If you’re reading a quick listicle with the words “good” and “bad” stamped across the headlines, you’re not actually going to be able to determine the most sustainable fabrics for clothing. It’s just not that simple.
The world of sustainable fashion is incredibly complicated, in no small part because sustainable branding brings business, but creating sustainable clothing is difficult and expensive.
Manufacturers will do anything they can to sell “sustainability”, because it puts them ahead of the competition in terms of branding and demand and it allows them to sell garments at higher prices.
But why actually be sustainable if you can just… lie? (Or, I suppose, “skirt the truth”.) Great question. One many fashion manufacturers have already asked and answered for themselves.
So, the end result of all this is that there is a ton of misinformation out there.
It’s not your fault that you can’t find an easy answer to your question about what clothing materials are the most sustainable. Info has been intentionally blurred, plus it’s a complicated area of study in the first place.
I remember when I first began trying to figure out the “right” thing to do in terms of my fashion consumption. It wasn’t easy! I make an effort every day to live slowly, which means I’ve been researching this question for a long time.
I have to, because I create my own sustainable fashion by hand and use natural dyes to refresh old clothing and create new looks. It’s integral to my life’s passion, and my work.
So I assume you’re here because you, like me, actually want to know how to choose sustainable textiles and fabrics, and to learn which work best with natural dyes.
I still make mistakes all the time, but I hope this info can help you in your own journey towards ethical, slow, sustainable living. Because the first step is always being informed.
What exactly is a sustainable fabric for clothing?
A sustainable fabric or textile is both environmentally friendly and beneficial for people across the board.
The raw materials use less water and energy to produce, create less and fewer harmful chemicals and microplastics, and production supports disadvantaged communities and does not exploit land or workers.
At least, that’s what the definition should be. But it seems that our “sustainability” measures right now relate only to the environmental aspects.
The absolute best resource on this I’ve ever found is created by Fibershed. This article, “‘Sustainable’ Fashion Forgot Where It Came From”, is beyond excellent. I really encourage you to read it in full, but I’ll share some of the big points below.
Without going into all the nitty gritty, our current “gold standard” for measuring the global impact of fibre and fabric choices is the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI).
It’s one of five tools contained within the Higg index, which derives from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which was founded by Walmart and Patagonia (surprise!).
Basically, the MSI is supposed to measure sustainability per kilo of different fabrics. Many measures go into it, like water scarcity and fossil fuel depletion. However, “there is no socioeconomic variable in the MSI. So a fiber’s impact in meeting the needs of the world’s poor is categorically, not considered” (source: Fibershed).
This is bad news for the sustainability movement. Because if you’re not taking into account how different raw materials benefit or harm communities, you’re not considering the true sustainability of that material.
In the same vein, if you don’t take into account different locations and whether raw materials are native to those places, your environmental sustainability estimate can’t be accurate.
All this to say, this issue is complicated. And our best measures, so far, aren’t as good as they could be.
And, now and always, I also invite you to demand clear, science-based information from brands, and always stay critical about what you read (yes, even this!).
What clothing materials are best for sustainable fibres and textiles?
Ah, another question without a straightforward answer. The best I can give you is a list of different factors that influence the best sustainable fabrics for clothing!
The most sustainable fabrics for clothing are sourced from the Earth, not fossil fuels. These can be plant or animal-based, and will include cotton, linen, hemp, wool, silk, mohair, and alpaca.
While bamboo, viscose, rayon, tencel, and lyocell are also made from natural materials, their production processes use fossil fuels and other harmful chemicals. They also tend to cause environmental problems for the people and locations near processing plants.
So, though they can be naturally dyed and are technically sourced from the Earth, they’re not the best option for sustainable materials.
In addition to the general lists above, more sustainable fabrics for clothing are:
Grown and processed locally. Different environmental conditions will affect how efficient natural materials can be made.
For example, when growing cotton for cotton fabric, linen, or denim, it’s much more sustainable to grow it where the conditions are naturally right for it. If it’s grown in an adverse (non-native) environment, it is likely to need artificial irrigation, pesticides, fertilisers, and the like.
Monofibres. This just means they should be all one (natural) material, not blends. So, cotton, not cotton-polyester.
Able to be naturally dyed. Naturally dyed clothing is able to be composted (here’s how to compost clothes if you’re curious), completing the cycle of regenerative fashion. It also produces no harmful chemicals and the materials and methods can be sourced from right within your home.
To be entirely frank, there is little evidence that one natural fabric type is better than others. The Transformers Foundation 2021 case study on cotton demonstrates that clearly (too nerdy?).
So, in the face of that news, just try to follow the points above and you’ll be headed in the right direction. Just remember: Natural fibres, natural dyes, ethically (and, ideally, natively) sourced.
What are the most common unsustainable fabrics, and why?
This question, unlike searching for the holy grail of “most sustainable textile”, has an answer: plastics.
Fossil fuel based clothing is just not sustainable. That means plastics and clothing created using harsh processes driven by fossil fuels. Changing Markets Foundation wrote an incredible explanation of Fossil Fashion, our hidden reliance of fast fashion on fossil fuels.
The breakdown: Cheap synthetic fibres are–pardon my oversimplification–bad.
If you want to live a slow, sustainable lifestyle and consume ethically and consciously, avoid synthetic fibres and fibres created using fossil fuels. No polyester, nylon, or acrylic, and to a lesser degree, avoid bamboo, rayon, tencel, viscose, and lyocell.
Fast fashion can’t exist without synthetic fibres. Over 50% of the clothing being made right now contains it, and it’s non-compostable, cheap, and absolutely horrific for the planet and for the workers creating it.
To briefly return back to how complicated this industry is, part of my dislike of the Higg Index is that it allows fossil-fuel based fibres to be marketed as environmentally friendly.
The Higg ignores the social implications of such a statement, and even ignores the end-of-life streams for materials: where are those plastic fibres going to end up? But for now, that’s neither here nor there.
There are reasons you may own synthetic fibres. Maybe you got them a while ago, or need them for work, strenuous exercise, or some other uniform. In that case, harm reduction is your new sustainable go-to!
So, for now, just take good care of them, keep them as long as you can, and use a microplastics bag when you wash them (in cold water!).
They won’t recycle easily, can’t be naturally dyed, and are definitely not compostable – so crafting and repurposing are your only real options to keep them out of the landfill.
Where can I find sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion and textiles are all around you, you just have to know where to look 🙂
The first place to look for sustainable clothing is your own town or country.
Locally sourced, native raw materials and dyes? Small businesses and strengthened communities? Small rebellions against big, monolithic corporations? Sign me up!
For me, that’s Ireland. If you’re also in Ireland (Hi!), you might like my article 7 Amazing Irish Sustainable Brands to Love. I’m so grateful to live in a place where inspiration is all around me, and these brands are a huge part of that.
In general, when you’re trying to find sustainable fashion, there’s a little research involved.
Click on brands’ “About” or “Story” pages. See their values and where they source their materials. What materials do they use? Who makes their products?
Read reviews, because sustainable means long-lasting. If someone complains that their garment was cheaply made or fell apart, dig deeper.
I also typically search their brand name online with the words “sustainable” “ethical” and maybe even “scandal” or other negatives to see if anyone has found them to be misrepresenting themselves as ethical.
The last check I always use to see if a brand is really sustainable is to check the prices. Well-made, ethically sourced clothing has higher prices to match.
If a brand is touting sustainable fashion at fast fashion prices, something isn’t adding up. The fashion market is just too competitive for “too good to be true.”
We can take conscious consumerism one step at a time, together.
No one’s life changes overnight, and becoming a conscious consumer isn’t something you can win at.
You have your own needs, budget, and life, and ultimately, the weight of the world’s problems will never fall on your shoulders. But living a slow, sustainable lifestyle is good for you and good for the planet.
Our growing movement of conscious consumers is fighting to change the actions of corporations and manufacturers who exploit the planet and vulnerable people for their own gain.
The only thing entities with so much to lose will listen to (right now) is the power of money. And that power is in our collective hands.
So, though you can never single-handedly fix these issues, there’s a lot at stake. And you can be part of the change!
Choosing to build your sustainable wardrobe using natural clothing materials and sustainable fibres and textiles holds the possibility for so much reward. You’ll learn to listen to your own wants and desires, weigh your priorities, and get to truly know yourself and the Earth a little better.
If finding your way back to Mother Earth sounds like something you’re drawn to, I encourage you to take a look at my Living Colours with the Five Elements natural dyeing workshop!
I’ll teach you all I know about using natural dyes to create whimsical, beautifully coloured natural textiles. And, who knows? Maybe you’ll discover your own new passion in this facet of sustainable living!
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