A Guide to Sustainable Fabrics: Green Fashion Basics

If you want to live more sustainably in your day-to-day life one relatively simple but powerful way is to reject fast fashion and wear more in the way of sustainable fabrics.

The challenge is how do you pick the most sustainable fabrics from the huge range of natural, organic, eco-friendly alternatives out there?

Should you opt for recycled polyester, conventional cotton, recycled or upcycled, something that meets the Global Organic Textile Standard, light cellulose fabric, a natural fabric, synthetic spider silk, or something else completely different?

Which fabrics are green, and which say “sustainable fabric” but are just pretending to be that way? Greenwashing is rampant; stay vigilant.

Here’s the lowdown on sustainable fabrics and how choose the best for you and your family.

Some Simple Rules Of Thumb

Here are the basic and essential tips we recommend for identifying and buying sustainable fabrics.

Opt For Natural Materials

natural organic fabric material

That means a sustainable fabric made of plants or even animal products.

So, hemp, linen, wool, silk, organic cotton, etc. are good choices for sustainable fashion.

They have smaller ecological footprints than materials made of plastics and synthetics in most cases.

Ideally, you want to find recycled materials as these have an even smaller footprint. And yes, recycled fabric from a natural source such as the flax plant is kinder than recycled material made from industrial plastic or synthetic waste.

Look For Different Materials To Match What You Wear

There’s no doubt that of the natural fibers cotton is hard on the environment but why not opt for linen t-shirts or hemp ones, instead? These are a more sustainable alternative.

When you go for a suit try to find alpaca wool which is kinder to the world than cashmere.

That kind of thing. A wool t-shirt would suck, and we probably wouldn’t wear a hemp suit. There are different sustainable materials and sustainable textiles for different occasions.

So find the right fabric to wear.

Go With Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are made from fruit, vegetables and things like roots or even tree bark.

They have a much lower environmental impact than artificial dyes and will, over time, safely break down in a clean and kind fashion.

You won’t get some of the very brightest shades out of natural dyes but it’s a sacrifice worth making.

Look Into Sustainable Production

Sustainable dressmaking

When you buy things from companies, you should expect them to provide sustainability tracing.

That is they should show the social, economic and environmental benefits that they deliver through their practices. Websites are a good way to research this.

Look for evidence of fair-trade practices, minimal waste design, recycling and repurposing.

Go Local And Go Artisan

The nearer goods are manufactured to your home the fewer miles they need to travel and the less damage they do to your environment.

Local artisans will, as a matter of commercial necessity, already be involved in sustainability exercises.

Look For Certification Programs

The easiest way to ensure that your fabrics are sustainable is to check the label. Or it would be, if there weren’t quite so many labelling schemes out there.

Fortunately, the Ecolabel Index, has done a round up of all the major standards worldwide and they’ve defined what each one means.

That means you can check 105 different labels quickly and easily – find labels that match your environmental standards and then use them.

eco certification of materials

3 Sustainable Natural Fabrics

OK, now we’ve got the rules of thumb down pat, let’s take a look at some examples of natural fabrics and why they are good for the environment:

  • Recycled cotton. Cotton is a very intensive product to farm and, in particular, it uses a lot of water but it’s light and breathable and oh so comfortable. Organic cotton is a good step in the right direction as it reduces the uses of chemicals in cotton production but it’s still thirsty for water. Recycled cotton, on the other hand, uses cotton that’s already been grown and helps to reduce water, energy and landfill use.
  • Organic hemp. Sadly, you can’t have a good time smoking a hemp t-shirt even if it is made from the same plant as marijuana. Happily, organic hemp requires almost no water to grow, uses no pesticides and helps to fertilize soil as it grows!
  • Organic linen. Linen come from flax and again organic linen uses very little water to grow, will grow in the worst soils and needs almost no pesticides. It’s also super comfortable to wear.
Sustainable Natural Fabrics

3 Sustainable Innovative Fabrics

There are other new fabrics emerging designed to be sustainable too:

  • Tencel ® is made from wood pulp and requires less energy and water than cotton to make but has a higher level of absorbability and anti-bacterial properties too!
  • Pinatex a vegan leather alternative that comes from pineapple leaves! It’s a food byproduct making it super eco-friendly! (See our guide to vegan leather for more ideas).
  • Econyl this uses waste plastics and recycles them into a material similar to a high quality nylon and it’s so much more sustainable than nylon because you’re not creating new plastics for it!

Want to join the sustainable fashion revolution? Check it out and get involved here.

PRO-TIP: A super sustainable option is buying some vintage gems at a thrift shop!