What is the most sustainable fabric? Your ultimate guide
Anyone that has ever taken a look at a clothing label will quickly realise that the very fabric that clothes are made from is no simple concept. From textile blends to synthetics, organic, vegan, and natural fibres, there are a dizzying number of materials used in the fashion sector. But when it comes to a sustainable approach, what is the most sustainable fabric?
Interest in the sustainable fashion sector has been increasing in recent years. Fuelled by an environmentally-conscious millennial and emerging Gen Z consumer market, online searches for ‘sustainable fashion’ tripled between 2016 and 2019.
However, while consumer desire for sustainable products has increased, sustainability in the sector is yet to see drastic improvement.
Since 2000 annual garment production has doubled and textile waste is expected to grow by a staggering 60% between 2014 and 2030. In a fashion sector that is seeing production increase, choosing sustainable fabrics can help to minimise the environmental damage of the industry.
There is no simple answer to which is the most sustainable material. However, understanding what textiles are made from and the impact our fabric choices have, is vital for building a conscious future for fashion.
Fabric Innovations, Traditional Fabrics, and Synthetics
An extensive range of fabrics are produced for the fashion sector. However, most textiles will fit into the broad categories of traditional fabrics, synthetic fabrics, tree-based fabrics and experimental or innovative fabrics.
Most of us will have heard of most of the common traditional fabrics of the fashion sector. Textiles such as wool, cotton, leather, and linen fall into the traditional fabric category. These fabrics are generally derived from plants and animals and for much of human history made up the bulk of clothing materials.
In the bustling modern fashion scene, cotton still reigns supreme in the traditional fabrics sector. This popular fibre accounts for a significant 24% of global fibre use
Synthetic fabrics make up 62% of clothing. Unlike their natural alternatives, synthetics are made usually from chemicals, often with fossil fuels being base components.
Synthetic textiles include common fabrics such as nylon, polyester, and spandex, and they are used in everything from casual wear and athletics to lingerie and formal wear.
When thinking of what our clothes are made of, trees may not always be the first thing that comes to mind. Rayon, including viscose, Tencel, and modal, are some of the most popular tree-based fabrics in the market.
The process to turn trees into fabric generally involves making a wood pulp. The pulp is washed and treated to create regenerated cellulose fibres that are then manufactured into a textile.
Some common wood based fabrics start life as eucalyptus trees, beech trees, bamboo and soy. 5% of the world’s apparel and clothing sector uses forest-based textiles.
The modern textile sector is a treasure trove of innovative fabric inventions. From luxurious leathers crafted from pineapple leaves to silky fibres derived from seaweed, new fabric innovations are shaking up the sustainable fashion sector.
While currently, fibres from experimental fabrics make up only a small portion of the fashion sector, they represent a move towards a more sustainable industry.
How Do I Know if a Fabric is Sustainable?
Measuring the sustainable impact of fabric can be tricky. Part of this difficulty comes from the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all method for measuring textile sustainability. Fabrics are used for different purposes, and while one aspect of a fabric may be highly sustainable, another may be less so. This makes it more difficult to know which is the most sustainable.
However, textile indexes and analysis tools are available to help consumers to understand the unique impact each fabric makes:
The Higg Index
Perhaps one of the most well-known sustainability assessments is the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. The Higg MSI is used to assess the sustainability practices of a fabric’s production. While the assessment does touch on the social implications of how a fabric is made, it largely focuses on environmental sustainability.
The Higg Index has been criticized for lack of transparency, and its focus on production means that it misses important areas. The disposal, longevity and impacts during use such as washing, ironing and microplastic shedding aren’t always taken into account in the assessment. These are all major issues for fabric sustainability.
The lack of examination of the full lifecycle of a material has lead to some of the final scores on the index to be misleading. One good example is the low score of polyester and acrylics. While both polyester and acrylics shed microplastics and are largely considered to be environmentally harmful, the lack of scope that the index considers means they achieve a low impact score.
What the Higg Index does well is give a starting point for exploring eco-friendly materials, providing a simple framework for readers to use. The higher the score, the higher the negative environmental impact.
Life Cycle Analyses
A Life Cycle Analysis compares aspects of the environmental impact of textiles across their lifespans. They consider areas including:
- Toxicity to humans
- Contribution to global warming (CO2 emissions)
- Toxic emissions
For each category, they measure a fabric’s impact so consumers and businesses can compare the differing impacts of textiles. The wide variety of areas of assessment allows readers to see the varying aspects of sustainable impact. While a fabric may perform well in some areas of environmental protection, it may get a failing grade in others.
Although Life Cycle Analyses do look at the risk of toxicity to humans, they have limited scope for social-ethical issues. Unfortunately, this does mean that fabrics that score well on the index can still have been produced in unethical supply chains or with animal cruelty involved.
Made- By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres
Created by Made-By, a non-profit with the aim to ‘make sustainable fashion common practice’, the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres considers fabric sustainability across six key areas.
Assessing greenhouse gas emissions, human toxicity, eco-toxicity, energy, water, and land, the benchmark ranks twenty-eight common fabrics in the fashion sector.
The system classifies fabrics from A to E, with A being the most sustainable.
The benchmark was created in 2009. This means that some of the information is now out of date, particularly considering microfibre shedding and recycling technology. While the benchmark is still used in the industry and provides an overview of common fabrics, further research is needed to ensure that information on a specific fabric is currently accurate.
While declaring one fabric the most sustainable is a difficult task, there are some that are more environmentally friendly than others.
1. Recycled Materials
Recycled textiles prevent quality materials going to landfill and promote a circular fashion sector. However, there are a large range of recycled materials. This includes materials made from recycled products, such as plastic bottles and fabric that has been recycled into new textiles.
Natural vs Synthetic
The resulting fabric could be synthetic in nature (made from plastic or recycled synthetic fabric) or natural such as recycled cotton or wool.
Given what we now know about microplastic shedding, recycled natural materials will always be more sustainable. Look for products made from recycled cotton or wool. For more on recycled cotton fabric see here.
Mechanical vs Chemical Recycling
Products and textiles can be recycled either mechanically or chemically:
- Mechanical recycling involves shredding fabrics into fibres that can be reused, often first needing to be blended with virgin fibres to make them viable for the clothing market. Textiles from the mechanical recycling process often are used for cleaning cloths or insulation due to their lower quality.
- Chemically recycling a product involves chemically breaking fibres down to their base components and then rebuilding them. Chemically recycling fibres can be energy intensive but creates a product that is nearly indistinguishable from virgin fibres.
2. Organic Linen
When it comes to sustainability, linen is a mixed bag. Even in an inorganic state, linen is a far less thirsty crop than cotton. Only 6.7 litres of water are used to create a shirt, as opposed to cotton’s 2,700 litres. Linen is biodegradable and few pesticides are needed for growing flax.
However, non-organic linen can make some missteps in the dying phase. It is often dyed with harmful dyes and chemicals that can impact environmental and human health. Similarly, nitrates are often added to assist flax growth, which can harm ecosystems, particularly if they leach into water sources.
So we recommend that you look out for organic linen where you can. For a comparison of linen and cotton, see our article Is Linen More Eco Friendly Than Cotton? Your Complete Guide and for where to buy linen in the UK see In Love with Linen: The Best Linen Clothing Brands in the UK.
3. Organic Hemp
Much like linen, hemp’s sustainable credentials rely heavily on how it is cultivated. The crop is inherently sustainable, it doesn’t require pesticides and only needs small land areas to grow.
However, non organic hemp farms use harmful fertilizers that have a severe environmental impact. Dangerous chemicals are also often used to convert the hemp fibres into a product that can be woven into thread.
So be sure to look out for organic hemp!
4. Organic Cotton
While not a perfect solution, organic cotton does offer a good one. Cotton is incredibly ingrained in the fashion sector, unlikely to be replaced easily, and its organic option offers a fraction of the environmental impact.
It is a less thirsty crop than conventional cotton and skips the nasty pesticides that conventional cotton requires. For more on its GOTS certification, see here.
5. Vegan, Plant-Based Leather
The vegan leather market has had some innovative additions over the last decade. With options made from pineapples, cactus, and mushrooms just some of the vegan leathers available.
Plant based leather avoids the animal rights and environmental issues of the leather trade. These leathers are also great for often using by-products of the food industry, supporting waste minimisation. However, the key word here is plant-based, synthetic pleather doesn’t count.
With its botanic origin, Tencel has made some real in-roads in the sustainable sector. This soft, luxurious material performs well across most sustainability tests and has a string of sustainable credentials. It is created from biodegradable wood pulp from sustainable sources, and manufactured with water recycling practices.
TENCEL Lenzing also scored one of the lowest impact ratings on the Higg Index. Tencel Austria 2012, a fabric made from eucalyptus scored well on the Lifecycle Analyses. This innovative textile recorded a low contribution to global warming, low toxic emissions release, and low water extraction levels.
7. New Fabrics
As new fabric innovations are created, there is even greater scope to find a truly sustainable material. Recent sustainable fabric innovations include:
- Pinatex– A vegan leather made from the leaves of pineapple plants, a common by-product of the fruit industry.
- S.Cafe – A textile yarn made from ground coffee fibres. That’s right, even the by-product of your morning caffeine boost could be part of the modern sustainable fashion sector.
Are There Fabrics We Should Avoid?
The simple answer to this question is yes. When considering what the most sustainable material is, there are some fabrics that should be avoided.
1. Conventionally Grown Cotton
While organic cotton may get some points for sustainability, conventional cotton does not. Cotton’s environmental sins start with its water usage. Producing one cotton t-shirt takes 2,700 litres of water. It is such a thirsty crop that in Kazakhstan it has contributed to the destruction of the Aral Sea. The cotton trade is rife with exploitation and relies heavily on pesticide use.
2. Leather and Wool
Leather got a failing grade on the Higg Index, with impacts from dangerous chemical runoff in the tanning process to its high contribution to global warming, causing adverse environmental impacts. We review this in more detail in Is Leather bad for the Environment: the Unsustainable Truth.
Similarly, wool did poorly. Wool production creates greenhouse gas emissions and the procedures in wool treating have been linked to eco-toxicity and excessive water use.
One of the most common synthetic fabrics, polyester is environmentally disastrous. It can take up to 200 years for polyester to biodegrade. Making this harmful fabric even worse for the environment, it is made from wildly unsustainable crude oil, the product of an industry well known for environmental sins.
The champion of the stocking and tights world, Nylon does no favours for sustainability. Much like polyester, it is a synthetic fabric and releases microplastics with every wash. Nylon manufacturing also produces nitrous oxide. This nasty compound is over 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effect.
Silk (without recommended farm practices) had some of the higher overall environmental impacts. While versatile and widely used, both silk and nylon contribute highly to global warming and have high cumulative energy demands.
Silk farms are required to be kept within temperature parameters, adding to energy demands. The treatment of silkworms in silk production is also widely criticized by animal rights activists.
6. Rayon and Viscose
Rayon is a common silk substitute that grew to popularity in the 1900s and has remained popular since. Rayon, including viscose, is made from the regenerated cellulose of wood pulp, often from beech, pine or eucalyptus trees.
Rayon and specifically viscose, do poorly on the sustainability front. Producing this fabric is a driver of deforestation, with ancient forests having been impacted by the rayon trade. Harmful and toxic chemicals are needed to complete the process. We review viscose more fully in our article Is Viscose Environmentally Friendly: Your Complete Guide.
Creating rayon is also an energy and water intensive practice. To make matters worse, it is wasteful to manufacture, with only a small percentage of the logged wood turned into the finished material.
So, What is the Most Sustainable Material?
The simple answer is that there isn’t one single fabric. As could be seen with the Lifecycle Analysis, there are so many components that go into fabric production that the overall sustainability of a textile gets incredibly complicated.
Something like organic cotton, which scores well on most sustainability factors impacts eutrophication that contributes to algal blooms. Organic cotton produces these emissions in greater levels than recycled PET, which is known to shed microplastics.
Overall, while there may not be one most sustainable fabric, some are definitely more sustainable than others.
Organic fabrics that are produced without the aid of harmful pesticides and genetic modification are certainly better than their non-organic counterparts. And as technology is improving, recycled fabrics, particularly natural ones such as cotton and wool are also a good option for the environmentally-conscious consumer.
The Durability Conundrum
What a fabric is going to be used for also impacts its overall sustainability. Constantly replacing garments is known to be environmentally harmful. Using a more sustainable fabric that is not fit for purpose for a particular garment can lead to the need for rapid replacement, and as such, increased levels of clothing waste.
Eco-Friendly and Ethical
When taking social ethics into account alongside environmental practices, finding an ethical fabric can be complicated. Fabrics labelled as eco-friendly can still have been made in dangerous, exploitative, and shadowy supply chains.
Again, organic cotton is at particular risk of this due to the complexity of the global cotton trade. Look out for respectable certifications such as GOTS and Fairtrade organic cotton to be sure that workers are treated well.
Choosing organic fabrics that avoid the need for harmful chemicals is a good option, as are those made from natural materials rather than synthesized sources.
Weaving a Sustainable Sector
As the fashion industry continues to soar to new heights, sustainability in the sector becomes even more vital. Fabric is one of the most integral parts of the clothing world and one that has the greatest power to influence an eco-friendly future.
There may be no single fabric that can claim to be the most sustainable material. However, new innovative fabrics, recycled materials and organic fabrics all offer clear advantages for environmental sustainability.
Every time we choose an eco-friendly fabric over its unsustainable alternatives we are helping to weave a sustainable future for the entire fashion sector.