It's not news that the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation: from excessive water usage to chemical pollution and textile waste. But finally consumers and designers alike are embracing sustainable fashion practices.
Unfortunately there are no fibres or fabrics that are completely sustainable (yet!), and the best way to be sustainable is to change our shopping habits. But knowing which fabrics are produced in a more eco-friendly and ethical way will also help us take steps towards sustainability.
Before we dive a little deeper into the fabric world, let's clear up a little textile lingo. You see, there's a difference between fabrics and fibres. Fibres are the raw stuff that fabrics are made from – think wool, cotton, and all that jazz. These fibres get spun into yarn, and then they're woven or knitted into actual fabric. So, when you hear terms like 'poplin' or 'velvet,' they're talking about how the fabric is made, not the stuff it's made of.
The Best Fabrics for a sustainable wardrobe
Organic cotton is a natural fibre produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It promotes healthy soil and water conservation. Additionally, it supports fair labour practices in cotton farming. When buying organic cotton clothing, look for certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) to ensure its authenticity.
Hemp is a versatile and sustainable textile. It requires minimal water and grows quickly without the need for pesticides or herbicides. Hemp fabric is durable, breathable, and biodegradable. It's an excellent choice for clothing, accessories, and even home textiles. It's great for summer dresses!
Tencel, also known as Lyocell, is made from sustainably-sourced wood pulp, often from eucalyptus or beech trees. The closed-loop manufacturing process used to create Tencel minimizes chemical waste and water consumption. The resulting fabric is soft, breathable, and biodegradable.
If you have to go for man-made fabrics, I recommend going for recycled ones such as recycled polyester (rPET). Sometimes you will find recycled cotton, which is a better alternative to conventional cotton. These materials divert waste from landfills and require fewer resources compared to virgin (brand-new) fibres.
Bamboo fabric is derived from the fast-growing bamboo plant, which requires minimal water and pesticides. While the manufacturing process can vary in sustainability, some bamboo textiles are produced using environmentally friendly methods. Look for bamboo fabric that is Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified for assurance.
The Worst Fabrics for a sustainable wardrobe
Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from petrochemicals, and its production is highly energy-intensive. It does not biodegrade, contributing to microplastic pollution when washed. Moreover, the fashion industry's heavy reliance on polyester exacerbates the plastic waste problem. When a shop prioritises this material (I am looking at you Zara!), it shows that they are massively cutting corners by not investing in good fabrics.
Similar to polyester, acrylic is a synthetic fibre derived from petrochemicals. It doesn't break down easily and is known for shedding microplastics into waterways when washed. It's also not a breathable fabric and can be uncomfortable to wear.
While rayon is derived from natural sources like wood pulp, the production process often involves harmful chemicals, including carbon disulfide, which can pose health risks to workers and contributes to environmental pollution.
Conventional cotton farming is associated with heavy pesticide and water usage. It can lead to soil degradation and further harm to the surrounding ecosystems. While organic cotton is a better alternative, conventional cotton should be avoided whenever possible.
The leather industry has significant environmental and ethical concerns, primarily due to the resource-intensive cattle farming and tanning processes. Faux leather made from sustainable materials like cork, pineapples, and even mushrooms, provides more eco-friendly alternatives.
When cared for properly, though, leather is an exceptionally long-lasting material that in many cases gets better with age. So a great alternative is to buy second-hand/vintage leather, it may be cheaper and will have some unique qualities!
Now you'll get no no judgement from me! If you've already got a bunch of items that are made from these 'not so sustainable' fabrics, don't worry, you don't have to get rid of them. Before I started investigating this, I bought a lot of items that aren't great for sustainability, blissfully unaware.
I'm not ashamed, but I am more aware. I love some of those items and will continue to wear them. In fact, I will make extra effort to make them last longer!
Now, I also make more of an effort to find clothes made from better materials. It's hard because the industry doesn't make it easy (especially if you're on a tight budget). It's like fast food: it's cheap, but it's not good for you really.
I don't expect things to change over night - though it would be great if they did! Fashion is a massive industry and these things take time. What we can do collectively is vote with our wallets and our feet by shopping in places that make more items out of more sustainable fabrics.
Seek out ways to consume less, such as reusing or repurposing what you already have. And when you do have to buy something new, just take a look at the label and see if it's one of those items made from more sustainable fabrics (remember many items are mixed, meaning they're made of multiple different fabrics).
If something you want looks like it isn't so good for the planet, don't impulse buy just because it's on trend or low in stock. See if you can find a similar alternative made from better materials elsewhere. It may be a little more expensive, but it will likely last longer and be more comfortable!