In sustainable fashion, it all starts with choosing the right material. Fabrics are one of the most determining factors of the sustainability of an item. The list of innovative, sustainable fabrics keeps on growing: bio-based, recycled, synthetic, semi-synthetic and hightech textiles… But as the list grows, you may ask yourself: which ones are the best? At SANVT we have done the research to show you the 5 best sustainable fabrics in fashion.
The 5 best sustainable fabrics at a glance:
- Cotton: a sustainable natural fibre, provided it’s organic and fair-trade.
- Hemp: one of the oldest textiles that even has some CO2-storing properties.
- Linen: naturally moth-resistant and completely biodegradable.
- Lyocell: antibacterial and breathable high-tech cellulose fibre.
- Econyl: recycled fibre from synthetic waste as a nylon alternative.
Bio-based sustainable fabrics
Let’s start with natural textiles. Natural fibres have the advantage of being biodegradable and not containing plastics – so no fossil fuel involved. However, not all natural fibres are equally sustainable! Bamboo, wool, conventional cotton and leather, for example, are natural but still highly controversial when it comes to their environmental footprint. Organic cotton, organic hemp and organic linen, on the other hand, are our three favourite natural and sustainable materials.
The most familiar natural fibre to us is probably cotton. But simply because a product is made from cotton doesn’t make it sustainable! Quite the opposite. To be truly sustainable, cotton must meet some criteria. The two most fundamental criteria are that cotton should be organic and fair-trade. Otherwise, you run the risk of buying a cotton product for which huge amounts of fresh water have been wasted, and harmful pesticides and chemicals have been used. So if cotton is not organic and fair-trade, it is actually harmful to the environment and anything but sustainable!
The fair-trade certification also guarantees fair payment and fair conditions for the workers on the cotton plantations. When these criteria are met, organic cotton is one of our favourite natural and sustainable materials. After all, organic cotton is grown without any pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, and is processed without chemicals. Organic cotton cultivation also uses 62% less energy and 88% less water than conventional cotton.
As a textile, organic cotton is breathable, biodegradable and, especially in ELS quality, guarantees a long-lasting product! That’s why The Perfect T-Shirt by SANVT, for instance, is made from 100% premium (ELS) organic cotton.
Cotton – if organic and fairtrade – is one of our favourite natural and sustainable materials for fashion!
Hemp has been grown for more than 10,000 years, making it one of the oldest textiles in the world. On the sustainability side, organic hemp can be grown all over the world, requires very little water (much less than cotton), needs no pesticides to grow and even naturally fertilises the soil on its own. Due to its phytoremediation property, hemp absorbs heavy metals from the soil and, as a raw material, it can even capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This makes hemp one of the most sustainable materials of all!
To add to that, as a plant, hemp is extremely versatile and is not only used for textiles, but also for food, construction materials and cosmetics. As a fabric, organic hemp keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and gets softer with every wash – so not only is it a climate-friendly fabric, it’s also durable, cosy and functional!
As a raw material, hemp can even capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. How cool is that?
Another natural fibre that has been grown for centuries is organic linen. Similar to hemp, linen is also derived from a very versatile plant: flax. The fact that flax requires a bare minimum of water or pesticides and even grows on poor quality soil makes it another very sustainable material. Another advantage is that since all parts of the plant are used in the textile production, nothing goes to waste. As a fabric, organic linen is robust, naturally moth-resistant and fully biodegradable – provided it is untreated & non-dyed.
Organic linen is also extremely comfortable to wear. It is lightweight, temperature-resistant and moisture-absorbent. Definitely one of our favs!
Organic linen is robust, naturally moth-resistant and fully biodegradable.
Innovative sustainable fabrics
While natural fibres are essential in sustainable fashion, they are not the be-all and end-all. Textile innovation has an important role to play in making fashion more respectful of the environment. And just as natural fibres are not always environmentally friendly, synthetic fabrics are not always harmful to the environment either. The fashion industry is developing a growing number of (semi-)synthetic fabrics that are revolutionising sustainable fashion! Our favourite sustainable high-tech fibres are Lyocell and Econyl.
Lyocell is a man-made cellulose fibre – in other words, a fabric industrially produced from natural, raw materials. The lightweight cellulose fiber is made from wood (such as beech wood or eucalyptus wood) that’s derived from sustainable forestry and is 100% biodegradable. Lyocell is antibacterial, 50% more absorbent than cotton and requires significantly less energy and water to produce. Not only that, the chemicals used in the production of this textile are managed in a closed loop system where up to 99.5% of the solvents can be recycled. This avoids harmful waste and groundwater pollution.
But just as with cotton, certain criteria must be considered with Lyocell. If the required wood is harvested from non-sustainable forestry and the manufacturing process takes place without closed cycles, the supposedly sustainable cellulose fibre becomes environmentally harmful instead of environmentally friendly. We therefore recommend relying on TENCEL™ Lyocell products. TENCEL™ only uses wood from sustainably managed forests and comes from the Austrian manufacturer Lenzing – the world’s most renowned lyocell and modal producer.
The fashion industry is developing a growing number of hightech fabrics that are revolutionising sustainable fashion!
A promising recycled material is Econyl. Developed by the Italian company Aquafil, the fibre uses synthetic waste such as industrial plastics, fabric scraps and fishing nets from the sea and recycles them into a new yarn that has exactly the same quality as nylon. The waste is collected, then cleaned and shredded, depolymerised to extract nylon and then polymerised again to turn it into yarn. This recycling system forms a closed loop and uses much less water and (logically) produces far less waste compared to conventional nylon.
However, despite being an innovative fibre that is one of the most sustainable materials among synthetic fibres, washing Econyl – as well as polyester – releases plastic micro-particles, which in turn end up in the sea. Therefore, with Econyl and all other (recycled) synthetic fibres, we recommend always using a laundry bag to catch the microplastic.
Other eco-friendly textiles
Of course, there are plenty of other emerging sustainable fabrics, such as Piñatex (the leather alternative made from pineapple), Qmonos (a synthetic spider silk recently developed by fusing spider silk genes and microbes), Sustainable Cork, Modal and other bio-based and high-tech textiles. These look promising for the future but with these 5 accessible & sustainable materials, you already have a versatile range of the best eco-friendly fabrics in your repertoire that you can easily find now!
Click here to find out more about new cutting-edge material innovations in sustainable fashion.