Choosing the most sustainable fabric

Clare Carlile and Alex Crumbie consider the key issues for sustainable fabrics including cotton and synthetic fabrics.

Choosing the most sustainable fabric depends on a complex range of factors: from carbon footprint and toxic chemical use to workers’ and animal rights.

In this article we explore what to look for and what to avoid in terms of 11 different fabrics, and take a detailed look at the major issues associated with cotton and synthetics. We also offer some solutions that consumers can support.

Choosing fabrics

Although there are many complex issues involved with choosing the most sustainable, ethical and environmental fabric, we've tried to balance these to suggest some broad categories.

Here are our recommendations on which fabrics to look for and which to avoid:

Best of the bunch Next best Best to avoid
Organic hemp Linen Acrylic
Organic linen Hemp Leather
Recycled cotton Organic cotton Polyester
Recycled wool Recycled cotton Nylon
  Fairtrade cotton Silk
  Organic bamboo Elastane
  Bamboo linen Conventional bamboo
  In-conversion cotton Conventional viscose,
rayon or modal
  Lyocell or Tencel™ Conventional cotton
  Lyocell bamboo or
Monocel®
Wool
  Recycled polyester  
  Recycled nylon  
  Recycled elastane  
  Organic wool  

The main fabrics are explored in more detail below.

Ethical issues and what to look for with different fabrics

When bamboo fibres are used to make viscose, rayon or modal, there may be toxic chemical problems, depending on manufacturing process.

Look for Organic bamboo or bamboo linen, where the fibres will have been mechanically rather than chemically extracted. The next best option is ‘lyocell’ bamboo, which minimises chemical use. This may be labelled as Monocel®.

Associated with mass pesticide use, widespread forced labour and genetic modification.

Look for Organic, Fairtrade or recycled cotton to avoid these issues. ‘In conversion cotton’ supports farmers in the process of converting to organic production. For recycled cotton, check
what the recycled content is and what it is mixed with, as recycled fibres will usually have been
combined with virgin material.

Made from cotton, and associated with all the issues listed above under Cotton. While many companies have
stopped using sandblasting, manufacturers often use potassium permanganate linked to many
workers’ health problems.

Look for Organic and Fairtrade cotton, which both ban the use of potassium permanganate. Look for these certifications or recycled to avoid issues with the cotton industry. Also look for companies with a policy on denim treatment.

Made from feather, often associated with live-plucking and force-feeding of geese and ducks.

Recycled down is best. Some companies use traceable down standards to ensure these cruel practices are not being used, but you may still want to avoid this animal product for animal rights reasons.

Needs little water and little or no pesticides. Requires comparatively little land to cultivate (2 to 3 times more productive than cotton).

Organic hemp is best.

Associated with animal rights issues, high CO2e emissions and release of toxic chemicals.

We do not recommend buying leather products.

 

Made from flax and has the lowest CO2e per kg of any fabrics we looked at.  Biodegradable.

Organic linen is best.

Synthetic fibres made from petrochemicals. Dyes likely to cause environmental harm. Nonbiodegradable and may release microfibres.

Look for recycled synthetic fibres to reduce petrochemical issue – although these are still likely associated with toxic dyes and may release microfibres. Check what the recycled content is, as recycled fibres will usually have been mixed with virgin material.

Silk worms usually killed during harvesting of silk.

Some companies have an animal rights policy prohibiting the killing of silk worms (see our
guides) – but you may still want to avoid this animal product for animal rights reasons.

Fabrics made from wood pulp. Have been associated with unsustainable forestry/deforestation. The processing is often associated with toxic chemical release, linked to health issues for communities and workers.

Look for manufacturing using closed-loop (lyocell) chemical processes. Tencel, lyocell and
Lenzing Modal are all used to indicate fabrics (or brand names) using these better processes.

Has the highest CO2e per kg of any fabrics we looked at. Comes with clear animal rights issues.

Look for recycled wool.

Spotlight on cotton

GM cotton

Nearly three quarters of the world’s cotton is grown using GM seeds. GM cotton leads to reduced biodiversity; in some cases it has forced farmers to resort to chemical insecticides to control resistant pests; and has led many farmers to become reliant on ruthless and monopolistic companies such as Monsanto that supply the seeds.

We therefore look for company statements prohibiting GM cotton, or committing to only use organic or Fairtrade (which prohibit GM seeds).

Cotton growing in field

Organic cotton

Cotton production uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides. Organic cotton is grown without the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and is guaranteed to be GM-free. Organic cotton is generally estimated to have about half the emissions of conventionally grown cotton, although it uses more land. Organic cotton also has to meet criteria for other chemicals used in its processing, such as dyes, in addition to social criteria, e.g. pay and working conditions. Seeking certified organic cotton therefore offers some assurance that it has not come from a supply chain directly linked to forced labour.

When buying clothes, look out for the Soil Association and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label.

Better Cotton?

Many brands claim to source ‘sustainably’ via the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). BCI excludes Uzbek and Turkmen cotton.

However, in May 2021, civil society organisations condemned the BCI for deleting all public statements and references to its decision to exit the Uyghur Region, taken one year earlier. The BCI’s U-turn appears to follow a backlash in China. “BCI is allowing itself to be used by the Chinese government to claim that business can go on as usual and to deny the ongoing crimes against humanity, including widespread and systematic forced labour, in the Uyghur Region,” the EUFL Coalition said.

A 2018 Report by Changing Markets Foundation, called ‘The false promise of certification’, also criticised BCI as one of the least ambitious certification schemes, particularly with regards to the environment – allowing pesticides and use of GM.

Like many mainstream certification schemes, it is better than nothing, but still has a long way to go.

Person working in cotton fields in Uzbekistan
Over a million people are estimated to be forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by their own governments every year. Image from Anti Slavery International.

Forced labour and cotton

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two of the world’s largest exporters of cotton. Every year their governments forcibly mobilise citizens to grow and harvest cotton. While the ILO reports that significant improvements were made in Uzbekistan with the last harvest, it still estimates that 70,000 people were working in forced labour conditions.

In January 2020, the ILO reported that Uzbekistan had taken significant steps towards eradicating the systematic and systemic use of forced labour, and that the use of child labour had been ended.

However, the Responsible Sourcing Network told us: “Although the ILO reported improvement with the last harvest, it still estimates about 70,000 people working in forced labor conditions. There is no farmlevel independent monitoring program in place in Uzbekistan, so there is no way to have assurances if a field is free of forced labor. In addition, due to the pandemic last year, there was more availability of voluntary labor, so we don't know if the improvements in 2020 were a result of systemic change or distorted because of the pandemic.”

In the 2020 Turkmenistan cotton harvest, forced labour was again widespread. The Responsible Sourcing Network is therefore still asking companies to pledge that they will not source cotton from these countries. At the time of writing, the Uzbekistan cotton pledge had 328 signatories and the Turkmenistan pledge had 135 signatories.

We expect companies to have made a clear commitment to not sourcing from these countries. Any companies without this lost half a mark under Workers’ Rights.

Cotton from the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region

The human rights violations of the Chinese government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are well-documented. According to The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, “abuses include arbitrary mass detention of an estimated range of 1 million to 1.8 million people and a program to ‘cleanse’ ethnic minorities of their ‘extremist’ thoughts through re-education and forced labour.”

The Chinese state is using forced labour as part of this system of control. Over half a million Uyghur workers have been forced to act as cotton pickers, after being released from ‘re-education camps’.

The Uyghur Region produces around 20% of the world’s cotton, and studies suggest that around 1 in 5 garments around the world are linked to this forced labour. “Almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated,” the End Uyghur Forced Labour (EUFL) Coalition says.

The Coalition is calling for brands to exit the Uyghur Region. “The only way corporations can ensure they are not unwittingly bolstering the government’s repression is to fully extricate their supply chains.”

Among the brands in this guide, the following were listed by the Coalition for having committed to its Call to Action, and made their commitments public:

  • ASOS
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Reformation

Spotlight on synthetics - plastic clothing and fossil fuel fashion

There has been widespread attention drawn to the workers’ rights abuses in the garment sector, and rightly so, but one issue that is less well-known is the industry’s increased use of synthetic fibres and dependence on fossil fuels.

Two reports examining these issues in depth were released in 2021: ‘Fossil Fashion’ published by Changing Markets, and ‘Fast Fashion’s Plastic Problem’ published by the RSA.

The synthetic materials used by clothing brands, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic and elastane, are made from heavily processed petrochemicals (fossil fuels).

Polyester is the most widely used of these synthetic fibres and is now found in over half of all textiles produced. It is generally produced from polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET, a type of plastic derived from crude oil and natural gas – also used to make items such as plastic bottles.

Clothing label 100% polyester

Synthetic materials are cheap to produce – polyester, for example, costs half as much per kilo as cotton. They have therefore been essential in facilitating the now pervasive culture of fast fashion in which cheap, low quality garments are worn only a few times before being discarded, only to be replaced by more of the same.

The ubiquitousness of plastic in clothing means that the textile sector accounts for 15% of total plastic use; the only sectors that use more are construction and packaging. Many brands are making a song and dance about using recycled plastics for their clothes, but the RSA’s research found that the actual level of recycled content was pitifully low. Across four major online fast-fashion brands, the use of recycled fabrics was a mere 4%.

Recycling plastics where possible has some benefits, but it does nothing to address the problem of microfibres – the miniscule bits of fabric that are released when clothes are worn, washed, or disposed of, that find their way into our bodies and the natural world. These fibres have been found almost everywhere: from the summit of Mount Everest to the placentas of unborn babies. We still do not know the effects of these fibres.

What needs to be done about synthetics?

As consumers there are several things we can do, starting with avoiding clothing that uses synthetic fibres and instead opt for natural fibres.

In an article by Friends of the Earth about microfibres and washing clothing they gave the following advice:

  • Embrace slow fashion
  • Fill your washing machine up full, wash at a low temperature, reduce spin speeds
  • Use a Guppy Bag
  • Air dry rather than tumble dry.

While we may want to reduce our own personal impact, the problem of synthetic clothing and microfibres are unlikely to be solved by individuals alone, and we need governments to introduce legislation that forces brands to change.

This year, the European Commission is due to publish a comprehensive strategy for EU textiles, which the Changing Markets report highlights as a crucial step.

Friends of the Earth also recommend that you:

Consumer action for sustainable and ethical clothing

There are various things we can do to choose ethical options for our clothing. These include: