My passion for sustainability blossomed nearly 10 years ago. Since then, it’s influenced almost every decision I’ve made. From shopping and food prepping to commuting and social media browsing.
I’m still trying to figure out the best yet most realistic approach to sustainable living, and I have to say, my wardrobe is the most challenging part. I don’t ever expect to reach the endpoint of my journey, but I hope the knowledge I gathered can help you build your sustainable wardrobe faster than I did.
In this article, I’ll cover the most popular conventional fabrics and their sustainable alternatives, state the pros and cons of conventional fabrics, and share some handy life hacks.
Are you wondering what’s the most sustainable fabric choice for you? We’ll get there. Remember that your choice should come down to your lifestyle and values.
One of the hardest tasks is to outline a definition of sustainable fabrics. For Printful, sustainable fabric means it’s made from at least 30% recycled or biodegradable materials, but your definition doesn’t have to be the same.
We’re working on being kinder to the planet and supporting the growing need for sustainable fashion. While print-on-demand services might be the key to the fast fashion industry problems, there’s still a long way to go. Our goal is to get better one print at a time.
As you’re reading this, our New Product Development team is already exploring different types of sustainable fabric and looking for ways to add them to our Product Catalog.
That being said, it’s time to move on to the list of conventional fabrics and their alternatives.
First cultivated thousands of years ago, conventional cotton’s still the most widely used fabric in the world. It’s made from natural fibers that are spun into yarn and weaved into textile products. So is cotton clothing sustainable? Yes and no.
In addition to being naturally soft and breathable, cotton fabric is also hypoallergenic and biodegradable. It’s an inexpensive material that’s used to make textiles like denim, corduroy, chino, and many more.
You might think that cotton is a sustainable fabric based on the pros list . . . but conventional cotton production is linked to unethical and sustainability-related issues.
Cotton manufacturing requires a lot of resources, especially water. To grow cotton plants, farmers use harmful pesticides that protect plants from insects and weeds. And unfortunately, pesticides also affect the health of cotton workers. As for the fabric, it easily shrinks, gets wrinkled, and tears down faster than other conventional fabrics.
Luckily, there’s a variety of sustainable fabrics for clothing that get the job done as well as conventional cotton. The following is only the beginning of building a sustainable fabrics list, but it’s a good starting point for research and reference.
Instead of using harmful pesticides, organic cotton farmers go for the “an eye for an eye” approach and protect the cotton plants from insects with other bugs. The lack of pesticides also makes a safe environment for industry workers. Organic cotton production requires less water because it naturally grows in water-scarce areas where it’s possible to use rainwater.
Recycled cotton is made from pre-consumer and post-consumer cotton fabric that’s broken down into cotton fiber and re-used for textile creation.
Pre-consumer waste is fabric scraps, damaged products, or unsold products. Post-consumer waste will most likely come from second-hand fabric. The production of recycled cotton also requires less water because it skips the most water-intensive step—cotton growing.
Hemp has been used for thousands of years to produce textiles, food, shoes, and recently even biofuel. Hemp grows all around the world and requires very little water and no harsh chemicals to produce. The hemp plant also returns nutrients to the soil.
While hemp farmers don’t have to use harmful chemicals, some of them still do that to boost the hemp yield. To avoid supporting unsustainable practices, choose organic hemp.
Cultivating bamboo can be very sustainable—it doesn’t require any fertilizers or pesticides, it’s fast-growing and regenerates from the roots after being cut.
However, brands may mislead you by marketing bamboo viscose as bamboo fabric. The real bamboo fabric is a bit rough and resembles linen. Bamboo viscose, on the other hand, is soft and silky, which is achieved by treating the bamboo with chemicals. The production of bamboo viscose also lacks transparency.
Bamboo has great potential to be a sustainable and ethical fabric choice for your wardrobe. Just make sure to check the fabric composition of the items you’re interested in.
Supima® is a trademarked premium quality cotton that’s very durable and soft to the touch. It’s made from a specific type of cotton plant that only grows in desert areas and provides extra-long fibers, making the fabric strong and silky at the same time. It’s not uncommon to see decades-old Supima® cotton clothing without any signs of wear and tear.
There are strict guidelines that prevent the use of any toxic pesticides when growing this cotton variety. Genuine Supima® cotton is certified by the American Supima® Association (ASA).
Considering how much resources it takes to produce cotton fabric, do everything you can to prolong the lifespan of cotton clothing you already own and consider shopping second-hand.
Even if you already own clothing made from sustainable alternatives to cotton, remember that washing and tumble drying breaks down the fiber. So try skipping a wash, spot cleaning, and air drying your clothes.
Polyester is a synthetic, man-made material and it’s the second most widely used fabric in the world. Simply put, polyester is a type of plastic.
The first polyester fiber was created in 1941, but the fabric only became popular in the 70s. Polyester was promoted as a cheap, versatile, and durable type of fabric that doesn’t need much ironing.
Unfortunately, the harmful environmental impact of polyester production came to light only decades later. Researchers found that some of the plastic residue found in sea life could be traced back to polyester fabric.
Polyester has some great qualities that are hard to find among natural fabrics. It’s extremely durable, retains its shape, and doesn’t wrinkle. Polyester is moisture-wicking and resistant to environmental changes, which makes it the go-to choice for sports and outdoor wear.
To increase durability, polyester’s often blended with cotton and other natural or semi-natural fibers.
You can learn more about fabrics in our: Guide to Cotton, Polyester, and Blended Fabrics.
Polyester isn’t as breathable as natural fiber materials, it’s flammable, and traps odors.
Conventional polyester is made of plastic, so it isn’t biodegradable or sustainable. When you wash polyester items, they release tiny particles called microplastics that build up in our water, affecting underwater life.
Microplastics alone is a reason to ditch the polyester for good, but it’s a challenge for the fashion industry to find a natural and sustainable fabric for beachwear, activewear, and undergarments like bras and tights.
While none of the sustainable alternatives to conventional polyester avoid microplastic pollution completely, there are a few sustainable synthetic fabrics out there. The conventional polyester alternatives I’m about to list mainly avoid the production of virgin (previously unused, raw) materials or exploitation of non-renewable sources.
Recycled polyester is made from PET—the same recyclable material used in clear plastic bottles. Recycling plastics helps save energy and water that would be wasted producing new materials, stops plastic waste from going to landfills, and cuts greenhouse emissions.
Recycled polyester also plays its role of a print-on-demand all-over print sustainable fabric. It’s a great alternative to conventional polyester that works for sublimation. You can also find recycled polyester in our Product Catalog, where we turned it into a timeless high-waisted bikini.
The main difference between biobased polyester and conventional polyester lies in the raw materials used. Biobased polyester is made from renewable sources such as crops or bio-waste. Although biobased polyester is still in its early stage of development, it already sounds like a promising alternative to conventional polyester.
Biobased polyester is biodegradable as well as biocompatible, meaning, it’s not harmful or toxic for industry workers, consumers, or nature. Aside from being used in the fashion industry, biobased polyester is also used in disposable drinkware and food container production, as well as in the medical and pharmaceutical industry.
ECONYL® is trademarked recycled nylon made by the Italian company Aquafil. The fabric is made from waste found in ocean dumps and used to produce high-end clothing, bags, underwear, and hosiery. It’s also used as a sustainable activewear fabric for sportswear, swimwear, and outdoor apparel.
Since all synthetics contribute to microplastic pollution, none of the mentioned polyester alternatives can be called the most sustainable fabrics. But what’s good is, these new textile brands are creating a closed loop to recycle waste and avoid using non-renewable materials.
To decrease microplastic release in the sewage, try buying a special washing bag or installing laundry machine filters in your household. These products won’t stop those tiny microfibers from going down the drain completely but will reduce over 90% of the waste.
Also, not all fabrics release the same amount of microfibers. The longer and smoother the thread, the less microplastic it sheds. So skip fluffy polyester fabrics and pick tightly weaved materials.
If cotton is a natural fabric, but polyester is synthetic, viscose stands somewhere in between. Made from wood pulp, viscose still requires chemical treatment to shape the fabric and turn it into something wearable. You may know viscose by its other names—rayon or artificial silk. Viscose is considered to be the third most widely used fabric in the world.
Viscose is a soft fabric that feels like a mixture of silk and cotton. It’s breathable, drapes beautifully, and offers a luxurious feel. Viscose also blends well with other fibers and dyes easily. The fabric is also biodegradable.
Viscose manufacturing often ignores ethical business practices and uses unnecessary water and energy resources, as well as harsh chemicals. Viscose production affects both the environment and industry workers.
When considering the longevity of viscose fiber, note that it’s delicate and prone to stretching. And unfortunately, the luxurious feel of your viscose garment disappears soon after you start wearing it.
While you could technically just opt for natural organic and sustainable fabrics instead of viscose, there’s something about the viscose alternatives that makes them also worth exploring: their affordable price range.
Tencel™ is one of the best-known trademarked modal fabrics (another type of viscose). It’s produced by the Austrian company Lenzing AG and protected by a global certification network.
Tencel™ is made in a closed-loop system that recycles nearly all the materials and chemicals used in production. Also, Tencel™ fibers are certified as compostable and biodegradable.
The EcoVero™ material, also a trademark of Lenzing AG, is an eco-friendly option to replace viscose. It takes half the amount of water and electricity to produce EcoVero™ when compared to conventional viscose production. EcoVero™ raw materials are harvested from controlled sustainable sources in Europe.
Choose natural materials, like silk, organic cotton, linen, and hemp whenever possible. But don’t abandon those viscose pieces that are already in your closet and take good care of them. When it comes to clothing, remember that using what you already have is always the most sustainable option.
To prolong the lifespan of your viscose clothing, stick to air drying and never twist or wring it. Lastly, give it an iron every once in a while to make it look new again.
Although wool and leather have significant differences between each other, they’re both animal products. The wool thread is made from animal hair, usually sheep, llama, or alpaca, and leather is made from animal skins. Both materials come with many issues related to ethics and sustainability.
Leather and wool are great insulation materials that protect from the cold. If treated right, wool and leather are long-lasting, odor-neutralizing, recyclable, and biodegradable.
In terms of their qualities, leather and wool can shrink and color bleed. But there are bigger issues on the cons list, like animal welfare and the environmental impact of animal production.
Let’s start with wool. When done right, shearing doesn’t hurt the animal; but on an industrial scale, where time is money and workers are paid not by the hour, but by the amount of wool produced, animals may be injured during shearing.
When it comes to leather, it’s true that it’s often a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, however, it’s not as sustainable as people may think. The leftover animal hide is heavily processed with chemicals, and discarding it might actually be kinder for the environment. On top of that, millions of animals are grown just for the hide.
The two main types of alternatives to wool and leather are vegan goods and recycled goods.
When looking for vegan alternatives to wool and leather, be careful and research before buying. Many synthetic fabrics are vegan, but not necessarily eco-friendly, so search for sustainable vegan fabrics.
When looking for wool alternatives, go for natural materials, like organic cotton, hemp, linen, etc. They’re not as warm as wool, but thicker knits and layering will do the trick.
Leather, however, has many exciting sustainable vegan alternatives that are just as durable and breathable as the real deal. Leather alternatives are made from paper, cork, recycled rubber, banana skins, pineapple, avocado, mushrooms . . . the list goes on.
Recycled wool and leather are still animal products, however, no animals are harmed in production. Recycling extends the life span of already produced materials. In other words, recycling repurposes wool and leather that would otherwise wind up in a landfill.
The fashion industry is getting creative and coming up with new sustainable alternatives to wool and leather. If you’re feeling adventurous, I challenge you to try out some of the options listed above the next time you go shopping.
Depending on where you stand now, second-hand shopping might be another way to lay your hands on sustainable wool fabric or leather.
To make your fabric choice even kinder to the planet, pick something that’s available for you locally because shorter delivery distances reduce the environmental impact.
While switching to sustainable fabrics is great, remember that the most sustainable action you can take is to wear everything you already have till the seams tear apart. And even then you can repair the clothing and continue wearing it.
So, it’s alright if you have some conventional fabrics and fast-fashion pieces hanging in your closet now. You don’t have to declutter just because something is made from the “wrong material”.
Are you about to replace a long-loved wardrobe staple or purchase a necessity? Now is the time to apply this new knowledge of sustainable fabrics to real life.
As my last batch of suggestions, I invite you to stick to quality pieces that might cost more upfront but will last you longer. Check for sustainable fabric suppliers and verify their certifications. Consider swapping your clothing with friends or looking for vintage treasures. Most importantly, make your wardrobe suit your lifestyle and values!
Do you have any other tips on choosing sustainable fabrics or increasing the lifespan of pieces you already own? Feel free to share in the comments!
CSR Project Manager
Alise is a CSR Project Manager at Printful with a fondness for sustainability and intentional living. Her background in environmental business management helps to turn the passion into practice.