14 Moderately Sustainable Fabrics: The Full Life-Cycle Analysis

14 Moderately Sustainable Fabrics: The Full Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:33 Minutes

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Amid growing concerns about the textile industry’s environmental impact, the need for it to change is more pressing than ever. While you should always hunt for the most sustainable fabrics and avoid the very unsustainable ones, there is a group of fabrics where the name doesn’t automatically tell you if they are good or bad for the environment. Indeed, this group requires deeper digging to find the more eco-friendly varieties. So, we have to ask: Which fabrics are the most moderately sustainable? 

The most moderately sustainable fabrics are canvas, denim, and (bamboo) modal, which can be sourced in an environmentally friendly way and have a long life-cycle. Also, plant-based regenerated fibers (rayon and wood-based) are biodegradable and can be manufactured in low-impact closed-loop systems. 

In this article, we will walk you through the life-cycle of the most moderately sustainable fabrics. Then, we will evaluate their sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying more sustainable fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of All Fabrics

The textile industry is rife with synthetic chemicals, often involved in stages ranging from sourcing raw materials to processing them. However, there are moderately sustainable fabric options that avoid using toxic chemicals while utilizing renewable and/or waste materials. 

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

One way to assess the sustainability of fabrics is to go through their life-cycles and evaluate each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to assess 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 look at the LCA of the 16 moderately sustainable fabrics.

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of each fabric’s life-cycle. Where it is relevant, we also use data from cradle-to-gate assessments

These Are the 14 Moderately Sustainable Fabrics

Some of these fabrics are natural-based and, thus, biodegradable and compostable at the end of their life-cycle. However, the sourcing and manufacturing processes might depend heavily on chemicals that pollute the environment and degrade the land. Meanwhile, other fabrics may be made fully or partly with plastic polymers which don’t degrade naturally but have relatively low environmental impacts based on the whole life-cycle. 

Type of fabricsOverall sustainability
Canvas fabricsWhat makes sustainable canvas fabrics: The most sustainable canvas fabrics are made with plant fibers such as hemp, linen, or ramie sourced from fast-growing crops often cultivated without pesticides. Organic cotton is also considered an eco-friendly material for making canvas fabrics. These are renewable materials from relatively low-impact plant crops. 

Additionally: Using recycled materials to make canvas fabrics helps reduce (plastic) waste and avoid further resource depletion, and, therefore, is considered sustainable. 
Denim fabricsWhat makes sustainable denim fabrics: Recycled cotton is the most sustainable material used to make denim fabrics. Recirculating cotton waste reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed to grow new cotton crops. Denim fabrics made with cotton fibers from organic and regenerative farming systems are also sustainable because these natural fibers are cultivated without any added toxic synthetic chemicals and, thus, are fully biodegradable at the end of their life. 

Additionally: It is more environmentally friendly to create the denim’s stretch elements using regenerated plant-based fibers like lyocell instead of conventional petroleum-based virgin polyester or spandex. 
Bamboo modal fabricsWhat makes sustainable bamboo modal fabrics: Bamboo modal fabrics are derived from fibers of the fast-growing, easily renewable bamboo crop and can be made in closed-loop systems that recycle and reuse chemicals and water.

Additionally: Bamboo modal is durable, meaning clothes made with bamboo modal fabric can last a long time before a replacement is needed. 
Modal fabricsWhat makes sustainable modal fabrics: Modal fabrics are derived from fibers of the fast-growing beechwood native to the colder climate and can be made in closed-loop systems that recycle and reuse chemicals and water. 

Additionally: Modal is durable, meaning clothes made with modal fabric can last a long time before a replacement is needed. 
Rayon fabricsWhat makes sustainable rayon: Lyocell is generally considered the most sustainable rayon fiber, which is made in closed-loop manufacturing systems that use organic solvents instead of synthetic chemicals, as in the case of modal and viscose. 

Additionally: Rayon fabrics are generally made with generally renewable plant materials. 
Wood-based fabricsWhat makes sustainable wood-based fabrics: Lyocell is generally considered the most sustainable rayon fiber, which is made in closed-loop manufacturing systems that use organic solvents instead of synthetic chemicals, as in the case of modal, viscose, and acetate. 

Additionally: Wood-based fabrics are generally made with renewable plant materials. 
Merino wool fabricsWhat makes sustainable merino wool: Recycled merino wool is considered the most sustainable merino wool variety because using discarded wool materials to make recycled wool fabrics reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed for rearing more merino sheep. Organic merino wool is also considered sustainable as farming doesn’t use harmful synthetic materials. 

Additionally: Merino wool fibers are odor-resistant, meaning merino wool clothes can be washed infrequently, saving water and energy. 
Sheep wool fabrics What makes sustainable sheep wool: Recycled sheep wool is considered the most sustainable sheep wool variety because using discarded wool materials to make recycled wool fabrics reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed for rearing more sheep. Organic sheep wool is also considered sustainable as farming doesn’t use harmful synthetic materials. 

Additionally: Sheep wool fibers are odor-resistant, meaning sheep wool clothes can be washed infrequently, saving water and energy. 
Lambswool fabrics What makes sustainable lambswool: Recycled lambswool is considered the most sustainable sheep wool variety because using discarded wool materials to make recycled wool fabrics reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed for rearing more sheep for their first shearing. Organic lambswool is also considered sustainable as farming doesn’t use harmful synthetic materials. 

Additionally: Lambswool fibers are odor-resistant, meaning lambswool clothes can be washed infrequently, saving water and energy. 
Wool fabricsWhat makes sustainable wool: Recycled wool is considered the most sustainable wool variety because using discarded wool materials to make recycled wool fabrics reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed for rearing more animals for their hair. Organic wool is also considered sustainable as farming doesn’t use harmful synthetic materials. 

Additionally: Wool fibers are odor-resistant, meaning sheep wool clothes can be washed infrequently, saving water and energy. 
Velvet fabricsWhat makes sustainable velvet: Sustainable velvet fabrics can be made from low-impact yarns like organic cotton or lyocell. 

Additionally: Manufacturing velvet is mostly mechanical, free of added toxic synthetic chemicals. 
Velour fabricsWhat makes sustainable velour: Recycled and organic cotton are sustainable materials for making sustainable velour fabrics. Also, recycled synthetic fabrics make more eco-friendly velour fabrics than virgin synthetic fabrics.

Additionally: Manufacturing velour is mostly mechanical, free of added toxic synthetic chemicals. 
AppleSkinTM fabricsWhat makes sustainable AppleSkinTM: The higher the bio content (natural cellulose fibers from apple peels) in an AppleSkinTM variety, the more sustainable it is because it reduces dependence on fossil fuels and associated environmental impacts. 

Additionally: Utilizing apple peels to make AppleSkinTM reduces agricultural waste instead of restraining natural resources. 
Vegan leather fabricsWhat makes sustainable vegan leather fabrics: Vegan leather made (mostly) with plant-derived fibers and bio-based polymers, such as Piñatex, Mylo™, and MIRUM®, are considered sustainable. Specifically, Piñatex fabrics are among the most sustainable textile materials because 80% of raw materials for Piñatex fabrics come from pineapple leaves, an agricultural waste from the pineapple fruit industry, and the production process is a closed-loop mechanical process without synthetic chemicals. 

Additionally: Using agricultural and industrial waste, such as pineapple leaves, apple pomace, and grape peels, is considered sustainable as it slows down the demand for land needed for waste storage and avoids carbon emissions due to the practice of burning agricultural waste. 

Overall, each of these fabrics is only moderately sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of using a specific textile product depends on many factors, including: 

  • the sourcing of fibers
  • the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage
  • the distance and mode of transportation 
  • the type of energy used in the home during the usage phase 

Let’s dive deeper into each type of fabric and the stages of its life-cycle and find out how it can be even more sustainable. 

Canvas Fabrics: Durable Textile Material Based on Plant Fibers 

Canvas fabrics are plain-woven, heavy-duty materials that can be made with various natural or synthetic fibers. Hemp or linen fibers are the traditional fibers used in canvas, while cotton is often today’s fiber of choice for this textile material. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of canvas fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing for canvas fabrics: Sourcing conventional cotton fiber—the most common raw material for modern-day canvas fabrics—is unsustainable. The cotton crop is water-thirsty and vulnerable to various pests. Also, the widespread monoculture in cotton cultivation depletes the soil and necessitates synthetic fertilizer in many growing regions. However, the sourcing stage of canvas fabrics can be sustainable when raw materials come from recycled waste, organically farmed, and/or low-input plants. For example, sustainably sourced raw materials for canvas fabrics include things like discarded cotton fibers (recycled cotton), organically-grown flax plants (organic linen), or low-input and high-yield industrial hemp plants (hemp). 
  • Manufacturing of canvas fabrics: Manufacturing canvas fabrics is generally unsustainable. Regardless of the base fibers, the fundamentally mechanical processes of manufacturing canvas fabrics demand a lot of energy. The finishing processes and their environmental impacts vary depending on the desired physical properties to match the different purposes of using canvas fabrics but these processes can be chemical-intensive. 
  • Transportation of canvas fabrics: Canvas fabrics typically travel from fields to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles can be significant. 
  • Usage of canvas fabrics: Using canvas fabrics is generally sustainable. This heavy-duty material is durable and likely to last for a long time before needing replacement. Canvas fabrics are often used for products like handbags and shoes, which don’t require frequent washing, thus saving water and energy. 
  • End-of-life of canvas fabrics: The end-of-life stage for canvas fabric is generally sustainable, so long as it is made with 100% natural fibers because then it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.

The sustainability of canvas fabrics depends largely on the fibers used and the finishing practices—specifically whether or not synthetic coatings (like polyvinyl chloride and rayon gesso) are applied. The most sustainable canvas fabrics are made with plant fibers such as hemp, linen, or ramie sourced from fast-growing crops cultivated without pesticides and don’t use synthetic coatings. Organic cotton and recycled plastics are also considered eco-friendly base fibers for making canvas fabrics. 

Denim Fabrics: Everyday Textile Materials Made With Plant Fibers

Denim fabrics are traditionally made with 100% cotton. However, The more recently invented and increasingly popular stretchy types of denim are often a blend of cotton with artificial materials like polyester, lyocell (occasionally known as TENCEL™), and spandex (also known as Lycra®).

Here are the life-cycle stages of denim fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of cotton fibers for denim fabrics: Sourcing conventional cotton fiber is mostly unsustainable because the cotton crop is water-thirsty and vulnerable to various pests. Also, the widespread monoculture in cotton cultivation depletes the soil and necessitates synthetic fertilizer in many growing regions. However, sourcing organic cotton reduces greenhouse gas emissions from producing and using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while avoiding polluting water and soil. Sourcing recycled cotton requires far fewer resources, including water and energy used to grow and harvest new cotton plants. Also, it prevents additional textile waste.
  • Manufacturing of denim fabrics: Conventional denim fabric manufacturing is generally not very sustainable. Denim production typically involves many synthetic chemicals, which could cause severe water pollution if the effluent is not treated properly. However, more sustainable denim manufacturing processes that sidestep the harshest chemicals are available. Also, denim manufacturing is energy-intensive, causing severe ecological impacts if it relies heavily on fossil fuels. Yet, modification of certain manufacturing processes can save energy. 
  • Transportation of denim fabrics: The transportation of denim fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Denim fabrics typically travel from fields (where cotton plants are grown) to fiber and fabric factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of denim fabrics: The usage of denim fabrics tends to be less sustainable because of the relatively high energy consumption associated with washing, drying, and ironing. However, the environmental impacts of the usage stage can be reduced with changes in how denim clothes are laundered
  • End-of-life of denim fabrics: The end-of-life stage for pure cotton denim fabrics is generally sustainable because these are reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. It is important to note that the biodegradability changes for denim fabrics dyed with chemical indigos and/or containing plastic-based synthetic fibers like spandex and polyester

The sustainability of denim fabrics depends largely on the type of fiber(s) used and the manufacturing practices that give the denim material its iconic look and feel. Recycled cotton and organic cotton are two sustainable materials for making more environmentally friendly denim fabrics. Using renewable energy and advanced finishing technologies can help lower the impact of manufacturing denim fabrics. 

Bamboo Modal Fabrics: Durable, Biodegradable Materials From Fast-Growing Plant Crop 

Bamboo modal is a semi-synthetic fiber made in a less chemical-intensive modified viscose process that breaks down natural cellulose fibers in bamboo and regenerates fibers with desired properties. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of bamboo modal fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of cellulose fibers for bamboo modal fabrics: The sourcing stage is generally sustainable as bamboo is a renewable material. Bamboo grows and regrows rapidly, typically without needing fertilizer or irrigation. Additionally, bamboo has a significant carbon sequestration potential, helping to mitigate the climate crisis.
  • Manufacturing of bamboo modal fabrics: Manufacturing bamboo modal is generally not sustainable because it’s chemical and energy-intensive. High energy usage could have a serious knock-on ecological impact if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. However, manufacturing bamboo modal in closed-loop manufacturing systems that recover and recycle water and chemicals reduces the environmental impacts of this stage. 
  • Transportation of bamboo modal fabrics: Bamboo modal fabrics typically travel from forests or fields to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles can be significant. 
  • Usage of bamboo modal fabrics: The usage of bamboo modal fabrics is generally sustainable because modal clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes thanks to the materials’ high breathability properties. 
  • End-of-life of bamboo modal fabrics: The end-of-life stage for bamboo modal fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. It takes about six weeks for bamboo modal products to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.

Bamboo modal fabric is moderately sustainable. It is made with natural cellulose fibers from fast-growing bamboo and is fully biodegradable at the end of its life-cycle. Additionally, bamboo modal fabrics can be made more sustainably in closed-loop manufacturing systems that recover and recycle water and chemicals. 

Modal Fabrics: Durable, Biodegradable Materials Made With Woods

Modal is a semi-synthetic fabric made with regenerated cellulose fibers and dissolvent chemicals. This textile material is typically made with cellulose fibers from beechwood

Here are the life-cycle stages of modal fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of cellulose fibers for modal fabrics: The sourcing stage is generally sustainable because modal fabrics are made from renewable beechwood, obtainable from managed forests across North America and Europe. 
  • Manufacturing of modal fabrics: Manufacturing modal is generally not sustainable because it’s chemical and energy-intensive. High energy usage could have a serious knock-on ecological impact if manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels. However, manufacturing modal in closed-loop manufacturing systems, such as that of Lenzing, can recover and recycle the water and chemicals used, which ultimately reduces the environmental impacts of this stage. 
  • Transportation of modal fabrics: Modal fabrics typically travel from forests to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles can be significant. 
  • Usage of modal fabrics: The usage of modal fabrics is generally sustainable because modal clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes thanks to the materials’ high breathability properties. 
  • End-of-life of modal fabrics: The end-of-life stage for modal fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. It takes about six weeks for modal products to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.

Modal fabric is moderately sustainable. It is made with natural cellulose fibers from renewable beechwood and is fully biodegradable at the end of its life-cycle. Additionally, modal fabrics can be made more sustainably in closed-loop manufacturing systems that recover and recycle water and chemicals. 

Rayon Fabrics: Biodegradable Fabrics Made With Regenerated Cellulose Fibers 

Rayon fabrics are semi-synthetic fibers made in chemical manufacturing processes that break down natural cellulose fibers in wood and then regenerate fibers of desired properties. Rayon fibers can be divided into three generations, driven by the changes in manufacturing technology: viscose, the first generation of rayon (and sometimes simply referred to as rayon); modal, the second generation of rayon; and lyocell, the third (and most sustainable) generation of rayon. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of rayon fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of cellulose fibers for rayon fabrics: The sourcing stage is generally sustainable because rayon fabrics are made from renewable wood or wood-like material. The fabrics are more sustainable when raw materials come from trees like eucalyptus, bamboo, or beech, which grow relatively fast and require no irrigation or fertilizer. However, there are concerns over the association between sourcing raw materials for some rayon fabrics and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.
  • Manufacturing of rayon fabrics: Manufacturing rayon fabric can be chemical and energy-intensive. This, then, can have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes, such as Lenzing’s and Birla’s, can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials. 
  • Transportation of rayon fabrics: Rayon fabrics typically travel from forests to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles can be significant. 
  • Usage of rayon fabrics: The usage of rayon fabrics is relatively sustainable because the breathability of rayon clothing means they require relatively fewer washes. Also, modal and lyocell are durable fabrics. 
  • End-of-life of rayon fabrics: The end-of-life stage for rayon fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. It takes about six to eight weeks for rayon fibers to decompose, contrary to plastic-based items that could take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years. 

Rayon fabrics can be highly sustainable when durable, breathable fabrics are made with wood from sustainably managed forests. However, not all rayon fibers are made equally because some manufacturers still depend heavily on fossil fuels for energy while using and releasing many chemicals. Lyocell is generally considered the most sustainable rayon fiber, which is made in closed-loop manufacturing systems that use organic solvents instead of synthetic chemicals, as in the case of modal and viscose. 

Wood-Based Fabrics: Biodegradable Fabrics Made From Woods

Wood-based fabrics are made with one type of fiber or a blend of several fibers based on plant cellulose from trees or tree-like species. The main types of wood-based fibers are viscose, modal, lyocell, and acetate. These fibers can be regenerated in various chemical and mechanical processes using many kinds of wood feedstock (trees in natural forests, trees in planted forests, waste from the forest floor, and pre-consumer and post-consumer cellulose-based waste). 

Here are the life-cycle stages of wood-based fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of cellulose fibers for wood-based fabrics: The sourcing stage is generally sustainable. This is largely thanks to the carbon sequestration potential of trees. Also, wood-based fabrics are made from renewable plant materials, especially when the wood comes from fast-growing, low-input tree species in well-managed forests or farms. However, there are concerns over the association between sourcing raw materials for some wood-based fabrics and deforestation in ancient and endangered forests.
  • Manufacturing of wood-based fabrics: Manufacturing wood-based fabrics is generally unsustainable, though there are some exceptions. Wood-based fabric production is typically chemical and energy-intensive. That could have serious knock-on ecological impacts, especially if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing locations. However, integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes, such as Lenzing’s and Birla’s, can recover part of the energy during production while optimizing materials. 
  • Transportation of wood-based fabrics: Wood-based fabrics typically travel from forests or fields to factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles can be significant. 
  • Usage of wood-based fabrics: Using wood-based fabrics is generally sustainable. Because these fabrics are made with cellulose fibers, they don’t shed microplastic during the usage stage. Some wood-based fabrics, such as lyocell and modal, are breathable and durable—two telltale signs of sustainability. 
  • End-of-life of wood-based fabrics: The end-of-life stage for wood-based fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

The sustainability of wood-based fabrics varies depending on the cellulose fibers and the manufacturing processes. Lyocell is generally considered the most sustainable rayon fiber, which is made in closed-loop manufacturing systems that use organic solvents instead of synthetic chemicals, as in the case of modal, viscose, and acetate. 

Merino Wool Fabrics: Long-Lasting, Odor-Resistant, and Biodegradable Materials Derived From Merino Sheep 

Merino wool is a biodegradable fabric made with the fleeces of merino sheep, which is a renewable resource. During the usage phase, merino wool clothing and household items can be washed sparsely, saving water and energy. As an animal-derived product, merino wool fabrics share the often high impact that farming has on the land and the merino sheep themselves.

Here are the life-cycle stages of merino wool fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of fleeces for merino wool fabrics: The raw material for merino wool fabrics comes from the fleeces of merino sheep, a species specifically bred for fine fibers. Merino wool fibers are considered a renewable resource. Some merino sheep breeds can be shorn for their fleeces as frequently as every two months and yield significant amounts of fibers. The environmental impacts of raising merino sheep for wool and meat depend largely on farming practices, but it is possible to source merino wool sustainably.
  • Manufacturing of merino wool fabrics: Manufacturing merino wool fabrics starts with collecting merino sheep’s fleeces. In many cases, the shearing is painful and stressful for the animal. The processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical. They are energy-demanding and water-intensive, making merino wool processing less sustainable. 
  • Transportation of merino wool fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with merino wool fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Merino wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the sheep’s fleeces are collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of merino wool fabrics: The usage of merino wool is generally sustainable. Merino wool requires less frequent washes because it is a breathable, odor-resistant, quick-to-dry material. 
  • End-of-life of merino wool fabrics: The end-of-life stage for merino wool is generally sustainable because untreated merino wool is fully biodegradable and compostable. 

Merino wool fabrics are among the most moderately sustainable textile materials. Keeping merino sheep for their fleece can have a high impact, but such impact can be reduced by sourcing responsible, regenerative, and organic merino wool. Additionally, recycled merino wool is highly sustainable as it bypasses the resource-intensive farming stage. 

Sheep Wool: Long-Lasting, Odor-Resistant, and Biodegradable Materials Derived From Sheep 

Sheep wool fabrics are made with the hair from sheep fleece, a natural material that readily biodegrades at the end of its life. During the usage phase, sheep wool clothes and accessories can be washed sparsely, saving water and energy. Yet, some sheep farming systems are troublesome, affecting sheep wool fabrics’ sustainability and ethics. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of sheep wool fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of fleeces for sheep wool fabrics: The raw material for sheep wool fabric comes from sheep fleece—the coat that a sheep wears during the winter. The environmental impacts of sourcing this material vary significantly depending on the sheep farms, with organic farming practices being the most sustainable. Sourcing wool fibers from discarded sheep wool waste is even more sustainable as it utilizes waste instead of putting strains on natural resources for raising additional sheep. 
  • Manufacturing of sheep wool fabrics: Manufacturing sheep wool fabrics is energy and water-intensive, making sheep wool processing less sustainable. This process starts with collecting the fleece from a sheep. In many cases, the shearing is painful and stressful for the animal. The steps that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical.
  • Transportation of sheep wool fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with sheep wool fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Sheep wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the fleeces are collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of sheep wool fabrics: The usage of sheep wool is generally sustainable. Sheep wool fabrics require less frequent washes because it is a breathable, odor-resistant, quick-to-dry material. 
  • End-of-life of sheep wool fabrics: The end-of-life stage for sheep wool is generally sustainable because untreated sheep wool is fully biodegradable and compostable.

Sheep wool fabrics are among the most moderately sustainable textile materials. Keeping sheep for their fleece can have a high impact, but that impact can be reduced by sourcing responsible, regenerative, and organic sheep wool. Additionally, recycled sheep wool is highly sustainable as it bypasses the resource-intensive farming stage. 

Lambswool Fabrics: Fine, Odor-Resistant, and Biodegradable Materials Derived From Sheep’s First Shearing

Lambswool fabrics are made with the first shearing of a sheep (which is still at the lamb stage). It is a natural material that readily biodegrades at the end of its life. During the usage phase, wool clothing and household items can be washed sparsely, saving water and energy. As an animal-derived product, wool fabrics share the impact that farming has on the land and the animals themselves.

Here are the life-cycle stages of lambswool fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of sheep’s first shearing for lambswool fabrics: The raw material for lambswool fabric comes from a sheep’s first shearing when the sheep is considered a lamb. The environmental impacts of sourcing this material vary significantly depending on the sheep farms, with organic farming practices being the most sustainable. Sourcing wool fibers from discarded lambswool waste is even more sustainable as it utilizes waste instead of putting strains on natural resources for raising additional sheep. 
  • Manufacturing of lambswool fabrics: The manufacturing of lambswool fabrics is energy and water-intensive, making lambswool processing less sustainable. This process starts with collecting the first fleece from a lamb. In many cases, the shearing is painful and stressful for the animal. The processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical.
  • Transportation of lambswool fabrics: Lambswool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where these first fleeces are collected, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles can be significant. 
  • Usage of lambswool fabrics: The usage of lambswool is generally sustainable. Wool fabrics, the lambswool variety included, require less frequent washes because they are breathable, odor-resistant, quick-to-dry materials. 
  • End-of-life of lambswool fabrics: The end-of-life stage for lambswool is generally sustainable because untreated lambswool is fully biodegradable and compostable. 

Lambswool fabrics are among the most moderately sustainable textile materials. Keeping sheep for their first fleece can have a high impact but such impact can be reduced by sourcing responsible, regenerative, and organic lambswool. Additionally, recycled lambswool is highly sustainable as it bypasses the resource-intensive farming stage. 

Wool Fabrics: Odor-Resistant and Biodegradable Materials Derived From Animal Hair

Wool fabrics are made with animal hair, a natural material that readily biodegrades at the end of its life-cycle. During the usage phase, wool clothing and household items can be washed sparsely, saving water and energy. As an animal-derived product, wool fabrics share the impact that farming has on the land and the animals themselves.

Here are the life-cycle stages of wool fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of animal hair for wool fabrics: Wool fibers are generally considered a renewable resource. The raw material for wool fabrics comes from the fleece or hair of various animal species. However, the farming systems that raise some of these fiber-providing animals are so damaging that they affect the renewability of the resources they provide. Farming practices are also the major factor dictating the environmental impacts of rearing animals for wool and meat. Yet, it is possible to source some types of wool fabrics sustainably.
  • Manufacturing of wool fabrics: Manufacturing of wool fabrics is energy and water-intensive, making wool processing less sustainable. The process starts with collecting animal hair. In many cases, the shearing is painful and stressful for the animal. The processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical. 
  • Transportation of wool fabrics: Wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the animal hair is collected, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles can be significant. 
  • Usage of wool fabrics: The usage of wool is generally sustainable. Wooly sweaters, socks, and scarves require less frequent washes at lower temperatures. Also, wool fabrics dry on the line instead of electricity-powered driers. Lastly, clothes made with wool generally have a long lifespan. 
  • End-of-life of wool fabrics: The end-of-life stage for wool is generally sustainable because untreated wool is fully biodegradable and compostable. 

The sustainability of wool fabrics varies depending on the animals and the farming systems from which the raw materials (hair) for wool fabrics are sourced. Keeping animals, especially ruminants (sheep and goats), for their hair can have a relatively high impact. Still, such an impact can be reduced by sourcing from responsible, regenerative, and organic farming systems. Additionally, recycled wool is highly sustainable as it bypasses the resource-intensive farming stage. 

Velvet Fabrics: A Luxurious Textile That Could Be Made With Sustainable Yarns

Velvet fabrics are woven materials traditionally made with silk and gradually modernized with more recently invented fibers. Unfortunately, the luxury plush feel of velvet often comes with a high environmental cost. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of velvet fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing for velvet fabrics: Sourcing silk as a raw material for velvet fabrics is not sustainable. Silk comes from the cocoons that silkworm caterpillars produce to wrap around themselves while transforming into silkworm moths. The main food for these larvae is the mulberry tree leaves, which are often cultivated with significant land, irrigation, and (unnecessary) synthetic agrochemicals. However, the sourcing stage of velvet fabrics can be sustainable when raw materials come from recycled waste, organically farmed and/or low-input plants, and fast-growing trees. For example, sourcing discarded cotton fibers (recycled cotton), organic flax plants (organic linen), or eucalyptus wood (lyocell) as raw materials for velvet fabrics is sustainable.
  • Manufacturing of velvet fabrics: Manufacturing velvet fabrics is reasonably sustainable. The processes in velvet manufacturing are fundamentally mechanical, regardless of which base textile is used. The type of process dyes and the associated environmental impacts vary depending on the base textile. 
  • Transportation of velvet fabrics: Transporting velvet fabrics can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Velvet fabrics typically travel from farms or fields to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of velvet fabrics: The sustainability of using velvet fabrics depends on the yarn(s) used in manufacturing. Using velvet fabrics made with plastic-based yarns like petroleum-derived polyester or nylon is unsustainable. These materials release microplastics into marine environments. This doesn’t happen with bio-based yarns, such as linen or lyocell, leading to a more sustainable usage stage for bio-based velvet fabrics.
  • End-of-life of velvet fabrics: The sustainability of velvet fabrics’ end-of-life stage depends on the yarn(s) used in manufacturing. The end-of-life of velvet fabrics made with plastic-based synthetic yarns like petroleum-derived polyester or nylon is not sustainable. These materials are not biodegradable. The end-of-life of velvet fabrics made with bio-based yarns is generally sustainable. Because of their biodegradability, these materials can be disposed of by composting, incinerating, and landfilling.

The environmental impacts of velvet are diverse and inconsistent depending on the base yarns. Silk-based velvet is not sustainable because sourcing and processing silk protein fibers are resource-intensive. At the usage stage, washing and caring for velvet fabrics have high environmental impacts. However, velvet fabrics can be made from low-impact yarns like organic cotton or lyocell, which are sustainable. 

Velour Fabrics: A Textile Material That Could Be Made With Sustainable Yarns

Velour is a pile-knitted fabric made with a specific base yarn. Though other fibers, such as rayon and nylon, are sometimes used, cotton and polyester are the most common starting points of velour fabrics. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of velour fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing raw materials for velour fabrics: Sourcing virgin polyester —the most common raw material for today’s velour fabrics—is unsustainable. Digging into the fossil fuel reserve to make polyester fibers leads to the depletion of nonrenewable resources, acceleration of climate change, and environmental pollution. However, the sourcing stage of velour fabrics can be sustainable when raw materials are recycled from waste, such as using discarded PET bottles to make recycled polyester or post-consumer cotton waste to produce recycled cotton. Other sustainable sources for velour’s raw materials are organic and in-transition cotton farming.
  • Manufacturing of velour fabrics: Manufacturing velour fabrics is reasonably sustainable. The processes in velour manufacturing are fundamentally mechanical, regardless of which base textile is used. The type of process dyes and the associated environmental impacts vary depending on the base textile. 
  • Transportation of velour fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with velour fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Velour fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels are extracted or fields where cotton plants are grown to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills.
  • Usage of velour fabrics: The sustainability of using velour fabrics depends on the yarn(s) used in manufacturing. Using velour fabrics made with plastic-based yarns like petroleum-derived polyester or nylon is unsustainable. These materials release microplastics into marine environments. This doesn’t happen with bio-based yarns, however, leading to a more sustainable usage stage for cotton-based velour fabrics. 
  • End-of-life of velour fabrics: The sustainability of velour fabrics’ end-of-life stage depends on the yarn(s) used in manufacturing. Of course, the end-of-life of velour fabrics made with plastic-based synthetic yarns like petroleum-derived polyester is unsustainable, as these materials are not biodegradable. In contrast, the end-of-life of cotton-based velour fabrics is generally sustainable. Because of cotton’s biodegradability, these materials can be disposed of by composting, incinerating, and landfilling.

The environmental impacts of velour are diverse and inconsistent depending on the base yarns. Cotton-based velour is not sustainable because cultivating cotton requires a lot of water. Also, synthetic chemicals in conventional cotton farming harm the environment, workers, and users. However, recycled and organic cotton are sustainable materials for making more environmentally friendly velour fabrics. Similarly, velour fabrics based on virgin synthetic fabrics are not sustainable, but recycled alternatives make more eco-friendly options. 

AppleSkinTM Fabrics: Leather Alternative Made with Bio Waste

AppleSkinTM (Apple Eco Leather)—a leather alternative—is made by replacing part of the fossil derivatives in commercial synthetic leather with natural agricultural waste—apple pomace and peels. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of AppleSkinTM fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of bamboo fibers for AppleSkinTM fabrics: The raw materials for AppleSkinTM are natural cellulose fibers extracted from plants and synthetic plastics derived from fossil fuels. Sourcing natural cellulose fibers from apple peels is sustainable and reduces agricultural waste instead of demanding more virgin resources. However, sourcing synthetic plastics is not sustainable because fossil fuels are non-renewable resources. The ratio between natural and synthetic content varies, and the higher the bio content in an AppleSkin variety, the more sustainable this stage is.
  • Manufacturing of AppleSkinTM fabrics: Manufacturing AppleSkinTM fabrics is generally not very sustainable. AppleSkinTM fabrics contain a high content of oil derivatives—polyester and polyurethane—which are associated with high manufacturing carbon footprints, especially when compared with plant-based material. 
  • Transportation of AppleSkinTM fabrics: Transporting for the sourcing and manufacturing of AppleSkinTM fabrics can be relatively sustainable because the material is made locally in the north of Italy. However, the transporting carbon footprint to the point-of-sale (e.g., in the US) of a specific AppleSkinTM product, like a shoe or a handbag, varies depending on the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles.
  • Usage of AppleSkinTM fabrics: The usage of AppleSkinTM is generally not quite as sustainable as animal leather, mainly because of its modest strength properties. For example, AppleSkinTM tends not to be as durable as cow leather. Also, AppleSkinTM doesn’t have the absolute strength advantages compared to synthetic leather or other leather alternatives with plant-based materials.
  • End-of-life of AppleSkinTM fabrics: The end-of-life stage for AppleSkinTM is generally not sustainable because its hybrid nature limits its end-of-life options. This material is neither biodegradable nor compostable. It is also not easy to recycle AppleSkinTM fabrics. 

AppleSkinTM is generally considered a more sustainable alternative than animal and synthetic leather. Utilizing apple peels to make AppleSkinTM reduces agricultural waste instead of restraining natural resources. However, AppleSkinTM contains a high content of synthetic plastics alongside its plant-based material extracted from apple waste. Using fossil-derived plastics increases the material’s carbon footprint and hinders its end-of-life options. 

Vegan Leather Fabrics: Leather Alternative That Can Be Made With Bio Materials

Vegan leather fabrics are an alternative to animal-derived leather and, therefore, avoid the resource-intensive farming stage and chemical-intensive manufacturing stage of the animal counterparts while serving the same purpose as leather. Vegan leather can be a fabric made completely from fossil fuels or natural ingredients or anywhere in between, making it one of the more difficult materials when it comes to assessing sustainability. The ever-increasingly long list of vegan leather fabrics include but are not limited to PU, PVC, Piñatex, AppleSkinTM, Mylo™, MIRUM®, VEGEA, and Desserto®

Here are the life-cycle stages of vegan leather fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of plant materials for vegan leather fabrics: Sourcing fossil-based plastic polymers for vegan leather, such as to make PVC or PU, is not sustainable. Fossil fuels come from nonrenewable resources. Also, extracting and refining fossil fuels has a high energy demand, exacerbates the climate crisis, and pollutes the environment. However, the sourcing stage of vegan leather can be sustainable when a high proportion of raw materials comes from renewable plant sources, especially as by-products of the food industry, such as in the cases of Piñatex, Ohoskin, Desserto®, and VEGEA
  • Manufacturing of vegan leather fabrics: The sustainability of manufacturing vegan leather varies, depending on the materials used (fossil-derived or plant-derived), the processes (chemical or mechanical), and the source of energy (renewable or nonrenewable). For example, manufacturing PVC, the traditional plastic-based vegan leather, is generally unsustainable because it is energy- and chemical-intensive. In contrast, producing Piñatex is sustainable thanks to a closed-loop mechanical manufacturing process without harmful synthetic chemicals. 
  • Transportation of vegan leather fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing items made with vegan leather due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Vegan leather typically travels from fields or mines to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of vegan leather fabrics: The sustainability of using vegan leather depends on whether the components are fossil-derived or plant-derived. Using vegan leather made with fossil-derived plastics, such as traditional PVC and PU leather, is unsustainable, as these materials release microplastics into marine environments. This doesn’t happen with 100% bio-based vegan leather, such as Piñatex, MIRUM®, MyloTM, and Ohoskin
  • End-of-life of vegan leather fabrics: Vegan leather’s end-of-life stage is generally unsustainable because of the limited options available. The common use of plastic polymers hinders the degradability of vegan leather in natural environments. Additionally, vegan leather is often a blend of various materials, making it challenging to recycle the components separately. 

Traditional fossil-derived vegan leather, such as PVC and PU, is generally unsustainable. Sourcing fossil fuels has many adverse environmental impacts while using vegan leather containing synthetic plastics contributes to the mounting microplastic problems. Synthetic plastics also hinder the degradability of these materials. However, vegan leather can be sustainable when made with 100% bio materials in low-impact processes. Piñatex is one of the most sustainable fabrics because it is made of 100% plant-derived materials, using no toxic chemicals in a closed-loop process. 

How Can You Buy Fabrics More Sustainably

Though fabrics on this list are generally unsustainable, it is possible to find various varieties with lower impacts. The key to this is checking relevant environmental and original certifications. 

For natural fabrics

  • 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 certification identifies products made from plants or other renewable materials.
  • Ecolabel: Ecolabel is the official European Union voluntary label recognized worldwide for certified products with a guaranteed, independently-verified low environmental impact. The label requires high environmental standards throughout the entire life-cycle: from raw material extraction through production and distribution to disposal. It also encourages companies to develop innovative, durable, easy-to-repair, and recyclable products. 

For plant-based semi-natural/semi-synthetic fabrics:

  • Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners.

For recycled fabrics:

  • 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.

For all types of 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® Standard 100: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals). 

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.

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 alike. 

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 canvas’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 create new 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 can lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and fewer 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 those 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 reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being—and ultimately their 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 for better treatment of animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated that there are as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom are 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

To recap, the most moderately sustainable fabrics are as follows: 

  1. Canvas
  2. Denim
  3. Bamboo modal
  4. Modal
  5. Rayon
  6. Wood-based
  7. Merino wool
  8. Sheep wool
  9. Lambswool
  10. Wool
  11. Velvet 
  12. Velour
  13. AppleSkinTM
  14. Vegan leather 

The most sustainable varieties of these fabrics utilize easily renewable organic materials and/or waste to lower the environmental impacts of sourcing. On top of that, manufacturing can be made more sustainable by using renewable energy and integrated/closed-loop systems that reclaim, recycle, and reuse input. 

To make your use of these fabrics even more sustainable, follow these steps:

  1. Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled clothes made with these fabrics.
  2. While using these fabrics, maximize the number of wears between washes and keep them as long as possible.
  3. At the end-of-life of the fabrics, upcycle materials to extend their usage and arrange for them to be recycled or properly disposed of.

Stay impactful,



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