Most Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly Fibres & Fabrics

We’ve already put together a list of what might be some of the least eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics.

In the guide below, we list what might be some of the most eco friendly, sustainable & animal friendly fibres & fabrics.

 

Summary – Most Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly Fibres & Fabrics

List Of Fibres

Some of the fibres and fabrics listed in the guide below are:

Second hand fibres and fabrics

Some natural fibres

Some regenerated fibres

Certified organic cotton

TENCEL (lyocell, modal, and some other fibres)

100% natural or organic linen/flax (especially if it’s hand made or mechanically processed)

Organic bamboo, mechanically retted and processed bamboo, and bamboo that uses closed loop processing

Hemp

Jute

Animal friendly fibres (like peace silk for example)

Some recycled fibres and fabrics

 

Summary Of More Sustainable Fibres

Some sources indicate that for better overall sustainability in clothing, fabric, fibres and textiles, specific options to look at might include GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, and 100% natural linen.

Some bamboos and hemps could also be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes in production. Using more natural and less harmful production chemicals can also help.

On a company/fibre manufacturer level, companies that are are transparent with the information they share publicly about their sourcing and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), could add to the sustainability rating of a fibre. TENCEL’s Lyocell and Modal fibres products could be one potential example of this.

But, beyond the production stage, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well.

 

Factors That Can Impact Fibre Or Fabric Eco Friendliness, Sustainability & Ethics

Read more about some of the factors that can contribute to how sustainable, eco friendly and animal friendly different fibres and fabrics can be in this guide.

 

Second Hand Or Pre-Used Fibres & Fabrics

If you are able to buy or find secondhand fibres, fabrics and products that are still in good condition and are still usable, this can be a more eco friendly and sustainable alternative than purchasing newly produced fibres or fabrics.

As long as the footprint of supply or obtaining these secondhand items is not large, their footprint may be smaller than the footprint of using new resources to produce new fibres and things.

 

Some Natural Fibres

There’s three main types of fibres used for textiles – natural, synthetic, and regenerated fibres.

Natural fibres win out in several major eco friendly measurements and indicators.

Just one example is Jute, which has a lower agricultural footprint than many natural fibres, and can be processed in a more eco friendly way than other fibres.

Another example, according to Oecotextiles, is that natural fibres tend to outperform synthetic fibres across embodied energy use, and carbon emission indicators/measures. 

 

Additionally, dnfi.org makes some important points about the importance of natural fibres to the economy, and also people’s livelihoods (particularly in some regions of the world over others):

[About 300 million people (4% of the world population) were engaged in some type of employment in natural fibre production, across about 150 countries]

[Cotton is responsible for the most producing households worldwide amongst natural fibres … ]

[Some of the economic and practical benefits of natural fibres commercially are that they are storable, durable and have a high ratio of value to transportation cost. Other benefits are that they can be produced in both arid regions, as well as extremely wet regions]

In many producing regions, natural fibres are the only viable economic activities available, providing incomes [and livelihoods] to millions.

Natural fibres are almost always grown in rotation with food crops or they provide food as by-products.

As cash products, natural fibres often serve as collateral against input loans to farmers in developing countries, allowing farmers access to fertilizer, insecticides and seeds for food crops that would otherwise be unavailable.

Consequently, production of food rises in areas where natural fibres are grown.

 

Some Regenerated Fibres

Lyocell is one example of a type of regenerated fibre, and in particular a type/form of rayon (that uses the lyocell process), that can be more eco friendly and sustainable.

Lyocell, using the lyocell process, was developed specifically to be more eco friendly and less harmful than the viscose process (amongst other reasons to do with cost, and performance/traits of the fibre).

So, it might be accurate to say the lyocell is at least more eco friendly and sustainable than viscose rayon on average (depending on the processes that the viscose in question uses)

Lenzing via it’s TENCEL fiber brand, does a Lyocell fibre that uses closed loop processing, to capture solvents, and re-use water, and has other sustainability features.

 

Certified Organic Cotton

– Summary

Organic cotton is a natural and renewable fibre.

Organic cotton places an emphasis on the use of naturally derived farming chemicals and sustainable farming methods (organic farming, rain fed cotton, etc) over synthetic chemicals and intensive farming.

It also uses natural cotton seeds over GMO cotton seeds, amongst other differences with conventional cotton

There’s also an emphasis on naturally derived production and processing chemicals

A GOTS standard certified piece of organic cotton fibre and fabric might generally be fairly eco friendly, sustainable and ethical – one of the most ethical fibres and fabrics available.

It has eco, quality and fair work standards as part of it’s criteria

One of the issues with organic cotton is that some people point out the yield and profits may not be as good for farmers as GMO cotton (so sustainability can suffer, and viability).

Because of lower yields for the same amount of resources, there are sustainability cons.

Also, this means cotton uses more land than some other eco friendly fibres.

We’ve put together a guide here on some of the other pros and cons of organic cotton to consider.

There’s also other potential drawbacks to organic cotton and organic farming to consider, with one being that not all naturally derived pesticides and other chemicals might be safe or any better than synthetic chemicals

 

– Growing Stage

Cotton in a natural fibre/plant – cotton creates a natural carbon sink

Organic pest control (like beneficial insects) and fertilizers (like manure) are used over synthetic chemicals

Organic farming methods are used over intensive methods, or over irrigated water (which uses up freshwater resources that can be used for drinking water or residential water)

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

Naturally derived chemicals might be used over synthetic chemicals where possible 

There might be closed loop processing, or capture and treatment of waste wate and chemicals where possible – so there is less wastage of water, and less environmental pollution

 

Read more about organic cotton and how sustainable and eco friendly it might be in this guide.

 

From elkieark.com:

‘GOTS Organic Fairtrade [cotton], and recycled cotton might be two of the most eco friendly fibres when comparing cotton, bamboo and different rayons for indicators such as water use, chemicals, global warming and natural resources depletion’

‘Overall, 100% organic flax linen and GOTS certified organic cotton might be some of the most sustainable, but also durable, best looking and best feeling fabrics’

 

TENCEL (Lyocell, Modal & Some Other Fibres)

– Summary

Lyocell is a regenerated fibre (comes from a natural cellulose source, but is usually chemically processed)

It is a natural and renewable fibre to grow

Lenzing/TENCEL is the main producer of Lyocell fibres

Lenzing owns TENCEL, and has it’s own trademarked version of Lyocell and Modal fibres (Lenzing also has other fibre ranges and technology)

TENCEL is generally regarded as quite eco friendly, sustainably and ethical because they both source sustainable/renewable wood (in the growing phase), and they use closed loop processing in the production phase to treat wastewater and re-use chemicals

TENCEL also has a list of certifications that focus on sustainability

TENCEL is currently not produced in anywhere near the quantity cotton is – cotton production dwarfs TENCEL production. Scaling may be an issue for TENCEL

 

– Growing Stage

Generally sourced from sustainable wood sources such as beech wood, eucalyptus etc.

These wood sources are renewable, create a carbon sink, and generally don’t need a heap of irrigated water, or many pesticides and fertilizer

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

Might use a different fibre spinning method than other fibres

Generally uses a closed loop chemical process to treat wastewater, capture chemicals, and re-use them

Lyocell might use a different solvent or chemical process in the production phase to most other rayon/viscose fibres 

TENCEL have their own processing/production processes

 

Something to note about TENCEL though is that you do have to check how it is weaved (and the impact of weaving) – weaving can be done separately to the production of the fibre.

Read more about Lyocell, TENCEL and modal, and how sustainable they might be in this guide.

 

From elkieark.com: [LENZING and TENCEL fibres are some of the more sustainable fibres available on the market]

 

Linen/Flax

– Summary

A natural fibre that is natural and renewable fibre

Generally fairly eco friendly and sustainable – compared to conventional cotton

The growing process is usually quite eco friendly

How eco friendly it ends up being depends on how it is retted and processed

 

– Growing Stage

Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant (natural plants that can create a carbon sink)

Flax generally needs much less water, and fertilizer and pesticide than conventional cotton

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

Mechanical retting is better for the environment and sustainability – but takes longer and isn’t as cost effective

Chemical retting is less environmentally friendly, but faster and cheaper

Some linen undergoes heavy bleaching to make it whiter

Other production chemicals can be used with linen as well – which usually aren’t treated or captured before being dumped

The best quality linens are usually hand and/or machine retted

 

Read more about how sustainable linen/flax might be in this guide.

 

From elkieark.com: ‘Overall, 100% organic flax linen and GOTS certified organic cotton might be some of the most sustainable, but also durable, best looking and best feeling fabrics’

 

Organic Linen/Flax

– Summary

A special type of linen that is quite rare – quite eco friendly and sustainable

More expensive because it takes more effort and time to grow and produce

Similar to organic cotton – uses natural or mechanical processes, instead of intensive processed or highly synthetic chemicals

Need to look for some type of guarantee of what you are getting when you get organic linen (look for a certification, or guarantee from the seller)

 

– Growing Stage

Grown with organic methods, and organic fibre is supplied for yarn

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

Mechanical retting of flax plant

Focus on more organic processing methods

 

Bamboo

– Summary

The bamboo plant is obviously a natural source of cellulose and bamboo is renewable

Growing bamboo is generally very eco friendly and sustainable (although there can be some land degradation and deforestation issues raised, and there’s an argument that more chemicals are being used as well as agricultural land as demand increases)

Generally, production of bamboo rayon tends to use heavy chemicals to dissolve bamboo pulp and extrude the short bamboo fibres.

These chemicals can be exposed to production workers, and may also be dumped into the environment via waste water 

Much of the bamboo grown and produced comes out of China, and it can be hard to track and find out about bamboo production there – so there can be some uncertainty with how eco friendly and sustainable this bamboo actually is

Some companies and factories do use a cleaner bamboo production process – but this is hard to track, or certify

There is work being done to make bamboo production more eco friendly on the whole, and to make bamboo production cleaner

 

– Growing Stage

Bamboo is great to grow – it usually grows very quick, has good yields, needs little pesticide or fertilizer, can be rain fed with water, and doesn’t need to have it’s roots removed from the ground

It also produces a carbon sink

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

This is the less eco friendly and less sustainable part of making bamboo fibres and fabrics

Bamboo production generally involves harmful or toxic chemicals to extract bamboo fibres (which are short) and turn them into a bamboo rayon/viscose

 

Read more about how sustainable bamboo might be in this guide.

 

Organic Bamboo

– Summary

Certification for organic bamboo does not officially exist yet (GOTS doesn’t make bamboo eligible yet for certification) – so be wary of products being claimed as organic bamboo

An informal classification of organic bamboo might include FSC certified and sourced bamboo material, and a process that either uses naturally derived chemicals, or uses some form of a closed loop process to capture chemicals and waste water

 

– Growing Stage

FSC certification makes sure that the growing of bamboo is done responsibly in bamboo forests

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

Production is much cleaner, has less wastage of water, and chemicals aren’t dumped straight into the environment. Some bamboo sellers might say their product uses a type of closed loop system similar to lyocell

 

Hemp

– Summary

Hemp is a natural fibre from the Cannabis sativa plant, and is renewable

It is extremely eco friendly to grow, although it can grow like a weed and dominate other plants in the area

There are currently issues with growing hemp in the US commercially – as of 2019 – those issues are still being worked out and policies finalised

As a fabric, hemp can look a bit ‘hippy’, so it may need to be blended with other fibres like cotton for a different look or qualities

 

– Growing Stage

Hemp is fantastic to grow – it has good yields, uses less land than cotton, replenishes soil, is better with water than cotton, and doesn’t need much pesticide or fertilizer

Retting of the hemp fibre from the plant can be time consuming – hemp retting can make hemp more costly than cotton to produce.

Although hemp decoritators are making that easier, and other technology

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

Hemp production can involve the significant use of water, and synthetic production chemicals

Like bamboo production, hemp production usually isn’t as sustainable as the growing stage

 

Read more about how sustainable Hemp might be in this guide.

 

Jute

– Summary

Jute comes from usually the white jute plant – which is renewable

Jute has limited use in fashion and clothing

It is more for twine, ropes, packaging and industrial purposes

Jute can be used for bags, rugs and other clothing and home items

 

– Growing Stage

Jute is very eco friendly and sustainable to grow – and, it is mostly grown in Indian and Asian countries

 

– Processing/Manufacturing Stage

Jute usually needs little processing when used for industrial purposes

 

Read more about how sustainable Jute might be in this guide.

 

Animal Friendly Fibres

Most of the above fibres are animal friendly (you do have to consider though how many animals might be killed or impacted by pesticides, fertilizers, and production chemicals entering the environment such as aquatic environments).

Wool, leather, fur, angora, silk and down can all have their animal cruelty or ‘animal use for products’ issues. 

More animal friendly alternatives might include peace silk, and other types of silk like Art silk and spider silk.

Also, there’s organic wool, faux leather, and faux fur as a few more examples.

But, even faux leather and faux fur have their drawbacks coming from synthetic feedstocks.

Read more in these guides about animal cruelty issues with fibres and fabrics:

Silk – Is It Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Cruelty Free?

Wool – Is It Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Cruelty Free?

Fur – Is It Ethical & Eco Friendly?

Faux Fur – Is It Eco Friendly, Ethical & Animal Friendly?

Leather – Is It Sustainable, Eco Friendly & Animal Friendly?

Faux Leather – Is It Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly?

 

Factors That Can Impact Sustainability, Eco Friendliness & Ethics Of Fibres & Fabrics

Major parts of how eco friendly or sustainable a fibre or fabric might can depend on:

– How it’s grown or sourced – whether it comes from a natural source, how efficiently it uses inputs and resources (water, land, agricultural chemicals and inputs)

– How it’s processed/produced – the chemicals it uses (naturally derived or not) for dissolving pulp, dying, bleaching, finishing and so on.

And whether closed loop processing is used or not (capturing and treating or re-using waste water and chemicals)

– How yarn is weaved (for example, some companies only provide a patented fibre, and that fibre is weaved by other parties)

– Energy, water and resources used to maintain and upkeep the fabric, and how long it lasts for

– How eco friendly the waste/recycling process is

 

Beyond these listed factors, we’ve also made comment at the further this guide about how economics, and practical benefits that fibres can deliver, are also important to the sustainability of a functioning society.

 

Some Other Notes On The Above Fibres & Fabrics

– Most natural fibres are biodegradable by themselves, but you have to consider whether other materials are mixed with them and whether they’ve been treated with chemicals

– Each fibre and fabric needs to be assessed separately and differently.

Some supply chains are clear, and others aren’t.

Not all growers are the same.

Not all fibre to yarn processes are the same.

Not all yarn to fabric processes are the same.

Not all suppliers, manufacturers and sellers are the same.

– Certifications can help with determining what exactly you are buying e.g. GOTS for organic cotton, or FSC certification for bamboo forests.

– Second to certifications, you can research a specific company to see where they grow their fibres (or source supply from), and how fibres are manufactured into yarns and fabrics (but note that this is not a perfect solution as some companies don’t know exactly that information accurately)

– Fibres can be combined/blended together e.g. 50% cotton/50% hemp – so in that instance you’ll get the pros and cons of each individual fibre

– Technology, processes, methods and other factors may change how eco friendly certain fibres and fabrics become over time

 

Are Recycled Fibres & Fabrics Eco Friendly & Sustainable?

In some ways they might be, but in other ways they might not be.

For example, elkieark.com mentions ‘GOTS Organic Fairtrade, and recycled cotton might be two of the most eco friendly fibres when comparing cotton, bamboo and different rayons for indicators such as water use, chemicals, global warming and natural resources depletion’

But, some of the problems with recycling fibres and fabrics themselves in the conventional way might be:

Recycling still takes energy and resources

It likely isn’t economically viable in some cases – certain materials like rare/valuable metals might be the only materials that are viable to recycle

 

Fabrics made from recycled materials might be different – such as polyester made from recycled plastic bottles. 

Each fabric is different though (and would need to be assessed differently) – it depends on how it’s recycled and produced, and what the impact of that is.

 

A Note On Economic Sustainability

The guide above mainly focuses on non economic sustainability factors.

Because of this, we’ve left out synthetic fibres like polyester, and a common natural fibre in conventional cotton – we’ve included these fibres in our list of the least eco friendly fibres instead.

But, it should be noted that synthetic fibres and filaments currently make up majority of the world’s fibre and filament production, and conventional cotton currently makes up majority of cotton production and use.

There’s obviously employment, income, and economic stimulation/growth that result from this.

On the consumer side, these fibres may present an affordable product where other fibres can’t.

When taking these economic factors into consideration, the overall sustainability of these fibres may increase as they are a critical part of what currently helps society run and function (although some argue that factors like subsidies and not paying an upfront cost for environmental damage subtract from cotton’s real value).

Beyond the economics, there’s also the practical traits that fibres like polyester and cotton give textiles that other fibres might not be able to give them.

 

Cross Checking Fibres & Textiles For Sustainability & Eco Friendliness

Three key things a consumer can do are:

1. Look at the label/tags of a product in person, or the product page (if online), and look for information such as certification symbols that guarantees the product meets third party standards or criteria

2. Look at the website of the product manufacturer to see what information they’ve included about their sourcing, production, partners, overall processes and practices, and other relevant information about sustainability, traceability, and so on

3. For fibre products in particular, look to see if the product is 100% one fibre, or a blend/mix of two or more fibres. If it’s two or more fibres, there will obviously be the footprint of the two different fibre products to consider, and not just one

 

HIGG Sustainability Index

The HIGG Materials Sustainability Index is an index for different materials that is updated by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

It attempts to help attempt to assess the environmental impact of materials used in global manufacturing.

As of 2018, it included 80 base materials.

apparelinsider.com indicates that (paraphrased):

– Calculation account for energy, water, chemistry and additional impacts used in material production

– In 2018, alpaca wool rated the worst of any material, at almost double the score of second placed cow leather

– In 2018, the updated rankings from worst to best were – 1. Alpaca wool, 2. Cow leather, 3. Silk, 4. Conventional cotton production, 5. Wool, 6. Polyurethane synthetic leather, 7. Modal, 8. Nylon, 9. Viscose/rayon, 10. Acrylic, 11. Elastane/spandex, 12. Polyester, 13. Typical footwear rubber (compound), 14. Cork

– It’s worth noting that even though a material might rank as one of the better materials, that material can still have issues, such as polyester with microfiber pollution.

 

Something we noticed though is that some sustainability indicators may be excluded from the HIGG calculations, but we’d need to confirm this by looking at the full list of sustainability factors taken into account by HIGG and SAC to do their assessments and rankings.

ecocult.com mentions something similar to this, indicating that (paraphrased) the HIGG index may define sustainability narrow, may try to compare apples to oranges when comparing different materials, and that the impact areas used by HIGG are greenhouse gases, water efficiency, eutrophication, fossil abiotic depletion and chemistry.

They also indicate (paraphrased) that HIGG only considers how materials are made, and not how they are used, how long they last, how the may pollute at or after the consumer usage stage, and so on.

They also indicate (paraphrased) that HIGG doesn’t take into account things like recyclability, of social impact, such as how many people an industry employs.

They also indicate (paraphrased) that when you go beyond the sustainability criteria used for assessment, data collection can also be challenging. In general, it can be hard to get like-for-like data on the sustainability at different stages of fibre/fabric production.

So, independent or third party ratings and indexes may be looked at as a general guide, and not a perfect or definitive answer to fibre or material sustainability. 

 

Other Tips On Being Sustainable With Fashion & Textile Habits

… cheap, disposable clothing (and our habit of buying and throwing out so much of it) is wreaking havoc on the environment, so choosing high-quality pieces that will hold up over time, shopping vintage where possible and making conscientious choices about your wardrobe is always a step in the right direction.

– fashionista.com

 

Sources

1. https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/estimating-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-fabric/  

2. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides on the sustainability of individual fibres

3. https://dnfi.org/coir/natural-fibres-and-the-world-economy-july-2019_18043/

4. https://apparelinsider.com/higg-materials-sustainability-index-updated/

5. https://ecocult.com/higg-natural-fibers-climate-synthetics-lca/

6. https://fashionista.com/2018/04/real-faux-fur-sutainability-ethics-debate

7. https://www.elkieark.com/blogs/eco-living-sustainable-living/organic-bamboo-bed-linen

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