Shop Better By Knowing Your Fabrics

Conscious fashion can mean many different things, but one way to ensure a more mindful purchase is to shop for sustainably made garments. With fast fashion producing at a highly accelerated rate to meet demand, manufacturers end up relying on virgin synthetic materials that are cheap and quick to produce. However, these fabrics (polyester, nylon, or acrylic) take decades or more to biodegrade, and textiles make up 7.7 percent of municipal solid waste in landfills. It is time to slow down—it’s also time to take a closer look at our clothing labels, too.

But how can we discern which fabrics are sustainable and which ones aren’t? There isn’t exactly one “dream fabric” to solve every problem. All new material requires resources to produce, and while we love vintage and secondhand garments, those can also contribute to the microplastics problem depending on what they’re made of.

Consider all of these factors to help make the most educated and sustainable choice for your lifestyle and wardrobe. 

For starters, get familiar with the labels on your existing favorite wardrobe staples! The fabrics that work best for you will vary based on your values and needs. For example, you may want to avoid all animal products in your clothing, so your preference may be plant-based fabrics and recycled synthetics. 

Perhaps you only want to wear fabrics that biodegrade, or maybe your work requires the use of certain synthetics in your garments. All of this can change, too, if you have skin sensitivities or allergies to particular fabrics.

Another factor to consider when shopping: some fabrics will have a longer lifespan than others. You’ll want to consider all of these factors to help make the most educated and sustainable choice for your lifestyle and wardrobe. 


What Makes Fabric & Materials Sustainable?

Sustainable fabrics are often made from natural or recycled materials, aiming to reduce harm through the production process, fiber properties, or overall environmental impact. These fabrics can also contribute to the reduction of waste, water conservation, lowered carbon emissions, and soil regeneration—though, as mentioned, there isn’t one fabric that is entirely sustainable. 

Just as sustainability is a moving target, so are fabrics.

You’ll find that “sustainable fabrics” is a term often used to group various environmentally friendly materials and several fabrics have garnered the “sustainable” label for different reasons. But just as sustainability is a moving target, so are fabrics—and no one fabric can do it all. But the hope is that, through responsible production and environmental growing practices, we can create a more transparent fashion industry.

Below, you’ll find some of the most commonly used sustainable clothing materials. We’re sharing their definitions and which ethics and sustainability certifications to consider when shopping so that you know how to choose the best option for you!

Materials & Fabrics Glossary

Bamboo is a fast-growing, regenerative crop that doesn’t require fertilization and is often touted as a sustainable material when mechanically processed (otherwise known as bamboo linen or bast fiber).

However, there are concerns about the lack of transparency around land clearing and harvesting methods, as well as chemical processed bamboo which uses the same acids found in rayon viscose (something to ask a brand about before purchasing a garment). That said, when properly made, bamboo is incredibly absorbent, comfortable, and moisture-wicking, making it a favorite with sustainable brands. 

ECONYL® was first introduced by Aquafil in 2011; today it’s a popular alternative to virgin nylon since it’s made from regenerated nylon waste. Sourced from industrial plastic, waste fabrics, and fishing nets, this upcycled nylon goes through a closed-loop process in production, conserving water and reducing waste. As with virgin polyester, nylon, and plastic, ECONYL® can still shed microplastics, so it’s worth trying a washing bag or washing infrequently.

Hemp is a specific type of cannabis plant, and because of its association with marijuana, it typically requires a specialty license to grow. It’s quick-growing, doesn’t exhaust the soil, and doesn’t require pesticides. Hemp creates a durable fabric that’s non-irritating for skin and has many uses, so it’s often used in place of cotton. This fabric is often more expensive, making it less accessible to everyone.

True hemp doesn’t require certification and is already organic, but you can verify with a brand that their garments are 100 percent hemp (not just made with hemp fibers) before purchasing. 

Linen is made from flax, which can be grown without fertilizer and planted in areas where most other crops cannot thrive. Flax can also be used in its entirety (seeds, oil, and crop), meaning there’s no waste. This natural material is also biodegradable—as long as harsh chemicals are left out of the process. The downside to linen is that it can be expensive as it’s often made overseas. (We love these affordable linen clothing brands and dreamy linen sheets.)

Modal is a semi-synthetic textile made from wood pulp but mainly that of beech trees. While the pulp is natural, the production process involves chemicals like sodium hydroxide—but lower than the amount needed for rayon viscose. The naturally occurring yet human-made fabric is generally more delicate and softer than its lyocell sibling (see Tencel below), so it’s commonly used for undies, PJs, sheets, and towels.

Organic Cotton
Organic cotton is produced without any toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds (GMOs). This usually implies a sustainably managed fabric production process, though it is not always a given without proper certifications or transparency. Keep in mind that organic certifications can be expensive, but if possible, look for a GOTS or OCS certification. Here are a few of our favorite brands creating organic cotton clothes.

While there’s an ongoing debate on leather versus vegan leather, Piñatex presents a sustainable alternative to both animal byproducts and controversial textiles. First developed in 2017 by Ananas Anam, the material comes from leftover pineapple leaves that would otherwise be burned. It can also naturally biodegrade unless it’s mixed with petroleum-based resin, which is sometimes the case.

Reclaimed (Deadstock)
Reclaimed fabric (often called deadstock) is leftover fabric from manufacturers. It can also mean vintage fabric or any unused material purchased secondhand which would otherwise be tossed. By using deadstock, makers keep these sustainable textiles out of landfills and use something that’s already been made.

Recycled Polyester
Recycled polyester is PET (the chemical used to create polyester) from plastic water bottles that have been broken down into fibers. The recycled fabric keeps plastic out of landfills and can be recycled many times over. When a garment can’t be made from 100 percent natural fibers (for example, stretchy garments like underwear or leggings), we recommend looking for recycled polyester as it’s less harmful than its virgin counterpart, generating fewer carbon emissions in production.

Silk comes from silkworms that subsist on a diet of only mulberry tree leaves, which are resistant to pollution and easy to grow. This plant’s characteristics make the production of silk a fairly low waste ordeal. But as silk requires animal labor, it’s essential to vet brands and ensure they’re using ethical production methods, so be sure to look for Ahimsa silk (or Peace silk).

Tencel™ is a branded version of lyocell, a type of rayon derived from cellulose fibers that come from tree pulp. Unlike rayon viscose, lyocell and Tencel™ go through a closed-loop process where chemicals are reused and less dangerous to humans. Tencel™’s founding company Lenzing utilizes eucalyptus wood, sustainable practices, and responsible sourcing not guaranteed in other lyocell production processes.

Wool can be a sustainable fabric, depending on how it’s produced. Fibershed, for example, creates Climate Beneficial™ Wool on Carbon Farming landscapes where carbon is captured and put back into the soil. Wool is also compostable, incredibly insulating, and doesn’t shed plastic microfibers.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of animal abuse in the wool industry, so it’s essential to vet brands to verify sourcing and production methods. While wool isn’t for everyone, it is a fabric that many sustainable brands are turning to. Look for the ZQ certification

A truly conscious company will make transparency a top priority and have a section or page on their website dedicated to the fabrics they use.

So what’s the takeaway? Reading garment labels is key, and you can’t always take brands at their word. A truly conscious company will make transparency a top priority and have a section or page on their website dedicated to the fabrics they use. However, many brands don’t, and that’s where this background information comes in handy. You’ll know the imposters from the real-deals in no time!