20 Most Sustainable Fabrics: The Full Life-Cycle Analysis

20 Most Sustainable Fabrics: The Full Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:38 Minutes

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Amid growing concerns about the textile industry’s environmental impact, the pressure on finding the most sustainable fabrics is more important than ever. Unfortunately, fashion greenwashing makes it harder for you and all other consumers to figure out which materials are sustainable and which are not. So, we have to ask: Which fabrics are the most sustainable? 

The most sustainable fabrics include organic hemp, organic linen, and recycled cotton which are sourced environmentally-friendly and have a long life-cycle. In addition, recycled polyester and recycled nylon re-circulate plastic waste that would otherwise take up landfills and harm the environment.

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of All Fabrics

The textile industry is rife with synthetic chemicals, often from sourcing raw materials to processing them. However, there are 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 20 most 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 20 Most Sustainable Fabrics

These fabrics utilize renewable and/or waste materials to lower the environmental impacts of sourcing. The many natural-based fabrics on this list are biodegradable and compostable, returning nutrition to the soil as they break down. 

Type of fabricsOverall sustainability
Organic Hemp FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Organic hemp fabrics are durable and biodegradable materials made with hemp fibers grown and processed without toxic synthetic chemicals. Hemp plants are among the most productive fiber-producing crops. 

Additionally: The industrial hemp crop requires little irrigation and thrives in a wide natural range. 
Organic Linen FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Organic linen fabrics are durable and biodegradable materials made with flax fibers grown and processed without toxic synthetic chemicals. The flax crop requires little irrigation. 

Additionally: In addition to fibers, flax plants also provide oil, food, and dietary supplements. 
Recycled Cotton FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Using cotton-based waste to make recycled cotton fabrics reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed to grow new cotton crops. 

Additionally: Diverting discarded cotton fabrics back into the economy slows down the demand for land needed for waste storage.
Recycled Wool FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Using discarded wool materials to make recycled wool fabrics reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed for rearing more wool-producing animals. 

Additionally: Diverting discarded woolen fabrics back into the economy slows down the demand for land needed for waste storage.
Recycled Polyester FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Recycled polyester fabrics re-circulate plastic waste that would otherwise take up landfills for centuries or get into marine environments, potentially harming animals and humans.

Additionally: Diverting discarded plastic-based materials back into the economy slows down the demand for land needed to store plastic waste, which could keep its form instead of breaking down for centuries.
Recycled Nylon FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Recycled nylon fabrics re-circulate plastic waste that would otherwise take up landfills for centuries or get into marine environments, potentially harming animals and humans. 

Additionally: Diverting discarded plastic-based materials back into the economy slows down the demand for land needed to store plastic waste, which could keep its form instead of breaking down for centuries.
Organic Cotton FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Organic cotton fabrics are made with natural fibers without any added toxic synthetic chemicals and, thus, are fully biodegradable at the end of their life. 

Additionally: The breathable organic cotton fabrics require less frequent washes, saving water and energy. 
Lyocell Fabrics What makes it so sustainable: Lyocell fibers are derived from fast-growing, adaptive plants and are fully biodegradable at the end of their life. The Lyocell manufacturing process uses organic solvents that can be recovered up to 99.5% in a closed-loop system. The material is durable and breathable. 

Additionally: Eucalyptus and bamboo, the two common feedstock for lyocell fabrics, require little irrigation and thrives in a wide natural range. 
Ramie Fabrics What makes it so sustainable: Ramie fabrics are made with natural plant fibers from a low-input, repeated-yield crop. They are fully biodegradable at the end of their life. 

Additionally: Ramie fibers are very strong and can hold shape well, making ramie fabrics highly durable. 
Piñatex FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: 80% of raw materials for Piñatex fabrics come from pineapple leaves, an agricultural waste from the pineapple fruit industry. Piñatex fabric production is a closed-loop mechanical process without toxic synthetic chemicals. 

Additionally: The material can be partially durable for clothing items that don’t bear high forces. 
Kapok FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Kapok fibers come from fast-growing tropical trees that require no irrigation and agrochemicals, meaning that the raw material is easily renewable and comes with the climate benefits of carbon sequestration.

Additionally: Kapok fiber is resilient, contributing to the overall durability of kapok fabrics, which is often a blend of kapok fiber and other fibers.
Jute FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Jute fabrics are made with natural plant fibers from a low-input, high-yield crop. They are fully biodegradable at the end of their life. 

Additionally: Jute fibers are strong, meaning clothing and household items made with jute fabric can last long before a replacement is needed. 
Hemp FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Hemp fabrics are durable and biodegradable, coming from one of the most productive fiber-producing crops. 

Additionally: The industrial hemp crop requires little irrigation and thrives in a wide natural range. 
Linen FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Linen fabrics are durable and biodegradable materials made from a fiber crop with multiple environmental benefits.

Additionally: Flax fibers are relatively durable, meaning clothes made with linen fabric can last long before a replacement is needed. 
Bamboo Lyocell FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Bamboo lyocell fibers are derived from fibers of the fast-growing, easily renewable bamboo crop. The lyocell manufacturing process uses organic solvents that can be recovered up to 99.5% in a closed-loop system. 

Additionally: Bamboo lyocell is durable and breathable. 
Organic Wool FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Organic wool fabrics are made with animal-derived fibers without any added toxic synthetic chemicals and, thus, are fully biodegradable at the end of their life. 

Additionally: Wool fibers are odor-resistant, meaning organic wool clothing and household items can be washed infrequently, saving water and energy. 
Alpaca Wool FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Alpaca wool fabrics are made with fleeces from alpacas—a species in the camel family, whose wool is considered a renewable resource. Alpaca wool clothes are durable, which is a telltale sign of sustainability in usage.

Additionally: Alpaca wool fibers are odor-resistant, meaning alpaca wool clothes can be washed infrequently, saving water and energy. 
ECONYL® FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: ECONYL® production re-circulates plastic waste that would otherwise take up landfills for centuries or get into marine environments, potentially harming animals and humans. 

Additionally: The ECONYL® Regeneration System is a closed-loop production system that saves natural resources, lowering environmental impacts.
TENCEL™ FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: TENCEL™ fabrics are breathable and durable—two telltale signs of sustainability in usage. 

Additionally: TENCEL™ fibers are made in integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes that recover part of the energy during production while optimizing chemical usage. 
Qmonos/Brewed Protein FabricsWhat makes it so sustainable: Qmonos/Brewed Protein is made from renewable plant-based ingredients sourced locally from sustainable farms. 

Additionally: Qmonos/Brewed Protein fibers are very strong, meaning that the material can last long and be more sustainable. 

Overall, these fabrics are all highly 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 house during the usage phase. 

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

Organic Hemp Fabrics: Durable Natural Materials From Productive, Adaptive Plants 

The industrial hemp plant has huge potential for sustainable fabrics. The plant can easily thrive without agrochemicals, yielding a lot of fibers to make organic hemp fabrics

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

  • Growing of industrial hemp plants in organic farms: The hemp plants sequester a significant amount of carbon while improving soil nutrition. Little water is needed for hemp cultivation, yet the fiber yields are the highest of any natural fiber. Organic hemp planting uses no toxic synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This species has a wide natural range and multiple outputs (fiber, wood, oil, food, and dietary supplements).
  • Manufacturing of organic hemp fabrics: Organic hemp fabric production doesn’t involve harmful synthetic chemicals. The mechanical processes to produce organic hemp can be labor-intensive and energy-demanding. 
  • Transportation of organic hemp fabrics: Organic hemp fabrics typically travel from fields (where industrial hemp plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of organic hemp fabrics: Organic hemp fabrics are lightweight and highly breathable. They don’t need to be washed too frequently, saving water and energy. Industrial hemp fibers are strong: three times the tensile strength of cotton. It means materials made with organic hemp fibers can last long before a replacement is needed, being more sustainable. 
  • End-of-life of organic hemp fabrics: The end-of-life stage for organic hemp is sustainable because the fiber is biodegradable and compostable. 

Organic hemp fabrics are one of the most sustainable textile materials. They are durable and biodegradable materials made with natural fibers without harmful synthetic chemicals. Industrial hemp plants produce the highest fiber yield among all plant fiber crops. These plants are adaptive and typically rainfed. 

Organic Linen Fabrics: Durable, Breathable Materials From Organically Cultivated Flax Plants 

Organic linen fabrics are typically made with natural fibers from flax plants cultivated without toxic synthetic chemicals. The flax crops sequester carbon and promote biodiversity while requiring little or no irrigation. There are also linen fabrics made from bamboo (bamboo linen). 

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

  • Growing of organic flax plants: A flax field has high carbon sequestration potential and harbors rich biodiversity. Flax is a rainfed, versatile crop with a relatively short rotation (100 days). Organic flax plants are grown without toxic synthetic chemicals. 
  • Manufacturing of organic linen fabrics: Organic linen fabric production doesn’t involve harmful synthetic chemicals. The mechanical processes to produce organic linen can be labor-intensive and energy-demanding. 
  • Transportation of organic linen fabrics: Organic linen fabrics typically travel from flax fields to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of organic linen fabrics: Organic linen fabrics are breathable. They don’t need to be washed too frequently, saving water and energy. Flax fibers are relatively durable: stronger and more sunlight resistant than cotton. It means materials made with flax fibers can last long before a replacement is needed, being more sustainable. 
  • End-of-life of organic linen fabrics: The end-of-life stage for organic linen is sustainable because the fiber is biodegradable and compostable. 

Organic linen fabrics are among the most sustainable textile materials. They are durable and biodegradable materials made with natural fibers without harmful synthetic chemicals. The flax crop—which provides raw materials for linen fabrics—is a versatile rainfed crop. 

Recycled Cotton Fabrics: Breathable Natural Textiles Re-Circulating Waste 

Recycled cotton fabrics are cotton materials without the many adverse environmental impacts of using a lot of water, land, and energy to grow the thirsty, agrochemical-dependent cotton crop. 

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

  • Sourcing of recycled cotton fabrics: Utilizing cotton waste for recycled cotton fabrics reduces waste and lessens the pressure on natural resources (water and land) needed to grow new cotton crops. Sourcing discarded cotton materials is even more sustainable if the original cotton fibers were organically grown and processed (i.e., no toxic synthetic chemicals). 
  • Manufacturing of recycled cotton fabrics: Manufacturing recycled cotton fabrics with discarded cotton fibers has relatively low energy consumption compared to processing virgin cotton fibers. The mechanical process of breaking down cotton waste to retrieve the fibers often shortens the fiber length and, thus, can’t be repeated indefinitely (to allow recycled cotton to be truly circular).
  • Transportation of recycled cotton fabrics: Recycled 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. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of recycled cotton fabrics: Cotton fabrics, including the recycled variety, are breathable. They don’t need to be washed too frequently, saving water and energy. Mechanically recycled cotton fibers are typically not as strong as virgin cotton fibers due to the shorter lengths of the former. 
  • End-of-life of recycled cotton fabrics: The end-of-life stage for recycled cotton is sustainable because the fiber is biodegradable and compostable. Blending recycled cotton fibers with synthetic fibers increases the strength and durability of recycled wood fabrics but reduces their recyclability and degradability. 

Recycled cotton fabrics are among the most sustainable textile materials largely because recycling cotton waste reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed to grow new cotton plants and store discarded cotton materials. It leads to recycled cotton being a low-impact fabric compared to conventional cotton.

Recycled Wool Fabrics: Odor-Resistant Natural Textiles Re-Circulating Waste 

Recycled wool fabrics are wool materials without the many adverse environmental impacts associated with the land and water use for rearing more animals to collect their hair or fleece. 

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

  • Sourcing of recycled wool fabrics: Utilizing wool waste for recycled wool fabrics reduces the pressure on natural resources (land and water) needed to raise “wooly animals .”Sheep and goat farming for meat and wool exacerbates climate change largely because of the potent greenhouse gas (enteric methane) emitted by these ruminant animals. Sourcing discarded wool materials is even more sustainable if the original wool fibers were organically farmed and processed (i.e., no toxic synthetic chemicals). 
  • Manufacturing of recycled wool fabrics: Manufacturing recycled fabrics has high energy demand, particularly regarding breaking down wool waste to retrieve the fibers (shredding or fraying). The mechanical process of breaking down wool waste to recover the fibers often shortens the fiber length and, thus, can’t be repeated indefinitely (to allow recycled wool to be truly circular). 
  • Transportation of recycled wool fabrics: Recycled wool 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. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of recycled wool fabrics: Wool fabrics, including the recycled variety, are odor-resistant. Wool clothing requires fewer washes than many other textile materials, saving water and energy. Mechanically recycled wool fibers are typically not as strong as virgin wool fibers due to the shorter lengths of the former. 
  • End-of-life of recycled cotton fabrics: The end-of-life stage for recycled wool is sustainable because the fiber is biodegradable and compostable. Blending recycled wool fibers with synthetic fibers increases the strength and durability of recycled wood fabrics but reduces their recyclability and degradability. 

Recycled wool fabrics are a highly sustainable textile material largely because recycling wool waste reduces pressure on land, water, and other resources needed to raise animals for their hair or fleece. It leads to recycled wool being a low-impact fabric compared with conventional wool.

Recycled Polyester Fabrics: Low-Impact Textiles Re-Circulating Plastic Waste 

Recycled polyester fabrics are synthetic materials made with plastic waste that would otherwise take up landfills for centuries or get into marine environments, potentially harming animals and humans. 

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

  • Sourcing of recycled polyester fabrics: Utilizing plastic waste for recycled polyester fabrics avoids further depleting nonrenewable fossil fuels—the conventional raw materials for virgin polyester—and the serious adverse environmental impacts associated with extracting and refining fossil fuels. Diverting plastic waste back into usage prevents it from clogging up landfills for hundreds of years or entering water bodies where it can harm wildlife and humans. 
  • Manufacturing of recycled polyester fabrics: Recycled polyester fabrics can be manufactured via mechanical recycling or chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling is more sustainable than chemical recycling because the former doesn’t depend on toxic synthetic chemicals. However, polyester fibers recycled mechanically have inferior qualities compared to ones made via the chemical route. 
  • Transportation of recycled polyester fabrics: Recycled polyester 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. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of recycled polyester fabrics: Washing polyester fabrics, the recycled variety included, releases microplastics into water bodies, causing harm to fishes that ingest them and numerous animals further up the food chain. Due to a low moisture absorbency rate, polyester fabrics often require washing more frequently, increasing water and energy usage. Due to their shortened length, mechanically recycled polyester fibers are typically less durable than virgin polyester fibers. 
  • End-of-life of recycled polyester fabrics: The end-of-life stage for recycled polyester is not sustainable because this fossil-based material is not biodegradable. Polyester fabrics, the recycled variety included, take centuries to decompose in natural environments

Mechanically recycled polyester fabrics are generally considered one of the most sustainable textile materials. Reusing plastic bottles or discarded polyester fibers to make recycled polyester clothes reduces the pressure on fossil fuels, the raw materials for most virgin polyester. Consequently, recycled polyester fabrics have relatively low environmental impacts, especially compared to conventional polyester

Recycled Nylon Fabrics: Low-Impact Textiles Re-Circulating Plastic Waste 

Recycled nylon fabrics are synthetic materials made with plastic waste that would otherwise take up landfills for centuries or enter marine environments, potentially harming animals and humans. Econyl is a well-known recycled nylon yarn produced in a closed-loop system.

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

  • Sourcing of recycled nylon fabrics: Utilizing plastic waste for recycled nylon fabrics avoids further depleting nonrenewable fossil fuels—the conventional raw materials for virgin nylon—and the serious adverse environmental impacts associated with extracting and refining fossil fuels. Diverting plastic waste back into usage prevents it from clogging up landfills for hundreds of years or entering water bodies where it can harm wildlife and humans. 
  • Manufacturing of recycled nylon fabrics: Recycled nylon fabrics can be manufactured via mechanical recycling or chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling is more sustainable than chemical recycling because the former doesn’t depend on toxic synthetic chemicals. However, nylon fibers recycled mechanically have inferior qualities compared to ones made via the chemical route. 
  • Transportation of recycled nylon fabrics: Recycled nylon 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. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of recycled nylon fabrics: Washing nylon fabrics, the recycled variety included, releases microplastics into water bodies, causing harm to fishes that ingest them and numerous animals further up the food chain. Due to a low moisture absorbency rate, nylon fabrics often require washing more frequently, increasing water and energy usage. Mechanically recycled nylon fibers are typically less durable than virgin nylon fibers due to their shortened fiber lengths. 
  • End-of-life of recycled nylon fabrics: The end-of-life stage for recycled nylon is not sustainable because this fossil-based material is not biodegradable. Nylon fabrics, the recycled variety included, take at least decades to decompose in natural environments

Mechanically recycled nylon fabrics are generally considered among the most sustainable textile materials. Reusing discarded fishing nets or throwaway nylon fabrics to make recycled nylon clothes reduces the pressure on fossil fuels, the raw materials for most virgin nylon. It leads to recycled nylon generally being a low-impact fabric, especially compared to conventional nylon

Organic Cotton Fabrics: Breathable Natural Materials From Organically Cultivated Cotton Plants 

Organic cotton fabrics are made with natural fibers from cotton plants cultivated without toxic synthetic chemicals. In contrast, conventional cotton is notorious for polluting production, both during farming and manufacturing. 

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

  • Sourcing of organically-cultivated cotton plants: As they grow, cotton plants sequester carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. Organic cotton plants are grown without toxic synthetic chemicals and generally need less blue water (water from rivers, groundwater, and surface water). 
  • Manufacturing of organic cotton fabrics: Manufacturers of organic cotton fabrics don’t use synthetic chemicals as conventional cotton manufacturers do, especially in the dyeing and finishing processes. Manufacturing is an energy-intensive process with serious knock-on ecological impacts if fossil fuels are the main source of energy generation. 
  • Transportation of organic cotton fabrics: Organic cotton fabrics typically travel from cotton fields to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of organic cotton fabrics: Organic cotton fabrics are breathable. They don’t need to be washed too frequently, saving water and energy. 
  • End-of-life of organic cotton fabrics: The end-of-life stage for organic cotton is sustainable because the fiber is biodegradable and compostable. 

Organic cotton fabrics are largely sustainable because the cotton fibers are grown and processed without harsh synthetic chemicals. They are also breathable and biodegradable, two tell-tale signs of textile sustainability. 

Lyocell Fabrics: Durable, Breathable Materials From Plants 

Lyocell fabrics are semi-natural/semi-synthetic fabrics made with plant materials. Tencel and Monocel are two examples of lyocell fabrics made in closed-loop processes where almost all chemicals are recovered and reused. 

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

  • Sourcing plant materials for lyocell fabrics: Eucalyptus is the commonly used feedstock for lyocell fabrics. As they grow, eucalyptus trees sequester carbon, mitigating the climate crisis. Eucalyptus species are highly adaptive and can grow rapidly with little irrigation or agrochemicals. 
  • Manufacturing of lyocell fabrics: The organic dissolvent solution used in manufacturing lyocell fabrics can be recycled almost fully, with an inconsiderable percentage discharged as non-hazardous liquid waste. The manufacturing process of lyocell fabrics uses a lot of energy. However, part of the energy can be recovered in integrated production
  • Transportation of lyocell fabrics: Lyocell fabrics typically travel from forests to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of lyocell fabrics: Lyocell fabrics are breathable. They don’t need to be washed too frequently, saving water and energy. Lyocell fibers are very strong: strong enough even for conveyor belts. It means lyocell fabrics can last long before a replacement is needed, being more sustainable. 
  • End-of-life of lyocell fabrics: The end-of-life stage for lyocell is sustainable because the fiber is biodegradable and compostable. 

Lyocell fabrics are largely sustainable because they are derived from fast-growing, adaptive plants. They are breathable, durable, and biodegradable, three tell-tale signs of textile sustainability. 

Ramie Fabrics: Durable Natural Materials From Chinese Nettle Plants 

Ramie fabrics are made with natural fibers from Chinese nettle—one of the oldest fiber crops. Chinese nettle can grow with little irrigation and agrochemicals while providing fibers repeatedly. 

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

  • Sourcing of fibers for ramie fabrics: Growing Chinese nettle plants, particularly long-term cultivation, for ramie fibers, has climate benefits via carbon sequestration. This fiber crop can be harvested up to 6 times a year. Ramie fiber crop is also not water-intensive. It can produce a high fiber yield without excessive pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers
  • Manufacturing of ramie fabrics: Similarly to other bast fibers (hemp, linen), the mechanical processes used in ramie fabric manufacturing demand a lot of energy. Unlike linen and hemp, which can be degummed without toxic chemicals (dew retting), large-scaled ramie fibers often undergo a chemical-intensive degumming process.
  • Transportation of ramie fabrics: Ramie fabrics typically travel from fields (where Chinese nettle plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of ramie fabrics: Ramie fibers are very strong and can hold shape well, enabling ramie fabrics to last long before a replacement is needed. 
  • End-of-life of ramie fabrics: The end-of-life stage for ramie is sustainable because the fiber is biodegradable and compostable. 

Ramie fabrics are generally considered sustainable, mainly because they are durable and biodegradable. Ramie’s raw materials come from a low-input, repeated-yield crop. 

Piñatex Fabrics: Durable, Breathable Materials From Pineapple Leave Waste

Piñatex is a leather alternative made with plant-based materials: one part corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) and four parts pineapple fibers from pineapple leaves, which are usually thrown away after fruit harvest. 

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

  • Sourcing of plant materials for Piñatex fabrics: Using pineapple leaves to make Piñatex fabrics prevents the release of greenhouse gases and other pollutants when pineapple leaves are often burned. Burning the leaves is a common waste disposal practice after harvesting pineapple fruits. As pineapple leaves are a by-product of an existing industry, they require no extra environmental resources (like water or land). Piñatex fabrics also use a bioplastic derived from corn. 
  • Manufacturing of Piñatex fabrics: Piñatex production is closed-loop, it starts from waste yet yields no waste. Fiber processing is done mechanically without toxic chemicals. The dyeing pigments are GOTS-certified and the resin top coating is REACH-compliant.
  • Transportation of Piñatex fabrics: Piñatex fabrics typically travel from fields to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. The GHG emissions associated with transporting vehicles could be significant. 
  • Usage of Piñatex fabrics: Piñatex tends not to be as strong as animal leather and, thus, wouldn’t last as long. However, its relatively high flex resistance makes it partially durable for clothing items that don’t bear high forces, such as handbags or jackets (rather than shoes). 
  • End-of-life of Piñatex fabrics: The end-of-life stage for Piñatex is not as sustainable as other plant-based fabrics on this list because the material is not fully biodegradable. It is because Piñatex contains PLA, a bioplastic made with corn. 

Piñatex is generally considered a sustainable textile material alternative to animal leather. 80% of raw materials for Piñatex fabrics come from pineapple leaves, an agricultural waste from the pineapple fruit industry. Piñatex fabric production is a closed-loop mechanical process without synthetic chemicals. 

Kapok Fabrics: Textile Blends Made With Durable, Breathable Plant Fibers From Fast-Growing, Minimal-Input Tree Species

Kapok fabrics are typically produced by spinning a blend of kapok fibers and other natural fibers (cotton, hemp, or silk) or synthetic fibers (polyester, acetate, or spandex). Kapok fibers come from fast-growing tropical trees that require no irrigation or agrochemicals, making it an easily renewable raw material for kapok fabrics. However, due to kapok fibers’ short length and brittle nature, blending them with other fibers is often necessary, leading to the varied sustainability of kapok fabrics. 

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

  • Sourcing of kapok fibers for kapok fabrics: Sourcing kapok fibers for making kapok fabrics is generally sustainable. Kapok fibers are a renewable material from fast-growing tropical trees that can grow without pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation, unlike cotton—the most common fiber crop for fabrics. Kapok trees are highly available, growing in many locations throughout Asia, Africa, as well the Americas. 
  • Manufacturing of kapok fabrics: Manufacturing kapok fabrics can be sustainable. This is mainly because most processes during the manufacturing of kapok fiber are fundamentally mechanical and free of added chemicals. However, the fabric finishing treatments might involve harmful synthetic substances, resulting in more adverse environmental impacts. 
  • Transportation of kapok fabrics: Transporting kapok fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with kapok fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Kapok fabrics typically travel from forests (where kapok trees grow) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of kapok fabrics: Using kapok fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is resilient, contributing to the overall durability of kapok fabrics. Also, kapok fiber dries quickly, reducing the need to use a drying machine and, thus, saving energy. 
  • End-of-life of kapok fabrics: The end-of-life stage for kapok fabric can be sustainable if the other fibers in the blend are natural. Kapok fibers are biodegradable and compostable.

Kapok fabrics can be highly sustainable if they consist of kapok fibers and other sustainable plant-based fibers like organic cotton or hemp. In those cases, kapok fabrics have the climate benefits of plant carbon sequestration and the relatively low-impact usage and end-of-life stages. 

Jute Fabrics: Durable and Biodegradable Materials From a High-Yield Plant Crop 

Jute fabrics are durable and biodegradable materials made with cellulose fibers from jute plants. The jute crop requires little input in irrigation water, land, and agrochemicals while typically producing a high yield of exceptionally long fibers. Jute fiber is, in fact, second only to cotton as the most produced plant fiber.

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

  • Sourcing of jute fibers for jute fabrics: Sourcing jute fibers from jute plants to make jute fabrics is generally sustainable. Jute plants sequester a significant amount of carbon, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. Little fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation water are needed for jute cultivation, yet plants grow rapidly to impressive heights, providing one of nature’s longest fibers. The high fiber yield means cultivated land is efficiently used.
  • Manufacturing of jute fabrics: Manufacturing jute fabrics can be sustainable, mainly because most processes during the conventional processing of jute fiber are fundamentally mechanical and free of added chemicals. However, the fabric finishing treatments, especially to make jute fibers suitable for garment making, might involve harmful synthetic substances, resulting in more adverse environmental impacts. 
  • Transportation of jute fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage for clothing and household items made with jute fibers due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Jute fabrics typically travel from fields (where jute plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of jute fabrics: Using jute fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is strong, meaning clothing and household items made with jute fabric can last long before a replacement is needed. 
  • End-of-life of jute fabrics: The end-of-life stage for jute fabric is generally sustainable. Jute fabrics are made with natural cellulose fibers, resulting in the material being biodegradable and compostable. It takes one to four months for jute fabrics to decompose in the ground. 

Jute fabrics are generally considered sustainable, mainly because they are made of natural cellulose fibers in a mechanical (and possibly chemical-free) process. Jute’s raw materials come from a low-input, high-yield crop. 

Hemp Fabrics: Durable Natural Materials From A Plant Crop With Exceptional Carbon Sequestration Potential

Hemp fabrics are durable and biodegradable materials made with cellulose fibers from industrial hemp plants. The hemp crop requires little to no irrigation while typically producing a very high yield (several times more than other fiber crops). Hemp can also be cultivated with very low agrochemical input. 

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

  • Sourcing of hemp fibers for hemp fabrics: Sourcing hemp fibers is generally sustainable because the hemp crop sequesters a significant amount of carbon and improves soil health. Little water, pesticides, or herbicides are needed for hemp cultivation, yet the fiber yields from hemp stems are typically high (the highest yield per acre of any natural fiber). Hemp farmers can also harvest other plant parts, including seeds, leaves, roots, and stem woods.
  • Manufacturing of hemp fabrics: Hemp production can be sustainable, but also labor-intensive, mainly because most processes during the conventional manufacturing of hemp fabrics are fundamentally mechanical. However, the harmful synthetic chemicals, sometimes used to reduce labor, quicken the process, and modify the final product, can lead to more adverse environmental impacts. 
  • Transportation of hemp fabrics: The transportation of hemp fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Hemp fabrics typically travel from fields (where hemp plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of hemp fabrics: Hemp fabrics are lightweight and highly breathable. They don’t need to be washed too frequently, saving water and energy. Industrial hemp fibers are also strong—three times the tensile strength of cotton—meaning that materials made with hemp fibers can last long before a replacement is needed, making their usage more sustainable. 
  • End-of-life of hemp fabrics: The end-of-life stage for hemp fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. Depending on the conditions, it can take weeks to months for pure (unblended) hemp fabrics to decompose.

Hemp fabrics are generally considered sustainable, mainly because they are made of natural cellulose fibers in a mechanical (and possibly chemical-free) process. Hemp’s raw materials come from a low-input, high-yield crop with exceptional carbon sequestration potential. 

Linen Fabrics: Durable, Breathable Plant Materials From A Low-Input Crop

Linen fabrics are durable and biodegradable materials made with cellulose fibers from flax plants. Flax is a low-input crop with significant environmental benefits. 

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

  • Sourcing of linen fibers for linen fabrics: Sourcing flax fibers for making linen fabrics is generally sustainable as flax is a low-input, multiple-output crop with a relatively short rotation. Also, flax cultivation has significant environmental benefits, including climate change mitigation, soil health enhancement, and ecosystem diversity enrichment
  • Manufacturing of linen fabrics: Because it is a mechanical process, manufacturing linen fabrics can be sustainable, even if labor-intensive. However, the chemicals, which are sometimes used to reduce labor, quicken the process, and modify the final product, can cause adverse impacts on the environment. 
  • Transportation of linen fabrics: The transportation of linen fabrics might have a significant carbon footprint because of the emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Linen fabrics typically travel from fields (where flax plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of linen fabrics: Linen fabrics are breathable. They don’t need to be washed too frequently, saving water and energy. Flax fibers are relatively durable: stronger and more sunlight resistant than cotton. This means materials made with flax fibers can last long before a replacement is needed, making them more sustainable. 
  • End-of-life of linen fabrics: The end-of-life stage for linen fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. It takes about two weeks for pure, untreated linen fabrics to start the decomposing process.

Linen fabrics are generally considered sustainable, mainly because they are made of natural cellulose fibers in a mechanical (and possibly chemical-free) process. Linen’s raw materials come from a typically low-input crop with multiple environmental benefits. 

Bamboo Lyocell Fabrics: Durable, Breathable Materials From Fast-Growing Plant Crop 

Bamboo lyocell fabrics are semi-natural/semi-synthetic textile materials made in chemical manufacturing processes that break down natural cellulose fibers in bamboo and then regenerate fibers of desired properties. Bamboo is typically a low-input and fast-growing crop. 

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

  • Sourcing of bamboo for bamboo lyocell fabrics: Sourcing bamboo for making bamboo lyocell fabrics is generally sustainable because 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, and produces 35% more oxygen than a tree with an equivalent mass. 
  • Manufacturing of bamboo lyocell fabrics: Manufacturing bamboo lyocell fabrics is energy-intensive, which can have serious knock-on ecological impacts if fossil fuels are the main energy sources at the manufacturing location. However, the dissolvent solution used in manufacturing can be recycled almost fully, with an inconsiderable percentage discharged as non-hazardous liquid waste. 
  • Transportation of bamboo lyocell fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with bamboo lyocell fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Bamboo lyocell fabrics typically travel from forests or plantations (where raw materials are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of bamboo lyocell fabrics: The usage of bamboo lyocell fabrics is sustainable because bamboo lyocell clothing tends to last a long time while requiring few washes and less ironing time during their lifespan. 
  • End-of-life of bamboo lyocell fabrics: The end-of-life stage for bamboo lyocell fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. It takes about eight weeks for bamboo lyocell to decompose, unlike plastic-based textiles that can take up space in the landfill for up to 100 years.

Bamboo lyocell fabrics are largely sustainable because they are made with cellulose fibers derived from bamboo, a fast-growing plant species with significant carbon sequestration potentials. Also, they are breathable, durable, and biodegradable, three telltale signs of textile sustainability. 

Organic Wool Fabrics: Odor-Resistant Natural Textiles Manufactured Without Harmful Synthetic Chemicals

Organic wool fabrics are made with organically farmed animal hair or fleece, natural materials that readily biodegrade at the end of their life. These materials are odor-resistant, meaning organic wool clothing and household items can be washed infrequently, saving water and energy. 

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

  • Sourcing of organic wool fibers for organic wool fabrics: The raw material for organic wool fabrics comes from the renewable fleece or hair of various animal species raised in organic farming systems. Organic agriculture systems often adopt sustainable practices that promote biodiversity, increase soil health, and sequester more carbon. However, organic wool tends to have a relatively high land footprint compared to conventional wool and plant fibers. 
  • Manufacturing of organic wool fabrics: Manufacturing wool fabrics is energy and water-intensive, making wool processing less sustainable. The process starts first with collecting sheep’s fleece. Then, the fibers go through various mechanical processes to be cleaned, spun, knitted, or woven into fabrics. 
  • Transportation of organic wool fabrics: Organic wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where animal hair is collected, to processing 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 organic wool fabrics: The usage of wool, the organic variety included, is generally sustainable. Wooly sweaters, socks, and scarves require less frequent washes at lower temperatures. Also, organic 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 organic wool fabrics: The end-of-life stage for organic wool is generally sustainable because untreated organic wool is fully biodegradable and compostable.

Organic wool fabrics are generally sustainable materials made from renewable resources. They are breathable and odor-resistant, leading to a low-impact usage phase. At the end of their life, they are readily biodegradable and suitable for composting.

Alpaca Wool Fabrics: Fine, Odor-Resistant Materials From a Typically Renewable Resource

Alpaca wool is a biodegradable material made with renewable fleeces from alpacas—a species in the camel family. Alpaca wool clothes are breathable and durable, which are the telltale signs of sustainability in usage. However, it is important to take note of the cruel treatment of alpacas in some industrial settings, which questions the ethics of using some alpaca wool products. 

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

  • Sourcing of alpaca fleeces for alpaca wool fabrics: The sourcing of alpaca fleeces as the raw material for alpaca wool fabrics is generally sustainable. Alpaca wool fibers are considered a renewable resource. The adverse environmental impacts of raising alpacas are relatively lower than wool-producing ruminants like sheep and goats, largely because of the biological differences between camelids and ruminants. 
  • Manufacturing of alpaca wool fabrics: Manufacturing alpaca wool fabrics is typically not very sustainable. It starts with collecting alpaca fleece, and then the processes that come after fiber collection are mostly mechanical. These processes often require a significant amount of energy and water. 
  • Transportation of alpaca wool fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with alpaca wool fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Alpaca wool fabrics typically travel from pasture lands, where the alpaca’s fleeces are collected, to processing and finishing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of alpaca wool fabrics: The usage of alpaca wool is generally sustainable. Alpaca wool requires less frequent washes because it is breathable, odor-resistant, and somewhat stain-resistant
  • End-of-life of alpaca wool fabrics: The end-of-life stage for alpaca wool is generally sustainable because untreated alpaca wool is fully biodegradable and compostable. Alpaca wool will break down after about a year in natural environments. 

Alpaca wool fabrics are generally considered sustainable, although there are some ethical concerns in certain alpaca farms as the popularity of this material increases. Alpaca wool is a biodegradable and renewable material. Fabrics made with this material are breathable and odor-resistant, leading to a low-impact usage phase.

ECONYL® Fabrics: Closed-Loop Textiles Re-Circulating Plastic Waste 

ECONYL® is regenerated nylon made from various sources of waste. Reusing waste as raw materials reduces the pressure on petroleum or crude oil—the starting point of most virgin nylon fabrics. Thanks to fossil fuel reduction and closed-loop manufacturing, ECONYL® is a low-impact fabric, especially compared to conventional nylon

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

  • Sourcing of nylon waste for ECONYL® fabrics: Sourcing nylon waste for making recycled nylon is exceptionally sustainable. It re-circulates waste materials, including old carpets destined for landfills, abandoned fishing nets, and post-consumer and pre-consumer textiles, instead of depleting the nonrenewable fossil reserves to make plastics—the raw materials for virgin nylon.
  • Manufacturing of ECONYL® fabrics: Manufacturing ECONYL® fabrics is generally sustainable. The ECONYL® Regeneration System is a closed-loop production system that saves natural resources, lowering environmental impacts. The ECONYL® yarn has the same quality as virgin nylon 6 and is recyclable. 
  • Transportation of ECONYL® fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with ECONYL® fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Nylon waste materials typically travel from various locations to collection hubs, processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills.
  • Usage of ECONYL® fabrics: The usage of ECONYL® fabrics is generally considered unsustainable because washing nylon clothes during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. However, energy usage for washing, drying, and ironing nylon fabrics can be relatively low because this material dries fast and does not require ironing
  • End-of-life of ECONYL® fabrics: The end-of-life stage for ECONYL® fabrics is not sustainable because this fossil-based material is not biodegradable. However, ECONYL® is recyclable unlimitedly within Aquafil’s Regeneration System. 

ECONYL® is generally sustainable recycled material. It helps reduce plastic waste while sidestepping fossil fuels as a raw material. Additionally, ECONYL® fibers are regenerated in a closed-loop system, saving natural resources. 

TENCEL™ Fabrics: Biodegradable Textiles Made With Sustainably Sourced Wood Fibers 

TENCEL™ fabrics are breathable, durable rayon varieties, specifically lyocell and modal, made with regenerated cellulose fibers from renewable raw materials. Also, TENCEL™ fibers are made in environmentally responsible processes

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

  • Sourcing of wood fibers for TENCEL™ fabrics: The sourcing stage is generally sustainable as the raw materials for TENCEL™ fabrics come from wood harvested from certified and controlled sources
  • Manufacturing of TENCEL™ fabrics: Manufacturing TENCEL™ fabric is energy and chemical-intensive. However, Lenzing AG, which trademarked TENCEL™ Modal and TENCEL™ Lyocell, has integrated and closed-loop manufacturing processes that recover part of the energy during production while optimizing chemical usage
  • Transportation of TENCEL™ fabrics: Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with TENCEL™ fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. TENCEL™ fabrics typically travel from forests, where raw materials are grown, to processing factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of TENCEL™ fabrics: The usage of TENCEL™ fabrics is generally sustainable because TENCEL™ clothing tends to last a long time while requiring comparatively few washes. 
  • End-of-life of TENCEL™ fabrics: The end-of-life stage for TENCEL™ fabric is generally sustainable because it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable. 

TENCEL™ fabrics are sustainable because they are made with renewable wood fibers and are fully biodegradable at the end of their life-cycle. TENCEL™ fabrics are trademarked by Lenzing AG for their manufacturing processes that recover energy and chemicals, which increases the sustainability of TENCEL™ fabrics. 

Qmonos/Brewed Protein Fabrics: Nonbiodegradable Wool Alternative From Nonrenewable Resources 

Qmonos/Brewed Protein are artificial textile materials made in a fermentation process using microorganisms. The fermentation feedstock is renewable plant-based ingredients, and the output is biodegradable, indicating the materials’ overall sustainability. Qmonos is the initial synthetic spider silk fiber produced by Spiber, a Japanese startup founded in 2007. Brewed Protein is the later version of this nature-inspired material developed by the same company. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Sourcing of fossil fuels for Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics: Sourcing plant-based feedstocks to make Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. Plants are renewable resources, as opposed to fossil resources, which are the feedstock for many other synthetic fibers. Also, the company sources its plant-based feedstocks from nearby growers who implement sustainable agricultural practices, which improve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Manufacturing of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics: Manufacturing Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally unsustainable. This is because of the high energy requirement of the large-scale microbial fermentation process. Treating wastewater also requires electricity. 
  • Transportation of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics: Transporting Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics can be a carbon-intensive life-cycle stage due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics typically travel from fields (where sugarcane or corn plants are grown) to factories, then sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
  • Usage of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics: Using Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. The fiber is designed to have the superior strength of spider silk, which means clothing items made with the fabric can last a long time before a replacement is needed. Because Qmonos/Brewed Protein is made by microbes using plant-based feedstock, clothes made with this material don’t shed microplastics into the environment while being used and washed, like in the case of items made with acrylic or nylon
  • End-of-life of Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics: The end-of-life stage for Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics is generally sustainable. This is because the unfinished Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are fully biodegradable. According to Spiber, the company behind these innovative polymers, Brewed Protein fabrics disintegrate completely in soil. On top of that, unprocessed Brewed Proteins yarn can biodegrade within 30 days in seawater.

Qmonos/Brewed Protein fabrics are generally sustainable materials. The fibers are made in a microbial fermentation process using plant-based feedstocks, and the output—Qmonos/Brewed Protein yarn—is a biodegradable material that can disintegrate in both soil and salt water. 

How Can You Buy Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying fabrics is to check on 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. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

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

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

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

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

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

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

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

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

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

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

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

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

Final Thoughts

To recap, the most sustainable fabrics are as follows: 

  1. Organic Hemp
  2. Organic Linen
  3. Recycled Cotton
  4. Recycled Wool
  5. Recycled Polyester
  6. Recycled Nylon 
  7. Organic Cotton
  8. Lyocell 
  9. Ramie
  10. Piñatex
  11. Kapok
  12. Jute
  13. Hemp
  14. Linen
  15. Bamboo Lyocell
  16. Organic Wool
  17. Alpaca Wool
  18. ECONYL®
  19. TENCEL™
  20. Qmonos/Brewed Protein

These fabrics utilize easily renewable materials and/or waste to lower the environmental impacts of sourcing. The nature-based fabrics are either free of toxic synthetic chemicals or relatively low in chemical usage and disposal. 

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 to.

Stay impactful,



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