At a Glance:
From sporty to vintage to chic, fashion trends help define our style in many ways. While fashion is about finding unique ways to express oneself, there is a mindful approach to take. There are plenty of eco-conscious shoppers searching for sustainable fashion materials, but why isn’t it more common throughout the industry? Fast fashion is the culprit. When these organizations produce garments at an accelerated rate, manufacturers depend on cheap, synthetic materials to meet demand. The problem is that the textile waste left behind from fabrics like polyester, nylon, or acrylic makes up more than seven percent of municipal waste in landfills.
Fashion trends are constantly evolving, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take a glance at those clothing labels. The first step to combating the issue of fast fashion is to be aware of what you’re sourcing and discern which fashion materials are sustainable and which ones are not. Luckily, we are here to help you get started! Follow along as we discuss the top 8 sustainable fashion materials for clothing brands.
What are Sustainable Fashion Materials?
Before we delve into our list, let’s first explore what sustainable fashion materials are. If you search for a definition online, you’ll surely find several articles posing the same question, but you won’t always find a consistent answer. In large part, this is because the fashion world is experiencing a unique change where the industry is still defining these terms and discovering how sustainable materials are part of the future of fashion. There are thousands of books written on the notable fashion trends of yesteryear, so it is only natural that consumers are now longing for the same knowledge and historical commentary behind sustainable fashion.
While the story of sustainable fashion is still being written, we know that sustainable fabrics are typically made from natural or recycled fibers, aiming to reduce the environmental impacts associated with fashion production. These eco-friendly materials contribute to water conservation, lower carbon emissions, soil regeneration, and reduced textile waste.
While there isn’t one all-encompassing sustainable fashion material that can do it all, you’ll realize that sustainable fabric is an umbrella term used to group various natural and recycled fibers. Much like fashion trends, sustainability trends are constantly in motion; therefore, through intentional production methods and environmental awareness, sustainable fabrics will contribute to a more impactful fashion industry.
Related Article: 4 Ways Your Fashion Brand Can Become More Sustainable
Why Choose Environmentally-Friendly Fashion?
Environmentally-friendly fashion is a fluid concept that includes ethical manufacturing, safe working conditions, transparent supply chains, and the sustainable materials that make up our daily wardrobe (we’ll get to those shortly). Sustainable fashion trends begin and end with sourcing the proper fabrics. From raw materials to material processing to final disposal, the fabric used to make new garments will determine its level of environmental degradation.
Traditional fashion production is one of the largest contributors of microplastic pollution in the world; however, sustainable fashion materials are changing the narrative. They aren’t as hard to find as you might think, and many brands already have sustainability initiatives in place. Environmentally-friendly fashion trends won’t solve everything, but caring about material sourcing goes a long way toward caring for the planet.
Related Article: Measuring Sustainability in the Retail Industry
The Top 8 Sustainable Fashion Materials
As you and your team plan the next season, consider some of the most sustainable fashion materials reshaping the industry and choose the best option for your brand.
1. Recycled and Organic Cotton
Cotton is one of the most used fabrics because it is lightweight and breathable, the perfect combo for fashion staples. However, producing and dying conventional cotton can be a chemical-intensive process. It often requires a lot of pesticides that can damage the soil and affect the farmers who grow it.
Both organic and recycled cotton are sustainable alternatives that have become much more common in recent years. Organic cotton does not require synthetic substances and all farming techniques are natural. Recycled cotton is made from post-consumer or post-industrial cotton waste, helping to keep clothing fabric out of landfills and remove harmful chemicals. Collectively, both cotton varieties aim to minimize the environmental impact of routine cotton production while reducing water and energy consumption.
2. Organic Hemp
Hemp is one of the oldest fibers around, and it is incredibly versatile in food, cosmetics, building materials, and fabrics. Hemp requires minimal water and no pesticides, which is why it is popularly grown and cultivated all over the world. Hemp also fertilizes naturally in the soil it grows in, making it much more sustainable than other crops.
When it comes to hemp-made fabrics, they keep you cool during the sweltering summer months and warm during the frigid winter season. And unlike polyester or other synthetic fibers, hemp gets softer with every wash.
3. Organic Linen
Similar to hemp, linen is another natural fiber that has been around for generations. Linen derives from the flax plant, which can be grown without fertilizer and requires very little water. Linen can grow in poor-quality soil, and the entire plant is used (seeds, oil, crop), so nothing goes to waste. Linen is typically made for bedding materials because it is strong, moth-resistant, biodegradable, and made without any dyes. Additionally, organic linen repels moisture and withstands high temperatures to combat sweat, bacteria, or airborne pathogens.
4. Recycled Polyester
We previously mentioned polyester as a harmful fabric, but recycled polyester is made from plastic bottles that are compacted and broken down into small fibers. This fabric helps divert plastic from our landfills and can continually be recycled. Recycled polyester production requires far fewer resources than new clothing fibers and generates far less CO2 emissions. Recycled polyester is a great alternative for underwear and athleticwear that can’t be made entirely from natural fibers. Plastic bottles are easy to throw away, but even better to throw on — just ask Girlfriend Collective.
For those looking for something a little more futuristic, Tencel is a lightweight fabric derived from cellulose fibers that come from dissolving wood pulp. Tencel is a branded version of lyocell produced by the Austrian company Lenzing, said to be nearly 50 times more absorbent than cotton. Lenzing uses eucalyptus wood, sustainable practices, and responsible sourcing to create its fabrics with far less water and energy than traditional fashion production. Plus, the chemicals used to make the fiber go through what’s called a closed-loop system, meaning the solvents are recycled to reduce harmful waste.
The debate continues on whether fashion brands should continue producing animal leather or switch to vegan leather. Thankfully, Piñatex is a stylish and sustainable alternative to animal byproducts and waste-producing textiles. It was first developed in 2017 using fibers from pineapple leaves. Because it is made from whole foods, it is a natural, cruelty-free replacement for leather that reduces waste and helps revitalize the communities that grow pineapple.
Another up-and-coming recycled fabric is Econyl. Introduced by Aquafil as an alternative to nylon, this sustainable fashion material uses industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets from the ocean and regenerates them into a new form of nylon yarn that matches the exact quality of regular nylon. This regeneration process also forms a closed-loop system, using less water and creating far less waste than traditional nylon production. The waste collected is first cleaned and shredded to extract the nylon, then it is polymerized, transformed into yarn, and re-commercialized into textiles.
Did you know spider silk could be used to create sustainable fashion materials? Spiders are more than scary eight-legged arachnids; they are a key contributor to the world of sustainable fashion trends. Qmonos is a biodegradable material made from silk genes and microbes without actually using any spiders. Proteins like spider silk are part of the next-generation of sustainable fashion materials pushing the industry forward. Qmonos is said to be stronger than steel while retaining a lightweight, flexible feel. And once again, spiders are not farmed during the manufacturing process, making Qmonos an ethical alternative to ordinary silk.
Bonus Sustainable Fabrics
If you still haven’t scratched your sustainability itch, there are plenty more fashion materials to choose from that are always sustainably sourced, including:
- Organic bamboo
- SCOBY leather
- Apple leather
- Reclaimed deadstock
Sustainability Meets PLM
Whether you’re a fashion startup or a seasoned fashion powerhouse, brands of all sizes benefit from an ethical, sustainable practice. Backbone’s cloud-based product development software makes it easy for fashion teams to track and optimize sustainability efforts to meet the consumer demand for efficiency. Our modern PLM solution provides a single source of truth for visibility into compliance requirements, approved material lists, and sample development to establish real-time sustainable performance.
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