What are the best environmentally friendly fabrics? Some fabrics used to make clothing and beautiful garments aren't as eco-friendly and sustainable as you think.
How to tell if a fabric doesn't use an enormous amount of resources to produce? How to make sure that the garments you buy didn't require lots of water, energy, and toxic chemicals?
Unfortunately, not all fabrics are environmentally friendly. With increased environmental awareness, many people are realizing the disastrous impact that the fashion industry has on the planet and its inhabitants.
The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters globally. It is responsible for huge textile wastes, water, air, soil pollution, toxic chemicals, greenhouse gas emissions.
Only a tiny fraction of the resources used by the textile industry is renewable. It's now more important than ever to shop for eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics.
Animal-based materials such as fur, leather, down, wool, and silk are unethical and encourage the exploitation of living creatures. They also cause irreversible damage to the environment and are best avoided.
Luckily, many sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives exist. Here are the best eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics.
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1. Organic cotton
Organic cotton is the most popular eco-friendly and sustainable fabric. Lightweight and durable, it's easy to wash and care for.
Cotton is a natural fiber. It's bio-based and bio-degradable. But it requires tons of chemicals and water to grow.
Conventional cotton production destroys biodiversity and soil fertility. It creates health problems and kills wildlife because it uses pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides containing toxic chemicals.
On the other hand, organic cotton is non-GMO and grown without man-made pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.
Organic cotton has many environmental benefits over regular cotton. It's less likely to contribute to acidification and eutrophication of freshwater sources. It helps soil fertility and biodiversity.
By growing organic instead of conventional cotton, farmers can potentially save 218 billion liters of water and 92.5 million kg of carbon dioxide.
80% of all organic cotton is grown with water form rainfalls, which reduces pressure on local water sources.
Organic cotton must be grown and certified to a standard approved by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
There are currently two independent organic certifications for organic cotton:
- Organic Content Standards (OCS)
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Here are some of the best sustainable fashion brands that create stylish and affordable clothing out of organic cotton:
- Organic Basics sustainably and ethically produces underwear, activewear, and essentials in Europe with organic cotton.
- Alternative Apparel creates fashion basics for a sustainable future. Men and women's apparel basics in soft eco-fabrics, organic, and Pima cotton.
- PACT, a leading sustainable fashion brand using only organic fabrics and Fair Trade factories to design stylish essential clothing.
- MATE makes clean essentials sustainably in Los Angeles with non-toxic, natural, and organic materials.
- Threads 4 Thought, a full lifestyle brand of everyday basics, workout wear, and other fashion that is produced responsibly.
2. Recycled cotton
Recycled or upcycled cotton is a clothing fabric even more environmentally friendly than organic cotton. It limits additional textile waste generated during virgin cotton production.
Cotton is an extremely resource intense crop in terms of water, energy, labor, pesticides, and insecticides. Recycled cotton, however, demands much fewer resources to manufacture than conventional or organic cotton.
It minimizes the environmental impact of cotton production drastically. cycling one ton of cotton can save 765 cubic meters (202,000 US gal) of water.
Recycled cotton is still light and breathable, quick-drying, and durable. It's made from post-consumer and post-industrial cotton waste. Recycled or upcycled cotton is still expensive to produce and hard to find.
Some ethical clothing labels making apparel from recycled cotton are:
- Toad&Co, creators of sustainable, socially, and environmentally committed garments.
- Groceries Apparel, a California-based label producing activewear and swimwear locally in Los Angeles with natural and recycled fabrics.
- Levi's, an American clothing company and one of the most recognizable denim brands in the world making its sustainable Wellthread collection from recycled and organic cotton.
- Patagonia, industry leader in ethical and sustainable active and outerwear.
3. Organic hemp
Organic hemp is one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics. It's grown without herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers.
It's a natural fabric, bio-based, and biodegradable as well. The hemp plant doesn't require a lot of water to grow.
Hemp clothes that are natural, soft, breathable, lightweight, durable, hypoallergenic, and antibacterial.
Hemp one of the oldest textile fibers in the world and was already used 10,000 years ago to make clothing. It's an excellent choice to make high-quality and fashionable garments that also protect the environment.
Hemp also grows quicker and easier than most trees. It has a very high yield. One acre of hemp can produce two to three times more fiber than an acre of cotton.
Here are some amazing places to buy natural hemp clothes and build a conscious wardrobe:
- Mara Hoffman, a premium designer brand that creates dresses and swimwear out of hemp, recycled textiles, and other eco-friendly materials.
- WAMA Underwear, a fashion brand that makes soft and durable hemp basics, natural and comfortable organic hemp underwear.
- Nomads, pioneers of hemp that make earth-friendly urban fashion for a sustainable future.
- Arraei Collective, a mosaic of minimal Boheme basics made with natural fibers for the wandering souls, inspired by nature.
- Braintree (AU), environmental clothing range including essential casual basics as well as classic cuts and linen look finishes.
4. Organic linen
Organic linen is a textile made from flax fiber. It's durable, quick-drying, moisture-wicking, lightweight, and antimicrobial.
Linen is popular in the apparel industry to make environmentally friendly and socially responsible clothing. It's a very sustainable material that is also breathable, soft, comfortable, cool, and luxurious.
In history, linen cloth symbolized luxury, preciousness, and extravagance. It was used at dining tables in the Middle Age as a symbol of power, to exhibit authority and wealth.
Linen is considered a very luxurious fabric and a great choice for high-end garments.
Linen is a natural fabric, bio-based, biodegradable, and recyclable. It's made from a natural and renewable resource: the flax plant.
The flax plant requires less water than cotton to grow. Europe produces more than 85% of all flax fibers globally. France is the most prominent producer of flax.
Linen fabric is natural and very versatile. It's used for men and women's clothing alike. It's also highly resistant, durable, and rigid. It's about two to three times stronger than cotton.
Some of the most amazing sustainable fashion brands making linen clothing are:
- Everlane, modern, and beautiful essentials, at the best factories, without traditional markups.
- Rachel Craven makes minimal silhouettes for all bodies and sustainable, inclusive, and finely crafted clothing.
- Pyne & Smith, timeless, functional, and beautiful dresses, sustainably made in California from 100% European Linen.
- Míe, a lifestyle brand that provides design and fashion consciously made to be nature-friendly.
- Magic Linen, a range of high-quality linen goods made from OEKO-TEX certified European flax.
- Linen Fox makes Linen dress and Linen clothes respectfully and efficiently.
Lyocell is an innovative and plant-based fiber. It's a textile made from semi-synthetic regenerated cellulose fiber. Lyocell is a form of rayon manufactured from wood pulp.
Lyocell is a breathable, lightweight, durable, and very soft fabric. It's moisture-wicking and keeps you cool in summer. It also remains odor-free much longer than cotton.
One of the most well-known brands of lyocell is Tencel, manufactured by the Austrian company Lenzing. A lot of fashion brands now make clothing from Tencel.
Lyocell can arguably be one of the most eco-friendly cellulosic fibers. It's the third most used man-made cellulosic fiber after viscose and acetate.
Lyocell is made from wood pulp which is digested chemically then pumped through spinnerets to make fibers. Its manufacturing process is complex, consumes a lot of water, energy, and chemicals.
Luckily, sustainable lyocell production facilities can almost fully recover and reuse water and chemicals with closed-loop processes. When more than 99% of the solvent is recycled, lyocell is considered eco-friendly.
Here are some successful fashion brands that produce sustainable clothing from Tencel lyocell:
- Reformation makes sustainable women's clothing and accessories.
- Thought makes classic shirts and dresses from natural and sustainable fabrics.
- prAna makes clothing for positive change, to inspire new generations to thrive and stay active.
- People Tree (UK), a fair trade fashion pioneer, and online garment retailer making clothes from environmentally-friendly materials.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.