6 Fabrics Rated Best to Worst
February 13, 2019 • 5 min read
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When it comes to environmental action, one of the biggest ways in which we can individually have a positive impact is by choosing fabrics that are earth-friendly. Clothing production and micro-fibres that are released when we wash our clothes are two extremely polluting activities, seriously causing damage to the environment and our waterways. We can circumvent some of these effects by choosing fabrics that have less of an effect on the earth when in production, fabrics that are well-made and have a long life, and fabrics that are easily biodegradable for when they are no longer needed. I’ve outlined 6 fabrics below that rank from most earth-friendly to least, and the impact they have in production, during their lifetime, and in the afterlife.
Hemp is the most versatile plant on the earth, and serves many uses. As a fabric, it’s the top choice for sustainability.
Hemp doesn’t require much water to grow, and it can produce two to three times more fiber per acre than cotton can. It also replenishes the soil as it is growing, rather than taking nutrients away, like most plants do. Hemp is breathable, soft, warm, moisture-wicking, and anti-bacterial. Like linen, hemp is super durable and becomes softer with use. Because it is a wholly natural fibre (when unblended), washing hemp clothing in your machine isn’t cause for concern, as the microfibres that filter into the water supply will easily breakdown with time.
Hemp is biodegradable at the end of its lifetime, meaning you can chuck it in the backyard and use it as garden mulch. From a sustainability perspective, hemp is definitely the best fabric to go with.
You might also like: How Arraei Collective is Using Hemp to Create Sustainable Fashion
On par with hemp, linen remains traditionally and historically one of the best and most sustainable fabrics to date.
Made from the flax plant, linen production uses the plant in its entirety, lessening waste from the get go. Flax is easily grown and quickly replenish-able, using far less water than cotton, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, making linen production very sustainable (this when dew-retting or enzyme-retting is used, not water-retting).
Linen as a fabric has a very long lifetime, as it’s one of the most durable fabrics out there. With a recent resurrection, linen clothing is coming back as people seek ways to lessen their fashion footprint. Linen is breathable, durable, lightweight, absorbent, antimicrobial, naturally moth-resistant, and cooling, making it perfect for summer days. It also reduces gamma radiation almost by half, protecting us from solar radiation. It’s the only fabric that is stronger when wet, and like hemp, becomes softer with use. Also, like hemp, micro-fibres from linen are of no concern, as they will naturally biodegrade in the water.
Linen pieces that are left un-dyed or naturally dyed will biodegrade 100% with time, making it sustainable and earth-friendly.
3. Bamboo (the same as Rayon or Viscose)
A natural fibre made from the bamboo plant, bamboo is quickly rising in the ranks of earth-friendly fabric, but it’s not as clean as we think.
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, making it an amazing resource. It requires very little water and no fertilizers or pesticides to grow. Despite this, the process of turning bamboo into fabric is actually very chemically-intensive, in order to get it into the soft fabric we all love. Bamboo fibre production produces quite a bit of waste (50% of hazardous waste from production cannot be recaptured and goes into the environment). Also, because so much of the bamboo we use comes from China, it is hard to regulate pesticide use (so many growers do use it to maximize their outputs, but don’t always declare it), so the bamboo waters can be murky and not always as clear as we may think.
Bamboo is naturally highly sweat absorbent, pulling moisture from the skin for evaporation in what is called moisture-wicking. Claims that it is naturally antibacterial or UV resistance are unclear, as the process of making it into a fibre seems to disqualify this. The fabric itself is incredibly soft and feels great on the skin.
Because of its chemically-intensive production, bamboo isn’t quite as sustainable as we think, and while it may biodegrade, it is considered a fabric falling between naturals and synthetics. It would need to be properly recycled in a facility, rather than simply in your compost, and micro-fibres are a cause for concern with bamboo. Here is some more information on bamboo, rayon and viscose.
Note: A similar fabric is on the rise, called lyocell, which is also known by the brand name TENCEL ®. This fabric uses a closed-loop process to recapture and reuse 99% of the chemical solution. It is often made from sustainably farmed eucalyptus trees, making it an increasingly popular green fabric option.
Note from Julie of Logan and Finley: “Not all bamboo is the same – at Logan & Finley we sell closed loop bamboo and other certified fabrics which means the fabrics are processed with very little waste and the bamboo is sourced in a sustainable way. Miik is an example of a brand designed to last for a very long time and very carefully made with sustainable fibres including bamboo and are the favourites of a lot of your wardrobes for good reason & I included a link to their fabrics & sustainability pages.” JS
Cotton is a well-known, high in demand fabric, that makes up a quarter of all fabric used in clothing and textiles.
In a process that is quite unsustainable, cotton uses a tremendous amount of water (700 gallons for a t-shirt, which is the same amount a person drinks in 2.5 years), pesticides (35% of the world’s insecticides and pesticides), and arable land. Organic cotton is definitely the better option, but often requires more land because crop yields decrease over time.
Micro-fibres are a huge issue, and with non-organic cotton, they begin to leach into our water systems and environment when we wash our clothes. Most cotton is not wholly biodegradable, if it has been treated or dyed with non-natural dyes, while organic cotton would eventually biodegrade.
Wool is a historical favourite, but not for everyone, especially vegans. It is however, one of the most environmentally-friendly (in terms of the actual fabric) out there, but the reason we’ve listed it as fifth is due to its carbon footprint. The biggest issue with wool comes from the methane gas emissions caused by gassy sheep. 50% of wool’s carbon footprint comes from the sheep themselves, but on the flip side, sheep are usually raised on non-arable land, requiring less resources than some plant-based options.
In terms of the fabric itself, wool is tough, wrinkle-resistant, resilient, and can absorb a ton of moisture before feeling damp. It is warm and can replace many polyester fleeces out there, helping reduce the amount of micro-fibre shedding that occurs. When wool micro-fibres are released into the world, they biodegrade, naturally. The average lifespan of a wool garment is 2-10 years, compared to 2-3 years for a typical cotton or synthetic garment. So, while the carbon footprint is high, our rate of consumption of it is lower than other fabrics.
*Update – March 28, 2022: It’s also worth mentioning that alpaca wool is quite a bit more sustainable than sheep’s wool. Alpacas produce incredibly warm, and super-soft fibres, and unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fibres don’t contain any lanolin, making them hypoallergenic. The low lanolin content in alpaca fibres eliminates the need for caustic steps during processing (like sheep’s wool), which is far less environmentally-damaging. One alpaca can produce enough fibre for 4-5 sweaters, compared to a cashmere goat which can only produce enough for 1/4 of a sweater each year. Alpaca wool is moisture-wicking and breathable, while also being highly durable and long-lasting. Since alpacas are naturally colourful animals (with over 22 recognized colours in the US!), the need to dye their fibres is reduced, which drastically lowers their environmental footprint.
Additionally, since alpaca are not a hoofed species, their soft, padded feet don’t cause pasture damage, unlike many of their hoofed counterparts. They also consume less – only about 1.5% of their body weight in food daily. They are thus considered to be more biologically efficient than other grazing lifestock. They produce excellent fertilizer than can be easily harvested, and their droppings, also known as beans, can be put directly in gardens and flower pots without needing to be composted first.
Polyester is the least sustainable option, yet the one that is currently dominating the clothing industry (60% of clothing has polyester in it). The fabric is stretchy, durable, comfortable and easy to take care of however it is a plastic product, manufactured from crude oil. Recycled polyester is slightly better, as it reduces the amount of oil being used (9.5 billion litres of oil yearly for virgin polyester production) and reduces waste, but eventually will also have the same environmental repercussions as new polyester when it comes time for disposal.
Polyester releases a ton of micro-fibres into the water every time it is washed, and there is no way this fabric breaks down or biodegrades easily, as it takes up to 200 years to decompose. Our fish (and eventually us, if you eat meat) consume these micro-fibres, which is dangerous to the health of marine life, ourselves, and the ocean/world’s waterways.
Many brands proudly share that their clothing lines are made from recycled ocean plastic or from recycled water bottles, however unless the garment is something that requires it to be waterproof (raincoats, shoes, bathing suits, certain types of activewear), it shouldn’t be made from virgin or recycled polyester fibres. Don’t let brands greenwash you into believing that a simple, everyday dress or shirt is sustainable because it is made from recycled plastic. Quite simply, it’s not.
P L A N T
T R E E
- Viscose (Bamboo)
A N I M A L
O I L
And below, we’ve listed the fabrics that do and that do not contain plastic micro-fibres.
Next time you’re shopping, consider this list before purchasing.
P L A S T I C
N O P L A S T I C
- Leather (genuine)
- Rayon / Viscose
Always be sure to check the actual fabric breakdown when buying clothing – either on the tag in-store or in the fine print online. Some may market their clothing as sustainable (“Cashmere Sweater”), but when you check the breakdown it might only be 55% wool, with the rest being a blend of polyester or some other non-sustainable fabric. Mixed fabrics are the hardest to break down, to recycle, and to responsibly care for.
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