Using our material guide, you can find out more about the most common textile fibres and their advantages and disadvantages, allowing you to take the environmental perspective into account when choosing your fabrics.
Introduction to sustainable fabrics
By choosing ecological options when selecting fabrics, you can significantly reduce the climate and environmental footprint of the clothes you make. Around two thirds of the harmful climate impacts of industrially produced clothes throughout their lifespan come from the production of the raw materials. Whilst the process of making clothes by hand differs significantly from industrial production methods, your choice of raw materials plays a huge role in the pieces you make, too.
Both ecological and ethical perspectives are key to how sustainable a fabric is (including ethics from a human rights and animal rights perspective). In order to get the bigger picture on sustainability, take into account the entire lifecycle of the fabric and the clothing it forms: manufacturing of the raw material, production, use and recycling. When you sew clothing yourself, you can have a big impact on how ecological it is throughout its lifespan. When it comes to fabric, opt for environmentally friendly fibres, but also take into account the quality and intended use of the material: what would be the most suitable high-quality material for this particular garment and use, to allow it to do its job for as long as possible.
Information about the fibre alone is not enough to tell you about the quality of the material, unfortunately. In other words, you can make a good or poor quality fabric from any fibre. Secondly, raw materials can be grown or produced in very different conditions in different parts of the world: processing of the same fibre could be entirely environmentally friendly and ethical in one place, yet highly unsustainable in another. The more transparent the fabric manufacturer is, the better, as this allows you to better assess just how sustainable the production of that fabric has been.
Assessing how sustainable the production of a fabric is can seem like a complex matter, but do not get frustrated and throw the towel in – instead just take it step by step. This materials guide, which focuses on how ecological the production of textile fibres is, will help you get started. Check out our tips for making more eco-friendly fibre choices and also remember to keep an eye on the quality and suitability of your chosen fabric for its intended purpose.
P.S. If available, recycled fabrics are an even more environmentally friendly choice than new ones, as they do not require anything new to be manufactured. Why not have a look for recycled fabrics at a second-hand shop, for example, and give new life to existing fabric.
After polyester, cotton is the second most used textile fibre, but it is also one of the most harmful from an environmental perspective. A wide array of poisonous chemicals are used in the cultivation of cotton: artificial fertilizers to improve the soil, as it needs soil rich in nutrients, as well as pesticides, as cotton is highly susceptible to plant diseases and insects. Production of cotton uses 2.5% of the world’s arable land, but 16% of all pesticides. These chemicals can expose growers to illnesses, pollute waterways, and contaminate soil. The end user of the clothes can also be exposed to these harmful chemicals.
Cotton is also an incredibly thirsty plant: growing enough cotton to make one T-shirt requires an average of 2,700 litres of water. Nowadays, cotton is cultivated widely around the world, including in areas that do not see sufficient rain. In these instances, growers have to resort to irrigation, which can lead to decreases in ground water reserves and to droughts in already dry areas. Intensive cotton production also weakens the soil and reduces biodiversity.
Swap for: Instead of cotton, better choices include organic cotton, Fair Trade organic cotton, or recycled cotton. Why not also try hemp, linen or lyocell.
No synthetic chemicals, such as artificial fertilizers or pesticides are used to produce organic cotton, with the methods used strictly biological in nature. This has far-reaching positive effects: growers are not exposed to illnesses, the environment is not polluted, and the end users of the clothes are not exposed to harmful chemicals. Genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds are not used in organic production. The cultivation practices maintain biodiversity in nature and the richness of the soil.
However, cultivation of organic cotton still requires just as much water as conventionally grown cotton does: growing enough cotton to make one T-shirt requires an average of 2,700 litres of water. If cotton grows in an area when there is naturally plenty of rain, irrigation is not needed. However, most often irrigation is used, which can lead to decreases in ground water reserves and to droughts in already dry areas.
There is no doubt that organic cotton is a better choice than conventionally grown cotton, but making the switch to organic is not enough of a solution by itself, especially when it comes to the vast water consumption. Currently, organic cotton is widely available and it is a good choice at this point in time, but it is well worthwhile investigating other material options and in the future trying to find materials that are even more environmentally friendly.
Organic materials, such as organic cotton, should have a certification (such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, GOTS or The Organic Content Standard, OCS), to verify that the material has been grown organically. If you want to be sure that the cultivation was not just ecologically sound, but also ethical, choose something like Fair Trade organic cotton.
Swap for: A better option than conventionally grown cotton is certified organic cotton or Fair Trade organic cotton. Even more eco-friendly options include hemp and recycled cotton.
Recycled cotton is produced using cutting waste from the clothing industry or post-consumer waste, for example, with the former being the most common at the moment. Manufacturing of recycled cotton does not require new natural resources or water, making its environmental footprint far smaller than that of virgin cotton.
Cotton is usually recycled mechanically, which involves the raw material being cut into shreds and torn into cottony fluff, which is then spun into thread once more. This shortens the fibre length, lowering the quality of the material. For this reason, polyester or recycled polyester is often added to recycled cotton, to create a strong and high-quality material. Adding the polyester is an intermediate stage that will hopefully be phased out in the future: New innovations that do not shorten the fibre length or degrade the quality are being developed to replace mechanical recycling. In Finland, such methods are under development by innovators such as Infinited Fiber Company and Ioncell.
Swap for: Recycled cotton is a good choice. If you can source recycled cotton that does not contain polyester, choose this.
Polyester, which is made from crude oil, is the most used textile fibre. It makes up more than 65% of all the fibres used in textiles, but at the same time it is one of the most harmful for the environment.
Polyester production requires less water than cotton does, but more energy. Production of polyester causes 14.2 kg of carbon dioxide emissions for each kilogram of fabric produced, and for this reason it is a highly harmful material from a climate perspective. If the waste water cleaning processes at the production facility are not up to scratch, harmful chemicals and heavy metals from the process can find their way into and pollute the environment. As an oil-based synthetic fibre, polyester does not decompose.
Tiny pieces of plastic, also known as microplastics, are shed from polyester every time it is washed, and these are transported with the washing water into waterways, living organisms, and even people. The latest research indicates that in certain places there is more microplastic in the oceans than plankton. All textiles shed to some degree, but the microplastics that come loose from synthetic fibres do not decompose, meaning that they can stay in the environment for even hundreds of years. It is not yet known how widespread the harmful impacts of microplastics are on the environment, animals and humans, as there is still relatively little research data on microplastics.
It is possible to manufacture materials similar to polyester and other synthetic fibres from bio-based raw materials, such as maize, sugar cane, and vegetable oil, rather than crude oil. The downside to using such materials is that they are also used for food, but there are also materials made from the likes of biomass and food waste under development. In the future, we are sure to also see materials made even from fungi or bacteria.
Swap for: Use recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester. Opt for biopolyester instead of an oil-based alternative, if possible.
Recycled polyester is currently produced primarily from recycled PET plastic bottles, which is a better option than virgin polyester, as the manufacturing process does not require new natural resources and the carbon footprint is significantly smaller than that of virgin materials. However, a better option than plastic bottles is using old polyester garments, industry cutting waste or plastic waste from the sea as a raw material. Bottles are a popular choice at the moment due to their good availability and ease of use, but it would be good to increase and develop in particular the recycling of old polyester garments into new materials.
Currently, polyester is recycled primarily thermally, i.e. by melting, but chemical recycling is also possible. Thermal recycling compromises the quality of the fibre, whereas chemical recycling produces a fibre that is just like the virgin fibre.
When worn, however, recycled polyester brings with it the same problem as its virgin alternative: microplastic. Tiny pieces of plastic, also known as microplastics, are shed from polyester every time it is washed, and these are transported with the washing water into waterways, living organisms, and even people. It is not yet known how widespread the harmful impacts of microplastics are on the environment, animals and humans, as there is still relatively little research data on microplastics.
Swap for: If you require polyester for reasons of functionality, the recycled version is much better than using the virgin material. If you can, instead of a material made of plastic bottles, choose a fabric made from old clothes or cutting waste.
Linen is a more environmentally friendly choice than cotton, as it does not require anywhere near as much artificial fertiliser or pesticides to grow, and it needs just a fraction of the water cotton does. Linen can be grown in poorer soil than cotton, and in colder climates – although the best crops can be achieved in damp, warm climates.
Linen does not produce as much fibre as hemp: hemp produces approximately 600% more fibre than linen when grown in the same soil. When growing linen, chemical fertilizers and pesticides may be used to improve the yield, and these have negative environmental impacts. Another potential source of harm to the environment is fibre retting: the environmental footprint is dependent on the means of retting, and how much water and energy are used, as well as how the waste water is processed.
Swap for: Try hemp, which is similar to linen. Instead of normal linen, opt for organic linen, which was not grown using harmful chemicals.
Hemp grows in a range of soil qualities and also in colder climates. Its strong roots prevent erosion. Production does not require large quantities of water and it does not usually need chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Hemp produces around 250% more fibre than cotton and 600% more than linen when grown in the same soil.
The greatest environmental harm associated with hemp cultivation can occur when the fibre is removed from the plant. The environmental footprint is determined by the means of retting, and how much water and energy are used in the process, as well as how the waste water is processed.
Hemp has been used widely to make textiles since the 15th century, primarily as a raw material for sails and ropes. Later on, cotton and synthetic fibres supplanted hemp, but now hemp and its many positive environmental impacts are making a comeback. Hemp used for textiles is a different variety to the kind that is smoked: hemp used for textiles contains almost no THC, and its cultivation is permitted in many countries, including Finland.
Swap for: Hemp is a good choice. Organic hemp is even better, as it means you can be sure no harmful chemicals were used in growing the plants.
Viscose is a regenerated fibre produced from cellulose with a multi-stage chemical viscose process, in which the raw material is dissolved and forced through the holes in a spinneret, whereby the solution solidifies into thin threads.
Transforming cellulose into thread using the viscose method requires a lot of energy, water and harmful chemicals, the worst of which is the poisonous carbon disulphide. If the waste water is not purified sufficiently, these harmful chemicals can pollute the environment. Production facility workers can also be put at risk of illnesses caused by the various chemicals used.
Eucalyptus, beech, birch, spruce or bamboo can all be used as raw materials for viscose. Whilst the raw materials themselves might be ecological, the production process is anything but. A good example of this is bamboo fabric, which is often marketed as an ecological option. The bamboo fabrics on the market currently are in fact bamboo viscose, because they are made using the viscose method. This means that the harmful environmental effects of viscose outweigh the environmental benefits of using the bamboo plant.
Swap for: A better alternative to viscose made from cellulose fibres is Tencel (lyocell). As new cellulose innovations come onto the market, they may also be worth investigating.
Tencel™ Lyocell is the brand name for lyocell cellulose fibre manufactured by the Austrian company Lenzing. For this reason, you will usually find ‘Tencel’ in the composition information of a fabric, rather than ‘lyocell’. In terms of its properties, Tencel is similar to viscose, but the production process is more environmentally friendly: The fibre is produced through a closed loop process, so almost all the solvents used in the spinning can be retained and reused. The process is more energy efficient than that of viscose, and no harmful carbon disulphide is used.
Currently, Tencel is by far the most produced lyocell fabric, but there are also a number of new cellulose fibre innovations in the pipeline, which we are sure to see entering into commercial production in the future. The processes under development use not only traditional cellulose raw materials, but also recycled cotton, cardboard, paper or food waste. Organizations to look out for who are developing new cellulose fibres include the Finnish innovations, for example Infinited Fiber Company, Ioncell and Spinnova.
Swap for: Tencel is far more environmentally friendly than viscose. Why not try out new cellulose innovations when they enter into commercial production.
Silk fibre is a long, continuous fibre that comes from the cocoon of the silkworm moth. Silkworms live in mulberry trees, and they eat their leaves. In order to achieve an optimal growth surroundings and as many leaves as possible, hazardous chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used when growing the mulberry trees – although in lower quantities than for cotton production. One mulberry tree produces enough leaves to sustain a hundred silkworms. To produce one metre of fabric, the cocoons of over 3,000 silkworms are needed, which equates to 30 mulberry trees, so growing silk requires vast areas of land.
In order to get the fibre out of the cocoon in one single length, the cocoon is blasted with hot steam, killing the silkworm moth inside. Processing the fibre requires a lot of water, hazardous chemicals, and energy. If the waste water is not sufficiently purified, production can pollute the environment.
Wild silk is produced without killing the silkworm moth: the silk is harvested only once the silkworm moths have emerged from the cocoons. This process does not produce single, unbroken lengths of fibre, so the final fabric is not as smooth. With organic silk you can be sure that no harmful chemicals have been used in the production process.
Swap for: If you want to use silk, go for organic or wild silk rather than standard silk. Silk can easily be replaced with non-animal-origin alternatives, such as Tencel, which offers a beautiful drape.
Sheep’s wool and merino wool
The majority of sheep’s wool and merino wool used in textiles comes from major intensive producers in Australia, New Zealand, and China. Raising sheep requires lots of land, and large amounts of water, chemicals and energy. Big herds of animals can worsen erosion and weaken natural biodiversity. Sheep produce methane gas, and methane has a global warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide. Wool is often viewed ecological due to its good usage properties and quality, but the production process is anything but ecological.
The living conditions of sheep on large-scale farms are often terrible, and the sheep cannot live in the way their species normally would. When it comes to the ethical aspects associated with sheep – particularly merino sheep – there has been a lot of talk recently of banning the practice of mulesing. Mulesing involves removing skin from around the merino sheep’s buttocks to prevent parasites laying eggs in folds of the skin. This process is painful for the animals and is already banned in a number of countries. When selecting materials, it is a good idea to choose mulesing-free merino wool, but take note that a mulesing-free label alone does not prove anything about the ethicality of the rest of the production process.
Sheep are also raised on small-scale arms located elsewhere than in the biggest wool production countries. If production is taking place in a country other than one of the major producer nations, where legislation and monitoring are stricter, the animals’ living conditions and the environmentally friendly nature of the farms are most likely far better than on intensive production farms. Even so, raising sheep in these countries still requires plenty of natural resources and water, and produces significant methane emissions.
Swap for: If choosing wool, opt for organic wool, wool with the Responsible Wool Standard certification, or recycled wool. Consider whether you need your garment to be made of wool, or whether you could replace it with non-animal-based materials, such as organic cotton, Tencel or hemp.
Elastane is produced from crude oil, like polyester, and it presents similar environmental problems to those of polyester. Elastane production requires a lot of energy, which makes it harmful from a climate perspective. The process also requires lots of harmful chemicals, which can end up polluting the environment if the waste water processing measures are not sufficiently stringent. As an oil-based synthetic fibre, elastane does not decompose.
Elastane is used most often in blends with other fibres, which has an impact on its recyclability. Elastane can impede mechanical recycling and in chemical recycling it can make dissolving more problematic. However, currently only a tiny proportion of textile waste is recycled into raw materials for new garments – less than one per cent in 2015. In the future, when recycling of textile waste has become more widespread, the problem of recycling elastane will need to be resolved in one way or another: either by avoiding using elastane, replacing it with bio-based elastane, or developing recycling processes that allow for elastane to be separated from other fibres. There is some progress on this front, not least in the form of the process developed by Infinited Fiber Company, a Finnish company that creates new fibre primarily from textile waste; this process can separate out synthetic fibres, such as polyester and elastane from other fibres.
Swap for: If the function of the clothes does not require elastane, choose a fabric without it. Opt for bio-based elastane or recycled elastane when it becomes commercially available. If the function of the clothes does not require elastane, choose a fabric without it. Opt for bio-based elastane or recycled elastane when it becomes commercially available.