Unfortunately, there is no fabric that has no impact on the earth. Anything processed has a footprint, but eco-friendly fabrics have a much smaller one. Sustainable brands make significant efforts to use fabrics with less impact on the earth. Eco-friendly fabrics range from ones you may already know, like organic linen, and some innovative fabrics like Piñatex made from pineapple leaves.
The impacts of unsustainable fabrics, from harmful chemicals in pesticides to over-consumption of scarce water resources, are far reaching. There are, of course, also the adverse impacts on farmers and workers who are exposed to pesticides and toxic chemicals. Because our clothes are made from fabric, fabric choices are consequential. As such, reading labels for fabric composition is really important to make sure that you’re choosing sustainable fabrics.
Natural sustainable fabricsNot everything that's from natural sources is sustainable. For example, conventional cotton isn’t sustainable and can expose people to harsh chemicals. Wool and leather are natural fabrics but sometimes aren’t considered to be sustainable. (See the section below titled “Can wool and leather be sustainable?”)
But luckily for us, sustainable natural fibers are becoming more available, and there are also organizations that can certify that natural fabrics are nontoxic, fair trade, and eco-friendly. There are five natural fabrics that are known to be more sustainable than other fabrics:
Organic linen: Untreated natural linen is fully biodegradable. The natural linen colors are ivory, ecru, tan, and gray. When linen is grown organically with no harsh chemicals and pesticides, it’s truly a sustainable fabric. It requires significantly less water than cotton when grown in temperate climates (most linen comes from European temperate climates, in fact not all European linen will be labeled organic but is still largely sustainable).
Rainwater is sufficient for growing linen, whereas cotton requires extensive irrigation. When you see an organic-linen label (whether a natural color or dyed using nontoxic eco-friendly dyes) and the fabric is made in a fair-trade certified factory, do a happy dance because you have a sustainable and durable fabric.
Organic cotton: Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton is grown without harsh chemicals or pesticides from non-GMO seeds. This means organic cotton is safer for you and farm workers because it does not contain toxic chemicals and does not pollute the water and soil where it is grown.
As you explore sustainable cotton options, you may come across organic Pima cotton, which is considered to be the highest quality cotton. Pima cotton is a long staple cotton meaning it has extra-long fibers. Extra-long fibers create softer fabric, which I can imagine would make a comfy T-shirt. The best Pima cotton comes from Peru, where it’s picked sustainably by hand because machines will destroy the long fibers.
- Recycled cotton: Recycled cotton has been ranked the most sustainable type of cotton — even higher than organic cotton — by Made-By (a nonprofit research firm whose mission was making sustainable fashion commonplace). Their research was based on six sustainability metrics: greenhouse gas emissions; human toxicity; energy; water; eco-toxicity; and land. Regardless of ranking, reusing what we already have, if possible, is an ideal eco-friendly practice.
- Recycling cotton is not without challenges. For example, the mechanical recycling process weakens the fiber, and a lot of cotton is blended with other fabrics, which can complicate recycling. But many companies are committed to navigating these challenges and are researching ways to do so.
- Organic hemp: It’s great to see that more and more clothes are being made from hemp. While not as common a fabric as cotton and linen, it’s an old fiber dating back to ancient China BCE, where it was used for clothing and paper through early last century. Its use declined with the increase in cultivation of cotton and use of synthetic fibers. Hemp can grow almost everywhere and requires very little water and no pesticides. It grows fast and even fertilizes the soil as it grows! It’s a sustainability superstar.
- Recycled wool: Recycling wool is not a new thing. In fact we have been recycling wool for about 200 years. Also, it’s not that hard to do, and systems for wool recycling are well established. In Prato, Italy, heralded as the birthplace of textile recycling, people have been recycling wool for over 100 years. Through a mechanical process (no chemicals) wool can be pulled back down to a raw fiber state and made into new yarn. Patagonia sources over 80 percent of its wool from recycled sources, and by doing so, has been able to save 3.4 million pounds of CO2 emissions by choosing recycled wool over virgin wool.
Clothing made from bambooBamboo clothing is becoming more and more popular, but many sustainability experts are on the fence regarding its eco-friendliness. At face value, it looks promising: Bamboo is fast growing, self-regenerates (meaning no replanting is required), and doesn’t need any pesticides. Processing it into fabric is where it gets tricky.
The process for turning bamboo into fabric requires a lot of chemicals, and some of these chemicals are very toxic. There are some promising advances in processing that may mitigate this issue. Time will tell! But in the meantime, you can look out for bamboo lyocell. This form of bamboo requires fewer chemicals than the alternative (bamboo rayon). Bamboo lyocell is processed using a closed-loop system means that no chemicals are released into the environment.
Can leather and wool be sustainable?Leather and wool are both natural fabrics we have used since ancient times. Wool has kept people warm for centuries, and leather is undeniably durable. Both fabrics are natural and biodegradable, but both raise concerns around animal cruelty and sustainability.
Large-scale cattle ranching has been associated with deforestation and biodiversity destruction, greenhouse gas emissions (methane from the cows), as well as excessive water consumption (including from leather production). In addition, leather tanning requires a lot of chemicals that expose workers at tanneries to skin and lung conditions. (Fortunately, many tanneries are phasing out these chemicals.)
On the other hand, wool emits way more greenhouse gases than, for example, cotton. An Australian wool-knit sweater emits about 27 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a cotton-knit sweater (per research by Circumfauna, an initiative of collective Fashion Justice).
With all of this in mind, how can you purchase and wear leather and wool in a sustainable way? Here are some answers:
- Buy secondhand wool and leather products when you can. Thankfully, a lot of secondhand leather jackets and shoes are available.
- Take care of your wool and leather garments so they can last longer in your wardrobe and even be passed to other users when you donate them, for example. A lot of resources go into making these products, so do all you can to extend their life and keep them away from landfills.
- Buy recycled wool. Wool is relatively easy to recycle and some brands use recycled wool (see more on recycled wool in the preceding section).
- If you need to buy new leather or wool, consider buying from certified cruelty-free and responsible sources like the Responsible Wool Standard, for wool, and the Leather Working Group (LWG), for leather. While these certifications offer some reassurance about a product being more sustainable than its conventional counterparts, the certifications aren’t perfect. For example, LWG focuses mostly on the tanning process, not the entire supply chain for leather products.
Innovative sustainable fabricsThere are some completely new eco-friendly fabrics that are becoming increasingly popular. These fabrics are artificially made, but many mimic natural fabrics.
Sustainability innovations are new, evolving, and yet to become commonplace. They are not perfect, either. Some of the plant-based leathers contain some plastic (typically bioplastics made from plant sources) but are still currently not biodegradable or only biodegradable under controlled industry conditions. However, they’re a glimpse into a future where people continue to innovate as they navigate a path to a more sustainable future. Even though they are flawed, I prefer not to write them off completely just yet and plan to continue to watch the space and hope they fix some of these challenges.If you’ve been looking for a vegan, sustainable leather purse, I’ve got you covered. Some innovative, sustainable fabrics include:
Tencel: This is a versatile fabric ranging from cottony to silky. I have a tencel dress that feels like a heavier silk. Tencel can be used for denim, activewear, intimates, dresses, pants, and shirts. It's essentially a more-sustainable version of viscose made from wood pulp from sustainable sources.
Tencel requires less energy and water to produce. It is manufactured in a closed-loop system that recovers and reuses solvents, thereby minimizing the environmental impact of production. This eliminates waste from chemical solvents escaping into the environment and is also just less wasteful. Closed-loop systems reuse production waste to create new products. This is a sustainable way to preserve resources, and in the case of chemical handling, keeping chemicals from being released into the environment.
- Piñatex: Imagine wearing a pineapple — okay, just kind of, as the fabric is actually made from pineapple leaves. Piñatex is a leather-like fabric. I love that it’s made from a by-product of food production. Pineapple leaves that would be thrown away are made into a plant-based leather. Although Piñatex is made from pineapple leaves, it is not 100 percent biodegradable. Its composition is 80 percent pineapple and 20 percent PLA (plastic made from cornstarch, which is only biodegradable under controlled industry conditions). Piñatex continues to grow in popularity.
Apple leather: Another new leather-like fabric that is getting more popular is made from apple peels. It’s awesome to see more leather alternatives made from (mostly) plant-based materials and not PVC (polyvinyl chloride, a type of plastic).
Apple leather is born from the Tyrol region of Italy, which is known for apple growing and processing. To combat what was otherwise significant waste, local manufacturer Frumat made a new vegan leather fabric. Veerah, a vegan shoe brand, makes stunning shoes from apple leather. To me they look like regular leather and the shoes are just as stylish. Just like Piñatex, apple leather is not 100 percent biodegradable as it has some synthetic components.
- Econyl: I am a proud owner of two Econyl swimsuits. Econyl is a sustainable nylon made from recycled synthetics such as plastic, synthetic fabric, and fishing nets. It’s an eco-friendlier alternative for making swimsuits. Econyl is a high-quality, Italian fiber made by Aquafil. In addition to using recycled fabrics, which is always a great choice, it also uses less water to process than virgin nylon, yet it is the same quality. Mara Hoffman, Do Good Swimwear, Elle Evans, and For the Dreamers are some examples of brands that use Econyl for swimsuits.
- Recycled Polyester (rPET): This is made from recycled plastic bottles. It’s eco-friendlier than virgin polyester that has to made by extracting oil. It also requires less water to make than virgin polyester.
Econyl and rPET are more sustainable than their virgin counterparts but still shed microfibers. Microfibers (a type of microplastic) are tiny plastics that shed from synthetic fibers when you wash them, and they end up in oceans.
Wash your synthetics in a Guppyfriend bag and consider purchasing these fabrics for outfits you don’t wear too often and thus won’t need to wash frequently.All of these fabrics are improved alternatives, but I’m excited to see what sustainable options become available in the future. I don’t know about you, but I am curious to see and feel the purse that Stella McCartney made from mushroom leather (mycelium leather). Yes, you read that right. It’s leather made from mycelium, which is the root-like system of mushrooms. Other interesting leathers you may see in stores in the near future include Cacti leather, MuSkin leather (from fungus), and leaf leather.