and non-iron.
On top of that, wool comes in a ton of different shades and colors. For example, alpaca wool is available in 22 natural colors - enough choice without using toxic dyes!
To cover your body in fibers that won’t cause any harm, it is best to stick to natural, undyed fibers:
Organic (undyed) silk
Organic (undyed) cotton
Organic linen (natural earthy colors)
10. Sustainable Fabrics Are Reusable and/or Recyclable and/or Reclaimed
To improve your sustainability as a consumer, it is good to know that some products are reusable. When a garment as a whole is reusable, it makes total sense, but did you know that other materials are reusable by turning them into an entirely new product?!
Denim brand Kuyichi, for example, uses recycled denim for their jeans. This reduces the amount of water, electricity and resources significantly! To turn an old pair of jeans into a new pair of jeans, the fabric is shredded into pieces, until it is back to being yarn. Then, it is turned into a new non-fashionable jean. What!? Yes, one that will look good on you for a lifetime!
Another cool way to incorporate recycling into your wardrobe is by looking for clothes that are made of recycled PET. What? Yes. Recycled bottles and other plastic trash! Many brands are now embracing the possibilities of recycled polyester, often made of old PET bottles, plastic found on beaches (Adidas!) or old polyester clothing. And it makes some pretty awesome new clothes!
There is another type of fabric that might be new to you: reclaimed fabrics. Reclaimed fabrics are different from recycled fabrics, because they are actually not even used yet! Reclaimed fabrics are bound to get thrown into the trash, without having been used! That’s heartbreaking!!! Reclaimed brands use such fabric rolls into their products to make sure they serve their purpose on Earth :)
Of course, you can also get creative yourself and take apart an old woolen sweater and turn it into something new.
My favorite fabrics to recycle:
Wool - any type
11. Sustainable Fabrics Are Fixable
Here’s a trick for when you are shopping for sustainable clothes: quality garments should be fixable. A hole, a lost button, making pieces shorter, taller, smaller, you name it. High quality fabrics will make sure the fabric has some extra space left on the inside, for several reasons.
First of all, it makes the production process easier. Working with an ample amount of fabric prevents fidgeting and struggling to make the ends meet. It also shows that there is enough fabric to use and that quality is more important than quantity.
The seams of your garments should be nicely folded and finished with an extra border, not just cut off without a proper finish. The finishing touches of garments are important, not just to define the quality of a product, but also to create space in case adjustments need to be made. You can use the extra fabric to make a piece larger or shorter, without being afraid of not being able to piece the item back together (if you have the right experience, that is!)
One of the problems in our current society is that we are not used to fixing things anymore. When something breaks down, we’ll just throw it away and buy a new one. And this is not just the case for clothing!
Admittedly, it might be tough to fix a hole that is burned in a silk dress as the fabric is very delicate, or knit a woolen sweater back together when it breaks, but generally, even such holes should be avoidable given that sustainable, durable materials are often stronger, too. Or sometimes even fire-retardant :)
Your best choices for fixable fabrics are of course... Fixable. In this case, it might actually be more dependent on the design, rather than on the fabric. Opt for materials that choose quality over quantity.
It will also depend on your personal skill set, as woven fabrics might be easier to fix than knitted fabrics… unless you’re a knitter, in which case woolen items could be easily fixable. Synthetic fibers on the other hand will have a tendency of breaking more easily, so you might want to avoid those.
12. Sustainable Fabrics Are Biodegradable
And then… What happens when the love is gone? An item you thought you would own forever and ever suddenly reached the end of its life and is ready to be said goodbye to. And then, what!? Many items that are disposed of end up in landfills where they keep polluting the Earth.
So not just during the production process of the material, or during the production process of the garment, or during its lifespan, but even after it is used, many clothes can still damage our planet. Sustainable fabrics should therefore be biodegradable in order to diminish the amount of garbage that is dumped and pollutes the environment.
When a fabric is biodegradable, it means that nature itself can break it down. This is an important process in order to maintain a balance between what we take from the Earth and how we dispose of it. Biodegradable items can serve as compost and basically they will be decomposed by bacteria and other living organisms back into natural elements.
It’s the circle of life :)
For an item to be biodegradable it is important that it is free of chemicals, mostly dye, formaldehyde, and synthetic blends, that will be hard for Mother Nature to decompose.
Opt for undyed, unblended, pure and natural materials and they will be biodegradable when discomposed. Organic materials are even better:
Wool - all types, from merino to alpaca and yak to qiviut