Plants have been used to create fabrics for thousands of years. These plant-based sustainable fabrics can be one of the best choices for your wardrobe as they tend to be very gentle to the skin, light, and breathable.
Keep reading to discover what makes these fabrics fabulous and environmentally responsible.
Cotton is a soft, fluffy fiber that grows in a boll or protective case. Fabric made of cotton is one of the most widely used worldwide.
Conventional cotton is responsible for 25% of the world’s pesticide use; because of that, it has been dubbed “the world’s dirtiest crop.” Cotton is also a thirsty crop that requires a lot of water to be grown. Although it’s primarily rain-fed, pesticide-intensive use is still very damaging for the water quality and the environment.
Growing and processing conventional cotton has a negative carbon impact, estimated somewhere between 0.3% and 1% of global carbon emissions. The production of one large cotton t-shirt equates to 6.5kg of carbon emissions.
What is a more sustainable alternative to traditional cotton? Organic cotton.
Organic cotton is grown using methods that are not so harmful to the environment. Its production uses non-toxic chemicals; it doesn’t damage the soil and uses 88% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton.
According to the Soil Exchange, organic cotton emits 46% fewer carbon emissions than conventional cotton.
Rain-fed organic cotton would be the most sustainable choice, as it avoids the harms associated with crop irrigation.
Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the differences between conventional and organic cotton from the farming perspective:
|Characteristic||Organic cotton||Conventional cotton|
|Seed preparation||Natural, untreated, non-GMO seeds.||Crops are typically treated with pesticides. Possibly GMO.|
|Soil preparation||Healthy soil through crop rotation. It retains moisture in the ground from increased organic matter.||Use of synthetic fertilizers, loss of soil due to mono-crop culture, intensive irrigation.|
|Weed control||Healthy soil creates a natural balance. Beneficial insects and trap crops used.||Spraying of insecticides and pesticides.|
|Harvesting||Natural defoliation is achieved from freezing temperatures or through the use of water management.||Toxic chemicals induce defoliation.|
Cotton clothing is only organic if it is certified to an organic cotton standard. OCS (Organic Content Standard) assures that your clothes’ organic content can be traced back to the source. Meanwhile, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) also ensures that it is processed socially and sustainably.
Hemp fabric is made using fibers from the stalks of the cannabis Sativa plant.
Pesticides are not necessary to grow hemp, given that it naturally controls weeds and pests. Hemp needs less water than any natural fiber crop and can be completely rain-fed, with no need for irrigation. It’s also very efficient: hemp can produce 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more fiber than flax with the same amount of land.
All the above facts make hemp possibly the most sustainable natural textile, and consequently, it’s become a staple in ethical fashion wardrobes worldwide.
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The natural characteristics of hemp fabric make it hypo-allergenic and non-irritating to the skin. It might have antibacterial properties as well.
Like linen and cotton, it’s is an excellent choice for summer since it’s breathable, resistant, and absorbs moisture.
Recently, some companies have started to use hemp, or a mixture of hemp and cotton, to create denim fabric and make garments like jeans more sustainable. Read more about it in this article about the sustainability of denim.
But not everything is perfect with hemp; it also has a few disadvantages. For example, it can wrinkle very easily, and, as the dying process is complicated, the colors of the fabrics tend not to be very rich.
Hemp is sustainable, whether organic certified or not, but something you should not overlook is the dying process. Always look for items that are colored using low-impact dyes, and you can be sure that you’re making a sustainable choice.
Linen is a beautiful, natural fiber which history goes back several thousand years. It can keep you cool in warm weather and warm in a cool climate thanks to its isolation properties. It’s very long-lasting and ages nicely. For example, linen sheets become very soft after several washes can last up to 30 years.
Linen is made from the flax plant and is completely natural and biodegradable. It can degrade in a few weeks when buried in soil, making it more biodegradable than cotton.
In the right conditions, linen can be grown on marginal land and doesn’t require fertilizers.
Linen is more expensive than other fabrics, and that is because of the difficulty of working with the thread but also because the flax requires a great deal of attention. Linen is considerably more expensive to manufacture than cotton.
Converting the raw flax plan into a fiber is achieved through water-retting, a process that uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibers together. The natural retting methods are called dew-retting and enzyme retting. I would recommend looking for these when buying linen pieces. There are also chemical methods that make the process faster but are more harmful to the environment.
One of the few disadvantages of linen is its low elasticity, which means that it easily wrinkles. Nevertheless, such wrinkles can be considered part of linen’s charm. Even though you can generally dry-clean, machine-wash, or steam linen, many modern garments are designed to be air-dried and worn without the necessity of ironing.
Ramie is a cellulosic fiber — just like cotton, linen, and rayon — made from nettles. Native to China, it’s one of the oldest fibers to be used for clothing, as it’s believed to have existed for around 6,000 years.
The raw material in the ramie fibers does not require pesticides or herbicides to grow. Another great advantage is that the plant can be harvested up to 6 times a year.
Processing ramie is similar to processing linen; however, a few extra steps are needed to separate the fiber from adhesive resins, making the finished textile more expensive. The retting process, similarly to linen, can be performed naturally by using enzymes or, a more harmful version, includes the usage of chemicals.
The fabric is naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and bacteria. It’s also a very strong fabric, even more than cotton, linen, or wool.
Ramie is very similar to linen in terms of physical properties: it’s absorbent and breathable, making it ideal for wearing in summer. It’s also easy to care for, it’s even stronger when wet, and it generally doesn’t tend to shrink or lose its shape.
Lyocell is essentially a form of rayon. The raw material used to make lyocell is cellulose from wood pulp, generally from Eucalyptus.
Lyocell is a soft, silky, breathable fabric perfect for summer because it can keep you cool and dry. These characteristics make lyocell fabrics ideal for intimates, activewear, and home textiles, like bedsheets.
One of the most sustainable brand names of lyocell fibers is TENCEL™ Lyocell, commercialized by Lenzing. TENCEL™, specifically, is made from certified forests’ Eucalyptus, which proliferate without pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation.
Lenzing tries to reduce deforestation impact by producing TENCEL™ from wood pulp from sustainably managed sources. They have earned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) BioPreferred® designation.
All fabrics require the use of chemicals for their processing. Still, for lyocell, the process can be carried out in a closed-loop system where 99% of the chemically contaminated water is recovered and reused.
TENCEL™ lyocell yarn is certified as compostable and biodegradable if it’s not mixed with other materials.
Modal refers to a type of rayon that was invented in Japan in the 1950s. It was engineered to enhance the traditional process of producing rayon and come up with a softer and more resistant version of it.
Modal is an exquisite, soft fabric used as a substitute for silk or cotton. It’s very flexible, lightweight, and breathable. It’s often deemed luxurious considering its remarkable properties, and it’s often more expensive than viscose or cotton.
The raw material to produce modal fabric is beech tree pulp; given the chemicals used in its production, it’s often considered a semi-synthetic fabric.
The production of Modal fabric is not inherently sustainable. Still, it can become sustainable depending on how the manufacturers handle its process and what specific steps are optimized to be environmentally responsible.
Currently, Lenzing is producing one of the most sustainable Modal fibers under the branded name TENCEL™ Modal. According to their website, “the fibers are extracted from naturally grown beech wood by an environmentally responsible integrated pulp-to-fiber process, which is self-sufficient in energy and recovers co-products from parts of the wood.”
TENCEL™ Modal is sourced from sustainable forests in Austria and neighboring countries.
Given Lenzing’s state-of-the-art process, TENCEL™ Modal fibers are biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil, and marine conditions.
If you would like to learn more, you can read my guide about modal fabric.
EcoVero™ is a type of viscose made using sustainable wood from controlled sources. It’s manufactured in Austria by Lenzing, awarded as one of the best performing viscose producers worldwide.
The EcoVero™ fabric is very gentle to the skin, provides efficient moisture regulation. It’s lightweight and fully biodegradable.
Several reasons make the fabric one of the most sustainable forms of viscose currently available:
- The trees used for the fabric production are located in forests near Lenzing’s manufacturing facilities; therefore, around 50% lower CO2 emissions are associated with transportation.
- It has less impact on the water than traditional viscose manufacturing.
- Supply chain transparency is made possible thanks to a sophisticated tracing system that allows customers to know the history of the fiber.
Because of the above, the innovative fiber has been certified with the EU ecolabel for meeting high environmental standards.
If you would like to learn more, you can read my guide about EcoVero™.
The story behind Piñatex® is pretty interesting. It was invented by the Spanish Carmen Hijosa, who was formerly a leather goods expert.
She realized the massive harmful impact of producing leather on the environment and the families working to make it. Hence, she decided to stop working with animal-based leather and develop another material that would not have such harmful side effects.
After living for some time in the Philippines, she got to know how the locals would create clothing from the fibers of the pineapple leaves. That gave her the idea that she could make a non-woven material to resemble leather using those fibers, too.
For that, she had to go back to school and earned a Ph.D., in which she worked to develop the innovative fiber that is now patented under the name Piñatex® and produced by her company, Ananas Anam.
The result is vegan leather that doesn’t use any water, any land, or any fertilizers. It’s water-resistant, breathable, and light, much lighter than leather.
The pineapple is the second most popular fruit globally, and it produces 25 million tons of trash per year. In making Piñatex®, 264 Co2 tons are saved by using instead of burning 825 tons of waste leaves from the pineapple harvest – the burning of which would release the equivalent of 264 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The coating layer of the fabric is one of the most challenging to tackle in terms of sustainability because it’s not entirely bio-based. Nevertheless, the company keeps innovating in this area: initially, petroleum-based resins would compose most of the coating; now, it has been lowered to only 5%.
If you would like to learn more, read my guide about Piñatex®.
S.Cafe® is an innovative fabric that uses a waste product as well, in this case, coffee grounds. Using waste poses a significant advantage in sustainability: there’s no need to contaminate water and consume energy to produce the raw material.
The fabric is produced by the Taiwanese company Singtex, which has been in the textile industry for over 30 years.
This innovative textile is made from combining coffee grounds with polyester using an energy-saving process.
It’s worth mentioning that the polyester yarn comes from recycled PET, so, in a way, S.Cafe is a mix of waste with recycled material.
Adding coffee to the polyester yarns adds some benefits to the finished fabric, such as enhanced UV protection, odor control, and fast-drying properties. This last property is essential because polyester doesn’t inherently has moisture-wicking properties; by adding the coffee, the yarn can continually move moisture away from the skin to the fabric’s outer surface.
Because of its properties, S.Cafe is used in various fashion products, especially outdoors and activewear. Several big brands are already using this fabric in their collections, for example, American Eagle, to produce their jeans.
Plant-based materials are an excellent idea for selecting your wardrobe items, your skin, and the environment will undoubtedly appreciate it.
These options are predominantly environmentally friendly, but as always, not all materials are made equal. Hence, I advise looking for certifications and, in general, more information on fabric processing, bleaching, and dyeing.
Remember, not all fabrics need to be organic to be classified as sustainable.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed reading this article and becoming more knowledgeable about what is in your clothes and accessories.