What makes a fabric sustainable?
The dark side of cotton
Cotton represents today 50% of the textile industry and is grown in over 100 countries. Cotton-based textiles are one of the most common types of fabrics used globally. When you think about cotton, you picture a field of this white natural fiber, non-toxic, sustainable, and fully biodegradable. Well, that’s not exactly the reality. Conventional cotton is one of the least sustainable fabrics.
Even though it’s a natural fiber, the production of cotton has proven to be a toxic threat to the farmers, the environment, and the consumer. According to The World Counts, “More chemical pesticides are used for cotton than for any other crop. Cotton accounts for 16 percent of global insecticide releases.”(1). Cotton production uses harmful heavy chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers that lead to soil and water contamination. Up to 8000 chemicals can be found in your cotton clothes from PVC to formaldehyde.
Due to the exponential demand for fiber linked to the rise of Fast Fashion, monoculture replaced the biodiversity and the wildlife in the regions where cotton is grown. The high amount of water needed to treat cotton is leading to water scarcity in those regions. To know more about the impact of Fast Fashion, read our article.
In addition, some countries like China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Burkina Faso are using child labor and forced labor.
It’s important to know that natural fiber doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable fabrics production or eco-friendly materials. Fortunately, there are a lot of sustainable alternatives in the clothing industry!
Sustainable farming, eco-friendly production, and ethical processes
Sustainable fabrics can mean several things.
A sustainable fabric is made with a material that has been sourced ethically and with care for the environment. These textiles are made to last and can be recycled or reused in some way so they do not end up in landfills. They are also made to reduce the number of chemicals used in production and to reduce the amount of water used during manufacturing processes.
Many companies market themselves as sustainable brands doing sustainable fashion. And some do, but it is not always the case. Some companies are trying to mislead consumers about their environmental practices, calling their products “green” when they are not. That’s called greenwashing.
Greenwashing can be achieved through false advertising, presenting an organization as environmentally friendly when they are not, or by making only minor changes to products or services that hurt the environment.
Greenwashing has become extremely popular in the last years when brands realised consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.
To help customers understand their environmental impact and discover the most sustainable alternatives, many non-profit organizations created labels and certifications.
These certifications also help eco-friendly and ethical companies prove their commitment to the environment, worker’s rights, and other important values.
You can find a glossary of all the sustainable certifications for textile at the end of this article.
Preview of the article
- Organic Cotton
- Recycled Cotton
- Organic hemp
- Bamboo Linen
- Organic Silk
- Recycled Wool
- Recycled Cashmere
- Kombucha leather
Guide to sustainable fabrics and materials
Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), USDA ORGANIC.
Cotton is a natural fiber but the growing and manufacturing processes of conventional cotton are far from sustainable.
Unlike regular cotton, organic cotton is a sustainable fabric. Harmful chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO seeds are forbidden, it’s, therefore, safer for farmers and consumers. The production of organic cotton requires up to 70% less water than conventional cotton and it increases soil fertility.
Many companies producing organic cotton implement additional ethical processes to empower local communities such as fair wages and safe working conditions.
Organic cotton is a non-toxic, biodegradable, and renewable material. It preserves the environment and the farmers growing it.
Certifications: Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), The Global Recycled Standard (GRS).
Certifications for other ethical and environmental standards in the cotton industry: Fair Trade International, Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade for life, Cotton made in Africa (CmiA), Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) Cotton, Cleaner Cotton, OEKO-TEX Certified Cotton, e3 Cotton, Cotton Connect REEL Cotton Code, World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), FairTrade Federation.
Recycled cotton is another great alternative to conventional cotton. It helps to reduce textile waste. The recycling process uses less energy than the production of new cotton from raw materials.
However, the quality of recycled fibers is usually inferior to “new” cotton. And cotton can only be recycled for a limited amount of time. The percentage of recycled cotton is still very limited because most cotton items are mixed with other materials, which makes them difficult to recycle. (2)
Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Organic Content Standard (OCS), The USDA National Organic Program.
Hemp is notably similar to linen. The plant comes from the same family as marijuana hence its production is highly regulated. It’s a plant easy to grow so there is no need for chemicals or overuse of water. The hemp plant is 250% more productive than the cotton one. (3) All of these reasons make hemp one of the most sustainable materials globally. Its growth and manufacturing process has an impact on the environment less detrimental than other natural fibers.
Organic hemp is a biodegradable and renewable material. It’s both strong and resistant and therefore an extremely durable textile that only gets better with time. It’s UV resistant and regulates your body temperature. Hemp is one of the most sustainable fabrics in the world even without being organic.
Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Organic Content Standard (OCS), The USDA Organic.
Linen is a natural fiber coming from the flax plant. It is one of the oldest and most durable fabrics used by men. Some pieces of linen are dated from 34000 years ago. It is a strong and tough material. Like hemp, it requires very few resources to grow: little water, no pesticide or fertilizer. In addition, linen plants can help absorb carbon.
Linen is a naturally hypo-allergenic and anti-bacterial fabric. It helps regulate the body temperature and resists light. It’s a completely biodegradable and renewable material if it’s not treated with chemicals.
Even when not organic, linen is already a positively sustainable material. You should always prefer organic materials as they are certified without harmful chemicals. Organic linen is the most sustainable fabric. It’s worth noting that linen is a material usually more expensive than cotton. (4)
Certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), The USDA Organic, OEKO-TEX® 100.
Bamboo is a natural fiber that grows very quickly. It has a low impact on the soil as it requires little water and no chemicals to grow.
Bamboo linen is different from bamboo rayon/viscose or regenerated bamboo. The process to turn the materials into bamboo rayon/viscose uses toxic chemicals. That’s why bamboo rayon/viscose is not sustainable fabrics.
The fiber is breathable, strong and durable, and naturally antibacterial. The bamboo tree also absorbs more carbon than a regular tree and produces more oxygen. (5) Prefer FCS-certified bamboo to be sure the trees are managed responsibly. It’s a fully biodegradable and renewable material. Bamboo is eco-friendly and therefore a sustainable fabric.
Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Peace silk.
Silk takes its origins in China. It is one of the strongest natural fibers and it comes from the cocoon of a silk moth.
Prefer organic silk to avoid the chemicals used during the treatment and the production of the material.
Organic silk is biodegradable, you can also find cruelty-free silk that let the moths leave their cocoon, it’s called peace silk.
Certifications: Responsible Wool Standard.
Wool is a natural fiber originating from sheep. The wool industry has been around for thousands of years and is still thriving today. Worldwide there are hundreds of varieties of wool. In itself, raw untreated wool is renewable and biodegradable. Wool is an environmentally friendly material.
However, due to the high demand, wool production can be harming the environment. The breeding of sheep can cause land desertification and it’s not rare to have animal abuse during the shearing process. For those reasons, prefer recycled wool. It is the most sustainable alternative.
Certifications: Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) Sustainable Cashmere Standard, Kering Standard on Cashmere, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), The Global Recycled Standard (GRS).
Cashmere is also a natural fiber and comes from the cashmere goat. Cashmere wool mostly originates from Mongolia. The cashmere goat pulls the roots of the grass instead of cutting it, it leads to the destruction of the plants and desertification. The increased demand for cashmere in the last years led to intensive breeding. That caused the desertification of the lands of Mongolia and the destruction of wildlife. “ 90% of Mongolia is fragile dry-land, under increasing threat of desertification“(6).
Animal welfare is also a concern in the production process. Recycled cashmere is a great option to offset the negative impact of cashmere production. The cashmere not chemically treated is renewable and biodegradable. Cashmere is far warmer than sheep’s wool. It’s also durable and lightweight.
Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), USDA ORGANIC, OEKO-TEX®, Fairtrade International, and Fair Trade USA.
Alpacas originate from South America and are part of the camel family. Unlike cashmere goats or sheep, Alpacas do not damage their living environment. They only cut the plants instead of destroying their roots therefore the plant can continue to grow. The animals also require less water than goats or sheep.
There is no lanolin(sheep’s grease) in Alpaca fur so there is no need for chemical treatments or intensive washing during the production process. Alpaca fiber is hypoallergenic, water, and stain repellent and lasts longer than other fabrics such as cashmere, wool, or silk.
Alpaca is one of the most naturally sustainable fabrics you can find today.
TENCEL is the commercial name of the material Lyocell. It is a regenerated non-natural fiber. TENCEL products are made from sustainably grown eucalyptus trees with less harmful chemicals, which means they are safer for people and the environment.
The production of Lyocell has up to 90% of its dissolving agents recycled and uses 40% less energy than regular cotton. Therefore it is considered an eco-friendly fabric. TENCEL is breathable and biodegradable. In addition, it doesn’t wrinkle and makes it perfect for physical activity.
Certifications: Global Recycled Standard GRS and Recycled Claim Standard (RCS).
Econyl is a sort of regenerated nylon that uses materials like old fishing nets, carpets, or clothing pieces. This recycled nylon is infinitely recyclable and requires less energy to be produced than conventional nylon.
However, these recycled fabrics are more expensive to process than other plastics. It is still a great sustainable alternative to nylon or other synthetic plastic materials.
Promising sustainable alternatives
LENZING ECOVERO – The viscose alternative
Ecovero is the newest type of viscose fiber. It is made from sustainably managed forests. Lenzing products comply with high standards of sustainability for sourcing and production processes.
It is a biodegradable fiber and an eco-friendly fabric regularly used in sustainable fashion.
PINATEX – The leather alternative
Pinatex originates from pineapple leaf waste and has become an eco-friendly alternative to traditional leather. You can find it used for sustainable clothing and footwear.
The material is easily biodegraded and cruelty-free. It’s a sustainable textile.
Kombucha leather – The leather alternative
Made from the kombucha yeast called SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), Kombucha leather is an alternative to traditional leather. It’s a biomaterial and an eco-friendly option for animal leather.
WOOCOA – The wool alternative
Made from coconut and hemp wastes, WOOCOA is a vegan and cruelty-free alternative to wool. It’s a biomaterial awarded by PETA and sponsored by Stella McCartney.
Fabrics and materials to avoid
Regular cotton, for the reasons mentioned in the introduction: use of harmful chemicals, over-use of water resources, monocultures resulting in soil and water contamination as well as destroying of the biodiversity of the regions. There are also unethical practices like child labor and forced labor.
Wool, cashmere, and leather: due to intensive breeding, animal abuse, desertification of the lands, and use of harmful chemicals during the production process.
Polyester, rayon, viscose, and modal: those synthetic plastic fibers are made from petroleum materials with toxic chemicals. They are non-biodegradable, demand high energy, and release microplastic into the oceans.
What else can I do?
In the last few years, the demand for sustainable alternatives in the fashion industry has dramatically increased. Consumers want to consume “better” and are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products.
Here are some ways you can support sustainable fashion:
- You can repair an item instead of buying a new piece. This is why, when buying a new piece you should always pick higher quality. If the quality is higher, the item will last longer and you’ll eventually save money.
- If you are looking for a piece you don’t have, choose second-hand, it’s a cheap and eco-friendly alternative. Here’s the best online thrift shops at the moment.
- If you need to buy new items, always prefer organic, recycled, or sustainable fabrics and materials. Check their certifications to make sure their green claims are true. Some brands are leading the movement such as Patagonia, Organic basic, Stella McCartney, and much more.
Glossary of sustainable fabrics certifications
The GREENGUARD certification ensures that products have a low level of VOCs emission. VOCs or volatile organic compounds are chemicals usually found in indoor environments such as our homes, offices, or schools. They are used in interior furnishing, cleaning, and sometimes personal care products. A high concentration of VOCs can cause headaches, irritations, and in the long term even chronic diseases or cancer. The GREENGUARD certification guarantees the limitation of these chemicals in a product. The certification helps to control air pollution in close spaces and creates a safer indoor environment.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is an international textile standard for organic fibers. It sets the ecological and social criteria for all the steps from manufacturing to distribution. The certification doesn’t audit the cultivation process for organic fibers. GOTS certification bans the use of toxic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs, and unethical practices such as child labor, unsafe working conditions, and precarious employment.
The Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) is an international textile standard for products made with organically grown latex. It sets the ecological and social criteria from the harvest in the organic rubber plantations to the manufacture and distribution of the finished product. GOLS limits the number of chemicals used in the production processes.
Made Safe certification is a label for non-toxic products. It guarantees the product is made from safe ingredients and does not harm human health. It means the ban of harmful substances. The list is available on the company website.
The label covers all kinds of items such as apparel, baby and child items, bedding, cosmetics, household, intimate and personal care, and pets.
Oeko- Tex certification was created by an independent certifier. It is a globally recognized standard that ensures that a textile is non-toxic for humans. This certification applies to all types of textiles, at any stage of processing. They carefully test all the pieces of a product and check the presence of harmful substances. Independent test institutes are in charge of testing the products applying for the certification.
The Fair Trade certification is an international label that guarantees ethical and environmental practices as well as sustainable projects to support local communities.
The Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and Global Recycled Standard (GRS) are labels globally recognized. They aim to improve the use of recycled materials and reduce pollution. Their standards set ecological and social criteria and proscribe the use of chemicals in the recycling processes. An independent entity audits the processes from the materials to the final products.
FSC’s goal is to promote the sustainable management of the world’s forests. They focus on conservation and restoration and have set ethical and environmental standards.
USDA certification is the American standard for organic food and ingredients. It sets non-toxic and durable criteria for factors such as soil quality, animal breeding, or the use of additives.
The Textile Exchange Organic Content Standard (OCS) is an international textile standard for organic content. It doesn’t address the ecological and social criteria. It only certifies that a product contains organic materials.
The Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) is an international standard for greenhouse gas emissions. It certified that a company took steps to reduce its carbon emissions.
The Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) is an international voluntary standard for wool. It sets the environmental criteria that ensure animal welfare and the protection of the land.
B-Corp is an international certification that ensures that a business meets certain social and environmental standards such as employee benefit, transparency, or accountability.
Climate Neutral certification guarantees that a company has a neutral greenhouse gas emission balance. It can be achieved by reducing those gases or by joining offsetting programs.
Founded by the Patagonia founder, 1% for the Planet guarantees that a company gives at least 1% of its sales profit to environmental causes. It was created to prevent greenwashing.
One Tree Planted is an organization that plants a tree for every dollar donated. So far they have planted 43 million trees in 43 countries. Their goal is to bring back forests and biodiversity as well as fight climate change.
Image Credit: all product photos belong to Pexels and Unsplash