Which Fabrics Are Most Sustainable?

CC BY 2.0. Marco Verch

Learn about a fabric's production and disposal in order to make an informed choice while shopping.

Every piece of clothing has an impact on the environment, but the big question is how much of an impact? Shoppers concerned about the entire life cycle of their clothing should learn about the production process that goes into making fabrics and where they end up after use, as some are harder on the planet than others. The following guide to fabrics is hardly comprehensive, but it’s a good introduction to points worth considering next time you’re out shopping.


linen shirt

Tradlands -- A comfortable linen button-up shirt/CC BY 2.0Linen is a plant-based fabric made from flax which can be grown on rough terrain that’s unsuitable for food production. It can be cultivated and processed without chemicals, though this is more commonly found in Europe and less so in China. Summer Edwards, the knowledgeable voice behind sustainable fashion blog Tortoise & Lady Grey, writes:

“Conventional linen is processed into fiber from the raw flax crop through a process of water-retting. This involves soaking the flax crop in rivers or waterways, and results in a high amount of pollutants making their way into the waterways. These include residual agro-chemicals, as well as natural waste. There are more eco-friendly method of processing. These are dew-retting and enzyme-retting. These processes turn the raw [crop into fiber while] avoid(ing) the water pollution associated with the water-retting process.”


cotton shirt and jeans

Cotton is a natural plant-based fiber that makes up a quarter of all fabric used in clothing, furniture, and other textile blends, such as rayon and synthetics. It is a durable, breathable, and highly versatile fabric. It is also biodegradable, which is a huge plus, considering the damage being caused by synthetic fabrics. More on that below.

Cotton, however, uses a tremendous amount of water (3 percent of global water use, according to the UN), pesticides (7 percent of all chemicals used for agriculture in the U.S.), and arable land (2 percent globally). In other words, it’s a resource hog. Organic cotton can improve the chemical effect, but it tends to require more land because crop yields decrease.


wool pants

If you’re comfortable with the fact that wool is an animal product, this could be the most environmentally friendly option. Wool is tough, wrinkle-resistant, resilient (which means good at retaining its original shape), and it can “absorb up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture before feeling damp” (Dress Well Do Good). It holds colorful dyes easily, without use of chemicals.

Wool can replace many of the water-resistant synthetics and polyester fleeces that feature prominently in outdoor gear without fear of microfiber shedding – which, one could argue, wreaks havoc for wildlife down the food chain, despite being vegan.

The biggest issue with wool is the methane emissions from burping sheep. An estimated 50 percent of wool’s carbon footprint comes from the sheep themselves, as opposed to other fabric industries whose larger emissions hail from the fabric production process. These sheep, however, are usually raised on non-arable land.


rayon fabrics

These man-made fabrics are made from cellulose. In the case of modal, the cellulose comes from softwood trees, and viscose rayon is usually bamboo. While the raw crop is biodegradable, the chemicals required to transform it into fabric, including carbon disulfide, are unsafe. The New York Times explains:

“Chronic exposure to carbon disulfide can cause serious health problems for rayon workers, including Parkinson’s disease, premature heart attack and stroke, said Dr. Paul Blanc, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who has written about the history of rayon. The chemicals may also be released into the environment, though the effects are harder to pinpoint. By the time the rayon gets to the store, it poses no danger to consumers, Dr. Blanc said.”

The source of cellulose is also questionable. The fabric for rayon clothes made in China likely comes from Indonesia, where old-growth rainforests are being destroyed to make way for bamboo, planted specifically for textile manufacturing.

If the fabric is processed mechanically, rather than chemically, it has a much smaller impact. This is called ‘bamboo linen’ but it’s harder to find and more expensive.


Girlfriend Collective black leggings

© Charlie Schuck for Girlfriend Collective

Polyester currently dominates the clothing industry, found in 60 percent of clothing. People like it for its stretchiness, durability, and comfort, but it’s important to remember that it’s a plastic manufactured from crude oil (an energy-intensive process). Even though some manufacturers are adding recycled polyester, often sourced from plastic bottles, to their fabrics, these have the same environmental repercussions as new polyester, which researchers are only just starting to understand.

What we know now is that every wash releases plastic microfibers into waterways and these persist indefinitely, contaminating lakes and oceans and getting ingested by animals and, indirectly, by humans. NYT writes:

“Even if these microplastics are trapped at filtration plants, they can end up in sludge produced by the facilities, which is often sent to farms to be used as fertilizer. From there, the fibers can make their way into other water systems, or into the digestive tracts of animals that graze on the fertilized plants.”

A good quick intro to the microfiber pollution problem is this video from The Story of Stuff.


Choose organic fabrics whenever possible. These are more expensive, which means you’ll likely buy less – but that’s a good thing, too. We need to break free from the fast fashion mentality that encourages rapid turnaround times on trends and a quasi-disposable attitude toward clothes.

Fashion bloggers Ellie and Elizabeth at Dress Well Do Good share the following advice:

“We believe that a key part of ethical fashion is buying clothing that we plan to get a lot of use out of, clothing that won’t end up in the trash or donation pile a few months down the road. To do so, we need to select fabrics that we will enjoy wearing – that feel good next to our skin – and that will last.”

Or, as Carrie Bradshaw once said, never buy anything that’s less than fabulous. Then you know you’ll wear it over and over again.