We’ve already put together a list of what might be some of the least eco friendly, sustainable and animal friendly fibres and fabrics.
In this guide, we list what might be some of the most eco friendly, sustainable & animal friendly fibres & fabrics.
Summary – Most Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly Fibres & Fabrics
Some of the fibres and fabrics listed below are:
Second hand fibres and fabrics
Natural fibres, and some regenerated fibres
Certified organic cotton
TENCEL (lyocell, modal, and some other fibres)
100% natural or organic linen/flax (especially if it’s hand made or mechanically processed)
Organic bamboo, and bamboo that uses closed loop processing
Animal friendly fibres (like peace silk for example)
Some recycled fibres and fabrics
Major parts of how eco friendly or sustainable a fibre or fabric might can depend on:
How it’s grown or sourced – whether it comes from a natural source, how efficiently it uses inputs and resources (water, land, agricultural chemicals and inputs)
How it’s processed/produced – the chemicals it uses (naturally derived or not) for dissolving pulp, dying, bleaching, finishing and so on. And whether closed loop processing is used or not (capturing and treating or re-using waste water and chemicals)
How yarn is weaved (for example, some companies only provide a patented fibre, and that fibre is weaved by other parties)
Energy, water and resources used to maintain and upkeep the fabric, and how long it lasts for
How eco friendly the waste/recycling process is
Second Hand Or Pre-Used Fibres & Fabrics
Obviously, if you are able to buy or find secondhand fibres, fabrics and products that are still in good condition and are still usable, this can be a more eco friendly and sustainable alternative than a newly produced fibre or fabric (which requires new resources to grow, and/or produce).
Natural Fibres, & Some Regenerated Fibres
There’s three main types of fibres used for textiles – natural, regenerated, and synthetic.
Of these, natural fibres and some regenerated fibres tend to win out in several major eco friendly measurements and indicators.
For example, as noted by Oecotextiles, natural fibres tend to outperform synthetic fibres across embodied energy use, and carbon emission indicators/measures.
Lyocell is one example of a regenerated fibre that can be more eco friendly if the production process uses a closed loop process (treating wastewater, and capturing and re-using chemicals.
Certified Organic Cotton
Organic cotton is a natural and renewable fibre
Organic cotton places an emphasis on the use of naturally derived farming chemicals and sustainable farming methods (organic farming, rain fed cotton, etc) over synthetic chemicals and intensive farming. It also uses natural cotton seeds over GMO cotton seeds
There’s also an emphasis on naturally derived production and processing chemicals
A GOTS standard certified piece of organic cotton fibre and fabric might generally be fairly eco friendly, sustainable and ethical – one of the most ethical fibres and fabrics available. It has eco, quality and fair work standards as part of it’s criteria
One of the issues with organic cotton is that some people point out the yield and profits may not be as good for farmers as GMO cotton (so sustainability can suffer, and viability). Because of lower yields for the same amount of resources, there are sustainability cons. Also, this means cotton uses more land than some other eco friendly fibres. There’s also other potential drawbacks to organic cotton and organic farming to consider, with one being that not all naturally derived pesticides and other chemicals might be safe or any better than synthetic chemicals
Cotton in a natural fibre/plant – cotton creates a natural carbon sink
Organic pest control (like beneficial insects) and fertilizers (like manure) are used over synthetic chemicals
Organic farming methods are used over intensive methods, or over irrigated water (which uses up freshwater resources that can be used for drinking water or residential water)
Naturally derived chemicals might be used over synthetic chemicals where possible
There might be closed loop processing, or capture and treatment of waste wate and chemicals where possible – so there is less wastage of water, and less environmental pollution
TENCEL (Lyocell, Modal & Some Other Fibres)
Lyocell is a regenerated fibre (comes from a natural cellulose source, but is usually chemically processed)
It is a natural and renewable fibre to grow
Lenzing/TENCEL is the main producer of Lyocell fibres
Lenzing owns TENCEL, and has it’s own trademarked version of Lyocell and Modal fibres (Lenzing also has other fibre ranges and technology)
TENCEL is generally regarded as quite eco friendly, sustainably and ethical because they both source sustainable/renewable wood (in the growing phase), and they use closed loop processing in the production phase to treat wastewater and re-use chemicals
TENCEL also has a list of certifications that focus on sustainability
TENCEL is currently not produced in anywhere near the quantity cotton is – cotton production dwarfs TENCEL production. Scaling may be an issue for TENCEL
Generally sourced from sustainable wood sources such as beech wood, eucalyptus etc.
These wood sources are renewable, create a carbon sink, and generally don’t need a heap of irrigated water, or many pesticides and fertilizer
Might use a different fibre spinning method than other fibres
Generally uses a closed loop chemical process to treat wastewater, capture chemicals, and re-use them
Lyocell might use a different solvent or chemical process in the production phase to most other rayon/viscose fibres
TENCEL have their own processing/production processes
Something to note about TENCEL though is that you do have to check how it is weaved (and the impact of weaving) – weaving can be done separately to the production of the fibre.
A natural fibre that is natural and renewable fibre
Generally fairly eco friendly and sustainable – compared to conventional cotton
The growing process is usually quite eco friendly
How eco friendly it ends up being depends on how it is retted and processed
Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant (natural plants that can create a carbon sink)
Flax generally needs much less water, and fertilizer and pesticide than conventional cotton
Mechanical retting is better for the environment and sustainability – but takes longer and isn’t as cost effective
Chemical retting is less environmentally friendly, but faster and cheaper
Some linen undergoes heavy bleaching to make it whiter
Other production chemicals can be used with linen as well – which usually aren’t treated or captured before being dumped
The best quality linens are usually hand and/or machine retted
Read more about how sustainable linen/flax might be in this guide.
A special type of linen that is quite rare – quite eco friendly and sustainable
More expensive because it takes more effort and time to grow and produce
Similar to organic cotton – uses natural or mechanical processes, instead of intensive processed or highly synthetic chemicals
Need to look for some type of guarantee of what you are getting when you get organic linen (look for a certification, or guarantee from the seller)
Grown with organic methods, and organic fibre is supplied for yarn
Mechanical retting of flax plant
Focus on more organic processing methods
The bamboo plant is obviously a natural source of cellulose and bamboo is renewable
Growing bamboo is generally very eco friendly and sustainable (although there can be some land degradation and deforestation issues raised, and there’s an argument that more chemicals are being used as well as agricultural land as demand increases)
Generally, production of bamboo rayon tends to use heavy chemicals to dissolve bamboo pulp and extrude the short bamboo fibres. These chemicals can be exposed to production workers, and may also be dumped into the environment via waste water
Much of the bamboo grown and produced comes out of China, and it can be hard to track and find out about bamboo production there – so there can be some uncertainty with how eco friendly and sustainable this bamboo actually is
Some companies and factories do use a cleaner bamboo production process – but this is hard to track, or certify
There is work being done to make bamboo production more eco friendly on the whole, and to make bamboo production cleaner
Bamboo is great to grow – it usually grows very quick, has good yields, needs little pesticide or fertilizer, can be rain fed with water, and doesn’t need to have it’s roots removed from the ground
It also produces a carbon sink
This is the less eco friendly and less sustainable part of making bamboo fibres and fabrics
Bamboo production generally involves harmful or toxic chemicals to extract bamboo fibres (which are short) and turn them into a bamboo rayon/viscose
Read more about how sustainable bamboo might be in this guide.
Certification for organic bamboo does not officially exist yet (GOTS doesn’t make bamboo eligible yet for certification) – so be wary of products being claimed as organic bamboo
An informal classification of organic bamboo might include FSC certified and sourced bamboo material, and a process that either uses naturally derived chemicals, or uses some form of a closed loop process to capture chemicals and waste water
FSC certification makes sure that the growing of bamboo is done responsibly in bamboo forests
Production is much cleaner, has less wastage of water, and chemicals aren’t dumped straight into the environment. Some bamboo sellers might say their product uses a type of closed loop system similar to lyocell
Hemp is a natural fibre from the Cannabis sativa plant, and is renewable
It is extremely eco friendly to grow, although it can grow like a weed and dominate other plants in the area
There are currently issues with growing hemp in the US commercially – as of 2019 – those issues are still being worked out and policies finalised
As a fabric, hemp can look a bit ‘hippy’, so it may need to be blended with other fibres like cotton for a different look or qualities
Hemp is fantastic to grow – it has good yields, uses less land than cotton, replenishes soil, is better with water than cotton, and doesn’t need much pesticide or fertilizer
Retting of the hemp fibre from the plant can be time consuming – hemp retting can make hemp more costly than cotton to produce. Although hemp decoritators are making that easier, and other technology
Hemp production can involve the significant use of water, and synthetic production chemicals
Like bamboo production, hemp production usually isn’t as sustainable as the growing stage
Read more about how sustainable Hemp might be in this guide.
Jute comes from usually the white jute plant – which is renewable
Jute has limited use in fashion and clothing
It is more for twine, ropes, packaging and industrial purposes
Jute can be used for bags, rugs and other clothing and home items
Jute is very eco friendly and sustainable to grow – and, it is mostly grown in Indian and Asian countries
Jute usually needs little processing when used for industrial purposes
Read more about how sustainable Jute might be in this guide.
Animal Friendly Fibres
Most of the above fibres are animal friendly (you do have to consider though how many animals might be killed or impacted by pesticides, fertilizers, and production chemicals entering the environment such as aquatic environments).
Wool, leather, fur, angora, silk and down can all have their animal cruelty or ‘animal use for products’ issues.
More animal friendly alternatives might include peace silk, and other types of silk like Art silk and spider silk. Also, there’s organic wool, faux leather, and faux fur as a few more examples.
But, even faux leather and faux fur have their drawbacks coming from synthetic feedstocks.
Read more in these guides about animal cruelty issues with fibres and fabrics:
- Silk – Is It Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Cruelty Free?
- Wool – Is It Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Cruelty Free?
- Fur – Is It Ethical & Eco Friendly?
- Faux Fur – Is It Eco Friendly, Ethical & Animal Friendly?
- Leather – Is It Sustainable, Eco Friendly & Animal Friendly?
- Faux Leather – Is It Eco Friendly, Sustainable & Animal Friendly?
Some Notes On The Above Fibres & Fabrics
Most natural fibres are biodegradable by themselves, but you have to consider whether other materials are mixed with them and whether they’ve been treated with chemicals
Each fibre and fabric needs to be assessed separately and differently. Some supply chains are clear, and others aren’t. Not all growers are the same. Not all fibre to yarn processes are the same. Not all yarn to fabric processes are the same. Not all suppliers, manufacturers and sellers are the same.
Certifications can help with determining what exactly you are buying e.g. GOTS for organic cotton, or FSC certification for bamboo forests.
Second to certifications, you can research a specific company to see where they grow their fibres (or source supply from), and how fibres are manufactured into yarns and fabrics (but note that this is not a perfect solution as some companies don’t know exactly that information accurately)
Fibres can be combined/blended together e.g. 50% cotton/50% hemp – so in that instance you’ll get the pros and cons of each individual fibre
Technology, processes, methods and other factors may change how eco friendly certain fibres and fabrics become over time
Are Recycled Fibres & Fabrics Eco Friendly & Sustainable?
In some ways they might be, but in other ways they might not be.
For example, GOTS Organic Fairtrade, and recycled cotton might be two of the most eco friendly fibres when comparing cotton, bamboo and different rayons for indicators such as water use, chemicals, global warming and natural resources depletion
But, some of the problems with recycling fibres and fabrics themselves in the conventional way might be:
- Recycling still takes energy and resources
- It likely isn’t economically viable in some cases – certain materials like rare/valuable metals might be the only materials that are viable to recycle
Fabrics made from recycled materials might be different – such as polyester made from recycled plastic bottles.
Each fabric is different though (and would need to be assessed differently) – it depends on how it’s recycled and produced, and what the impact of that is.