Trying to understand which fabrics to consider sustainable can be confusing, to say the least. Just when you think, well cotton comes from a plant, so that must be sustainable!, I’m here to burst your bubble and inform you that cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop grown today (also, an estimated 90% of cotton grown in the USA today is GMO). In post, I will be breaking down the textiles most commonly known and used in fashion today into three sections- the bad, the better, and the best. This first part will be dedicated to the “best” textiles, and in Parts II and III I will divulge which fabrics are slightly less preferable (better), and which should be avoided as much as possible (bad).
NATURAL ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
Like I said, there are many misconceptions that exist about which textiles are actually environmentally friendly, the biggest one being that natural fibers are always the best. When you consider cotton and the huge amount of water and pesticides its cultivation requires, or the heavy use of chemicals needed to turn bamboo into a usable textile, it becomes pretty apparent that there is more to the equation than natural = good and synthetic = bad (although that’s generally a good start). Some of the most sustainable, natural textiles come from a group of fibers known as bast fibers, and this includes flax, jute, hemp, and a couple lesser-known fibers like kenaf and nettles. However, for these to be a truly sustainable option, they need to be grown and processed responsibly.
THE COMPONENTS OF A SUSTAINABLE TEXTILE
There are more components that affect how sustainable a certain textile is than whether or not it comes from a natural source and/or if it’s biodegradable. Some other factors to take into consideration include:
- what kinds of chemical processes are required to get from fiber to fabric?
- how many natural resources does it take to grow that type of fiber (does it require significant amounts of water or can it simply thrive off of rain water?)
- is the manufacturing process a closed-loop system (meaning all of the parts of a product can be broken down at the end of its life and reconstituted into something new) or does it generate waste? In the conventional fashion industry, manufacturing is not a closed-loop system; materials and chemicals are released as waste, and final products are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.
Alright, folks, let’s get into it.
The following textiles have their pros and cons when it comes to sustainability, but they can still be good options under the right conditions. They all share the characteristic of coming from natural sources, rather than petroleum-based synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic. It’s important to know the issues surrounding the sourcing and manufacturing of these following fabrics; this way you can seek out brands who attempt to mitigate these concerns.
1. Organic Cotton
Conventionally grown cotton is far from one of the most sustainable fabric choices. Cotton crops are one of the most water-intensive and pesticide-sprayed crops on the planet. It takes 2,700 gallons of water to produce enough cotton to make one cotton tee-shirt. Additionally, cotton cultivation uses roughly 16% of the world’s pesticides and 7% of the world’s insecticides. If you’re going to buy clothing made from cotton, make sure it is organic and/or rain-fed (preferably both). Most sustainable/ ethical fashion brands use organic cotton or organic cotton blends in some of their styles. Amour Vert is one brand who has included certified organic cotton in their repertoire of sustainable fabrics (among linen, Tencel, Indian silk, and recycled polyester) like in the dress pictured below.
We tend to think of bamboo as a sustainable option since it is the world’s fastest growing woody plant. However, the textile that comes from a bamboo plant must undergo an incredibly chemical intensive process known as “viscose” to get that soft, silky feeling we love. In this process, the pulp from the bamboo is dissolved in a solvent and then spun in a spinneret to produce a fiber. Only about 50% of the solvent is recovered in the factory, meaning the other 50% is released into the environment. Other chemical byproducts, including sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid, put not only the environment but also factory workers at risk. There are a small handful of companies who grow and manufacture bamboo into a textile responsibly, such as Boody Eco Wear. This company sources organic bamboo from Sichuan, China in a factory that is Oeko-Tex 100 certified, meaning the finished product has no trace of chemicals that may pose a health risk to consumers.
3. Rayon/ Viscose
In years past, rayon/ viscose was considered a sustainable fabric because it comes from trees. However, there are many things to be concerned about considering the use and production of this textile. For one, it is not manufactured in a closed-loop system, so new chemicals are required and waste is generated. It also does not always come from responsibly managed sources, so sustainable forestry is another major concern. Some companies manufacture viscose responsibly, and it’s important to find fashion brands who understand the problems associated with the textile and seek responsibly sourced viscose for their products. Eileen Fisher is one such company. While in the process of switching to the use of Tencel instead of viscose, the viscose fabric that they do utilize in certain fashions (like the jumpsuit pictured below) is responsibly sourced.
1. Flax/ Linen
The textile that we know as linen comes from the flax plant. The flax plant is native to Central Europe, and, traditionally, its cultivation requires no pesticide use. Furthermore, weaving it into a linen fabric does not require the use of chemicals. Since this plant only grows in a very limited, narrow belt of farmland through Europe, its production is limited. Something else to take into consideration is that when processed in China, it’s likely that chemicals were used in production. Linen has become a more coveted luxury fashion textile for its durability and its tendency to soften with age.
Ethical fashion brand ZADY offers many pieces made from linen, and you can read about the entire process underneath the product description here.
Hemp is arguably one of the most sustainable crops suitable for producing textiles, and yet its cultivation is illegal in (most of) the US. I’m guessing this has more to do with lobbyists for the cotton industry and less to do with its (in)ability to get people high (hemp, not to be mistaken with marijuana, has a THC level of 0.3% in contrast to marijuana’s 3-20%). We’re allowed to consume products made from hemp plants in the US that are grown elsewhere- hence hemp milk, hemp seeds, hemp seed oil, etc. but we just can’t grow it here.
Jute, which is the second only to cotton in terms of the most widely used fiber worldwide, is a rapid growing, low maintenance plant that can be rain-fed and requires little to no pesticide usage. It can be used for a variety of products, from paper products to carpets to fashion textiles.
Kenaf is a tall, fast growing plant that requires little to no chemicals or energy in its growing and processing. Not only that, but it is said to absorb more C02 than any other plant. It has yet to become widely used as a textile, but hopefully we’ll start to see more brands taking advantage of this wonderful plant.
5. Lyocell / Tencel
Lyocell is a textile made from the wood pulp of trees, and is a sustainable option when it comes from sustainable tree farms using a closed-loop system. TENCEL is a specific brand of lyocell that is derived from eucalyptus trees without the use of GMO’s, pesticides, irrigation, or old growth trees. TENCEL is certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Certification) and OKO Tex 100, certifying it contains no harmful ingredients. The fabric is soft, durable, resistant to wrinkles, and drapes well, and can be blended with other natural fibers like cotton, hemp, and wool.
6. Peace Silk
Peace silk, as opposed to conventional silk, does not harm the silkworm, and is a beautiful choice of fabric when it is made organically and processed without the use of pesticides. Silk is known and loved for its softness and drapeability and has been used in luxury fashion and intimate-wear for decades.
7. rPET & Recycled Polyester
Recycled polyester and rPet (the term coined for recycled plastic) are now being used as a textile by many active wear brands including active lifestyle brand Prana and the yoga brands Teeki, Shining Shakti, and Yoga Democracy. While these textiles are not natural and not bio-degradable, they’re keeping a ton of plastic out of landfills, so I consider this a sustainable option.