Sustainable clothing is becoming available everywhere. More and more brands are introducing clothing collections with recycled materials and sustainable clothing companies are taking center stage. You might notice clothing labels promoting sustainable fabrics and recycled materials like ECONYL, and Tencel but you also might not know what that means. It can get a little confusing for the average person to understand exactly what makes their clothing sustainable and why.
We’re here to help. Consider this your guide to the most commonly used sustainable fabrics and recycled materials you’ll see when shopping sustainably. We’ve also included a breakdown of the terms and certifications that sustainable clothing brands use, as well as tips on what to do with your synthetic clothing.
Why Choose Recycled and Sustainable Fabrics?
For most of us, the majority of our clothing, 60% in fact, is made from entirely synthetic materials. Polyester, acrylic and nylon are some of the most commonly used synthetic fibers. If you check the tags on most of your clothes, you will more than likely find these fibers in almost everything you own. These materials are cheap, easy to produce, and versatile which makes them a staple in fast fashion. Unfortunately, they come with consequences.
Synthetic fibers are essentially plastic, which causes microplastics and pollutes our oceans every time we do a load of laundry. Each synthetic material has a different environmental impact based on where and how it’s sourced, the water consumption required, rainforest destruction caused, or amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Textiles in general are responsible for 7.7% of landfill waste and they take decades to break down. Fast fashion contributes 10% of all carbon emissions and often involves exploitative labor and human trafficking in the manufacturing process.
So what’s the solution? Choosing clothes made from sustainable fabrics and recycled materials, of course! Choosing natural fabrics and supporting sustainable clothing brands that use eco-friendly textiles is a great way to create positive change in the fashion industry. However, understanding what makes a fiber sustainable, and what clothing materials to look for, can sometimes feel like learning a new language. That’s what we’re here for – to help you learn everything you need to know about sustainable fabrics so you can be an informed consumer and support truly sustainable brands.
What Makes Fabric Sustainable?
Sustainable textiles are typically made using either natural or recycled materials. These fabrics should have a low environmental impact, be ethically sourced, and produced through a transparent and ethical manufacturing process. Eco-friendly clothing will be as low waste as possible, recycling and reusing both water and materials.
It’s important to note that there is a sustainability spectrum. Certain materials and practices are considered more sustainable than others. Sustainable is not a one size fits all term and we are constantly learning more about what makes something truly sustainable. What may be great today, could have consequences later on. It’s important to stay up to date on the subject and environmental practices being used, as they will change and evolve as we learn more.
While we’ve done our research with the information available today, we encourage you to do your own research thoroughly and make choices that resonate with your ethics and lifestyle.
Common Terms and Certifications Sustainable Brands Use:
GOTS- Global Organic Textile Standard creates a global standard for organic textiles.
Climate Neutral– Certified companies that offset and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Low Impact– Produced in a way that has a low environmental impact. This could be by using sustainable materials and production processes or by being locally made.
Zero Waste– Reduce, reuse, recycle – essentially nothing is wasted.
Ethically Sourced– Ensures that products are sourced in a responsible and sustainable way, and that the workers are treated and paid fairly with no human trafficking involved.
Fair Trade– Ensures that a product/business meets a certified global social, environmental and economic standard.
B-Corp– Businesses that meet an incredibly high standard of sustainability and transparency, both socially and environmentally.
Upcycled- Reusing or recycling a material to make it into an even better product/material.
14 Recycled and Sustainable Fabrics to Prioritize:
Wool creates some of the top sustainable fabrics. There are numerous different types to choose from like sheep wool, merino wool or alpaca wool. Wool is compostable, breathable, insulating and won’t produce any microplastics.
As with any natural fiber, wool is only as sustainable as it’s production method. It’s important to check that the company creating wool based products is transparent about their manufacturing process and it is sustainably made. Since wool is animal derived, it’s especially important to ensure you’re not supporting any company that engages in animal abuse. Make sure the wool is ZQ certified so you can ensure it is responsibly sourced.
One brand that we love that uses ZQ merino wool is Allbirds, a sustainable shoe company.
Tencel is the patented name for lyocell, but if you see either of these names being used, rest assured they are the same thing. Tencel is a rayon made from cellulose fibers from Eucalyptus tree pulp. Pretty cool, huh?
Tencel requires very little water and pesticides, making it a popular choice as far as recycled fabrics go. Tencel is responsibly sourced from sustainable forests and incredibly reputable, but if you’re looking at clothing made from lyocell, you’ll need to confirm that it’s also sourced sustainably.
For a great sustainable clothing company that uses certified Tencel, check out Thought Clothing.
Organic bamboo makes one of the most naturally sustainable fabrics out there. Bamboo creates the ideal absorbent and comfy material. Bamboo is also an incredible crop because it is fast-growing, uses far less water than cotton and is regenerative when produced responsibly. While bamboo as a plant should be naturally sustainable, there are concerns over some harvesting methods. It’s best to only choose organic bamboo.
It’s important to note that the chemical process of creating bamboo fabric varies greatly and many companies process it in a way that is not very sustainable. Before purchasing clothing made from bamboo, look for organic bamboo fabric in its raw form (avoid bamboo rayon/viscose when possible) and ensure that the company is transparent about their manufacturing process. If they are not, always ask!
We recommend Boody for certified organic bamboo intimates and loungewear.
Can you guess what Pinatex is made from? Pineapples! Not only does that make this material endearing, but it’s also an incredibly innovative and sustainable fabric. Made from leftover pineapple leaves, Pinatex helps reduce food waste and is often biodegradable, depending on the manufacturing process. It’s the ideal sustainable and vegan leather replacement.
Svala is a company worth checking out for their incredible bags made from pinatex and sustainable materials.
Since polyester is one of the most common synthetic fibers, recycled polyester, rPET, is a great sustainable solution. Made from PET, the same chemical used to create conventional polyester, rPET uses the broken down fibers of plastic water bottles to create a sustainable fabric. Not only does this help combat the plastic problem, but it can be recycled and reused over and over again.
This is a very popular sustainable alternative for items that need to be stretchy, like activewear or swimsuits, since they can’t be made from completely natural materials. Recycled polyester has less carbon emissions and is just as versatile as its synthetic equivalent.
Deadstock, or reclaimed fabric, is truly the definition of a recycled fabric. It’s made from leftover textiles or fabric scraps- essentially clothing that would be considered waste. Instead of throwing it out, manufacturers recycle and reuse the fabric scraps to prevent further landfill waste and to create something new and unique. As such, deadstock can consist of numerous different types of recycled fibers, both natural and synthetic.
Check out Tonle – they make everything from deadstock from clothing factories in Cambodia.
You’re probably very familiar with linen, but you may not know where it comes from. This sustainable fabric is made from flax, and it doesn’t need fertilizers, pesticides or really much irrigation to grow. Flax is also zero waste because you can use the entire crop. It’s no surprise then that organic linen is a biodegradable fabric.
Linen often comes at a higher price point as it’s not a very high-yielding crop. Linen is as popular as ever though, thanks to its versatility, breathability and comfort.
Check out Eileen Fisher for numerous organic linen clothing options.
Hemp is the ideal more sustainable alternative to cotton. It requires less water and pesticides, isn’t as damaging to the soil and it’s fast-growing and high-yielding. Hemp, derived from the cannabis plant, creates one of the most natural, sustainable fabrics out there. It’s durable, versatile and great for sensitive skin.
Hemp does come at a higher price point however, but it’s also a carbon negative material, and provides natural sun protection. Hemp should be organic if it’s 100%, but it’s always a good idea to check to ensure it’s truly sustainable.
For a great sustainable clothing company that uses hemp, check out Ten Tree.
Ah cotton, one the most popular and oldest clothing materials out there. Conventional cotton has serious downsides due to the toxic pesticides and fertilizers used in production and the unethical harvesting practices. Organic cotton on the other hand, is a great natural, sustainable fabric. It’s produced without all those pesky harmful pesticides, fertilizers, and GMO’s, plus it uses 88% less water than conventional cotton.
As long as the cotton is certified GOTS, you can trust that it’s manufactured sustainably. You should also look for certifications ensuring ethical, safe and fair paying working conditions for those harvesting and farming the cotton.
For a sustainable brand that uses certified organic cotton, check out Dazey LA.
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Recycled Cotton is another great way to make cotton more sustainable. Recycled cotton is essentially deadstock, and is made from cotton scraps and waste from factories and manufacturers.
The only downside is that it’s pretty hard to source where your cotton came from, as it’s recycled, so it may also contain some synthetic fibers. While organic cotton is your best bet for ethical and sustainable sourcing, recycled cotton provides a sustainable solution to textile landfill waste.
Backbeat co is a wonderful clothing brand that utilizes recycled cotton.
Modal is very similar to lyocell but it comes from Beech trees instead of Eucalyptus trees. It’s often softer than lyocell and is a lower-waste, fewer-chemical alternative to viscose rayon. It uses a closed-loop process which means manufacturers recycle/reuse their water usage and solvents in production.
Modal fabric should be carbon-neutral and their wood should be sustainably harvested. It’s important to ensure that each company using clothing made from Modal is transparent about their sourcing and production process so you can ensure it is truly sustainable.
One of our favorite clothing brands that uses certified modal is Threads 4 Thought.
Ecovero is a relatively new recycled fiber that provides a sustainable solution to viscose, with less water and emissions. Made by Lenzing™, the same creators that brought us Lyocell and Modal, Ecovero also comes from sustainable wood and is typically responsibly sourced and environmentally sound.
Lenzing is one of the most reputable manufacturers of recycled, sustainable fibers, so any time you see a company using their branded sustainable fabrics, you can usually trust them.
Check out Tamga Designs for wonderful clothing options made from certified Lenzing Ecovero.
Silk is a popular natural fiber since it’s low waste, easy to produce and as we all know, incredibly soft. Silk is also wonderful for the skin. Silk comes from silkworms however, which means there can be questionable practices involving animal abuse and slave labor in its production.
Since the conventional silk industry still has a long way to go, it’s important to choose products made from peace silk, also known as Ahisma Silk, to ensure it is truly ethically produced. The production of peace silk is World Fair Trade Certified and often organic. Peace silk means that the silk is produced in a way that does not harm or kill the silkworm. The worms live in as natural conditions as possible and aren’t exposed to any toxic chemicals.
We recommend checking out Amour Vert for great clothing made from sustainable fabrics like peace silk.
If you’re into sustainable swimwear or activewear, I’m sure you’ve seen the word ECONYL many times. ECONYL is a nylon fabric made from recycled ocean plastic such as abandoned fishing nets. It’s great because it’s almost identical to nylon, except it’s reusing plastic waste, requires less water and uses a closed-loop production process.
For an awesome swimwear company that uses exclusively ECONYL, check out Jade swim.
So What About Your Synthetic Clothes? Here’s How to Make Them More Sustainable:
At the end of the day, most clothing is still made with synthetic fibers. This is mainly because it’s cost effective, but some items truly need some synthetics. 100% natural fibers cannot create performance grade stretch, waterproof, or ultra light-weight clothing.
It’s also not eco-friendly to toss out your entire existing wardrobe to replace it with sustainable clothing. Here are some tips on how to take care of your synthetic clothing while doing the least amount of environmental damage:
- Use a Guppyfriend washing bag! For items that will almost always have some synthetic fibers in them such as activewear, swimsuits and underwear, use a Guppy washing bag! It’s estimated that 700,000 synthetic fibers are released in one load of laundry, which directly contributes to the microplastic problem in our oceans. When you wash your synthetic clothes in the Guppyfriend bag, it blocks these fibers from being released. This is probably the number one thing you can do to reduce your environmental impact and it's the most accessible and cost effective solution out there. As a reminder, you’ll also need to use this bag to wash any sustainable fabrics that are made using recycled plastics as they still release microfibers.
- Wash your synthetic clothing less frequently. When washing, wash on cold and on a delicate setting, ideally with a liquid eco-friendly soap.
- In general, making a few sustainable swaps in your normal synthetic wardrobe is enough to make a huge impact! Wear your favorite pieces until they fall apart and then replace with sustainable ones. Prioritize swapping the biggest synthetic offenders, such as recycled swimwear, activewear and intimates, for sustainable fabrics first. Then consider switching your everyday or most washed staples to sustainable ones.