September 03 2020 – Gergana Damyanova
If you are a fashion junkie, or maybe even just remotely interested in fashion, you probably have heard plenty about the sustainability issues in the industry. Fashion is in competition for the lead of the most polluting, most water-consuming and most waste-generating industry. Crazy, isn't it?
The sustainability issues in fashion start right from the beginning - from the process of creating the fabrics of our clothes. More and more information is emerging about how bad cotton and polyester are – the two most common fabrics. But what are the alternatives?
We use a range of natural materials, plant-based textiles and up-cycled materials. We are all about transparency at blonde gone rogue, so we've put together information about our fabrics to share with you!
In this article, we explore what are the sustainable alternatives to the unsustainable mainstream fabrics. We have evaluated over 30 fabrics to give you the best recommendation about what materials to look for and what materials to avoid when shopping for sustainable fashion. Which one is best to choose? We've made this easy for you with some cool innovative fabrics you gotta keep an eye out for. Of course, we will be talking about up-cycling materials, too! Let's dive in.
What are sustainable fabrics?
When evaluating the fabrics, we used a combination of the below criteria.
Plant-sourced & vegan
All fabrics on our recommended list are crop-based. No synthetic, no animal-sourced fabrics.
Some fibre crops require a lot of artificial irrigation to grow. This has two negative effects. Obviously, the first one is that a vast amount of water is being consumed to grow these crops. The second is that building artificial irrigation systems damages the environment and disturbs wildlife habitats. Rain-fed fibre plants are a great alternative to look for.
Chemicals used in growing the plant
Growing crops often requires the usage of artificial fertilisers and chemicals to help the plant grow faster and protect it from pests and weeds. The less vulnerable the plant is to attacks from other organisms, the less harmful chemicals are needed. This makes the crop better for the environment as well as for the workers in the field who can often suffer from acute poisoning if they are not wearing the appropriate protective gear.
Chemicals used during processing
Some plants require chemical treatment for the fibres to be separated from the rest of the plant. For others this separation can be achieved through natural processes or mechanical processing. As these chemicals often end up in waterways polluting drinking water and killing river- and sea-life, we are rooting for fibres than don't require chemicals in their processing.
All fabrics are biodegradable, eventually. The question is how long it takes and what substances are released in the environment when they biodegrade. In our evaluation we have given extra points to fabrics that biodegrade quickly. For example, linen takes only 2 weeks to biodegrade in its pure form; cotton takes 1-5 months. Polyester, on the other side, can take up to 200 years!
When thinking about sustainable fabrics, it’s really important to evaluate how quickly the source used for the fabric can regenerate. This impacts how much land is used to grow the crop. It’s vital to use as little land as possible as then the land can be used for raising food crops, hence limiting deforestation (in many parts of the world, forests are eradicated to open up farming land).
Plant- Based Textiles
At blonde gone rogue, we are big fans of plant-based fabrics. Super cool and innovative alternatives to mainstream fabrics that work just as well, if not better.
What are plant- based fabrics?
As the name gives it away, plant-based fabrics are made from materials derived from plants. All plant-based clothing is vegan and generally considered environmentally friendly.
#1 GOTS- Certified Organic Cotton
How is organic cotton produced?
Organic cotton is grown without using pesticides or other chemicals, a major difference from conventional cotton. But, amazingly, organic cotton clothing has the same properties as conventional cotton. By not using any pesticides or herbicides in organic cotton farming, it helps promote biodiversity as wildlife doesn’t get poisoned.
What are the benefits of organic cotton?
Organic cotton farming has many advantages with the biggest one being that it doesn’t pollute the soil. This makes crop rotation possible, so the soil keeps its fertility which is key for abundant harvests. It also cuts down on water and air contamination.
Another amazing thing about organic cotton is that it keeps the workers happy! Chemicals pose a huge health risk to farmworkers, especially in developing countries where there is a lack of adequate protective equipment. But remember, organic cotton is not about that life.
We highly recommend buying organic cotton clothing rather than conventional cotton. It has a huge potential to save water and fight climate change.
What is linen ?
Linen can be made from two plants – either from the flax plant or from bamboo. Both types of linen come from the skin of the plant. They grow quickly, are highly renewable and can be harvested at least once a year.
How is linen produced ?
Both types of trees are rain-fed and while the flax plant requires a certain amount of chemicals to be grown, bamboo requires little to no additional resources. The process starts with the plants being either pulled or cut by hand from the ground. The seeds are then removed and the plant stock is separated from the fibres through a process called retting. The longest pieces are collected, spun into yarn and then woven into linen fabric.
What are the benefits of linen?
Fun fact, flax linen can naturally come in different colours such as tan, beige and grey. Both types of linen are sustainable as they need very little resources and chemicals to produce. Also, bamboo is highly regenerative making growing sustainable forests very efficient. As you might have guessed by now, linen is 100% biodegradable, too!
On top of this, it is quite the unique fabric. It provides extremely good insulation both in summer and in winter. It is claimed that a person wearing linen in summer would feel 2-3 degrees cooler than someone wearing cotton. At the same time, during winter linen retains temperature.
Linen is a very popular, wide-spread fabric and we recommend it, especially in summer. It is much better to get a linen dress rather than cotton – both for you and for the environment.
What is Modal and how is it made?
Modal is another plant-based textile that comes from trees, but this time from beech trees only. The process of creating this fabric is much more sustainable than other natural and plant-based textiles such as cotton or viscose as it uses less toxic chemicals.
Beech trees only need rainwater to grow, so no need for artificial irrigation here.
Modal is an elite fabric, revolutionising the fashion industry with its amazing qualities. Stretchy, durable, absorbent, wrinkle-resistant, soft, literally everything. It can be used for both clothing and houseware.
What is Cupro and how is it made?
Cupro is slightly different from the above as it comes from up-cycled cotton linter, found on the plant’s seed. These are tiny, little fibres left on the seed after the staple cotton is removed. Linter fibres tend to be too small for the creation of garments and are often thrown away in production. However, these fibres can be dissolved in a viscous solution and turn into new, usable fibres called cupro.
We highly recommend buying cupro clothing! Also known as vegan silk, the result of this is a very elegant fabric.
Some cool fabrics we have not yet used, but are catching our attention
What is Piñatex™?
Piñatex™ is a rising star in the fabric innovation field. Derived directly from pineapple leaves that are a by-product of pineapple production, Piñatex™ is a sustainable, vegan alternative to leather. It is breathable and soft, light and flexible, mouldable and easy to dye. It can be printed on and laser cut. All this makes it perfect for all kinds of 'leather' goods - from cardholders to shoes!
Not only is Piñatex™ a by-product from growing pineapples but its own by-product is a biomass that can be further converted in organic fertilisers or biogas. This can bring additional income to the pineapple farming communities.
As Piñatex™ is a by-product of the pineapple harvest, it requires no additional land, water, fertilisers or pesticides. So it's highly recommended! It is as well becoming more and more popular and common, making it easier to find nice Piñatex™ accessories, shoes and handbags!
What is Jute?
Although not particularly well-known, jute is an extremely popular fibre plant. It is very inexpensive to produce and is second only to cotton for the amount produced and variety of uses. It does very well on the sustainability front, too.
Studies have shown that the CO2 assimilation of jute is several times higher than that of trees. Not only it helps us clean the air but jute is very easy to grow – it is rain-fed and for the most part, traditionally farmed – in a similar way like organic produce.
We highly recommend jute due to its sustainable qualities.
What is hemp?
Hemp is a tall, sturdy plant grown for many different of purposes - from skin care oils all the way to textiles. What is great about it is that it is a rapidly renewable – in just 3 months it can grow up to 4 meters high with minimal maintenance. It adapts quickly to new environments and once established it is naturally resistant to pests and diseases, hence requiring no chemicals.
It is as well good for the soil - its leaves and the outer stalks are left in the field after harvest releasing nitrogen that absorbs into the soil allowing for food crops to be grown immediately, without leaving the land idle for any time.
Once the hemp fibre is extracted from the plant, processing it into yarn is largely mechanical with minimal environmental impact.
Hemp is one of the most durable natural fibres and is extremely suitable for jeans, jackets, workwear and sportswear. Really - look for jeans and jackets made out of hemp, they'll last longer and are so much more sustainable than cotton alternatives!
Now back to our beloved fabrics
#8 TENCEL™ Lyocell
What is Tencel and how is it made?
The TENCEL™ Lyocell fibre is made from cellulose originating primarily from eucalyptus wood. The wood chips get reduced chemically or manually to wood pulp. Tencel is made by dissolving the wood pulp in a chemical solvent. This then goes through a machine, resulting in man-made finished fibres. The production process is a closed-loop process in which 99.8% of the chemicals used for processing the fibre are recovered, filtered and reused, wow!
Although chemicals are used in this process, the fact that they are not released in the environment but rather filtered and reused makes us recommend TENCEL™ Lyocell. This feature makes it a desirable sustainable alternative to cotton, viscose and other synthetics. Tencel fabrics are very popular for their softness and amazing drape. Tencel fibres are also biodegradable and compostable. However, make sure it has the right certifications when buying such clothes - regular lyocell could be quite damaging as chemicals might get released in the environment!
What is Viscose?
Viscose is a fabric made from trees such as bamboo, eucalyptus, beech and pine. It's used as a substitute for silk because of its luxurious feel, but it is more sustainable and, of course, vegan!
What are the benefits of Viscose?
This is a lightweight fabric with a nice drape and incredible softness. Viscose doesn’t trap heat, but absorbs water and sweat, making this an amazing fabric for t-shirts and dresses. Another cool feature is that viscose fabric can maintain the same shape. As the fabric is not very elastic, it can be washed and worn many times, and the garment will maintain the same shape.
We highly recommend Viscose due to its properties and sustainable qualities.
#10 Up-cycled Cotton
What are up-cycle/ deadstock fabrics and their benefits?
Deadstock fabrics are materials left at factories from large-scale productions. They are usually not off-cuts, but rather incomplete rolls of fabric. Every company leaves a certain percentage of slack in the amount of materials it sends to the factory. When this slack is not used, the leftover materials are either stored in a warehouse to collect dust or thrown away. If that’s the case, all the resources – the land, the water, the labour, the chemicals that have been used to make this brand-new fabric are going straight to the landfill – to decompose for years to come. That’s why these fabrics are called deadstock.
Overall up-cycling minimises the volume of leftover materials and waste being sent to landfills as a result of the production process. It also reduces the demand for producing with new or raw materials. This results in less air, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emission.
How much deadstock is out there?
Queen of Raw, a leading marketplace in reselling deadstock, estimates that over £100 billion of excess raw materials become deadstock every year. This is crazy! So, so much material. There is enough deadstock materials for many brands to make massive collections.
At blonde gone rogue, we purchase these materials from factories and make new clothes from what is practically waste. The process is not straightforward as it requires a lot of scouting and having a network of factories that are willing to supply these fabrics – we are lucky to have such a network nearby our factories in Bulgaria.
Why use up-cycled cotton ?
Cotton is by far the most popular fabric worldwide. The process? Similar to linen, the cotton plant’s natural fibres get spun into yarn, then woven to create cotton fabric. We prevent this beautiful and super soft fabric from ending up in a landfill and give it a new purpose. As this approach doesn’t require the creation of any new textiles, it cuts down the water consumption, land usage and C02 emissions for producing new textiles to practically 0.
We highly encourage you to shop from brands that up-cycle materials. These brands are giving a second life to materials that are about to be thrown away and it is worth it to support such a sustainable approach!
#11 Recycled Fabrics
What are recycled fabrics?
Recycled fabrics are the second most sustainable option when it comes to making new clothes. Their only disadvantage to up-cycled fabrics is that transforming old fabrics into new ones requires machinery, energy and a little bit of other resources.
How are fabrics recycled?
During the recycling process, the fabric of the garment is broken down to its original fibres. After that, these fibres are put back together to form a new roll of fabric that can be used for new clothes. This process is largely mechanical, hence using little resources.
The important thing to know about recycling clothes is that only clothes that are 100% uniform in their composition can be recycled. If a piece of clothing is made from a blend, e.g. 50% cotton, 50% polyester, it cannot be recycled.
Every sustainability enthusiast knows that recycling is great and so are brands that create new products from recycled materials. Highly recommended!
And finally, it's time to let go of the past
#12 Up-cycled Synthetic Fabrics
It’s been an interesting journey, but we know better now. As you are familiar, here at blonde gone rogue we are all about transparency! Below you can find some up-cycled synthetic materials we used for our past collections, but are stepping away from.
What are some benefits of using up-cycling synthetic fabrics?
Let’s start on a positive note, why is it good to up-cycle these fabrics? The main reason is that we cut down on unused plastic getting dumped into landfills. We give materials a new purpose by creating beautiful, new garments. So, as a bonus, this avoids tons of fabrics getting dumped into landfills. As well, by reusing these fabrics, we are avoiding the demand to create new synthetic fibres.
How are synthetic fabrics produced and why we decided to say goodbye?
There are many ways to create synthetic fibres. One of the most common ways is through the burning of fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, coal). High amounts of heat and pressure are applied to form sheets of fabric. These can be melted and reformed to get the desired final product. Petroleum products are not biodegradable and they are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans. Up to 1,900 fibres can be washed off one garment during one single washing cycle! Next to this, when fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere amplifying the climate crisis. We have such beautiful natural fabrics - why burn fossil fuels for synthetic ones? Kind of an obvious one, why we said bye honey to synthetic fabrics, right?
Another way of creating synthetic fabrics is by the extraction of crude oil, mixed with an acid called diamine. This results in a plastic solution, which is spun through tools called spinnerets. These are used to create the desired thread, whether it’s thick or thin. This production process releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. The extraction of crude oil is a very energy-hungry process that contributes to global warming and harms the planet further. Without further ado, we have decided to let go of synthetic fabrics completely. We can’t lie, yes, synthetic fabrics are easy to wash, dry and take care of, but a bit more effort for good quality fabric is worth it in the long run!
The offenders: the popular but not sustainable fabrics
There are a few really popular fabrics that we haven't mentioned yet in this article. And there's a reason for it. Let's start with cotton. Yes, cotton is nice, soft and natural. But as well, it uses a large amount of land, tons of water, pesticides, herbicides and it's very often genetically modified. Not sustainable at all. If you're a fan of cotton, it's best to look for up-cycled, recycled or organic cotton.
Next comes polyester. Polyester is the most common fibre today, accounting for 60% of global textile demand. As mentioned above, this is a synthetic material so super harmful! Polyester is as well one of the fabrics that take the longest to decompose in a landfill - around 200 years! That's a lot compared to linen that takes just 2 weeks, don't you think? One cannot reduce their impact without eliminating polyester from their shopping habits. At best, look to up-cycled or recycled polyester and dispose of it responsibly.
To be honest, the journey of sustainable materials is not the easiest. But, it for sure is exciting! We see more and more innovative materials coming through that we cannot wait to use and share with you. If you are ever in doubt how sustainable the fabric of the garment you're about to purchase is, just google it. There are a lot of resources out there. Orrrrr email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, we'd love to help you out. We get a bit crazy with sustainability and would love to share this mood with you ;)
Discover our sustainable fashion collection here.