How Sustainable Are Organic Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ? You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts. Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click. But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend. First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide. And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases. First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you. And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you. When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you). And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself. You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money. Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go. Stay impactful,
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
Amid growing concerns about the environmental impacts of the textile industry, the spotlight is shifting toward organic fabrics as sustainable options. By their name alone, natural fibers are generally considered the most environmentally friendly textile materials available. But is this truly the case? So, we had to ask: How sustainable are organic fabrics?
Organic fabrics are generally sustainable. Producing organic fabrics doesn’t use harmful synthetic chemicals, avoiding their adverse environmental impacts. These materials are biodegradable. However, the natural resources used for fabrics, like organic cotton and organic wool, can be significant.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of organic 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 organic fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Organic Fabrics
Fabrics can be labeled organic if made with at least 95% natural fibers created organically through growing plants or raising animals. Unlike synthetic or chemical-modified fibers, these plant-based or animal-derived fibers are renewable, biodegradable, and free of harmful synthetic chemicals and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
However, the sustainability of organic fabrics varies slightly, depending on the fibers used. The negative environmental impacts—especially on water and land categories—of growing certain crops, raising certain animals, and processing certain fibers can be so significant that they reduce the sustainability of fabrics made with such organic fibers.
“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 organic 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 organic fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of organic fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of organic fabrics||Sourcing conventional cotton fibers —the most common raw material for organic 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 organic 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 organic fabrics||Manufacturing organic fabrics varies depending on the organic fibers used. Manufacturing organic plant-based fabrics, such as cotton, hemp, and linen, is generally sustainable because it can be done mechanically without adding toxic chemicals. In comparison, manufacturing organic wool and silk—animal-derived textile materials—can be less sustainable because the processes are more energy and water-intensive.|
|Transporting of organic fabrics||Transporting organic fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with organic fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Organic 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 organic fabrics||Using organic fabrics is generally sustainable. Organic fabrics are made with natural fibers with high breathability, especially compared with synthetic fabrics. They don’t need to be washed frequently, thus saving water and energy. Most commonly used organic fibers are strong, meaning materials made with those fibers can last long before a replacement is needed. Lastly, washing organic fabrics doesn’t cause microplastics to be released into the environment.|
|End-of-life of organic fabrics||The end-of-life stage for organic fabrics is generally sustainable. Organic fabrics are made with organic natural fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable.|
Overall, we can say that organic fabrics are sustainable. 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 organic 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 organic fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Natural Fibers for Organic Fabrics
Sourcing plant-based or animal-derived fibers from organic farming systems is generally sustainable. These systems avoid the most harmful synthetic agrochemicals and their adverse environmental impacts. However, due to relatively low fiber yields, organic farms cultivating fiber crops (such as cotton) or raising hair-providing animals (such as sheep) can be resource-intensive.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Organic Fabrics
Raw materials for organic fabrics are natural fibers obtained from organic farms where synthetic agrochemicals and GMOs are strictly controlled.
The natural sources for these fibers can be plants or animals.
The fibers in organic fabrics can be obtained from various plant parts, including the 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
How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Organic Fabrics Impact the Environment
In this section, we will examine in detail two groups of natural fibers commonly sourced for organic fabrics and the sustainability of sourcing such materials from organic farming systems. In particular, we will look at:
- sourcing organic plant-based fibers as raw materials for organic fabrics
- sourcing organic animal-derived fibers as raw materials for organic fabrics
How Does Sourcing Organic Plant-Based Fibers for Organic Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing plant-based fibers from organically grown crops is sustainable. As plants grow, they sequester carbon, mitigating the climate crisis. Additionally, organic farming doesn’t use toxic synthetic agrochemicals and thus avoids their adverse environmental impacts.
- Fiber crops have carbon sequestration potential.
- As fiber plants, such as cotton, flax, or hemp, grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink, taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and helping to mitigate the climate crisis.
- Here are some examples:
- During one growing season, one acre of industrial hemp sequesters and stores almost 8,77 tons of carbon dioxide (or 22 tonnes of CO2 per hectare). Because of the rapid growth rates, it is possible to plant two hemp crops per year and double the amount of carbon sequestered.
- Flax plants also sequester a significant amount of carbon dioxide. According to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC), all the flax plants grown in Europe retain, each year, an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to the CO2 emissions generated by a Renault Clio car driving around the world.
- Organic farmers don’t use chemical-based pesticides.
- Instead of chemical-based pesticides, organic farmers rely on nature-based pesticides or other natural measures to combat their pest challenges.
- Some examples of natural measures used in cotton cultivation are:
- employing crop rotation to increase plant health and natural pest resistance, as well as avoid the same pests returning yearly for their favorite food source,
- maintaining the biological balance by using natural enemies to keep a check on pests,
- using pest-capturing traps, and
- using mico-organisms to target pests.
- These natural measures are much more environmentally friendly than synthetic pesticides as they improve the plant’s health and the field’s biodiversity while avoiding soil and water pollution.
- Organic farmers don’t use chemical-based fertilizers.
- Organic fiber cultivation doesn’t involve heavy use of synthetic fertilizer. Instead, farmers improve soil health with various organic farming techniques, such as: \
- rotating crops
- growing and using green manure to feed the fiber crop
- using organic compost
- reducing tillage (and field emissions)
- recycling crop residue
- Avoiding synthetic fertilizers means eliminating the associated adverse environmental impacts, including:
- possible disruptions in the ecosystem and biodiversity loss due to freshwater contamination from run-off fertilizer
- greenhouse gas emissions as a result of synthetic fertilizer production and usage
- It is important to note that organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields, especially of crops to which synthetic chemicals are applied heavily. Thus, more land might be needed to grow plants organically to gain the same amount of fibers.
- Organic fiber cultivation doesn’t involve heavy use of synthetic fertilizer. Instead, farmers improve soil health with various organic farming techniques, such as: \
- Growing fiber crops organically can lower the water footprint.
- Organic farming systems can lower the water footprint thanks to more efficient water usage.
- There are indications that organic agriculture has better water absorption and holding capacity due to better soil structure, meaning more green water available for organic crops. Consequently, it can reduce the irrigation needs.
- Part of the water usage in conventional farming is due to water degradation caused by the toxicity of agrochemicals. This is not the case with organic agriculture, fiber crops included.
- Now, when it comes to water-thirsty cotton, organic farming practices use less blue water (water from rivers, groundwater, and surface water) than conventional cotton.
- On a global scale, 95% of the water used in organic cotton cultivation and ginning is green water (rainwater and moisture stored in soil and used for plant growth).
- Blue water usage in the cultivation and ginning of organic cotton is less than a third of generic cotton (704 m3 for 1,000 kg of organic cotton vs. 2,235 m3 for 1,000 kilograms of cotton fibers). Calculations are based on the global average of organic and generic cotton.
- Organic farming systems can lower the water footprint thanks to more efficient water usage.
How Does Sourcing Animal-Based Fibers for Organic Fabrics Impact the Environment
The sustainability of sourcing animal-derived fibers (wool and silk) for organic fabrics varies depending on the animal. Raising ruminant animals, especially sheep and goats, has significant adverse environmental impacts, including global warming, land degradation, and biodiversity loss. There are many ethical concerns regarding animal farming. However, organic wool and silk are generally more sustainable than conventional wool and silk because of the elimination or significant reduction of toxic synthetic chemicals at the farming stage.
The General Environmental Impacts of Organic Sheep Farming for Natural Fibers Used in Organic Fabrics
The environmental impacts of sourcing 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.
Consequently, organic sheep farming has several adverse environmental impacts:
- Large areas of land are subjected to degradation and biodiversity loss due to overgrazing. In many cases, pastureland is obtained through clearing biodiverse forests.
- The methane coming from the sheep contributes directly to the climate crisis as methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years.
- The excessive amount of manure contaminates waterways. This contributes to problems like eutrophication. methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years
It is important to note that though sheep fleeces are the most commonly used fiber materials for 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 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 from organic farms varies significantly depending on the animals and how they are kept and shorn. It is important to note that organic farms adhere to strict ethical standards in animal treatment and welfare. In contrast, the mistreatment of wooly animals is widespread in conventional farming.
The General Environmental Impacts of Organic Silkworm Farming for Silk Fibers Used in Organic Fabrics
The environmental impacts of sourcing organic silk fibers are associated with growing mulberry leaves without synthetic agrochemicals to feed silkworm larvae and keeping the larvae indoors in a controlled environment.
Here are some common practices in the organic cultivation of mulberry leaves:
- Growing organic mulberry trees to feed silkworm larvae uses a lot of land.
- Growing organic mulberry trees to feed silkworm larvae can have a high water footprint.
- Growing organic mulberry trees to feed silkworm larvae doesn’t involve synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
- Silkworm larvae are usually hatched and raised inside, in a controlled environment.
Consequently, organic mulberry cultivation and silkworm farming put strain on natural resources, including water and land.
However, as the mulberry plants grow organically, they sequester carbon dioxide, lowering the carbon footprint and global warming impact of silk fibers and fabrics.
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Organic Fabrics
Manufacturing organic fabrics varies depending on the organic fibers used. Manufacturing organic plant-based fabrics, such as cotton, hemp, and linen, is generally sustainable because it can be done mechanically without adding toxic chemicals. In comparison, manufacturing organic wool and silk—animal-derived textile materials—can be less sustainable because the processes are more energy and water-intensive.
How Sustainably Are Organic Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The typical manufacturing process of organic fabrics includes these steps:
- Extract organic fibers: Organic fibers used in manufacturing organic fabrics can be obtained from plants or animals farmed in organic systems.
- Process organic fibers into organic 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. Synthetic chemicals used in this step are strictly controlled.
- Finish the yarns: The organic yarns undergo further processes to meet the requirements of the final fabrics.
- These include some or all of the following treatments:
- To meet strict organic standards, such as GOTS, the use of synthetic chemicals in the finishing processes is strictly controlled.
- These include some or all of the following treatments:
- Make the organic fabrics: The finished products can be made by weaving, knitting, twisting, cording, sewing, or braiding the organic yarns.
Let’s now dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage:
Manufacturing Organic Fabrics Can Be Energy-Intensive
Producing organic fabrics from organic fibers can be energy-intensive because energy is required to run various machines, such as those that spin and card organic yarns.
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 Organic Fiber Extracting Vary 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 fresh water.
- 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.
Organic Fabric Production Treats Workers and Animals Ethically
The standards for organic fabric require the ethical treatment of workers and animals involved in the production process and throughout the supply chain.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Organic Fabrics
Transporting organic fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with organic fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Organic 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 organic hemp clothes, transportation typically occurs:
- from fields where the flax plants are cultivated organically 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 centers for recycling and/or disposal.
Traveling Distances of Organic Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for organic 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 organic fabrics:
- Farmers grow organic cotton in the US to be sourced and transported to a manufacturer in China. Final pieces of cotton clothes are then shipped to Europe to sell to consumers.
- Organic 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 organic sheep farms in Argentina and processed into wooly sweaters in South Africa before being sold to consumers worldwide.
- Organic silk manufacturers source organic silk yarn in Brazil, make silk fabrics in Mexico, and sew organic silk clothing items in the US, where they are then sold mainly in North America.
You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing organic fabrics that travel a shorter distance from the fields and are made closer to your home.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Organic Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of clothing made with organic fibers can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- large container ships
- freight trains
- long-distance trucks
- short-distance delivering vans
There are also various types of transportation vehicles used that have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter. Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes—for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing—are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
As a consumer, you can choose not to pick a fast delivery option when ordering clothing items and accessories made with organic fibers to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Organic Fabrics
Using organic fabrics is generally sustainable. Organic fabrics are made with natural fibers with high breathability, especially compared with synthetic fabrics. They don’t need to be washed frequently, thus saving water and energy. Most commonly used organic fibers are strong, meaning materials made with those fibers can last long before a replacement is needed. Lastly, washing organic 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, organic fabrics made with breathable natural fibers, like cotton and wool, are more sustainable to use. In general, natural fibers have higher moisture absorption rates than synthetic fibers.
As a consumer, you can make your use of organic fabrics even more sustainable by modifying some laundering habits. Possible changes include:
- wash organic 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 in organic fabrics are very strong. For example, silk fibers are four times tougher than steel thread of the same thickness. Thanks to the fiber’s strength, organic 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).
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Organic Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for organic fabrics is generally sustainable. Organic fabrics are made with organic natural fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable.
Fabrics made with 100% organic fibers are biodegradable. At the end of the fabric’s life, there are three available options:
It generally takes weeks or months (for plant-based organic fabrics) and several years (for animal-derived organic 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, organic cotton is fully biodegradable, typically taking one week to five months to decompose.
Organic cotton fabrics can also be composted to return nutrition to the soil, which is not the case with polyester.
How Circular Are Products Made of Organic 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
Made with natural fibers, organic fabrics can be recycled mechanically, physically, and chemically, depending mostly on whether the fabrics are made of one type or a blend of organic fibers.
How Can You Buy Organic Fabrics More Sustainably
As the word organic can be used rather deliberately without clarifying which part of the supply chain adheres to organic standards, it is important to check relevant environmental and original certifications.
- 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.
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 Organic Fabrics
As we have established throughout this life-cycle assessment, the sustainability of organic fabrics varies slightly. While plant-based organic fabrics are generally highly sustainable, animal-derived organic fabrics can have significant environmental impacts during the sourcing, manufacturing, and transporting stages. The key to buying sustainable organic fabrics is to go with brands and manufacturers that are transparent about the following:
- energy usage (volume and source) in manufacturing
- the use of natural resources (water and land) in all stages of the life-cycle
To help you with buying sustainable organic fabrics, we have compiled a list of great brands using sustainable organic 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 landfills (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 effects 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.
Organic fabrics, especially plant-based varieties, are generally highly sustainable. Neither sourcing nor producing organic fibers uses harmful synthetic chemicals, avoiding the adverse environmental impacts of such substances. However, land and water use can be significant for some organic fibers, such as organic cotton and wool.
Organic 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 organic fabrics more sustainable, follow these steps:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled products made with organic fabrics.
- While using clothing items made with organic fabrics, maximize the number of wears between washes and keep them as long as possible.
- At the end-of-life of organic fabrics, upcycle the material to extend their usage and arrange for them to be recycled or properly disposed of.
- Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS): GOTS Version 6.0
- Science Direct: Life-cycle assessment (LCA)
- MIT SMR: Strategic Sustainability Uses of Life-Cycle Analysis
- European Environment Agency: Cradle-to-Grave
- Science Direct: Cradle-to-Gate Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Linen Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Hemp Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Jute Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Ramie Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Kapok Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Silk Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- CFDA: COTTON
- Organic Trade Association: Get the facts about Organic Cotton
- Britannica: cotton
- Britannica: flax
- Britannica: hemp
- GoodEarth Resources: The Role of Industrial Hemp in Carbon Farming
- Flax-Linen Economic Observatory: Key figures for flax fibre production
- PAN Germany: Cotton: non-chemical pest control
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: Harmful Algal Blooms
- National Library of Medicine: Nature | Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture
- NRDC: Organic Matter Can Improve Your Soil’s Water Holding Capacity
- National Library of Medicine – National center for Biotechnology Information: The effect of organic farming on water reusability, sustainable ecosystem, and food toxicity
- Textile Exchange: LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT OF ORGANIC COTTON
- Cotton Today: LCA UPDATE OF COTTON FIBER AND FABRIC LIFE CYCLE INVENTORY
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Organic Linen Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Organic Hemp Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Organic Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Sheep Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- CIRCUMFAUNA: Australia is the leading wool exporter, and a leading cotton exporter. So which fibre is more land friendly?
- THE RANGELAND JOURNAL: Building Grass Castles: Integrating Ecology and Management of Australia’s Tropical Tallgrass Rangelands.
- European Commission: Methane emissions
- Sewport: What is Wool Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where
- Science Direct: Eutrophication
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cashmere Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Sewport: What is Mohair Wool Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where
- Britannica: alpaca | mammal
- Britannica: vicuña| mammal
- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: Llama
- WORLD’S FINEST WOOL: Camel Hair
- Britannica: angora rabbit | mammal
- Britannica: musk ox| mammal
- Green & Happy Mom: Organic Fabrics: The Key to Sustainable Fashion
- Collective Fashion Justice: Issues in the wool supply chain
- Time for Change: CO2 emissions for shipping of goods
- Springer Link: The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment: Statistical analysis of use-phase energy consumption of textile products
- Intechopen: Natural Fibers: The Sustainable Alternatives for Textile and Non-Textile Applications
- LALOUETTE: Why Is Silk Called the Queen of Fibers? The Benefits of Silk
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Polyester Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- CLOSE THE LOOP – A GUIDE TOWARDS A CIRCULAR FASHION INDUSTRY: INTRODUCTION
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY IN DETAIL
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- USDA: National Organic Program
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Home
- BioPreferred: WHAT IS THE BIOPREFERRED PROGRAM?
- B Corp Certification: Home
- C2CCertified: Home
- Eileen Fisher
- European Parliament: The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographic)
- Science Direct: The challenge of “Depeche Mode” in the fashion industry – Does the industry have the capacity to become sustainable through circular economic principles, a scoping review
- Science Direct: Carbon Footprint of Textile and Clothing Products
- European Parliament: Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry
- European Parliament: What if fashion were good for the planet?
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- McKinsey: Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula
- Forest Stewardship Council: Home
- Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss
- Our World in Data: Renewable Energy
- Peta: Animals Used for Clothing
- The Guardian: Child labour in the fashion supply chain