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A Quick Guide for Organic Fabrics and Eco-Friendly Fashion Alternatives

by Boris Hodakel  • May 22, 2019 • 9 min read

organic fabrics

As we mention in our blog post The Return of Sustainable Fashion - the fashion industry isn’t as glamorous or clean as it may portray. With so much of our unwanted clothing filtering into landfill each day. Choosing to recycle unwanted fabrics will help reduce this global issue. The truth about the damage the fashion world is doing to the environment is increasingly starting to surface, which is leading to positive changes within the industry and through the consumers who are becoming more aware and, therefore, more eco-conscious.

However, the source of the problem starts at the creation of the fabric used for production. The BBC’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets recent coverage highlighted how the Aral Sea is disappearing due to cotton farming. Looking at how alternatives could prevent this global damage is key to finding the right balance in eco-conscious consumerism.

There are several companies now striving to produce clothing in ethical and sustainable ways. Green or eco-friendly fabrics are making waves in the fashion industry. These unique fabrics and design concepts are altering the way designers think and feel about the products they are creating. They also offer an on-trend alternative that helps to protect the environment.

There are still some changes to be made in the fast-fashion cycle. Among these changes is the use of fabrics that are described as ‘sustainable’ alternatives to cotton or polyester. Viscose is one such fabric. Its production has seen severe environmental damage in recent years due to contaminated water and untreated waste products from its creation. Intended as a more eco-friendly alternative to cotton or polyester, The Guardian reported that brand giants, such as H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer were purchasing viscose from factories in Indonesia, India and China. The production of this viscose fabric, however, was causing severe environmental damage, including “water pollution from untreated contaminated waste and air pollution”. A worrying report that shows we still have a long way to go when it comes to real organic and eco-friendly fashion production.

Despite the many fashion items that have questionable manufacturing processes. There is a host of organic fabric alternatives that are appearing in modern fashion collections.

Take a look at some of the top options below:

Hemp fabric

organic fabric hemp fabric

This unique and distinctive fabric provides a stylish and high-quality fashion addition to your wardrobe. Hemp is a durable and soft material, which is grown with little or no pesticides. The beauty of this plant is that it only requires minimal attention while cultivating. It also doesn’t deplete the nutrients of the soil, so is easy to re-harvest time and time again.

Benefits of using hemp for clothing:

  • Comfortable
  • Durable material
  • Naturally UV resistant
  • Gentle on sensitive skin
  • Biodegradable

Organic cotton fabric

organic fabric cotton fabric

The production of traditional cotton uses harmful pesticides and chemical input. So choosing organic cotton is an ideal alternative to these harsh manufacturing processes. Organic cotton is said to be grown without the use of toxic chemicals, and if used alongside natural dyes, it can also help to reduce the amount of chemical waste that is discarded into the ecosystem. We discuss the impact of switching to organic cotton and the facts behind how much this actually helps the fight to protect the environment a little later on.

Benefits of using organic cotton for clothing:

  • Soft material
  • Suitable for sensitive skin
  • Breathable
  • Lightweight

Bamboo fabric

bamboo organic fabric

Clothing made from bamboo offers a natural and comfortable fabric that has a range of benefits. This renewable source is grown using very few chemicals and is biodegradable. Although bamboo is mostly described as a sustainable fabric for clothing. It is also essential to keep up to date with how particular bamboo products are made. Some processes may involve chemicals to speed the growth of this plant. In turn, this defeats the purpose of its sustainable attributes.

Benefits of using bamboo for clothing:

  • Antibacterial fibres
  • Moisture absorbent
  • Natural insulator
  • Soft and comfortable against skin

sustainable fabric

Tencel fabric

Tencel is the brand name for the material lyocell and is the product of wood cellulose or pulp harvested from trees. Designers often favour this material in clothing production. It provides a soft finish and wrinkle resistance, which is a huge selling point for shoppers. This fabric is versatile and is also perfect for people that have sensitive skin. In production, non-toxic solvents are used, and the material itself is biodegradable so closes the loop on landfill waste.

As this fabric is also very absorbent, fewer dyes are used to create the desired product. When Tencel is produced, its bright white colour also prevents the need to bleach the material after production. In turn, this decreases the number of chemicals entering the ecosystem.

Benefits of using Tencel for clothing:

  • Durable
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Absorbs moisture
  • Remains colour rich

Linen fabric

organic fabric linen fabric

Linen is a popular fabric for lightweight summer clothing and is made from fibres created from the flax plant. This natural alternative is harvested without the use of pesticides and uses the whole plant to form linen fibres. Linen is often used as a lightweight clothing option and is breathable and durable.

Benefits of using linen for clothing:

  • Highly absorbent
  • Lightweight
  • Breathable
  • Durable

Jute fabric

organic fabric jute fabric

Jute is another popular eco-friendly fabric that is made from plant fibres. It has coarse threads which make it a preferred choice for rug making and upholstery. In recent years, manufacturers have blended jute with linen to create a softer option for garment production.

Benefits of using jute for clothing:

  • Natural insulator
  • Durable
  • Breathable
  • Low-thermal conductivity

The future of eco-friendly fashion

The way clothing is manufactured has a massive impact on the environment. Using organic fabrics is just one of the things that companies can do to change the way people buy fashion items.

However, as the world and its consumers become more knowledgeable on sustainability and more aware of the consequences of using unsustainable fabrics and production processes, organic fabrics simply may not be good enough. With research being done into modern and more advanced eco-friendly fabrics, brands should be looking at their production and processes and deciding how they can incorporate more sustainable choices into their lines.

Organic fabric is a start towards a better fashion industry, but fabrics such as Pinatex and Kapok fibres could change the way fashion brands create for the better. Finding sustainable solutions to enjoy and consume fashion in a way that puts an end to the devastating damage the current industry is doing to the planet should be on every fashion brands’ ‘to-do’ list.

Other areas to consider are:

  • Where clothing is manufactured
  • The carbon footprint of brands
  • Eliminating toxic and unethical practices from the production process

By considering the whole clothing manufacturing process, you can begin to look at alternative sources to improve your brand.

Are Organic Fabrics Good Enough?

Organic fabric can be labelled as such if 95% of the fabric is organically created. So, when it comes to organic cotton, this means the cotton has been grown without the use of harmful pesticides and defoliants for at least three years. Sounds good, right? But how much better for the environment is organic cotton? And is it really a good enough alternative to save the planet?

A recent article from Fashion United took a closer look into this issue and discovered some facts regarding organic cotton that may leave “sustainable” brands searching for yet another more eco-friendly alternative.

The fact is, although organic cotton is grown without chemical pesticides and harmful fertilisers, this does not mean that it’s free from all pesticides. Natural pesticides and moderate amounts of synthetic pesticides are still allowed to be used, for example, Rotetone, and these used products are still toxic to the environment.

Another anti-eco fact that comes with organic cotton farming is the infamous water usage involved with this type of agriculture. Unfortunately, when it comes to organic cotton, Fashion United says that even more water is needed to grow the same amount of cotton (up to double!).

The environmental effect of growing cotton is the first part of the process when it comes to the fashion industry, but it doesn’t end there. From here, the cotton must be transported, spun into fabric, dyed and finished, stages which are known to be the most environmentally damaging parts of the production process and must be considered carefully when certifying if a piece of fabric is indeed truly “organic” or not.

Which Designers Use Eco-Friendly Fabrics?

As we start to become more interested in eco-conscious shopping and choosing our fashion designers and brands more carefully, let’s take a look at some labels and brands who are evolving with the new standards of eco-friendly fashion.

Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney has been a voice of eco-friendly fashion since the label’s inception. Promising to never use real leather or fur and creating their own vegan-friendly leather alternative is a major selling point of the brand. Alongside faux leathers and the use of other sustainable fabrics, such as recycled polyester, all of Stella McCartney’s stores and offices are powered by wind energy and ensure that 45% of operations are powered by 100% renewable energy.

Mara Hoffman

With a strong sustainability initiative, Mara Hoffman is known for using lots of recycled fabrics, as well as hemp and organic cotton within the collection. Sustainable fabrics, such as ECONYL and REPREVE are also a favourite with the brand, according to the Mara Hoffman website. As well as using recycled paper for branding and compostable poly bags for shipping swimwear, Mara Hoffman also put work into choosing more sustainable manufacturing methods from only Fair-Trade production factories.

Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher is well known for being passionate about trying to make a change in the fashion industry when it comes to sourcing fabrics and conducting manufacturing. From recycled fabrics and using the world’s only hazardous chemical-free dye house to produce bluesign-certified silk to progressive initiatives when it comes to fair trade and human rights, this label is serious about sustainability.

Another company worth mentioning…

Unmade

With a whole brand philosophy based around “a better future for industrial production”, Unmade is making a real name for itself in the fashion industry when it comes to technology-driven manufacturing. The idea behind the brand is that items aren’t truly finished until they are worn and that mass manufacturing, leading to huge amounts of waste and landfill, isn’t serving consumers or the planet in the best way. Their technology allows individual customisation on an easy-to-use, straightforward platform. Check them out, here.

Alongside luxury designer labels, there are also many fashion brands creating for the eco-conscious shopper. Names, such as Thought, Mud Jeans, Reformation and Reve En Vert are just a few brands making an impact on this area of the industry.

Are Any Fabrics Truly Eco-Friendly?

organic fabric options

When it comes to finding the perfect eco-friendly fabrics for fashion’s sustainability issues, we are far from finding the final solution. However, here are just a few fabrics currently on the industry’s radar that you should know about:

  • Pinatex - This vegan leather alternative is created from pineapple leaves and forms a beautifully textured fabric, perfect for accessories.
  • Mushroom Leather– Used again for a range of accessories, mushroom leather is an organic, gluten and chemical-free, vegan-friendly leather alternative, which even holds its own anti-bacterial properties.
  • Kapok Fibres – Being explored in China, Kapok tree fibres have been labelled as “the most sustainable fibre in the market today” by Fashion United, leaving behind “no human footprint” on the environment. Although it cannot be used entirely, when blended with organic cotton, the use of Kapok fibres can save invaluable amounts of water during harvest and production.

The way clothing is manufactured has a massive impact on the overall health of the environment. Using organic fabrics are just some of the things that companies can do to change the way people shop for ethical and eco-friendly clothing. Other elements in the fashion chain include looking at where clothing is manufactured, the carbon footprint of brands and eliminating certain toxic and unethical practices from the production process.

However, as the world and its consumers become more knowledgeable on sustainability and more aware of the consequences of using unsustainable fabrics and production processes, organic fabrics simply may not be good enough. With research being done into modern and more advanced eco-friendly fabrics, brands should be looking at their production and processes and deciding how they can incorporate more sustainable choices into their lines.

Organic fabric is a start towards a better fashion industry, but fabrics such as Pinatex and Kapok fibres could change the way fashion brands create for the better. Finding sustainable solutions to enjoy and consume fashion in a way that puts an end to the devastating damage the current industry is doing to the planet should be on every fashion brands’ ‘to-do’ list.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.