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The 5 most sustainable fabrics for eco-friendly fashion

Reach for fabrics that better serve the world.

Clothing collection on hangers in the store Credit: Getty Images / Maryna Mashkina

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The apparel and footwear industries contribute an estimated 8% of global environmental impact, largely due to manufacturing in Asian countries that rely on burning fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas. Textile-wise, conventional cotton is the world’s most popular fabric—but it’s also the source of the worst pollution from the fashion world, due to its excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, wastewater production, and carbon emissions from farming.

Simply put: When it comes to buying clothes, we can do better than relying on conventional cotton, as far as the environment is concerned. Opting for organic cotton instead of conventional can reduce the use of harmful fertilizers and insecticides. Biodegradable textiles like hemp and linen can help relieve the world’s landfills. The next time you’re buying fashion fabrics, consider one of these materials, and others, to help support a sustainable future.

The environmental issues with conventional cotton

conventionalcotton
Credit: Getty Images / Temizyurek

Conventional cotton requires large amounts of water to maintain.

It’s estimated that the worldwide production of cotton clocks in at 26,172,678 tons annually—that’s over 57 billion pounds globally, with the United States providing the majority of the world’s supply at 35%. Cotton cultivation generally requires the use of certain fertilizers and pesticides that may contribute to soil and ocean pollution. Chemicals used in clothing dyes also pose potential health risks to factory garment workers. All levels in cotton production add to the world’s current climate crisis.

What’s more, cotton production is incredibly water-dependent. The Soil Association states that one kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of conventional cotton takes as much as 10,000 to 20,000 liters (about 2600 to 5200 gallons) of water to farm. During production, in which the cotton is spun into yarn, water is used for washing dirt off of individual fibers. It’s also key in the dyeing process (which, as mentioned, can be detrimental to the health of garment workers). The resulting wastewater ends up in local water supplies and carries pollution into the ocean.

This excessive water usage contributes to the foreseeable future of water scarcity, or a lack of consumable water, across the world.

1. Organic cotton reduces water waste and chemical use

cotton
Credit: Getty Images / Batuhan Toker

Organic cotton is grown without the use of harsh chemicals.

A more sustainable option for the same fabric feel is to opt for organic cotton. To earn the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) Certified seal, cotton must be grown without the use of GMO seeds and avoid potentially harmful pesticides, fertilizers, and insecticides (like most organic products). By avoiding the use of these chemicals, harm is reduced for organic cotton farmers and any nearby wildlife.

Eighty percent of organic cotton farms are also rainfed, which results in producing far less wastewater in cotton’s production. In lieu of chemical fertilizers, organic cotton farmers rotate crops and utilize composting techniques to ensure high soil quality. According to Textile Exchange, a nonprofit group that encourages ethical textile standards, the most popular crop varieties grown in rotation with organic cotton are cereals and grains or legumes and pulses. These crops help provide soil fertility to organic cotton, as well as essential carbohydrates, oils, and proteins to farmland. Although more labor-intensive than conventional cotton, relying less on chemicals, as well use of rainwater, helps reduce the amount of wastewater produced when creating cotton fibers.

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When seeking organic cotton clothing, look for dyes that are vegetable-based and non-toxic. Terms like “undyed,” “natural” or “unbleached” may indicate the use of safer dyes. The intention in using such colorants is that when a T-shirt eventually makes it to a landfill, the dyes aren’t adding any additional toxic agents into the earth. You can also look out for certification badges from two organizations: Organic Content Standards (OCS) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). These organizations certify that a defined criteria was met, and the seller is transparent in its cotton production.

Two retailers we like who make efforts to utilize organic cotton are Eileen Fisher, which is known for its contemporary basics, and REI, the outdoor retailer that’s known for its commitment to the climate.

2. Recycled fabrics keep old clothes out of landfills

recycledcotton
Credit: Getty Images / Nalin Prutimongkol

Recycled clothes offer fabrics a second life.

Looking for clothing made of recycled cotton, nylon, polyester, or wool is another solution to buying sustainable fashion. In the recycling process, fabric leftover from manufacturing is reused to make other textile goods. In most cases, undyed, pre-consumer unusable scraps are separated into a machine by material, and are shredded back into their fiber forms. Dyed clothing, however, is first separated by color before being shredded into fibers to avoid a re-dyeing process. Post-consumer textiles, such as T-shirts, car seats, and bedding, are also included in the recycling process. If there are fibers unable to be reused, it’s considered a fibrous material.

After the recycling process, clothing is then resewn with other materials to assemble a new garment. Buying clothing made of recycled parts gives that material a second life. Recycled fabrics are important, given that material such as nylon and polyester can take 20 to 200 years to decompose.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. produced 17 million tons of textiles in 2018. Unfortunately, the EPA also believes the recycling rate for all textiles was only 14.7% that very year, with 2.5 million tons recycled. By choosing to purchase clothing made of recycled textiles, you can help relieve some of the planet’s landfill waste.

Everybody.World is a Los Angeles-based fashion retailer that claims to use repossessed cotton waste to create new clothing. Ecologically minded Patagonia uses fabrics made of recycled cotton and polyester to create new products made up of blended materials.

3. Organic hemp makes long-lasting fabric that can be composted

hemp
Credit: Getty Images / chriss_ns

Hemp is a durable biodegradable fabric.

Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa that is grown without tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive, high-producing part of marijuana. Industrial hemp is made from seeds that do not surpass the threshold of 0.3% THC, per section 10113 of the Farm Bill. Because of its association with marijuana, it wasn’t until 2018 that American farmers were permitted to cultivate hemp.

That’s good news now, given that hemp requires little land and resources to grow. When farmed, hemp produces 1,500 pounds of fiber per acre, while cotton will produce only 500 pounds per acre. It’s also a quick-growing plant, ready to harvest in 70 to 110 days compared to cotton’s 150- to 180-day growing period. Because hemp grows so quickly, it is able to suppress weed growth (no pun intended), meaning farmers can avoid the use of harmful herbicides. What’s more, hemp is not considered water-intensive in either its growing or textile production. And farming more hemp can free up more space to replant the trees we need to clear our air of carbon emissions.

Buying hemp clothing means investing in a textile fabric that’s less chemically processed and completely biodegradable (presuming you make the effort to compost it). It’s also an investment for the long run, as a hemp T-shirt can last up to 30 years, compared to cotton's 10-year lifespan. It’s also a great idea to search for hemp clothing during the season’s warmer days.

The shoe brand Sanuk offers most of its footwear with hemp fabrics, while Patagonia offers various hemp blended clothing.

4. Linen offsets CO2 emissions and has zero wasted raw materials

FlaxField
Credit: Getty Images / Ruud Morijn

Fibers are extracted from flax to create linen fabrics.

One of the world’s oldest textiles, linen dates back to prehistoric times, and in modern days is recognized for its lightweight quality and ability to wick away moisture. Deserving of equal admiration, however, is the flax plant from which linen’s fibers are derived. While it grows, flax has a naturally high rate of carbon absorption, meaning the crop itself comes with its own carbon offsets. According to Common Objective, a global tech organization for sustainable fashion, flax growing in Europe alone captures 250,000 tons of CO2. Similar to hemp, flax requires less water to grow than cotton. It also requires few fertilizers and no pesticides.

Arguably the best part about flax is that every part of the plant is used when it's harvested. Flaxseed is extracted and sold commercially as a cooking oil, or as flaxseed meal for pet foods. The lower part of the plant’s stalk is good for coarser yarn and paper production, while shive, the wooden refuse removed during flax’s production, is used for chipboards and animal bedding.

Linen that’s left undyed is completely biodegradable—it can take as little as two weeks to begin decomposition when buried in soil. That’s incredible compared to cotton, which can take anywhere from one to five months to decompose to decompose. Linen is also durable, providing a material that’s strong enough to last for years to come. When buying linen, stay away from chemical dyes to keep things as natural as possible.

Cubavera is a popular men's retailer with plenty of linen fabric clothes, while Etsy is a haven for handcrafted linens made by sellers.

5. Lyocell offers a less chemically intense rayon

Eucalyptus
Credit: Getty Images / Alf Ribeiro

Tencel fabrics use the woody pulp from eucalyptus trees.

Rayon is a fiber made from natural cellulose, usually derived from the wood pulp of beech and pine trees. It’s classified as a semi-synthetic fabric due to chemical use that breaks down its woody fibers into weaveable yarns. Lyocell is the successor to both rayon and modal. However, it differs from rayon in avoiding the use of carbon disulfide, a harmful chemical that’s associated with acute and chronic forms of poisoning and is frequently considered an occupational health hazard. Carbon disulfide is used to turn wood pulp into fibers for rayon. But for lyocell, the spinning process uses an organic non-toxic compound called N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide, or simply NMMO, as a solvent. More than 99% of NMMO can be recycled and reused to spin more lyocell.

Tencel, a brand name of lyocell made by Austrian company Lenzing AG, aims to lead in the sustainable production of lyocell. It’s also the largest integrated pulp and fiber production plant in the world. The company farms its own fast-growing eucalyptus, rather than relying on the wood pulp of beech and pine trees. Any scraps leftover are used for thermal energy and electricitycleaner alternatives to burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, or oil. The entire operation is powered by renewable energy.

Lyocell uses less than half of the amount of water it takes to produce cotton. Its fiber make-up is mostly built from natural products, like wood pulp and trees. Synthetic materials used in lyocell production are recycled materials, which results in less energy use. Lyocell’s NMMO solvent ensures producing lyocell is a closed-loop production. Both Tencel and lyocell are completely biodegradable, as long as they’re naturally dyed.

Eillen Fisher uses Lyocell fabrics in many of its shirts and bottoms. Many brands, like Club Monaco, are opting to use Tencel fabric in their clothing instead of lyocell to reduce their carbon footprint in clothing production.

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