Written by The Sustainable Buyer

The fabric of our garments has a direct correlation to their environmental impact. The growing or manufacture of the fabric, colouring and treating the fabric, the manufacture of the garment, the care of the garment and finally the end of the garments life. The sum of these processes can have a substantial environmental impact! It’s therefore important to know about fabric to make informed decisions whether you’re a designer, buyer or consumer. Did you know that 20% of industrial water pollution is attributed to the dyeing and treatment of textiles? Or that a single synthetics wash (of 6kg) at home can release up to 700,000 fibres?!  Using the table below you can compare fabrics in terms of their time to biodegrade, type, original material, chemical used production, general positives and negatives and any associated standards to look out for.

The table includes branded fabrics, Tencal, Pinatex and NuCycl™, as we are starting to see these fabrics on the high street. There are many more such as  Microsilk, Bolt Threads fabrics, Ioncell, Orange Fiber, Apple Leather, Spinnova and Renewcell…To name a few! As mainstream brands like H&M are increasingly using Tencel™ in their collections it looks likely that we will see branded fabrics used more often. This is likely a result of consumers becoming increasingly sustainably savvy requiring brands to be transparent and communicate about the fabrics in their products. Using branded fabrics is a shortcut to showing consumers where it’s from, how it’s made and what it’s values are. 

Fabric (brand)Time to biodegradeType Original MaterialChemicals used in productionPositivesNegativesAssociated Standards
Acrylic20 - 200 years +SyntheticPlasticYes-Petroluem based
-Releases microfibres (more than polyester!)
Bamboo1-2 yearsRayon CellulosicBambooYes-Fast growing plant without the need for pesticides or fetizilers
-Doesn't need replanting as it grows from the chopped roots
-GMOs generally not used
-Can improve soil quality
-Brand Monocel® have developed a chemmical free and water cycling process
-Usually uses toxic solvents to process which can end up in waterways
-Plant is invasive outisde of natural habitat.
-Fabric: tendency to shrink and wrinkle
Cotton1 week - 5 monthsCellulosicCotton PlantYes-If mangaged well, the crop can be regrown-Tends to be produced in dry and warm regions such as India where there is a shortage of drinking water
-Uses fertizilaers, pesticides and insecticides which can end up in waterways and have been linked to cancer and other severe illnesses.
-Uses GMO seeds
-Labour issues: Uzbekistan forced labour, Indian cotton farmer suicide rate
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
Hemp3-4 weeksCellulosicCannabis sativa plantYes or no (depending if produced mechanically or chemically)-Low maintenance crop, doesn't require much water, that doesn't degrade the soil
-Grows quickly - has the highest yield per acre of any natural fibre
-Fabric: Strong, UV resistant
-Some restrictions on where and how it can be grown
-Challenging to dye
Jute2-3 yearsCellulosicCorchorus olitorius and Corchorus capsularis plantsYes-Fabric: durabale
-Plants returns nutrients to the soil and helps to maintain soil moisture
-Doesn't need fertiilziaers or pesticides
-Plants sequest Co2 during growth stage
-Fabric: Naturally rough requires extensieve processes to soften it to be used for apparel
USDA Ogranic
EU Organic certification
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

Leather25 - 50 yearsAnimalBovine animal hydesYesFabroc: durable, strong
-Can be dyed naturally which would create biodegradable leathers however the process is longer and therefore more expensieve
-Animal welfare issues
-Tanning process using chromium which is a toxic chemical which often ends up in waterways
-Workers often lack adequate protecion and suffer from various related diseases for these reasons tanneries have largely been banned in Europe and US.
-Child labour issues at tanneries.
LWG Leather working group, The Tanners Extract Producers Federation (TEPF)
Linen (aka Flax)2 weeksCellulosicFlax PlantYes or no (depending if naturally retted or chemically retted)-Plants can grow in low quality soil that is not suitable for food production
-Plants have a high rate of carbon absorption
-Fabric: sensitive and therefore requires careful washing and is harder to iron
-Cutting linen creates fringe fabric which can be challenging in garment production
Lyocell (TENCEL™)1 week - 4 monthsRayon CellulosicWood pulp (from trees like Eucalyptus, Oak, and BirchYes and no-Eucalytpus trees grow quicky without the need for pesticides, fertizliers or irragation
-Different process to other Rayon materials uses a closed loop system that recyles almost all of the chemicals used
-Fabric: regulates body temperature, anti-wrinkle, absorbs and releases perspiaration creating less odour and there needs washing less
PEFC certified forests
Modal 1 week -4 monthsRayon CellulosicBeech Tree PulpYes-Branded Modal, Lenzing Modal® uses trees from sustainablely harvested forests
-Fabric: water resistant, colour fast, machine washing doesn't cause shrinkage
-Uses toxic solvents to process which can end up in waterways
-Deforestation issues
PEFC certified forests
NuCycl (EVRNU)?SyntheticDiscarded TextilesYes-Infinitely recyclable
-Diverts discarded textiles from landfill
-Currently using a mix of new fabric and NuCycl
Nylon20 - 200 years +SyntheticCoal and petroleum by-productsYes-Fabric: good elasticity, strong -Petroluem based
-Releases microfibres
Organic Bamboo4-6 monthsCellulosicBambooNo-Fast growing and without the need for pesticide or fetizilers
-Doesn't need replanting as it grows from the chopped roots
-GMOs generally not used
-Can improve soil quality
-Fabric: naturally hypoallergenic, helps the body regulate temperature
-Plant is invasive outisde of natural habitat.
-Fabric: tendency to shrink and wrinkle.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Oeko-Tex Standard 100
OCS 100 - Organic Content Standard
Organic Cotton1 - 5 monthsCellulosicCotton PlantNo (if certified GOTS - if not it can be hard to know)-Grown from non GMO seeds
-Relies on crop rotation and mixed farming to preserve the soil
-Fabric: softer than traditional cotton as threads are not broken down during growth
-20-50% lower yield than traditional mthods therefore requires more landGlobal Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Organic Wool6 monthsAnimalGoat, bison or sheep hairYes (but restricted use)-Certified wool shows that pesticides are not used on the land or sheep. It also guarantees that good practices are used to manage livestock.
-Fabric: Non allergenic, regulates body temprature, durable, wrinkle resistant, easy to dye
-Farbic: Itchy
-Contains lanolin which is the oil naturally exitsing in wool
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)
Pinatex“A few years” / 88% biodegradableCellulosicPineapple Leaf and PLA (Polylactic acid)(Bioplastic from corn)Yes-Upcycles waste by using leaves of pineapple plant
-Creates extra income source for pineapple farmers
-Closed loop production, using left over biomass as a natural fertizilar or biofuel
-No harmful chemicals used in production
-Small production Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
Polyester20 - 200 years +SyntheticUsed plasticYes-Fabric: thermal stabilitiy, stretch resistant and low moisture absortion-Petroluem based
-Releases microfibres
Recycled Polyester20 - 200 years +SyntheticRecycledYes-Platsic diverted from landfill
-Chemical recyling can be done infinetley
-Some cases of new plastic bottles used as recycled polyester
-Mechanical reycling degrades quality of fibers
-Releases microfibres
The Global Recycle Standard (GRS)
Silk4 yearsAnimalCocoon of silkwormYes-Fabric: naturally hypoallgerenic, breathable, easily dyed
-Ethical silk are now available, search for Peace Silk
-Animal welfare: traditionally silk worms are boiled inside cocoons
Viscose6 weeksRayon CellulosicTrees, bamboo, and even cotton waste.Yes-Fabric: blends well, dyes easily, inexpensieve -Uses toxic solvents to process which can end up in waterways
-Deforestation issues
PEFC certified forests
Wool1-5 yearsAnimalGoat, bison or sheep hairYes-Fabric: temperarture regulating, durable, wrinkle resistant, easy to dye-Sheep overgrazing damages soil leading to deserticication
-Sheep release methane
-Sheep often bathed in insenticide baths
-Animal welfare issues
-Fabric: Itchy
Responsible Wool Standard (RWS)

Notes on the table 

The table considers fabric independently and not as blends. Blends are often hard to recycle and don’t decompose if synthetics are involved. The information in the table was taken from reputable sources and studies from around the world so it’s important to remember farming and production techniques vary around the world. It doesn’t include care of garment as this varies greatly between garment and owner. Use this table as a guideline not as a bible. 

Send us a message if you’ve got some info we are missing! Check out all the sources used below: