Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence

Sustainable fashion is an ever-growing topic, but it can be overwhelming to navigate all the different factors that contribute to a garment's impact on the environment.

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence
Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence

A few years ago, I had the privilege of owning a sustainable and ethical fashion business. I remember the countless conversations I had with customers who were passionate about making a positive impact on the environment through their fashion choices. It was evident that the biggest challenge was figuring out which fabrics were the most sustainable. To make the process simpler, I came up with a 1-5 sustainability scale, where 1 represents the least eco-friendly option, and 5 signifies the most sustainable one. In this guide, I want to help you understand the different sustainable fabrics used in the fashion industry, so you can shop with peace of mind knowing that your choices are helping to conserve our planet.

  1. Synthetic Fabrics (1/5)
    Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are typically made from petroleum-based materials and can take hundreds of years to decompose. They are also energy-intensive to produce and release micro-plastics into the environment. As a result, synthetic fabrics score low on the sustainability scale.
  2. Cotton (2.5/5)
    Cotton is a natural fabric that is widely used in the fashion industry. While it is renewable, conventional cotton is often grown using heavy amounts of pesticides and fertilisers, which can harm the environment.
  3. Organic Cotton (3/5)
    This type of cotton is grown without the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides, and is processed using environmentally friendly methods. It's more biodegradable, uses less water, and is a better option for those conscious of sustainability. However, organic cotton still has a relatively high resource intensity, and the production of organic cotton can still have an impact on the environment.
  4. Rayon (2/5)
    Rayon, also called Viscose, is a semi-synthetic fibre derived from wood pulp. Bamboo, for example, is often used for this purpose. Even though it's obtained from wood pulp, rayon is not environmentally-friendly. The main concern is the highly toxic process of transforming the raw materials into the actual material. Cardon disulfide, a poisonous chemical, is responsible for a plethora of health problems in rayon workers and those near rayon factories.
  5. Alpaca (4.5/5)
    Softer and lighter than Wool, Alpaca is naturally insulating and comes in over 20 natural colours (often saving the need for the fleece to be dyed). Alpaca’s also leave a very light environmental footprint compared to other their other woollen counterparts. Alpaca fleece is completely renewable and bio degradable.
  6. Real Leather (3.5/5)
    Real leather is made from the leftover waste of the meat industry and is therefore a more sustainable option compared to synthetic fabrics. However, it's important to note that the way the leather is produced and the tanning process can impact its sustainability. Look for leather that is produced using environmentally friendly methods and is certified by organisations like the Leather Working Group.
  7. Vegan Leather (2/5)
    Vegan leather is often made from petroleum-based materials like polyurethane and is designed to mimic the look of real leather. While it does not contribute to the meat industry waste, it is still made from oil-based materials, meaning it takes a lot longer to biodegrade compared to natural fibres.
  8. Silk (4/5)
    Typically produced by Bombyx Mori worms, who feed exclusively on Mulberry leaves, which also use minimal pesticides and fertilisers to grow. Silk is a lustrous and durable fibre that has been used for centuries. As Silk is naturally occurring it is biodegradable and has a very low environmental impact.
  9. Linen (4/5)
    Linen is a natural fabric made from flax, a renewable crop. It is also biodegradable, making it a more sustainable option compared to synthetic fabrics. Linen is also known for its durability, which means it can last longer and reduce the need for frequent replacements.
  10. Tencel (4/5)
    A brand name for a type of lyocell, is quickly becoming one of the most popular sustainable fabrics. This fabric is made from the cellulose of sustainably harvested trees and is biodegradable, requires less water, and uses fewer chemicals compared to conventional cotton. Tencel is also incredibly durable and soft to the touch, making it a great choice for sustainable fashion.
  11. Hemp (4/5)
    A versatile fabric that is rapidly growing in popularity in the fashion industry due to its sustainability. It requires little water, no pesticides, and is biodegradable, making it an excellent alternative to conventional cotton. Additionally, hemp is incredibly strong and durable, making it an ideal choice for a wide range of clothing items.
  12. Recycled Polyester (4.5/5)
    Recycled polyester is a synthetic fabric that’s made from post-consumer waste, such as plastic bottles. It’s an excellent option for those who want to reduce their carbon footprint as it uses less energy and water than traditional polyester production. Additionally, recycled polyester is an excellent choice for those who want to reduce their waste, as it diverts plastic waste from landfills.
  13. Wool (4/5)
    Wool has long been accepted as an environmentally positive fibre choice with a number of benefits, such as being 100% natural, renewable and biodegradable. Wool is also thermo-regulating and biodegrades naturally, so it doesn't accumulate in landfill and oceans. Wool will still shed fibres during washing, but these fibres will break down naturally, without causing any harmful effects to the environment.

In conclusion, yes the process of shopping for clothing and considering the sustainability of the fabrics can seem overwhelming. But, it's important to remember that every little step we take towards making more sustainable choices has a significant impact on the environment. So, I encourage you to take the time to research the fabrics and look for certifications that can guide you towards making informed decisions. By doing so, you can play a part in reducing the impact of the fashion industry on the planet and contribute to a brighter, more sustainable future for us all.

As a start point you can find a handful of sustainably minded brands below.

"Sustainability is at the core of everything we do—from our factory in Los Angeles to our fabrics, packaging, and retail stores. We’re committed to pushing the industry forward and investing in future-focused solutions, which is why we’re a certified Climate Neutral company and will be Climate Positive by 2025."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - Reformation Dress

"Today, Sézane is officially B Corp certified. An accomplishment that is a testament to the years of hard work of our teams and partner ateliers. From the choice of production methods, raw materials and working conditions, to our environmental footprint and engagement in the community, B-Corp is the stringent, independent validation of what Sézane stands for."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - Sezane

"We believe good things come to those who don’t waste. We believe in ethical manufacturing and recycled materials. Because old water bottles and fishing nets look better on you than they do clogging landfills and polluting oceans."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - Girlfriend Collective

"ALEMAIS is a brand with purpose. It is a brand of integrity. A brand striving for transparent and sustainable practices within a changing industry. It is about creating and curating a collection that supports artisanal communities, that reduces environmental impact and treats its suppliers with honesty and respect."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - Alemais

"All our garments are certified by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO) and made in a traceable supply chain, which works with Fairtrade-certified farmers and manufacturers from seed to garment. Our commitment to fair wages, no child labour, workers’ rights, gender equality and grower community has been at the heart of Kowtow since day one."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - kowtow

VEJA - $$
"Since 2005, VEJA has been creating sneakers in a different way, mixing social projects, economic justice, and ecological materials. VEJA uses Brazilian and Peruvian organic cotton for the canvas and laces, Amazonian rubber for the soles, and various innovative materials conceived in recycled plastic bottles or recycled polyester."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - Veja

"We are committed to always being responsible, honest and accountable today, with a positive impact on people, the planet and all its creatures so that we can protect it for tomorrow."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - Stella McCartney

"Sustainability through innovation, action and positive change. Be defined by what you create, not what you destroy"

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence - Afends

"At the core of everything we do at NICO is a strong respect for the people we work with, and the environment we work within."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence

"We use organic cotton to create our denim. Organic cotton is farmed with zero use of agrochemicals, such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which are known to reduce soil quality, contribute to water pollution, and severely affect the health of farmers. According to a 2017 report by the Textile Exchange, organic cotton uses 91% less 'blue' water (from groundwater and surface-water bodies, such as freshwater lakes and rivers) than conventional cotton."

Evaluating Sustainable Fabrics: How to Shop with Confidence

Please note that this is only a guide, to learn more about sustainable fabrics you can check out these sites below:

Cotton Australia

Woolmark Company

Leather Working Group

Good On You


Written by Becky Smouha for Oh Yes Her