How Sustainable Are Recycled Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Recycled Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

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Quynh Nguyen

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The cotton crop demands a lot of resources. Using water, land, and energy to grow new cotton plants for fibers has significant environmental impacts, which can be reduced by recycling cotton fabrics. However, recycling cotton comes with its own challenges, especially with the logistics of collecting and sorting discarded cotton garments and scraps. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are recycled cotton fabrics?

Recycled cotton is one of the most sustainable fabrics. Utilizing discarded cotton fibers instead of extracting virgin cotton fibers saves the resources needed to grow new plants. Also, recycled cotton fabrics generally tend to have relatively low environmental impacts. 

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Recycled Cotton Fabrics

Recycled cotton fabrics are among the most sustainable textile materials. Recycling cotton fibers reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed to grow new cotton crops. It leads to recycled cotton being a low-impact fabric, especially compared with conventional cotton.

Recycled cotton is ranked a class A fabric – the most sustainable category of 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 recycled cotton fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate 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 recycled cotton 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 household items made with recycled cotton fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of recycled cotton fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of recycled cotton fabricsSourcing cellulose fibers from discarded cotton fabrics for making recycled cotton is generally sustainable. It utilizes cotton waste instead of growing new cotton crops, which requires a lot of resources (land, water, and agrochemicals). Sourcing cotton waste would even be more sustainable if the original cotton was organically grown. 
Manufacturing of recycled cotton fabricsManufacturing recycled cotton is generally more sustainable than manufacturing virgin cotton. Utilizing discarded fibers instead of extracting new ones for fabric production reduces energy consumption. It also contributes to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. 
Transporting of recycled cotton fabricsThe transportation of recycled cotton fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Discarded cotton fabrics typically travel from various locations to collection hubs, processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of recycled cotton fabricsThe usage of cotton fabrics, including the recycled variety, tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing, drying, and ironing. However, the environmental impacts of the usage stage can be reduced with changes in how recycled cotton clothes are laundered. 
End-of-life of recycled cotton fabricsThe end-of-life stage for recycled cotton fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Overall, recycled cotton fabrics are among the most sustainable textile materials. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, be it a t-shirt or a pair of jeans, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of recycled cotton fibers, the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage, and the distance and mode of transportation

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

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Cotton Fibers for Recycled Cotton Fabrics

Sourcing cotton cellulose fibers from discarded cotton fabrics for making recycled cotton is generally sustainable. It utilizes cotton waste instead of growing new cotton crops, which would require a lot of resources (land, water, and agrochemicals). Sourcing cotton waste is even more sustainable if the original cotton was organically grown. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Recycled Cotton Fabrics

Cotton cellulose fibers are the main material used in recycled cotton fabrics. The fiber pool is often a mix of virgin and recycled sources, specifically

  • Virgin cellulose fibers extracted from cotton seeds 
  • Recycled cellulose fibers extracted from discarded cotton fabrics 

Here are some examples of the raw materials used for recycled cotton fabrics: 

  • The fabrics from Mud Jeans contain 23 to 40% recycled cotton fibers from post-consumer waste. The remaining yarns are virgin organic cotton (60 to 77%). 
  • Ecotec® from Marchi & Fildi are cotton blends with various recycled and virgin BCI cotton content ratios. 

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Recycled Cotton Fabrics Impact the Environment

Sourcing discarded cotton fabrics to make recycled cotton blends is generally sustainable. Recycling helps reduce waste. And the more recycled content is used in the new cotton blends, the lesser the pressure on resources needed to grow new crops. Sourcing cotton fibers, be it from recycled or virgin sources, is more sustainable when cotton farming is organic. 

Sourcing Cotton Waste for Recycled Cotton Clothing Reduces Waste 

Globally, a truck-full load of used clothes is dumped into a landfill site every second. That is a lot of waste, considering all the resources used in making those clothes. (It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a single cotton shirt – as much as the amount of drinking water for one person in two and a half years). 

Recycling discarded fabrics and turning them into new materials, such as recycled cotton blends, is a good way to reduce waste. There is much room for recycling because the current recycling rate of used clothes is rather low. 

The EPA estimates that in 2017, of the 16.9 million tons of textile waste generated in the US, only 15.2% was recycled.

Sourcing Cotton Waste for Recycled Cotton Clothing Reduces the Pressure to Grow New Cotton Plants 

Cotton crops use a lot of resources: 

The higher the percentage of reused cotton fibers in the final recycled cotton fabrics, the fewer virgin cotton fibers are needed, resulting in lowered environmental impacts. 

For example, a life-cycle assessment of Ecotec® recycled cotton yarns showed a substantial reduction in water consumption when using a recycled-virgin cotton blend compared to fabrics made with 100% virgin cotton, largely thanks to saving water over smaller cotton crops. Specifically,

  • Recycled cotton yarns with 80% recycled content save 77.9% of water consumption
  • Recycled cotton yarns with 65% recycled content save 61.6% of water consumption
Related: Are you interested to find out more about the environmental impact of sourcing virgin cotton? Check it out in this article here: “How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? All You Need to Know”

In brief, sourcing cotton waste, especially organic cotton waste, for recycled cotton blends helps reduce the pressures on virgin resources, including fresh water for irrigation and fossil fuels for synthetic agrochemicals.

Where Are the Raw Materials for Recycled Cotton Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Recycled cotton fabrics often contain recycled and virgin cotton fibers, with a ratio varying depending on the materials. 

Where Are Discarded Cotton Fabrics for Recycled Cotton Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Cotton fabric waste can be collected before or after being used by a consumer. 

The former type of waste (pre-consumer textile waste) can occur at any point during manufacturing and selling. Some examples of these discarded cotton fabrics are: 

  • Cutting scraps 
  • Semi-finished clothing products
  • Returned clothing products 

The larger amount of recycled cotton tends to come from pre-consumer waste because it is more straightforward to collect and classify in terms of material, color, and mixing ratios. 

The latter type of waste (post-consumer textile waste) is generated at consumer’s homes. Some examples of these discarded cotton fabrics are: 

  • Garments 
  • Upholstery 
  • Household items 

Post-consumer waste is usually more challenging to recycle and, thus, less often used. Due to wearing and washing, this type of waste can become contaminated, weaker in strength, and shorter in fiber length.

Discarded cotton fabrics can be collected around the world. The main challenges with using these as raw materials are labor regarding sorting the material and the carbon footprint for transporting them to manufacturing facilities. (We will discuss transporting footprint in more detail during the third life-cycle stage.)

Where Are Virgin Cotton Fibers for Recycled Cotton Fabrics Usually Sourced From

The cotton plants are native to most subtropical parts of the world. They have also been domesticated and grown in many parts of the world. There are cotton crops in over 80 countries

The following are countries among the top producers of cotton:

  • India
  • China
  • Pakistan
  • Brazil
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • Burkina Faso
  • The US 

Virgin cotton crops are associated with critical environmental challenges in some of the cotton-growing countries. These challenges include: 

  • water stress in cotton-growing regions 
  • water pollution in cotton-growing regions 
  • biodiversity loss due to the widespread use of genetically modified cotton seeds 
Related: Are you interested to find out more about the sustainability of cotton cultivation? Check it out in this article here: “How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? All You Need to Know”

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Recycled Cotton Fabrics

Manufacturing recycled cotton is generally more sustainable than manufacturing virgin cotton. Utilizing discarded fibers instead of extracting new ones for fabric production reduces energy consumption. It also contributes to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. 

How Sustainably Is Recycled Cotton Fabrics Generally Manufactured

Recycled cotton fabrics are most often a blend of virgin cotton fibers extracted from cotton seeds and reused cotton fibers extracted from cotton waste in a series of mechanical processes. 

Discarded cotton can also be recycled physically and chemically. These processes break down cotton fibers further than mechanical ones, resulting in regenerated cellulose fibers like lyocell and cupro

In this article, we discussed recycled cotton fabrics, made in a series of mechanical processes. 

The manufacturing process of (mechanically) recycled cotton fabrics typically follows these three steps: 

  1. Collecting fabrics and sorting by colors: The various sources for collection are:
    1. Clothing factories 
    2. Garment manufacturers 
    3. Used clothing donation spots 
  2. Reprocess fibers: cutting, shredding, tearing, and carding to separate individual fibers and remove all impurities and tangles. The shredding process is harsh: it most likely breaks and reduces the length of the original fibers. 
  3. Spin the carded fibers into yarn using a spinning machine. The recycled yarns can be blended with virgin cotton yarns to make new fabrics. 
  4. Weave or knit recycled cotton yarn into recycled cotton fabrics.
  5. Finish the fabrics, including 
    1. Washing 
    2. Drying 
    3. Pressing 

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

Recycling Cotton Fibers Has Relatively Low Energy Consumption Compared To Manufacturing Virgin Cotton 

Manufacturing (virgin) cotton fabrics is energy-intensive. Recycling cotton fibers to create new cotton blends helps reduce energy consumption. 

For example, a life-cycle assessment of Ecotec® recycled cotton yarns showed a substantial reduction in the consumption of energy resources when using a recycled-virgin cotton blend compared to 100% virgin cotton fibers. Specifically, 

  • Recycled cotton yarns with 80% recycled content save 56.6% of energy consumption
  • Recycled cotton yarns with 65% recycled content save 46.9% of water consumption

Where Are Recycled Cotton Fabrics Usually Manufactured

India and China are the world’s largest producers of cotton fabrics. Many companies specialize in recycling cotton within the well-developed textile industry in these two markets. Other major producers of recycled cotton fabrics are Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Turkey. 

Recycled cotton fabrics are also produced in other countries worldwide, including the United States, Canada, and Europe. 

Energy Usage at Recycled Cotton Manufacturing Locations Varies Based on Each Country

Using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) significantly reduces carbon emissions while manufacturing recycled cotton fabrics. 

According to Our World in Data, the renewable energy share in primary energy varies among major producers of recycled cotton fabrics: 

  • India: 9.31% renewable energy
  • China: 14.95% renewable energy
  • Bangladesh: 0.65% renewable energy
  • Vietnam: 22.73% renewable energy
  • Turkey: 16.52% renewable energy
  • The US: 10.66% renewable energy
  • Canada: 29.89% renewable energy

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Recycled Cotton Fabrics

The transportation of recycled cotton fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Discarded cotton fabrics typically travel from various locations to collection hubs, processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. 

In the life-cycle of recycled cotton clothes, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From places where discarded fabrics are collected, including factories, warehouses, and recycling centers, to the fiber manufacturing locations
  • From the recycled cotton fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location 
  • From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing of

However, the actual transportation of a specific product varies, depending on the supply chain and transporting vehicles. 

Traveling Distances of Recycled Cotton Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for natural cellulose fabrics like recycled cotton to have their supply chain spreading globally. The original point of collection, recycled fiber production, fabric spinning, and clothes manufacturing might happen in various towns, countries, or continents. 

Here are some scenarios for transporting recycled cotton fabrics: 

  • Fabric producers might collect cotton waste from factories around Europe, transport the waste first to sorting centers, then to fiber factories in China, and finally to consumer markets around Asia.
  • Used cotton garments are collected in the US to be sent to India for sorting and manufacturing new cotton blends with recycled cotton fibers before recycled cotton clothes are sent back to the US to sell to consumers. 

Depending on the supply chain, transporting carbon emissions might account for a significant percentage of recycled cotton fabrics’ total carbon emissions. 

Let’s look at an example of a life-cycle assessment of recycling cotton with recycled content (pre-consumer waste) collected from H&M shops around Asia (Japan, Korea, and Malaysia) and shipped to India, where they are turned into recycled cotton fabrics. In this evaluation, the transporting stage accounts for almost 73% of the total greenhouse gas emissions (cradle-to-factory-gate). Specifically, 

  • Port-to-port transportation accounts for 55,11% of the total carbon emissions 
  • Inland transportation accounts for a further 17,85% of the total carbon emissions 

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

During its life-cycle, a piece of recycled cotton clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, you as a consumer can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering recycled cotton clothes to reduce the carbon footprint of your recycled cotton items. 

According to a cradle-to-gate life-cycle assessment, mechanically recycling 30% of cotton fabrics could reduce the environmental impacts by: 

  • 2.2-8.6% fewer carbon emissions
  • 0.3-27.7% less water footprint
  • 3.3-6.8% less air pollution
  • 1.4-26.4% less land use

In this assessment, recycled cotton fabrics containing 30% recycled and 70% virgin fibers were compared with materials made with 100% virgin cotton fibers, including US-made, China-made, Brazia-made, BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), and global-average cotton fabrics. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Recycled Cotton Fabrics

The usage of cotton fabrics, including the recycled variety, tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption for washing, drying, and ironing. However, the environmental impacts of the usage stage can be reduced with changes in how recycled cotton clothes are laundered. 

As an example, a pair of Levi’s cotton jeans has a total carbon footprint of 33.4 kg CO2 -eq, in which 12.5 kg CO2 -eq is the share of the usage phase (which equals to 37% of the total CO2 footprint). 

In another life-cycle assessment, the use phase of a cotton white long shirt accounts for 31% of the total carbon footprint. 

These examples demonstrate that usage is one major contributor to the environmental impacts of cotton fabrics, including the organic variety. On the global average, a life-cycle inventory also reports similarly. 

The carbon emissions of the usage stage are associated with electricity to run washing machines, drying machines, and irons. 

If fossil fuels are the main sources of energy at a user’s home, high energy consumption will result in an elevated carbon footprint. 

Modifying laundering behaviors, however, would reduce the environmental impacts. Possible changes include:

  • Wash clothes less often 
  • Switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers 
  • Do cold washes with appropriate detergents
  • Use energy-efficient washing machines

For example, according to a cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessment, if a piece of cotton clothes is washed only 28 times instead of 55 times a year, its climate change impact reduces by 30%

Another life-cycle assessment reports 29% and 33% reductions in carbon emissions when cold washes replace warm washes and when efficient washing machines replace conventional washing machines, respectively, in one year of usage.

The same assessment also shows that the climate change impact of one-year usage is half when drying cotton jeans on the line instead of inside a drier. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Recycled Cotton Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for recycled cotton fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

Untreated cotton fabrics, including the mechanically recycled variety, are fully biodegradable. Thus, at the end of the fabric’s life, there are three main options: 

  • Composting
  • Incineration
  • Landfilling

It can take from one week to five months for pure, untreated cotton fabrics to decompose depending on the conditions. In large-scale compost, 100% pure cotton fabrics typically decompose 50% to 77% within three months

In comparison, 

  • untreated linen takes two weeks
  • rayon fabrics (regenerated cellulose fibers) take from six to eight weeks
  • plastic-based items could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years

How Circular Are Products Made of Recycled Cotton 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 resources.

It is possible to recycle cotton fabrics mechanically, physically, and chemically, depending mostly on whether the materials are pure cotton or a blend. 

How Can You Buy Recycled Cotton Fabrics More Sustainably

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

  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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® Certified Cotton: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals). 

Some certifications 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 Recycled Cotton Fabrics 

As we have established throughout the life-cycle assessment, recycled cotton fabrics are one of the most sustainable fabrics (Class A). Yet, we compile for you a list of some of the most sustainable brands selling recycled cotton fabrics (in alphabetic order)

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 forth 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 recycled 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 recycled 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 recycled 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 extracted new. 

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 cashmere or leather. 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, leather or wool; 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 

Recycled cotton fabrics are generally sustainable materials. They are made in a mechanical process with reduced environmental impacts. Also, recycling cotton is a good way to reduce the volume of textile manufacturing and consumption waste. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand recycled cotton clothes, use recycled cotton clothes and household items for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled appropriately.

Stay impactful,



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Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

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