Let’s be honest, sustainability is something that we all need to embrace, and yet sustainable choices can be confusing. With so many issues to consider, it can be really difficult to make an informed decision when purchasing fabric for sewing projects.
So, to try and make things slightly easier, we have researched for you which fabrics we should all try to use less, and the newer more sustainable fabrics that we should be aiming to use instead. We readily acknowledge that many fabrics have their faults, but the good news is that some fare better than others and we hope this guide to choosing sustainable fabric will point you in the right direction.
Before we even begin, let us clear up what we mean by ‘sustainability’ in fabrics. Sustainability is measured by;
What is Sustainability in Fabrics?
- Raw material extraction - how the raw material is grown and harvested, as well as its impact on the land and how much water or fossil fuels are used.
- Textile production - the amount of water and energy used in the production, as well as the chemical process and social implications of the manufacturing process.
- Added chemicals - how the dyes, finishes and coatings impact the environment and also how they affect the workers.
- End of life - biodegradability and amount of energy used to recycle the fabric.
To try and make things as simple as possible, we thought a pros and cons list for our most popular fabrics would be the best way to explain their sustainability credentials.
Pros and Cons of Popular Fabrics
- Nearly every part of the cotton is used; the seeds are used in cooking; the linters are used in paper manufacturing and the hull is used in animal feed.
- Organic cotton doesn’t use any chemicals and is renewable, biodegradable (unless printed) and breathable. To make sure you’re using the best cotton for the environment, always look out for the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) which guarantees that no chemicals have been used and also raises the standards of the ethics around the production process.
- Cotton is very water-intensive, for example, rivers around areas of cotton farming have dried up due to the amounts of water needed to grow the plant.
- This fabric has links to ‘forced labour’ and non-organic cotton is linked to farmers having severe health problems from the chemicals that are used in the manufacturing process.
- When printed, such as on reusable tote bags, the cotton is no longer compostable.
- The production impact of cotton is huge, for example, a single cotton tote bag needs to be used 20,000 times to offset the effects of production.
- Linen uses fewer resources such as water, energy and pesticides than cotton. Unlike cotton, it can be grown in unhealthy soil that can’t be used to grow food.
- One of the desirable properties of linen is that it’s incredibly strong, so it can be used hundreds of times without showing any wear and tear.
- As a natural fibre, it biodegrades easily.
- The flax seeds and oils from linen can be used in cooking and are becoming increasingly popular, making even more of the plant usable.
- The linen fibre is naturally insect repellant, so you don’t need to use other chemicals to keep moths away from it.
- Although linen is one of the most sustainable fabric options, bright white linens is heavily bleached. So, try to stick to the more natural colours to make the most sustainable choices.
- When linen is dyed different colours, the biodegradable nature of the cloth changes and it becomes more difficult to naturally biodegrade.
- Wool is actually a great sustainable fabric as it is rapidly renewable, biodegradable and can be produced organically.
- This fabric is also highly durable, so it will last a long time when looked after correctly.
- Since wool is inherently flame resistant, it can be used for furnishing projects and doesn’t require large amounts of chemicals to turn it into a fire-retardant fabric.
- Wool on the face of it is one of the most sustainable fabrics. However, the extensive amount of sheep farming required to meet our need for wool has led to overgrazing, which causes soil to degrade. To keep the effects of grazing to a minimum, look out for The Responsible Wool Standard and The Soil Association Organic Standard. These standards ensure that farms are using the correct practices to look after both the environment and the sheep.
- Sheep also create a lot of methane which is worse for the environment than CO2.
- The regenerated cellulose used to make viscose comes from the eucalyptus tree’s wood pulp, so it is a natural raw material.
- Viscose is the third most used fabric in the clothing industry so, although it starts with a natural material, the sheer amount of it used has a big impact on the environment.
- The process of making viscose is high in the use of chemicals, water and energy. One notable chemical that is used in the manufacturing is Carbon Disulphide, which is an incredibly toxic chemical and it’s linked to many serious illnesses amongst workers.
- This fabric has links to large areas of deforestation as space is made for the correct trees to be grown. It has also been estimated that 30% of the wood used for the fashion industry was from endangered woodland.
- This is a tough one, as one of the only advantages of this fibre is that it will last forever.
- Recycled polyester does come from plastic bottles and fishing nets, which is a better option as it cuts out the use of fossil fuels.
- Although polyester is in 52% of all our clothing, it has many disadvantages starting with the fact it is non-renewable as it is made with petroleum and during the transformation into a fabric, it releases dangerous toxins into the atmosphere.
- Even after manufacture, polyester still releases up 700,000 plastic microfibres into the water every time it’s washed.
- The big issue is that, much like a plastic bag, anything made of polyester won’t biodegrade.
New Sustainable Fabrics on the Block
The above information is a lot to take in, and unfortunately, not all of it is great news. But, to raise your spirits, we have also looked into the new fibres replacing traditional fabrics, enabling people to make more sustainable choices. At Fabrics Galore, we feel we also have a long way to go in our efforts to be more sustainable, but we are trying to seek out more sustainable fabrics in our collections so that you can make better choices. Here are a few that we are adding to our collections.
In recent years, bamboo has been gaining traction as a brilliant sustainable option. It is fast-growing, self-replenishing and totally biodegradable (depending on the way it’s processed). Not to mention the fact that bamboo also consumes more CO2 than other trees. The way bamboo is turned into a fabric fibre is similar to viscose, so it can be done sustainably, and it has great potential. However, it needs to be correctly monitored as it does have the same risk of chemicals ending up in water systems.
Once it becomes a cloth, bamboo has a number of similarities to cotton; it’s breathable, easy to blend with other fibres, soft and durable. In fact, bamboo is very popular for underwear because of its softness.
TENCEL™ is the branded name of Lyocell. This fabric is made by a company called LENZING™, (you will be hearing more about them later), and it is made from wood cellulose like viscose. However, it differs from viscose because it uses less harmful chemicals in the spinning process and it uses sustainably sourced wood.
TENCEL™ fabric is a great alternative to cotton because it has exemplary absorbing capabilities, absorbing nearly 50% more than cotton, and it can be spun into many different weights of cloth, meaning it can be used for anything from sportswear to floaty dresses. TENCEL™ is also naturally bright white making it much easier to dye, so that’s another gold star for this fabric.
This fabric was first made in Japan in 1951 and modal is made from beech tree cellulose. Again, it is manufactured like viscose, but it uses far fewer chemicals. The company that makes the most sustainable modal is LENZING™ as they recycle the water and solvents that are used in the production process.
Modal is another good alternative to cotton, as well as silk and viscose. It is especially good for sportswear because of its breathability and natural anti-pilling properties.
ECOVERO™ is made as a sustainable alternative to viscose and also made by LENZING™ which is based in Austria. One of the ways this fabric is more sustainable is because 60% of the wood used to make it is from Austria and Bavaria, lowering emissions. Similar to modal, fewer chemicals are used during production, and in comparison to viscose, it uses 50% less water, emissions and energy.
This more sustainable fabric is perfect for dresses and blouses due to its inherent floaty-ness.
Do remember too that wearing your makes for longer improves the sustainability of clothes regardless of the fabric you choose.
How Fabrics Galore is trying to be more sustainable
Here at Fabrics Galore, we have been looking into sustainable fabrics for some time now and we are always trying to source them whenever we can. This research has brought a lot to our attention and we are hoping to make better fabric decisions in the future. We will inform our customers of all our sustainable buying decisions moving forward.
It’s worth noting that we also participate in the First Mile Recycling Scheme and we are very proud to have a Gold rated 94% recycling rate. We are actively trying to reduce the amount of fabric that we send to landfill and we are passionate about continuing to make more sustainable changes as a company in the near future.
The first of these initiatives is our participation in Great Big Green Week to help raise awareness of green issues in our industry. Check out our social pages and sign up for our e-news for all the details: this year we want to see your up-cycling interiors projects using an FG fabric. The winner judged by us to be the best up-cycling example will receive a £50 voucher to spend in the shop or online fabric store. Check out the details of our competition on Facebook.