I always say that the first rules of sustainable fashion are to use what you already have and to buy less. Still, at one point or another you might find yourself at a point where you need to get something new and while you also have the great option of finding something second hand, not everyone is comfortable nor able to do so. So if you are to buy something new, it can be very good to know what fabrics to look for.
So which fabrics are more sustainable?
First of all let me just say that this is my list of sustainable fabrics. There is no one size fits all when it comes to fabrics and while some fabrics are generally less impactful they all have negative impacts on our planet. So I advise you to give up on the idea of a perfect fabric and to make friends with the “least bad” ones.
My first priority is to go for natural fabrics whenever possible, as the are made from renewable resources that are biodegradable. Natural fabrics are fabrics that have not been manufactured by humans. Some (often brands themselves) are going to champion recycled polyester, and while it is good to use resources that already exist, this is not a long term solution and I believe we should not rely too much on fabrics made from non-renewable resources like plastic.
The most used natural fiber is cotton. While cotton is a great fabric that is comfortable and breathable the production of conventional cotton relies heavily on water and pesticides. Not only does this impact the planet but also the people who live and work around the cotton farms where lack of water and disease is common.
Still, cotton is a very good material, so if you want to buy cotton go for organic. Organic cotton is grown without toxic pesticides and uses less water. I usually look for GOTS which is a certification that ensure organic farming as well as good working conditions for the workers.
Linen is a fabric made from flax and it’s one of the oldest fibers known. It’s a very durable and strong fabric and due to good heat conductivity it’s an excellent fabric for warm days. Though if you don’t like ironing or having wrinkled clothes it might not be the best choice for you.
Flax grows with little water and does not need a lot of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. However there are significant amounts of water and chemicals being used in the processing of the fabric.
Hemp is another old fabric and one that is very similar to linen both in terms of aesthetics and feel. The market for hemp has been very small in the past decades. Mostly due to drug regulations, as hemp is a close relative of marijuana.
Hemp grows exceptionally fast and produces 2.5 times more fiber than cotton on the same area. It does not require pesticides and it’s roots help minimise soil erosion.
Wool is made of the hair of animals such as sheep, goat and llama. While the different kinds of wool have a different impact they all have some traits in common and that is that they are durable, great at keeping you warm (even when wet) and does not soil easily or need much cleaning.
While wool is a renewable resource and a great material there are some concerns around it. Such as the act of mulesing, where the sheep have an area around their tail cut off to avoid infection. So always make sure you buy mulesing free wool. If you want to be sure that the wool you are buying has the lowest possible impact, go for either organic wool, where pesticides are not used and feed is organic, or recycled wool.
There are also some types of wool that are more environmentally friendly than others. Wool from llamas and alpacas are better than sheep wool or cashmere as they are less likely to overgraze the areas they are on. Overgrazing can lead to soil erosion, which is in no way sustainable.
Silk is a fabric made out of the fiber spun by the silk worm. Silk is incredibly smooth and has a beautiful luster. It’s comfortable to wear and breathes well. However, it is not a great everyday fabric as it needs proper care to last, but if you are willing to put in the effort it will be in your closet for a long time.
In the production of silk the silk worms are fed mulberry leaves. Mulberry trees is able to grow in poorer soil and can help prevent soil erosion in areas that might not be usable for growing other things. In the making of the silk the silk worms are killed so it is not considered vegan. There are however types of wild silk and peace silk where the cocoon is not used until the worm has left it.
Lyocell is the only fabric on this list that is not a natural fabric. It’s a regenerated fiber (sometimes called semi-synthetic) which means it is man-made but from a natural source. It’s made from 100% cellulose, eucalyptus tree pulp, and processed through a closed loop system to make a smooth and comfortable viscose fabric.
The chemicals used to processed the fabric are less harmful than the ones used in the process of making other regenerated fibers and the closed loop system ensures that 99.5% of the solvents are recovered and recycled. Eucalyptus is also a very fast-growing tree which makes the product more sustainable. It is also biodegradable. Tencel is the most known trade name for Lyocell and it is made by the company Lenzing.
Remember, some fabrics are better than others, but the BEST thing is to buy less and to buy second hand when possible!