Here Are 5 Tips to Demystifying Sustainable Fabrics

In my previous Maker’s Row post, 4 Ways To Make Your Brand More Sustainable, I mentioned that using sustainable fabrics can really help with reducing your brand’s negative impact on the environment. But, these days, words like ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are being used as promotional ‘buzz words’ with little meaning and it can be hard for well-meaning brands to know which fabrics to choose for the best. Here’s 5 tips to consider when sourcing sustainable fabrics;

1.    Many fabric dying processes release harmful chemicals into rivers, which are then consumed by local people. To reduce your brand’s impact on the environment, consider fabrics that are organic and use safe dyes, as these won’t release harmful chemicals into the environment. There’s a number of certifications companies can get which are regulated by independent agencies such as GOTS (the Global Organic Textile Standard) and Oeko-Tex®. Getting reliable information from suppliers of the origin of their products can be difficult and expensive. By choosing products that are independently certified, you can save yourself time and money, as you don’t have to do the research yourself. For new brands who only want to make a small number of items, thankfully there are companies who are GOTS certified and accept very low minimum orders.

2.    There’s a lot of development in progress for new fibers which are made from responsibly sourced materials that will biodegrade. For example, you’ll also see fabrics which are labelled as ‘low water’, which means that the fiber is from a crop which doesn’t need much water to grow and/or when the fabric is dyed, the water used is recycled. Again, a lot of companies are willing to work with small labels, so you don’t have to miss out on the new innovations. There’s also exciting new fabrics on the market made from things like orange peel, sea kelp, mushrooms and pineapple – keep an eye out in fashion news, there’s new developments being released all the time. Not only will this help with sustainability, but it’s also sure to get the attention of your customers and the press!

  1. While animal fibers can be sustainable (in that, new animals are being born daily), animal fibers are often a grey area in terms of ethics and sustainability. For instance, leather can be a bi-product of meat production, but you might be aware that beef production in places like Brazil has caused massive deforestation and rainforest has been lost that can never be replaced. In many cases animal fibers have a negative impact on the environment. There’s also considerations about the welfare of the animals – many factories view animals as a commodity and treat them as such, keeping them in awful and painful conditions to produce things like angora, wool, down and fur.
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By working closely with your suppliers and asking questions about their production, their animals and the conditions, you can make better choices and support fabric mills who only use ethical practices. There’s also a huge variety of ethical/sustainable options, such as vegan (faux) leather, down alternatives made from recycled plastic bottles and fibers for knitting made from kelp. There’s also companies who regulate production and give suppliers certification, such as the RDS (Responsible Down Standard), who monitor the ethical production of down from geese and ducks.

  1. Bio based fibers are often considered one of the most sustainable options, as of course these can continue to grow indefinitely, if properly managed. I emphasize the ‘if properly managed’ part, as this is the key to sustainability – if trees are being cut down to make fabrics and aren’t being replanted, this of course isn’t eco-friendly. In fact, it’s estimated over 120million trees are cut down every year for fabrics, including some in irreplaceable rainforests. Bio-based fiber options include bamboo, modal, lyocell and Tencel (a brand name for lyocell), but don’t take these at face value. To be sustainable, these need to come from a well-managed source and processed in a responsible way. You can ask your suppliers for details on the raw materials, as well as how the fabric is produced.

Although Cotton and Viscose are from natural sources, they can be very damaging for the environment. Cotton is often considered the world’s dirtiest crop, due to the huge amount of water and chemicals used by many growers. If you want to use cotton, it’s worth looking for a low water, organic option. Viscose is made from wood pulp and usually uses a lot of chemicals in the manufacture process, many of which are toxic, so do be aware of this when sourcing viscose.

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5.    If you’re not able to use bio-based fabrics, do consider recycled options. The ability to create fabrics from recycled materials isn’t new, but it has become increasingly available over the last few years and fabrics are even available in small quantities now. There’s a huge range of qualities available too, such as satin, jersey, chiffon, suede and swimwear fabrics, which are made from materials like old fishing line and plastic bottles.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about what these types of fabrics feel like, many people seem to think the fabric will be ‘crunchy’, or feel like it’s coated with something. This is not the case. Recycled fabrics can be amazing quality, many of my clients are using them and not only do they provide their customers with a great product, but they can also speak about its sustainable properties. The same is true of some of the other fabrics mentioned, such as those made from pineapple or orange peel.

I hope this post has given you some insight into how you can select sustainable fabrics and make an informed choice. There’s a lot of mis-information out there from suppliers, but if you keep asking questions about the raw materials and process, you can make better selections for your brand, customers and the environment.