From linen to leather, modern fabrics run the gamut of feel and quality. Science has made it possible for manufacturers to achieve just about any desired look or texture. Having an endless well of choices may be a consumer’s paradise, but what kind of effect does all of that textile tinkering have on the environmental impact as a whole?
Thankfully, more and more manufacturers are turning to sustainable textiles in the interest of combating climate change. What is sustainable fashion? Some sustainable clothing brands include Stan Smith and Vionic. Basically, the clothes from sustainable fashion are designed, made, and distributed in a way that’s environment-friendly. In this article, we’ll outline the most sustainable fabrics used in the fashion industry and textile industry today. Plus, we’ll cover a few best practices for sustainable clothing recycling and see what science has in store for the future of sustainable textiles.
Read on to find out how you can turn your closet into a more planet-friendly place.
What Makes Fashion Sustainable?
Due to harmful chemicals, the blending of different types of fibers, and the wide range of fixtures and adornments used to create fast fashion’s “trendy-today, tired tomorrow” looks, modern clothing can be quite difficult to recycle:1
- In the United States, only 13.6% of discarded apparel is recycled.
- That means over 80% of it ends up in the trash and is left to molder in landfills or release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere during incineration.1
These statistics paint a grim figure, especially considering just how much clothing is purchased annually around the globe. What’s the best way to address this glut of unrecyclable clothing? We know this much for sure: sustainable textiles can help.
In order for a fabric to be considered sustainable, it should fulfill at least one (and hopefully more) of the following requirements:
- The textile is manufactured using chiefly renewable resources.
- The textile is free from toxic dyes and chemicals, both as a finished product and during production.
- The textile can be recycled or is made from recycled material.
- The textile is an alternative for an animal product.
5 Sustainable Materials to Seek Out
To help you weed out the eco-guilt from the eco-friendly, we’ve narrowed down your shopping list to five specific materials. Read on to learn how they’re fulfilling their mission to make the fashion industry a friendlier place for the planet.
#1 Organic and Recycled Wool
Fabrics made with natural materials are the go-to for sustainability. This is especially true for organic and fair trade certified textiles, which are typically ethical from end-to-end.
The first natural and sustainable material on our list? Organic and recycled wool.
Wool is an age-old renewable resource that’s perfectly suited for textile making. While some organizations have concerns over animal welfare on wool farms, there are plenty of reliable sources for organic, cruelty-free wool.
In fact, some sheep farmers have developed methods to make their farms carbon-neutral or even carbon positive. They can raise sheep and harvest wool while taking in more carbon than they’re giving off—a major win for sustainable farming!2
Here are some reasons why wool makes a fantastic, multi-use textile:3
- It’s strong, even stronger than silk.
- It’s elastic and can regain its original shape after stretching.
- It’s highly absorbent and can wick moisture away from the skin without feeling wet.
- It’s a tough, resilient textile that can stand up to wear and tear.
Here’s why bamboo is a sustainable clothing material: Bamboo is a fantastic renewable resource due to how fast it regrows after being harvested. However, like other natural fiber fabrics, the growing, harvesting, and processing of bamboo can sometimes take a negative toll on its viability as a sustainable textile.
Mechanically processed bamboo textiles are much better for the environment than chemically processed textiles.4 Look for organic certifications from organizations like the following:
- Forest Stewardship Council
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
This way, you can make sure that bamboo fabric is sustainably produced—before you add it to your shopping cart.
Say no to harmful pesticides and forced labor by seeking out brands that use fair trade, organic certified cotton. Cotton is a renewable resource, and when it’s grown and produced using ethical practices, it’s a fantastic sustainable fabric choice.
The sustainability of cotton hinges upon its source. Here’s why:5
- Genetically modified seeds are used to grow over half of the world’s cotton. Genetic modification causes a heaping pile of problems, including decreased biodiversity and reliance upon insecticides.
- Forced labor in cotton production has been documented in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and the Uyghur autonomous region. Keep an eye out for clothing labels to ensure you aren’t supporting a company that sources their goods from one of these regions.
- Pesticides and insecticides are commonly used in the production of non-organic cotton. In fact, cotton farming accounts for 6% and 16% of all pesticides and insecticides used worldwide, respectively.
#4 Fruit and SCOBY Leather
Livestock farming can have a huge negative impact on the climate. In fact, it’s responsible for 14.5% of all global carbon emissions.6 Cattle raised for beef and leather emit sky-high amounts of methane.
That’s why animal rights activists have been developing alternatives to animal leather for decades. Climate warriors have joined the cause in recent years, drumming up more interest in vegan leather.
Leatherlike textiles can be produced from waste products of the apple juice industry, and from the central ingredient in kombucha production, SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast). While both of these practices are currently small-scale, they show great promise as sustainable textile fabrication grows in popularity.4
#5 Vegan Leather
Vegan leather is one of the few artificial textiles that can be used sustainably. That’s because it: can:
- Cut back on carbon emissions from cattle farming
- Encourage the ethical treatment of animals
- Avoid the pitfall of shedding plastic into waterways
Makers like Vionic produce vegan leather footwear designed around the pillars of sustainability, comfort, and style. If you’re in the market for a new pair of comfortable walking sandals or any other sandals for women, consider opting for a sustainable shoe model, like a vegan leather pair—a durable choice that’s easier on the earth.
Other Experimental Textiles on the Horizon
Scientists have been hard at work coming up with new sustainable textile materials. The environmentally friendly solutions they’ve hit upon are as clever as they are interesting.
While these alternative textiles are still in their infancy, they appear to promise a bright future as sustainable fashion materials.
Made from Milk
Turning sour milk into clothing sounds like something only a wizard could achieve, right? Sorcerers or not, some researchers in Germany have managed to do precisely that.
Here’s how the process works:1
- Milk that has spoiled is separated into its solid and liquid components, curds and whey.
- Curds, the protein-rich solid, are mixed with water to create a dough-like substance.
- The dough is fed through a machine similar to a noodle maker.
The fibers created through this process are ultra fine—so fine, in fact, that they can be spun, woven, and even felted. Curds are a byproduct of cheesemaking, so there’s a sustainable source for this creative textile. What’s more, the resulting fabric has the added benefit of being completely biodegradable.
Made from Algae
Algae comes up a lot in the sustainability sphere. It’s an environmentally friendly material that’s produced in a closed system and only needs water and sunlight to grow. It’s already been used extensively in the beauty, food, and biofuel industries.
Algae proteins can be isolated and woven into sustainable textiles, too. Algae bio-oil can even be used in textile making to create biodegradable plastic fibers.
Different strains of algae are used to create earth-friendly dyes for use in the textile industry. Algae dyes are utilized in conjunction with enzymes, resulting in a biological process that eliminates harmful chemicals and energy inefficient heating methods that often present in more conventional dyeing methods.1
Best Practices for Textile Recycling
No matter how many manufacturers shift to sustainable fabrics, the fashion industry still has hurdles to overcome with respect to waste. Landfills contain millions (if not billions) of tons of discarded clothing already, and more apparel is thrown out every day.7
Forward thinkers are figuring out what to do with all that waste, however. Here are a few of the methods that have been developed so far:1
- Downcycling is the process by which some textiles used in apparel manufacturing can be shredded and reused to make insulation, stuffing for furniture, or carpets.
- Thrift, resale, and donation can be effective on a person-to-person level, reducing the demand for new “fast fashion” styles. Unfortunately, moving used clothing around from market to market doesn’t do much to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry as a whole.
- Textile recycling is still a developing science. Advancements are being made every day as more major manufacturers hop on the green bandwagon. Enzymes can be utilized to break down blended textiles into their component parts, hyperspectral cameras are being studied as a way to make fabric sorting more efficient, and recycled plastics have long been used in shoe and accessory production.
Shop Sustainably with Vionic
If you’re reading this article, chances are you care about how your apparel gets made, and you put valuable time and effort into researching sustainable, environmentally responsible fashion choices.
When you shop with Vionic, you’ve already made an earth-minded choice. We make shoes and sandals for women and men from sustainable materials like organic cotton jute, cork, recycled rubber, and vegan leather. Our products are backed by science for comfort and sustainability alike.
Start browsing our collection of eco-friendly footwear. We’re certain you’ll find something that suits you (and mother nature, too).
- Beall, Abigail. “Why clothes are so hard to recycle.” BBC. 13 July, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle
- Peters, Adele. “This “Climate Beneficial” Wool Hat Comes From Carbon-Positive Sheep.” Fast Company. 13 November, 2017. https://www.fastcompany.com/40493770/this-climate-beneficial-wool-hat-comes-from-carbon-positive-sheep
- “Wool fiber – Basics, Characteristics, & Properties.” Textile School. Updated 27 January, 2022. https://www.textileschool.com/162/wool-fiber-basics-characteristics-properties/
- “30 Sustainable Fabrics For The Most Eco Friendly Fashion.” Sustainable Jungle. https://www.sustainablejungle.com/sustainable-fashion/sustainable-fabrics/
- Carlilr, Claire. “Choosing the most sustainable fabric.” Ethical Consumer. 16 August, 2021. https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/fashion-clothing/choosing-most-sustainable-fabric
- Quinton, Amy. “Cows and climate change.” UC Davis. 27 June, 2019. https://www.ucdavis.edu/food/news/making-cattle-more-sustainable
- “Textiles: Material-Specific Data.” EPA. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/textiles-material-specific-data