How Sustainable Are Natural Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Natural Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:25 Minutes

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Amid growing concerns about the environmental impact of the textile industry, the spotlight is shifting toward natural fabrics as potential eco-friendly alternatives. Plant-based fibers such as linen, kapok, and ramie have garnered much attention for their sustainability attributes. But are all natural fibers equally sustainable, or are some potentially a bit greenwashed? So, we had to ask: How sustainable are natural fabrics?

The sustainability of natural fabrics depends on the natural fibers used, ranging from unsustainable (conventional cotton) to sustainable (recycled wool, organic linen). Traditional production of cotton fabrics—the most commonly used natural fibers—uses much energy and pollutes the environment. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of natural fabrics used for clothing and household items. Then, we will evaluate their sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with natural fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Natural Fabrics

Natural fabrics are made with natural fibers derived from plants or animals. These fibers are generally renewable and biodegradable, unlike synthetic fibers derived from fossil fuels. 

Renewability and biodegradability often lead to natural fabrics being automatically considered sustainable. However, this is not always the case. 

The adverse environmental impacts of growing certain crops or raising certain animals for fibers can be so significant that they reduce the overall sustainability of fabrics made with such natural fibers. 

The Common Objective’s Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres ranks natural fibers in a wide range, from class E, the least sustainable fiber class, to class A—the most sustainable fiber class.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of natural fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method for evaluating the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of canvas fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with natural fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of natural fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of natural fabricsSourcing conventional cotton fibers —the most common raw material for natural fabrics—is unsustainable. The cotton crop is water-thirsty and pesticide-dependent. Also, the widespread monoculture in cotton cultivation depletes the soil and necessitates synthetic fertilizer in many growing regions. 

However, the sourcing stage of natural fabrics can be sustainable when raw materials are recycled from waste or obtained from organic farming systems. Additionally, many fiber crops, including linen, hemp, and jute, require little input to provide a high fiber yield while having a strong carbon sequestration potential.
Manufacturing of natural fabricsThe sustainability of manufacturing natural fabrics varies depending on the natural fibers used. Manufacturing natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool, and silk, can be unsustainable because the processes are energy, water, and chemical-intensive. In contrast, producing natural fabrics from some plant-based fibers, such as linen, hemp, and kapok, can be sustainable, mainly because it can be done mechanically without adding toxic chemicals. 
Transporting of natural fabricsTransporting natural fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with natural fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Natural fabrics typically travel from fields (where plants or animals are farmed) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of natural fabricsUsing natural fabrics is generally sustainable. Natural fabrics are generally breathable. They don’t need to be washed frequently—much less often than synthetic fabrics—thus saving water and energy. Most commonly used natural fibers are strong, meaning materials made with those fibers can last long before a replacement is needed. Lastly, washing natural fabrics doesn’t cause microplastics to be released into the environment. 
End-of-life of natural fabricsThe end-of-life stage for natural fabric is generally sustainable. Natural fabrics are made with natural fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable. 

Overall, we can say that natural fabrics are on a spectrum from very sustainable (e.g., organic linen, recycled cotton, recycled wool) to reasonably unsustainable (e.g., conventional cotton, wool). However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, whether a pair of jeans or a t-shirt, depends on more specific factors, including: 

  • the sourcing of the natural fibers 
  • the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage
  • the distance and mode of transportation 

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy natural fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Natural Fibers for Natural Fabrics

Sourcing conventional cotton fibers—the most common raw material for natural fabrics—is unsustainable. The cotton crop is water-thirsty and pesticide-dependent. Also, the widespread monoculture in cotton cultivation depletes the soil and necessitates synthetic fertilizer in many growing regions. 

However, the sourcing stage of natural fabrics can be sustainable when raw materials are recycled from waste or obtained from organic farming systems. Additionally, many fiber crops, including linen, hemp, and jute, require little input to provide a high fiber yield while having a strong carbon sequestration potential.

What Raw Materials Are Used for Natural Fabrics

Raw materials for natural fabrics are fibers obtained from nature. The natural sources for these fibers can be plants or animals. 

Natural fibers can be obtained from various plant parts, including stem, leaf, seed, and fruit. Examples of these fibers are as follows: 

  • Natural fibers from the stem: linen, hemp, jute, ramie 
  • Natural fibers from the leaf: pineapple, banana, sisal
  • Natural fibers from the seed: cotton, kapok 
  • Natural fibers from the fruit: coir 

Animal-derived fibers, such as silk and wool, are also used to make natural fabrics. 

Note that cotton is the most commonly used natural fiber.

In the following section, we’ll discuss cultivating plants and raising animals to extract fibers for manufacturing natural fabrics. 

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Natural Fabrics Impact the Environment

In this section, we will examine in detail four groups of fibers commonly sourced for natural fabrics and the sustainability of sourcing such materials. In particular, we will look at: 

  • sourcing cotton fibers as raw materials for natural fabrics 
  • sourcing other vegetable-based cellulose fibers as raw materials for natural fabrics 
  • sourcing silk fibers as raw materials for natural fabrics 
  • sourcing wool fibers as raw materials for natural fabrics 
How Does Sourcing Cotton Fibers for Natural Fabrics Impact the Environment

Sourcing conventional cotton for natural fabrics is not sustainable. Traditional cotton production uses a lot of water, energy, and harmful toxic chemicals. Yet, opting for organic and/or recycled cotton yarn for natural fabrics is sustainable. 

The General Environmental Impacts of Growing Conventional Cotton Crops for Fibers Used in Natural Fabrics 

The environmental impacts of sourcing virgin cotton fibers are associated with growing the cotton crop. 

Here are some common practices in the conventional cultivation of cotton

Consequently, cotton cultivation has several adverse environmental impacts: 

  • High irrigation demand puts strain on freshwater resources. 
  • The health of the soil, water, and ecosystem is damaged by pesticide use. 
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer build up and disrupt the ecosystems (eutrophication potential).
  • A significant amount of greenhouse gasses are released from the field due to using fertilizer, watering the cotton plants, and ginning cotton seeds (i.e., separating the cotton fibers from the seeds). 

However, as the cotton plants grow, they sequester carbon dioxide, lowering the carbon footprint and global warming impact of cotton fibers and fabrics. 

The Various Locations Where Cotton Fibers Can Be Sourced as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

There are cotton crops in over 80 countries, but the biggest producers of cotton fibers are India, China, Pakistan, Brazil, and Uzbekistan. 

The high water demand and excessive use of chemicals in cotton cultivation cause several environmental and social challenges in places where cotton cultivation dominates the land. Some specific challenges are as follows:

Sourcing Sustainable Cotton Fibers as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

It is important to note that not all cotton fibers are made equally (bad). Though conventional cotton is ranked class E, the least sustainable fiber class, recycled cotton fiber belongs to class A, which is deemed the most sustainable fiber class, according to Common Objective’s Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres.

Here are some various forms of cotton fibers (that can be used as raw materials for natural fabrics), in the general order from the most sustainable (at the top) to the least sustainable (at the bottom)

  1. Recycled cotton: mechanically recycled from pre- or post-consumer waste
  2. Organic cotton: grown without synthetic fertilizer and pesticides
  3. In-transition cotton: moving away from unsustainable practices to more sustainable ones. This group of cotton fabrics includes:
    1. In-conversion cotton
    2. Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton
    3. Cleaner Cotton™
    4. Fairtrade cotton 
    5. Naturally colored cotton
  4. Conventional cotton

Sourcing More Sustainable Vegetable-Based Cellulose Fibers for Natural Fabrics 

Various sustainable plant-based fibers can be sourced for natural fabrics. These include linen, hemp, jute, ramie, and kapok. Sourcing these fibers is sustainable because these crops generally require little to no irrigation and agrochemicals to grow while having the environmental benefits of carbon sequestration as they grow. 

More Information on Sourcing Plant-Based Fibers as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

    How Does Sourcing Wool Fibers for Natural Fabrics Impact the Environment

    Sourcing conventional wool for natural fabrics is generally not sustainable. Traditional farming of animals for fibers, especially sheep, has significant adverse environmental impacts, including global warming, land degradation, and biodiversity loss. However, sourcing recycled wool fibers is sustainable. 

    The General Environmental Impacts of Sheep Farming for Natural Fibers Used in Natural Fabrics

    The environmental impacts of sourcing virgin sheep wool fibers are associated with raising sheep. 

    Here are some common practices in conventional sheep farming: 

    • Sheep farms generally have a very high land footprint—much higher, in fact, than comparable vegetable-based fiber crops.
    • Sheep burp methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 
    • Increasingly oversized sheep herds use and produce excessive manure and toxins. 

    Consequently, sheep farming has several adverse environmental impacts: 

    It is important to note that though sheep fleeces are the most commonly used fiber materials for natural wool fabrics, other types of animals can be raised for the same purpose. Some examples of animal wool fibers are as follows: 

    • Cashmere wool uses the undercoat of cashmere goats.
    • Mohair wool comes from the hair of the Angora goats.
    • Alpaca wool is made with the hair of alpacas.
    • Vicuna wool takes the fibers from vicuna—a Peruvian animal species related to alpacas.
    • Llama wool is derived from the hairy coat of llamas.
    • Camel wool uses the hair of camels.
    • Angora wool comes from the fine and soft fur of Angora rabbits.
    • Qiviut wool uses the wooly coat of a musk ox species native to Alaska.

    The sustainability of sourcing the hair or fleece varies significantly depending on the animals and how they are kept and shorn. 

    The Various Locations Where Wood Fibers Can Be Sourced as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

    The wool industry produces around 1,949 million kg (2021) of raw wool from a global flock of approximately 1.2 billion sheep

    The top producers of wool fibers are Australia, China, and New Zealand. Australia is the world’s most important sheep-rearing nation and is home to more than 71 million sheep

    The greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation cause several environmental and social challenges in places where sheep farming dominates the land. Some specific challenges are as follows:

    Sourcing Sustainable Sheep Wool Fibers as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

    Though conventional wool is ranked class E, the least sustainable fiber class, recycled wood fiber, belongs to class A, which is deemed the most sustainable fiber class, according to Common Objective’s Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres. 

    More Information on Sourcing Wool Fibers as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

      How Does Sourcing Silk Fibers for Natural Fabrics Impact the Environment

      Sourcing silk fibers for natural fabrics is not sustainable. Silkworm farming uses a lot of land and water to grow mulberry leaves to feed silkworm larvae. Additionally, farmers usually use unnecessary synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, causing harm to the environment. Operating an indoor silkworm farm is also energy-intensive. 

      The General Environmental Impacts of Silkworm Farming for Silk Fibers Used in Natural Fabrics

      The environmental impacts of sourcing silk fibers are associated with growing mulberry leaves as feed for silkworm larvae and keeping the larvae indoors in a controlled environment. 

      Here are some common practices in the conventional cultivation of mulberry leaves: 

      Consequently, mulberry cultivation and silkworm farming have several adverse environmental impacts, which include the following: 

      • High irrigation demand puts strain on freshwater resources.
      • The health of the soil, water, and ecosystem is damaged by pesticide use. 
      • Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer build up and disrupt the ecosystems (eutrophication potential).
      • Using fertilizer, running farming machinery, and controlling the indoor temperature and humidity of the silkworm farm elevate greenhouse gas emissions. 

      However, as the mulberry plants grow, they sequester carbon dioxide, lowering the carbon footprint and global warming impact of silk fibers and fabrics. 

      The Various Locations Where Silk Fibers Can Be Sourced as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

      Silk production originated in China. The trading of silk for other commodities was the start of the trading network linking the Eastern world to the West, which we often refer to as The Silk Road

      China is now the largest manufacturer of silk fabrics, followed by India. Other big producers are Uzbekistan, Thailand, Brazil, and Vietnam. 

      Location-specific issues regarding the sustainability of mulberry cultivation for silk fabric production include the following:

      More Information on Sourcing Silk Fibers as Raw Materials for Natural Fabrics 

      Related: Are you interested in learning more about the environmental impact of sourcing silk fibers? Check it out in the following article: “How Sustainable Are Silk Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis”. 

      How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Natural Fabrics

      The sustainability of manufacturing natural fabrics varies depending on the natural fibers used. Manufacturing natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool, and silk, can be unsustainable because the processes are energy, water, and chemical-intensive. In contrast, producing natural fabrics from some plant-based fibers, such as linen, hemp, and kapok, can be sustainable, mainly because it can be done mechanically without adding toxic chemicals. 

      How Sustainably Are Natural Fabrics Generally Manufactured

      The typical manufacturing process of natural fabrics includes these steps: 

      • Extract natural fibers: Natural fibers used in manufacturing natural fabrics can be obtained from plants or animals. 
      • Process natural fibers into yarns: The extracted fibers are washed, dried, sorted, graded, and baled for shipping to mills. At the mills, fibers are turned into yarns via a series of mechanical steps, including but not limited to softening, carding, drawing, roving, and spinning. 
      • Finish the yarns: The natural yarns undergo further processes to meet the requirements of the final fabrics. These include some or all of the following treatments:
        • bleaching 
        • dyeing
        • additional treatments to improve crimp, softness, pliability, and appearance 
      • Make the natural fabrics: The finished products can be made by weaving, knitting, twisting, cording, sewing, or braiding the yarns. 

      Let’s now dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage: 

      Manufacturing Natural Fabrics Can Be Energy-Intensive 

      Producing natural fabrics from natural fibers can be energy-intensive because energy is required to run various machines, such as those that spin and card yarns. 

      Harvesting and extracting some natural fibers, especially wool and silk, also requires extra energy to heat a large volume of water. 

      It is important to note that high energy usage in manufacturing leads to elevated carbon emissions if the energy generation depends heavily on fossil fuels. 

      The Environmental Impacts of Natural Fiber Extracting Varies Depending on the Fiber and the Extraction Method

      Here are two examples on the opposite ends of the sustainability spectrum: 

      • Sustainable: Extracting linen fibers using biological retting requires no extra energy, chemicals, or freshwater.
      • Unsustainable: Extracting long silk filaments from intact silkworm cocoons requires a great deal of water and energy, as the cocoons are boiled in water to prevent the mature silkworm moths from emerging. 
      Manufacturing Natural Fabrics Sometimes Involves Toxic Synthetic Chemicals

      Though turning natural fiber into yarn is mostly mechanical and can be done without adding toxic synthetic chemicals, such chemicals are sometimes still used, depending on the specific fiber and the manufacturer. 

      For example, conventional cotton manufacturers use many types of chemicals, especially in the dyeing and finishing processes. Some of these substances are harsh chemicals with potential health risks. Here are some examples of chemicals used in cotton manufacturing and their potential harms: 

      • Benzidine: associated with bladder cancer, respiration problems, and major skin irritation
      • Ammonium sulfate: toxic to eat, as well as when heated to high temperatures
      • Hydrochloric acid: damaging mucous membranes, skin, and eyes; irritating eyes, nose, and throat on short-term exposure; posing risks to chronic bronchitis and gastritis on long-term exposure 
      • Oxalic acid: causing burns and blisters at the point of contact, abdominal pain, collapse, mouth pain, seizures, shock, vomiting, and tremors

      When chemical treatments are used in manufacturing natural fabrics, they are likely to leak into waterways, as well as the air if waste disposal isn’t handled properly. These chemicals can also hinder natural fabrics’ biodegradability and end-of-life options. 

      However, it is important to note that the amount of chemicals used in manufacturing natural fabrics is generally less than in manufacturing synthetic fabrics, indicating lower environmental impacts of the former. 

      Additionally, organic natural fabrics are made without using harmful synthetic chemicals and/or by replacing them with natural and/or low-impact ones, reducing the environmental impacts of production. 

      How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Natural Fabrics

      Transporting natural fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with natural fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Natural fabrics typically travel from fields (where plants or animals are farmed) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 

      For example, in the life-cycle of jute clothes, transportation typically occurs: 

      • from fields where plants or animals are farmed to the fiber and fabrics manufacturing location(s),
      • from the fabric manufacturing location to sorting centers and/or physical shops, 
      • from sorting centers and/or physical shops to the consumer’s home, and
      • from the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling and/or disposal.

      Traveling Distances of Natural Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

      It is not uncommon for natural fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that farming, fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. 

      Here are some scenarios for transporting natural fabrics: 

      • Farmers grow cotton in Australia to be sourced and transported to a manufacturer in China. Final pieces of cotton clothes are then shipped to Europe to sell to consumers.
      • Natural jute fibers are harvested from fields in India and shipped to factories in Bangladesh. Clothes and household items are then sold primarily to the American market.
      • The fleece is collected from sheep in Argentina and processed into wooly sweaters in South Africa before selling to consumers worldwide. 
      • Silk manufacturers source silk yarn in Brazil, make silk fabrics in Mexico, sew silk clothing items in the US, and sell them mainly in North America. 

      You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing natural fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.

      The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Natural Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

      During its life-cycle, a piece of clothing made with natural fibers can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

      • large container ships 
      • planes 
      • freight trains 
      • long-distance trucks 
      • short-distance delivering vans 

      There are also various types of transportation vehicles used that have different carbon footprint impacts: 

      As a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering clothing items and accessories made with natural fibers to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.

      How Sustainable Is the Usage of Natural Fabrics

      Using natural fabrics is generally sustainable. Natural fabrics are generally breathable. They don’t need to be washed frequently—much less often than synthetic fabrics—thus saving water and energy. Most commonly used natural fibers are strong, meaning materials made with those fibers can last long before a replacement is needed. Lastly, washing natural fabrics doesn’t cause microplastics to be released into the environment. 

      The usage phase is a main source of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing due to washing, drying, and ironing. Therefore, breathable natural fabrics, especially cotton and wool, are more sustainable to use. In general, natural fabrics have higher moisture absorption rates than synthetic fabrics

      As a consumer, you can make using natural fabrics even more sustainable by modifying some laundering habits. Possible changes include:

      • wash natural fabrics less often, 
      • switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers, 
      • do cold washes with appropriate detergents, and
      • use energy-efficient washing machines. 

      Some natural fibers are very strong. For example, silk fibers are four times tougher than steel thread of the same thickness. Thanks to the fiber’s strength, natural fabrics can last for a long time. Using a strong and durable natural fabric is sustainable because you don’t need to replace it too frequently (thus, there is no need for more resources to make a new one). 

      Last but not least, natural fabrics don’t shed microplastics into the environment while being used and washed the way synthetic materials like polyester or nylon do. 

      How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Natural Fabrics

      The end-of-life stage for natural fabric is generally sustainable. Natural fabrics are made with natural fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable. 

      Fabrics made with 100% natural fibers are biodegradable. At the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options: 

      • composting
      • incineration
      • landfilling

      It generally takes weeks or months (for plant-based natural fabrics) and several years (for animal-derived natural fabrics) to decompose in the ground. In contrast, synthetic-based textiles often only start the decomposing process after a hundred years. 

      For example, traditional fossil-based polyester is not biodegradable, and thus this material could take up to 300 years to degrade completely. Conversely, cotton is fully biodegradable, typically taking one week to five months to decompose. 

      Cotton can also be composted to return nutrition to the soil, which is not the case with polyester.

      How Circular Are Products Made of Natural Fabrics

      In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

      “The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

      Ellen MacArthur Foundation

      As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

      Natural fabrics can be recycled mechanically, physically, and chemically, depending mostly on whether the fabrics are made of one type or a blend of natural fibers. 

      How Can You Buy Natural Fabrics More Sustainably

      The key to sustainably buying jute products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

      Certifications for natural fabrics made with recycled fibers:

      • Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): The Textile Exchange RCS was originally developed as an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled input and chain of custody. 
      • The Global Recycled Standard (GRS): The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. It can be used for any product with more than 20% recycled material. 

      Certifications for natural fabrics made with organic fibers:

      • USDA ORGANIC: This certificate is applied to growing the crop (raw material), ensuring natural agricultural products are produced that can be certified as “organic.” 
      • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the fields where crops are grown). 
      • USDA Certified Biobased Product: The USDA BioPreferred® Certification is a voluntary certification offered by the United States Department of Agriculture. The certificate identifies products made from plants or other renewable materials.

      Certifications for all natural fabrics:

      • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage. 
      • OEKO-TEX®: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals).

      Certifications for in-transition cotton:

      • Better Cotton Initiative (BCI ) Cotton: BCI certifies cotton according to The Better Cotton Standard System, a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production that covers all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic. 
      • Cleaner Cotton™: Cleaner Cotton™ eliminates the 13 most toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton cultivation in California, reducing toxicity in our air, soil, and watersheds. 
      • Fairtrade International: A Fair Trade certification includes social, economic, and environmental standards that apply to the full supply chain from the farmers and workers to the traders and companies bringing the final product to market. 
      • Fair For Life: Fair for Life certifies every step of production instead of the finished product. It prioritizes transparency in business at all levels.

      Some certifications that are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

      • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
      • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

      Where to Buy Sustainable Natural Fabrics 

      As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, the sustainability of natural fabrics varies. While some natural fabrics are among the most sustainable textile materials (class A fabric), others are the least sustainable (class E fabric). 

      For sustainable natural fabrics, you want to look for the following: 

      • certified organic, both during the growing stage and the other stages in the life-cycle 
      • certified recycled content

      If you search for sustainable natural fabric manufacturers, make sure they are transparent about the following:

      • energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing 
      • chemical usage and disposal treatments in manufacturing 

      As a consumer, you can look for these indicators when buying clothing items made with natural fabrics.

      Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

      It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

      Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

      The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

      One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber)—a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.

      Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

      The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

      Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

      • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
      • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted. 

      When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time—under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes—the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

      Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

      • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
      • Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

      Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

      Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

      Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

      When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

      Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

      The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like wool or silk. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

      Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

      Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, wool or silk; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

      Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

      Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

      When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

      Final Thoughts

      Natural fabrics are on a spectrum from unsustainable to sustainable, largely depending on the farming systems in which animals are raised or the plants are cultivated for the natural fibers, along with the use of energy and chemicals during manufacturing. 

      Natural fabrics are generally breathable, leading to a low-impact usage phase. At the end of their life, they are readily biodegradable and suitable for composting. 

      To make using natural fabrics more sustainable, follow these steps:

      1. Buy secondhand, recycled, or upcycled products made with natural fabrics. 
      2. While using clothing items made with natural fabrics, maximize the number of wears between washes and keep them as long as possible.
      3. At the end-of-life of natural fabrics, upcycle the material to extend their usage and arrange for them to be recycled or properly disposed of.

      Stay impactful,



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