Sustainable fabrics – our guide to the best
There’s lots of conversation about shrinking the environmental impact of our wardrobes. But which sustainable fabrics should we really be looking for? Air-miles, water use and harmful pesticides can all contribute to the footprint of different textiles.
Staying on top of sustainable clothing brands can be a tricky task, but looking at a brand’s commitment to the environment can be worthwhile.
Many of the brands that Liz loves to wear, such as Asquith (enjoy 20% off with LIZLOVES) and Baukjen (enjoy 15% off with LIZLOVES15), offer sustainability statements on their website so you can shop safe in the knowledge the materials are ethically and fairly sourced.
Recycled and vintage textiles are usually the most sustainable, but this isn’t always an option. We’ve taken a closer look at the best fabrics for the planet, and what to look for when you buy them.
Sustainable fabrics – which is best?
Cotton is a natural material, but it’s not always as sustainable as it might sound. Cotton production is notoriously thirsty – estimates suggest that we use around 20,000 litres of water per kilogram of ordinary cotton. That’s the equivalent of one pair of jeans and a t-shirt!
Looking for organic cotton means you can reduce some of this damage. The cotton plant doesn’t need unnecessary irrigation and can use rain water to avoid water shortages. An organic, healthy soil also retains more natural water and needs less irrigation.
Organic cotton also doesn’t use synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, which can damage ecosystems and poison waterways. This keeps nearby rivers and lakes cleaner too. Experts think that organic cotton emits up to 46% less greenhouse gas than its non-organic counterparts.
Recycled nylon and polyester
Nylon and polyester are plastics made from oil, not something you’d expect to see on our sustainable list! But for certain garments like swim and rainwear, they’re incredibly useful materials, and hard to avoid altogether.
Fortunately, clothes can be made from recycled plastics, like water bottles and fishing nets. This means we can divert waste away from landfill and the sea. Experts believe nylon accounts for around a tenth of waste in the ocean. Recycled plastic also uses far fewer resources, like energy, water and fossil fuels, to produce than usual nylon and polyester manufacture.
Recycled plastics are definitely more sustainable options than their virgin counterparts, but it’s worth noting that they aren’t biodegradable and so will stay in our ecosystems for many years to come.
Silk is both renewable and biodegradable. It’s also a light and luxury material that requires low amounts of energy for its production. Silk is a protein that silkworms spin, making it a 100% natural textile for making our clothes with. The thread comes from the cocoons of the silkworms. These are created from one filament that can be up to a kilometer long!
Sometimes farmers use synthetic fertilisers on the mulberry trees that sustain the worms, and chemicals to treat the finished material. With this in mind, look out for organic silk to keep water and soils clean.
The process of making silk isn’t vegetarian or vegan, as the silkworms don’t make it out of their cocoons. The good news is there’s an alternative called Peace Silk, where empty cocoons are harvested once the moth has emerged and used to spin the thread.
Tencel™ fabrics are a pioneering new way of making fabrics from sustainably sourced wood. Many of Liz’s clothes from Lavender Hill are made with Tencel™ Modal fabrics, meaning they’re made from the pulp of beech trees. The trees are less thirsty than the cotton plant, and as a result the fabric production uses around 10-20 times less water.
The fibres from beech trees are chosen for their softness – fabrics can feel like silk. It’s also hard wearing, holding its shape even after frequent wear and washing. A similar fabric available is called Lycocell. Lyocell is even more eco-friendly than Modal because Llyocell is made using an organic solution that replaces the sodium hydroxide used in modal. Both fabrics can be made from different trees such as eucalyptus.
Rapidly renewable, biodegradable and often organic, wool is another wonder material for our clothes. Not only is it natural, it’s durable too. Wool is also easily recyclable if it isn’t blended with other synthetic fibres.
The cycle of creating the yarn starts with shearing animals that bear wool. Some do this annually and others more often. It’s then cleaned to remove the lanolin before it’s carded, the process of making the fibres into long strands.
Look out for organic wool. This ensures high standards of animal welfare, where sheep have space to roam and avoid treatment of excessive antibiotics. It’s also better for the soil as there are no chemical fertilisers to damage the ecosystems and existing water supplies.
Like wool, cashmere is a natural fabric, only this time it comes from the cashmere and pashmina breeds of goat. This means it’s both biodegradable, and renewable.
The super soft material, used for light and insulating knitwear, used to be something of a luxury but now that demand is high, the price has fallen. This can be a problem for sustainability as farmers rear more animals closer together. This leaves a larger carbon footprint and destroying natural habitats.
Cashmere goats have very little body fat due to their warm coats. Shearing too early in the winter in order to collect more material can be very dangerous for the goats.
Look out for sustainably farmed cashmere to protect animal welfare and the environment. Many brands have started using recycled cashmere too. This can reduce the environmental impact by around 92%.
Cupro is likely to be one of the sustainable fabrics that you’re yet to hear of. Plenty of big brands are starting to use this recycled material. It’s breathable like cotton with a beautiful, soft drape like silk. Cupro (short for cuprammonium rayon) is made from recycled cotton as well as cotton linter – this is the part of the cotton plant that’s usually too small to spin fibres from. It saves a lot of material going to landfill, and parts of the crop that might go to waste.
As part of the process, cupro is treated with ammonium, copper and caustic soda, so it’s an entirely natural material that is biodegradable. Cupro is also usually made in a ‘closed loop’ system, meaning these chemicals (which can be toxic) are removed from the water and safely disposed of, meaning the water can be reused.
Cupro is durable and easily washed in water, making it a hardworking, vegan alternative to silk.
Bamboo is a sustainable and environmentally low impact material. As a plant, bamboo grows incredibly quickly and needs very little water or fertiliser to grow. Producers crush the plant, either manually or with chemicals, and extract the fibres from it to spin into a yarn.
The fabric is naturally sweat wicking and breathable, it’s the perfect fabric for activewear, especially given its durability too. One of Liz’s favourite activewear brands, Asquith, uses the softest bamboo fabrics without toxic chemicals used in the dying process.
Read more articles like this
Please note, on some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage and always honestly review. For more information please read our Affiliate Policy.
We’re all looking for ways to green up our homes nowadays. Here we explain a few simple eco-swaps that you can make for a more environmentally friendly kitchen. Eco swaps to green up your kitchen Use food wraps for leftovers We love to make the most of leftovers, but wrapping up excess food can often […]