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Sustainable Fabrics: Everything You Need to Know

Much like art, fashion is a reflection of society. Climate consciousness is the most needed movement today, leading to the rise of sustainable fashion.

It is a structure that stands on many pillars, such as transparency in business, ethical trade, fair labour policies, and, of course, sustainable material.

The key to knowing which fabric is the better choice is to be aware of what goes into making what you’re buying. The fine print on clothing labels helps us do that. Whether you are a business or a consumer of fashion, sustainable fabrics are the first obvious step towards sustainability.

In this article, we will walk you through the latest sustainable fabric trends. Allow us to be your guide on your conscious consumption journey.

Sustainability In Fabrics

According to UNESCO.org “Sustainability is a paradigm for thinking about the future in which environmental, societal and economic considerations are balanced in the pursuit of an improved quality of life.”

Based on this, being eco-friendly isn’t the only factor to consider while choosing a sustainable fabric. Process of manufacturing and affordability are also key factors.

A good indicator of these qualities is certifications that are found on the labels. Here are a few certifications you can look out for:

Sustainability Certifications

1. BLUESIGN

Being one of the strictest certifications in textiles, Bluesign ensures keeping harmful chemicals out of the manufacturing process. Many outdoor brands, such as Patagonia, are Bluesign certified.

2. CRADLE TO CRADLE

An imitation of the Earth’s natural cycle. This certification ensures that throughout the production and at the end of a product’s life, all resources used are truly recyclable or can return to the source safely in direct or indirect form. This applies to raw materials, energy sources, water usage, and social fairness.

3. GOTS

Unifying standards across different countries and supply chains, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the most trusted standard across the world. We can find it on garments made of organic cotton, linen, hemp, etc. Currently, it certifies organic status for 70% of all textiles in the world.

4. OEKO-TEX

One of the best textile standards, the OEKO-TEX certifies that your garment is safe from toxic chemicals. This is especially useful for kid’s wear and nightwear.

5. FAIRTRADE

(FAIR TRADE CERTIFIED, FLO, IMO)

These certifications tell us that the workers who made your clothes were paid fairly and had safe working conditions. The certified brands also contribute to community development.

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Now that we have covered certifications, let’s discuss different fabrics that are available out there.

TOP SUSTAINABLE FABRICS TO LOOK OUT FOR

Sustainable fabrics are made of sustainable fibers. With rapid advancements, we can extract fibers from different sources. Based on the source of origin, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to different sustainable fabrics :

RECYCLED FABRICS

Sustainable Fabrics
1. RECYCLED POLYESTER (rPET)
  • Made by recycling old plastic bottles.
  • This method requires fewer resources compared to the production of new polyester fibers.
  • Significantly less CO2 is generated in the making.
  • Infinitely recyclable.

Compared to virgin polyester, it’s more sustainable. But it is important to keep in mind that it is still non-biodegradable and releases microplastics into our oceans. The production is more expensive than virgin polyester, but emits fewer greenhouse gases!

2. RECYCLED NYLON
  • Same benefits as recycled polyester.
  • Prevents waste from going to landfills and needs far fewer resources in the making compared to virgin nylon.
  • A large part of recycled nylon comes from used fishing nets that otherwise would pollute the oceans.

While the production cost is higher than virgin nylon, the environmental advantages make it worthwhile.

3. RECYCLED COTTON
  • Helps prevent additional textile waste.
  • Compared to organic and conventional cotton, it requires far fewer resources.
  • Textile waste and old clothes, both are recyclable.

Recycling reduces the durability of cotton. Therefore, it is blended with new cotton to maintain quality.

4. RECYCLED WOOL
  • Recycling wool saves a huge amount of water, and land resources needed for rearing sheep.
  • Diverts woolen clothes from ending up in landfills,
  • Eliminates chemical usage for dyeing.

Recycling wool is good for conserving air, water, and land. There aren’t many labels certifying recycled wool apart from GRS (Global Recycled Standard).

PLANT-BASED/VEGAN FABRICS

1. ORGANIC COTTON

  • Minus the negative impact of conventional cotton, organic cotton meets the same quality standards.
  • Grown from non-GMO seeds.
  • No use of pesticides, insecticides, or fertilizers, saving farmers from being exposed to toxic chemicals.
  • Usage of ancestral farming techniques, together with crop rotation, blended farming, or no-till farming, to hold the soil.
  • Makes use of up to 71% much less water than conventional cotton.

2. LINEN

● Extracted from the flax plant,

● Linen uses far fewer resources like water, pesticides, fertilizers, and energy compared to cotton or polyester.

● Can also be grown on land that is unfit for food crops to grow and even rehabilitate polluted soil sometimes.

3. HEMP

● Comes from a fast-growing plant called hemp, named after its source.

● Can be grown in the same place for years without depleting the soil quality.

● Doesn’t require many resources to grow

Even though it is quite similar to Linen, it belongs to the same plant family as cannabis. Because of this reason, its farming is restricted in many countries.

4. STINGING NETTLE

● Similar to linen, but not as popular.

● Urtica Dioica (source), is a widely found plant and easy to grow.

● Compared to cotton, acrylic, and nylon, it is far more sustainable in terms of resource utilization and biodegradability.

● Can be used in both winter and summer.

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Like hemp, nettle requires far less water and pesticides but is completely legal to cultivate everywhere.

5. NATURAL RUBBER

● Made from the milk of the hevea tree, it is a renewable resource.

● The extraction process does not harm the tree, but makes it a valuable resource and prevents it from being cut down.

● Recyclable and biodegradable.

● Labels such as FSC® and Fair Rubber association ensure good environmental management of forests and fair pay for latex (rubber) makers.

ANIMAL-BASED SUSTAINABLE FABRICS

1. ALPACA

● The name Alpaca comes from the animal whose fleece we use for making the fibers.

● Alpacas yield 16 times the fiber compared to cashmere goats while needing far less food and little water to survive.

● They cut the grass while eating rather than pulling from the roots, which helps the grass grow back faster. Their hooves are padded, which reduces the damage to the ground while grazing.

● Alpaca production also helps to uplift the indigenous communities of Peru.

2. ORGANIC SILK

● A protein fiber spun by silkworms

● Biodegradable as well as a renewable resource.

● Conventional silk practices kill the silkworm. “Peace silk” Ahimsa or tussah silk allows for the moth to leave the cocoon before boiling it for extracting silk fibers.

● Fewer chemicals are required in the dyeing process.

3. SUSTAINABLE WOOL

RWS (responsible wool standard) is a certification standard for sustainable wool. This ensures that animals are treated fairly and that farms take the necessary steps to protect the land.

● It is pretty rare to find certified organic wool, as GOTS certification is the only standard available. This certifies that pesticides/parasiticides were not used on the land or the sheep itself. This also ensures good cultural and management practices.

4. RESPONSIBLE DOWN

● Conventional down is made of bird feathers that are plucked from live animals. This is a painful and torturous process for the animal.

● Look for the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) seal. This standard prohibits live-plucking of feathers and ensures they do no unnecessary harm to the animals by rewarding animal welfare.

SEMI-SYNTHETIC FIBERS

1. LYOCELL TENCEL®

● Made of eucalyptus trees from forests certified by PEFC. These trees have a quick growth rate and do not need watering or fertilizers.

● Compared to viscose and modal, it’s far more sustainable. Most chemicals used in the process are recycled and used again.

● 100% biodegradable.

2. ORANGE FIBER

● Made from orange peels.

● A by-product of the juice industry

● Biodegradable

3. PINEAPPLE (PINATEX)

● Fiber is derived from pineapple leaves.

● A by-product of the pineapple harvest, the organic raw material requires no extra resources to cultivate.

● A great alternative to leather since it provides a similar look and feel while being cruelty-free and emitting fewer greenhouse gases.

● Not 100% biodegradable as it is mixed with 20-30% plastic polymers.

3. CUPRO

● Made of waste-cotton fibers.

● Non-toxic chemicals used in the making.

● All chemicals and water used are reused in a close-loop.

● Eco-friendly replacement for viscose.

● Biodegradable.

FABRICS TO AVOID

1. CONVENTIONAL COTTON

● Grown in warm, dry regions like India where water is scarce. Requires tonnes of water to grow (20000 tonnes per kg)

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● Most cotton production (99.3%) globally uses genetically modified seeds (GMOs) and pesticides.

● Cotton farming is practiced in developing countries where labor laws and safety standards are not applied.

Alternatives: Recycled Cotton, Organic Cotton

2. CONVENTIONAL WOOL

● Though it is a renewable resource, global demand leads to poor sheep rearing practices

● Overpopulating sheep lead to overgrazing, disturbing the ecosystem of the land where they are kept

● Sheep are bathed in insecticides that are harmful to both the farmer and the animal and make their way in the final garment.

● Sheep produce methane, a harmful gas that adds to global warming

● Animals are often hurt during fleece removal.

Alternatives: Recycled wool

3. FAKE LEATHER/ PLEATHER

● Eliminates harm to animals, but increases the damage to the environment

● Usage of toxic and non-biodegradable materials such as polyurethane (PU) and PVC in most cases.

Alternatives: Plant-based vegan leather

4. CASHMERE

  • Cashmere is derived from goats. A single Goat takes 4 years to provide only 1 sweater worth of fleece.
  • Goats pull out grass from roots while grazing. Rearing goats in large numbers leads to desertification hence, goat overpopulation is an environmental threat.

Alternative: ALPACA

5. DOWN

● Animal Cruelty – most global supply received is plucked directly from living animals. This is a banned method but is still legal in some parts of the world.

● Choose products made from Responsible Down instead.

Alternative: Responsible Down

6. POLYESTER

Derived from petroleum, non-renewable fossil fuel. It is the most common fiber, found in 52% of the global garment production.

Production releases harmful chemicals and is energy-intensive.

A polyester garment releases up to 700000 microplastics in every wash. These end up in the oceans and ultimately on our plates, making their way inside our bodies.

Non-Biodegradable

Alternatives: Recycled Polyester

7. RAYON, MODAL AND VISCOSE

We derive rayon from the wood of the eucalyptus tree, which is combined with toxic chemicals for conversion into fibers. The unregulated felling of trees causes deforestation.

Artificial Silk or viscose and modal are types of rayon, having similar ill-effects on the environment.

Alternative: You can choose to buy more sustainable rayon options such as Lenzing Tencel® or Cupro.

8. BAMBOO

Bamboo is a promising crop that sprouts from the place of being cut and grows significantly every day without needing many resources.

Bamboo fabric, woven from Bamboo Rayon, requires the treatment of fibers with toxic chemicals like sulphuric acid.

Thus posing a threat to both people and the environment.

9. OTHER SYNTHETIC FABRICS

Spandex, Acrylic, PVC, Lycra, Elastane, etc. are all derived from petroleum, having similar damages as Polyester

CONCLUSION

1. The key to conscious buying is to be aware of what goes into making what you’re buying.

2. Read the clothing labels. Labels act as a window into the making of your garment.

3. Sustainability Certifications are beneficial for both brands and customers in making greener choices

4. While no one fabric is perfect, choosing better is always an option.

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