Sustainable Fabrics – The Good

Many designers are experts in the form and functionality of the materials they use.  This guide is intended to be a non-exhaustive listing of issues pertaining to sustainable fabrics that can be considered when choosing a fabric for a particular project.  It is very important to note that the sustainability of fabrics can vary dramatically depending on how they are blended, dyed, transported, and processed.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The Good

Tencel: Our Grade A+

Tencel is a natural, man-made fibre which is also referred to as Lyocell.

Made with wood pulp from sustainable tree farms, tencel textiles are created though the use of nanotechnology in an award-winning closed-loop process that recovers or decomposes all solvents and emissions.

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  • Production process are non-toxic, and are able to be re-used again and again due to a technique called ‘closed loop’ spinning. This eliminates dumping of waste by 98%.
  • The eucalyptus trees that are harvested for the fibre are grown on sustainable farms. In addition, eucalyptus trees are fast growing and require no toxic pesticides and little water to thrive.
  • Completely biodegradable
  • While the textile does use traditional dyes, its impressive absorbency allows companies to use less dye to achieve the desired effect. This means less waste and increased cost efficiency.
  • Does not use bleach before dying due to its pure white colour at production. (Source)
Similar to rayon in feel. Soft, breathable, lightweight and comfortable.

Tencel is similar to rayon in feel. Soft, breathable, lightweight, and comfortable.

 

Looking for Tencel manufacturers? Read about sustainable companies that are making Tencel more available here.

 

Hemp: Our Grade A+

Hemp fabric is made from the fibres in the herbaceous plant of the species cannabis sativa.

Hemp is a renewable resource which grows more quickly and easily than trees. As such, hemp more cost effective than waiting decades for trees to grow to be used in man-made fiber production such as lyocell and rayon from wood pulps. It’s a high-yield crop that produces significantly more fibre per acre than either cotton or flax.

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  • Can be grown on marginal soils
  • Hemp plants can be harvested for their seed and oils increasing food security where it is grown
  • Low maintenance plant to grow
  • Does not usually require supplemental irrigation
  • Usually produced organically
  • Biodegradable
Clothing made of hemp fiber is lightweight, absorbant and, with three times the tensile strength of cotton, strong and longlasting.

Clothing made of hemp fiber is lightweight, absorbant and, with three times the tensile strength of cotton, strong and longlasting.

 

Jute: Our Grade A

Jute is a natural bast fiber. It is one of the most affordable natural fibers and is second only to cotton in quantity produced and variety of uses for vegetable fibers. It is harder than other textile fibers and is environment friendly. Normally jute is used for sacking, burlap, and twine as a backing material for tufted carpets.


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  • Can be grown on marginal soils
  • Uses much less water than cotton, requires no chemical pesticides or fertilizers to grow, and replenishes much faster
  • Reaches maturity quickly – between 4-6 months – making it an incredibly efficient source of renewable material and therefore sustainable
  • Usually produced organically
  • Easily recycled and biodegradable

 

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jute fabric has excellent tensile resistance, and more forgiving to air flow making it highly breathable.

 

Bamboo: Our Grade B

Bamboo is the fastest-growing grass. It is capable of growing up to four feet a day. Most of it is grown organically and in most locations requires no irrigation or fertilizers. For the most part, growing of bamboo can be considered sustainable. Fabric made from bamboo, however, is more controversial.

Making bamboo into yarn can be done in two ways- mechanically or chemically. The mechanical process has very little environmental impact and involves manually crushing the bamboo then using natural enzymes to create the cellulose which can then be combed out and spun. However, the mechanical process is labour intensive and expensive. Int he chemical process bamboo is cooked in a mixture of chemical solvents – primarily sodium hydroxide (lye, or caustic soda, as it’s more commonly known) and carbon disulfide. Both are known to be harmful to human health, and sodium hydroxide can harm aquatic life when released into the water supply.

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  • Bamboo is fast growing and can be easily cultivated
  • Thrives without needing any pesticides or fertilizers.
  • Usually relies on rain water and does not require any special irrigation system like cotton which requires 20,000 litres of water per kilogram.
  • The production process, when done chemically, uses caustic soda and bleaching agents like chlorine and sulfuric acid which are harmful tot he environment and factory workers  
  • Chemical production of bamboo is the most common way of producing bamboo fabric
Bamboo apparel is softer than the softest cotton, and it has a natural sheen like silk or cashmere. Bamboo drapes like silk or satin, yet is less expensive and more durable. Bamboo/Organic cotton blends are also extremely soft but heavier in weight.

Bamboo apparel is softer than the softest cotton and it has a natural sheen, like silk or cashmere. Bamboo drapes like silk or satin, yet is less expensive and more durable. Bamboo/Organic cotton blends are also extremely soft but heavier in weight.

 

Linen: Our grade A

Linen is created from the fibres that naturally grow as part of the flax plant.

Flax is a plant that grows worldwide and the production process is quite simple and sustainable, which is one reason why linen has been used for so long. The fibres first have to be naturally degraded from the plant. This is achieved through “retting“. Retting is the process of bacteria to decomposing the pectin that binds the fibres together. Natural retting usually takes place in tanks and pools, or directly in the fields. There are also chemical retting methods; these are faster, but are typically more harmful to the environment and to the fibres themselves.

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  • Flax can be grown on marginal lands
  • Very breathable fabric that is good for the skin
  • It creases easily and wearing linen clothing requires ironing thereby requiring more energy
  • Since linen is created from a totally natural material, it is completely biodegradable

 

Linen fabric easily absorbs perspiration, while leaving a very cool and dry feeling to the skin.

Linen fabric easily absorbs perspiration, while leaving a very cool and dry feeling to the skin.

 

Organic Cotton: Our grade B

Organic cotton is grown without the use of toxic pesticides or fertilizers.

Without the use of chemicals, organic cotton farmers use crop rotation strategies instead. They also compost rich soil to grow large quantities of cotton and to keep it from being eaten by insects, some farmers also use castor-oil sticky traps and natural pesticides.

Cotton is a thirsty crop requiring more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton (source). Recently, however, it has also been suggested that organic cotton farming uses less water after two to three years or via crop rotation. This is because the soil, once rich in nutrients, is better able to hold water.

download (1)Requires Less water than conventional cotton framing, but still a lot of water compared to other crops

  • Safer conditions for organic cotton pickers in a chemical free environment
  • Concerns about child and slave labour during harvest
  • Biodegradable
  • Easily recycled

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Silk: Our grade B+

Silk is an animal protein fiber produced by insects like  silkworms, bees, beetles, silverfish, and mayflies to build their cocoons and webs.

The threads are gathered from the cocoons that protect the insect during it’s pupa stage. In conventional silk production, a silk worm’s lifespan is cut short by immersing the cocoons in boiling water, thereby killing the pupa inside to keep the thread intact. This is to ensure that the moth doesn’t damage the silk cocoon and the resulting thread is continuous and produces a softer and consistent silk fabric when woven.

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  • Provides an income to marginalized people who grow silkworms
  • Animal cruelty concerns regarding the killing of the moth
  • Although relatively cheap to manufacture, Silk is often seen as an expensive fibre and its production remains in countries like China and India where low wage rates can be exploited.

 

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Recycled Wool: Our grade C

Recycled wool comes from the waste or cut-offs created during production. By recycling wool, we save raw materials and reduce what ends up in landfill.

Wool recycling  is now a business worth 1 billion dollars worldwide.
Panipat, India, where wool recycling has has turned the region into the global centre of “Shoddy Yarn”,  supplies over 90% of the shoddy-wool relief blankets bought by international aid agencies for use in global disasters.

It also has a dark side.

The recycling wool industry has a vast, largely unknown shadow footprint. For starters, it is an entirely unregulated industry that employs thousands of workers in India alone.

Whole factories run on subcontracted labour hired by jobbers working to quotas, and workers do not receive minimum employment benefits, do not have the right to associate and have no job security. They work in poor environmental conditions, use old machinery, often with dangerous working practices such as mending moving parts, and suffer respiratory problems from exposure to fibres, dust and chemicals. On average, a man working in a shoddy spinning mill earns c. Rs 180/day, or $3-3.50 for a 12-hour shift before advances and obligatory deductions etc. Women cutters earn up to Rs70 ($1.40) a day before deductions for an 8-hour shift. There is no obvious evidence of child labour, but babies and young children often accompany their mothers to the cutting floor for the day.” (Source: Lucy Norries, ‘Worn Clothing‘)

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  • Reusing fabric that is already produced and available
  • Concerns over animal cruelty in the original production
  • Hazardous working conditions and health concerns, particularly respiratory in nature due to  frequent exposure to fibres, dust and chemicals
  • Poor labour and environmental standards
  • Provides income to marginalized people
  • 90% of the blanket industry output is sold within India to the poor as an affordable option in winter months. As part of the extensive informal economy, it remains unregulated and end products are not tested for their safety for human use

 

Organic Wool: Our grade B

Organic wool is from sheep that have not been exposed to chemicals like pesticides and are kept in humane and good farm conditions.

It also requires certified organic livestock production with the following basic requirements: livestock must be fed only certified organic feed and forage; synthetic pesticides, hormones, vaccinations, and genetic engineering are prohibited; wool growers must use practices that encourage livestock health. In addition to certification with approved agencies, these standards also require detailed record keeping and annual reviews by independent inspectors. (source)

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  • Generally produced on small scale farms operations where animal cruelty is less of a concern
  • All animal farming operations have a higher carbon footprint than plant based fabrics
  • Often used by marginalized people to keep local industries profitable

 

 

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Ramie: Our grade – B+

The ramie plant is grown for fibre mainly in China, Brazil, the Lao PDR, and the Philippines.

While it is considered a promising “ecological” fibre for use in textiles, fibre extraction and cleaning is currently difficult and labour-intensive.

Ramie fiber is known especially for its ability to hold shape, reduce wrinkling, and introduce a silky lustre to the fabric’s appearance. It is not as durable as other fibers and so is usually used as a blend with cotton or wool.
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  • Like linen, ramie fabric tends to wrinkle easily and needs to be ironed which increases its energy consumption
  • Naturally growing
  • Not as durable as many other natural fabrics
  • Biodegradeable

 

Composition leather: Our grade C+

Composition leather is made from recycled leather off-cuts, trimmings and shavings of leather products that would normally be sent by the leather industry to the landfill.

The type of leather specifically used in the manufacture of composition leather is called ‘wet blue’. This raw material, which is duck-egg blue in colour (hence the name), comes straight from tanning. The shavings are bonded to a fabric layer commonly using a process such a hydro-entanglement to force the leather dust into the fabric layer. The product is then finished, typically with a polyurethane based system to give a resemblance of leather. The amount of leather shavings within the final product typically constitute less than 50% of the product.

Some manufacturers that have changed the manufacturing process of composition leather by removing polyurethane and replacing it with an eco-friendly adhesive to bond the leather.

The supplier’s carbon footprint is dramatically reduced as a result because there are no oil-based adhesives present in the process. E-Leather®, for instance, produces no harmful waste waters in the manufacture of its composition leather. Their process is a continuous closed-looped system, with 95% of all water used in production being recycled.(source)

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  • All the advantages of reusing textiles
  • Disadvantages vary depending on the original source of the leather and the composition leather manufacturer

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Vegan Leather: Our Grade C

Vegan leather provides leather-like quality that doesn’t contain any animal-derived ingredients and comes in the following forms:

  • Vegetan: This is a microfibre material that is specifically designed and used as an animal-friendly leather substitute.
  • Lorica: This material is made out of several different microfibers. Sidi, an Italian motorcycle company uses it a lot.
  • Birko-Flor: This is what eco-icon Birkenstock uses. It’s made out of acrylic and polyamide felt fibres. There are two kinds — the kind you find on normal Birks and a kind that looks like pleather.
  • Birkibuc: Another Birkenstock baby. It’s made out of the same stuff, but looks and feels like nubuck leather.
  • PVC: Finally, a more familiar term! Good for animals, not so good for environment.
  • Kydex: This is an acrylic-PVC alloy. It’s produced by Kleerdex, a manufacturing company.

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  • Depends on what it is made of  but most will contain Polyurethane (Source)
  • Micro fibers omitted into the environment from clothing and adversely affect aquatic life

Read more about leather alternatives that are cruelty free and 100% vegan. 

Click here to continue on reading about sustainable fabrics: The Bad

The good, the bad and the ugly

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11 thoughts on “Sustainable Fabrics – The Good

  1. Are the trees grown for Tencel grown in an environment where native wildlife are protected and conserved? I have read some free-trade/organic /biodynamic/etc. sources Could be from cleared wildlife habitat. Such is the case where palm oil is devastating the Indonesian wildlife and ecosystem even though they claim free-trade. Or in Brazil where farm stock are pastured and grass-fed on the cleared rainforest. Many species are critically endangered from land clearing even at the cost of cleaner textile, fair wages and organic farm practices. So it would be helpful to know this, too, especially for Tencel. Thank you for providing this info though.

    • Hi Mirian,

      These are all great points. I will need to do some additional research into how they are managing the forests. I definitely am cognisant of the devastation wrought by clear cutting.

  2. Maybe I am mis understanding what you meant. When i read your bit on organic wool it apears to me that a reader can assume organic wool is ethical in the treatment of its animals. That being said innour legal definition od organic animal resources it only refers to the lack of non organic feed and health practices not the animals well being. An organic sheep and a non organic sheep can be treated the same way and still called organic if the organic one is killed instead of given anti biotics and is fed organic feed. Its not safe to assume organic means cruelty free as far as ive known it.

    • Hi Concerned,

      Organic Wool is not necessarily associated with the ethical treatment of the animals – however, studies have shown that organic wool is usually produced on small farms, where animal cruelty is often (not always) less of a concern. Also, if the producer cannot rely on antibiotics they need to be conscientious about the animal’s health.

      We only give wool a “B” even though it is a natural and biodegradable fibre because of our concerns about cruelty and the carbon footprint caused by animal farming.

      Thank you so much for your comment – I hope that cleared up some questions….

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  6. Brilliant articles, really helpful – thank you very much! I was wondering if you could potentially add cork leather to this list? Thank you!

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