What Are You Wearing? The Ultimate Clothing Material Guide - Good On You
18 Jan

What Are You Wearing? The Ultimate Clothing Material Guide

How sustainable are our clothes? Well, a lot of it comes down to what they are made from. Materials—fabrics—are one of humanity’s oldest technologies, but most of them chew up enormous amounts of resources as they are transformed from “animal, vegetable, or mineral” into the clothes, shoes, and accessories that we wear

The life cycle of a fabric uses countless resources, from oil, land, and water, to pesticides, chemical agents, and dyes. Just think: how is it possible that fluffy cotton, knobbly wood, and gooey oil end up as the smooth, soft, colourful fabrics that feel good on your skin and brighten up your day? And then there’s all the hands that manipulate those fabrics before they end up in yours. No matter where you are on your ethical fashion journey, becoming informed about the impact of what your clothes, shoes, and accessories are made of is a fantastic tool to have in your (ethically made) belt.

With new materials going into production all the time, and industry standards shifting for ones that have been around forever, we know it can be overwhelming trying to figure out which ones are up to scratch ethically and are worth investing in as a conscious consumer. We have done the detective work for you and written guides to a vast selection of fabrics that you can find on the shelves and in your wardrobe, and compiled them here in our (hefty, yet helpful) ultimate material guide.

Choose materials based on your values

We appreciate that materials and fibres in fashion is a complex issue. Through our research we found there is no established hierarchy of sustainable materials in the fashion industry, and very limited comparable data (e.g. Life Cycle Analysis). What is clear is that every single material on the market today has some sort of trade off and impact on the planet and a mixture of eco-friendly materials is needed going forward. At Good On You we do our best to make sense of the complex materials world by independently analysing the information that is out there and consulting with industry experts. Our list of eco-friendly materials is not static and is constantly evolving as more research and data comes to light. We believe that you are the final decision maker when choosing materials for yourself. Figure out what is most important to you and let information guide your process.

Of course, materials are not the only issue a brand should be addressing. For example, a brand using organic cotton but not addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain, textile waste or labour rights issues is far from best practice, but using the most sustainable materials is a good base on which to build. To learn more about our process for ranking brands and materials, be sure to check out our How We Rate page.

A note on ‘natural’

Before we begin, let’s clear up one common misconception. For the most part, so-called ‘natural’ fibres are neither natural nor necessarily sustainable. As we’ll learn below, conventional cotton production is one of the most environmentally harmful agricultural activities around. And that’s before we even look at how the cotton is transformed into cloth! Be mindful of brands greenwashing by claiming their clothes are “all natural” when that doesn’t necessarily mean they are taking any steps to source fabrics that are made with people, the planet, and animals front of mind.

Plant-based

We’re listing here the fabrics derived primarily from plants. But see our note on ‘natural’ above—very few of these materials are routinely turned into clothing without a range of often chemical intensive industrial processes, some more than others.

Bamboo

This fast-growing crop is having its time in the limelight as an apparently eco-friendly option. While the crop itself is easy to grow, requiring little water and no pesticides, the processes used to turn it into a usable fabric vary on the sustainability front. While mechanically-made “bamboo linen” is inherently more sustainable, the resulting fabric is coarse, not suitable for the soft, intimate products for which bamboo is most in demand, and not that widely available.

Most bamboo fabric on the market is grown and processed in China using the viscose process. There are two issues that need to be addressed: ensuring the bamboo is grown in a sustainable way, and avoiding the release of harmful chemicals used in production into waterways. While in the last few years the Chinese government has cracked down on the more problematic production processes, we remain concerned about the absence of any system of assurance that specific bamboo is grown sustainably and processed using safe or unsafe processes. The exception is Monocel®, a bamboo fabric made with the lyocell process, but it appears to be very difficult to source at this stage. It is now considered bad practice in the industry to not have robust chemical management and waste treatment, which means bamboo fabric can be likely a safer bet than conventional cotton or polyester.

Our verdict:

Bamboo fabric has a lot of potential as an eco-friendly option. So as long as the brand is transparent about cultivation and processing, it can be a good choice. Otherwise, consider TENCEL™ Lyocell which is made using a 99% closed-loop system, meaning chemicals are captured and reused.

Cotton

Soft, light, and breathable, cotton is a fibre often associated with quality clothing, and can be found in many wardrobe staples such as jeans and t-shirts. It has the advantage of being entirely biodegradable. However, conventional cotton (GMO and otherwise) is an extremely thirsty crop, one that uses 25% of the world’s pesticides, and one that is often associated with child slavery and forced labour. The process of turning cotton balls into soft or shiny coloured cloth uses a vast array of chemical processes for treating, dyeing, printing, and finishing.

Organic cotton addresses many of the problems of conventional cotton. It’s grown without the use of pesticides, from seeds which have not been genetically modified. Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and the use of fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land stays fertile much longer than land which is hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan than otherwise. Organic cotton is overall much better than regular cotton for the planet and people, including you!

Our verdict:

Avoid traditionally farmed cotton and opt instead for recycled cotton or organic cotton, specifically with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. Not only is it organic, but the GOTS system certifies a brand’s entire supply chain, following its practices—including the dyeing stage—and addresses a range of labour rights issues to be sure high standards of ethics are being maintained throughout the production process.

Denim

Denim is made from cotton, which is known to be one of the world’s thirstiest crops. While cotton takes up 2.4% agricultural land, it accounts for more than 11% of global pesticide use. Pesticides can be highly toxic and create a hazardous working environment for cotton farmers. As for “distressed” denim, the look is achieved through a controversial technique called sandblasting. The process poses significant health risks to workers as the fine dust particles can lodge themselves in people’s lungs.

Our verdict:

Denim production can have serious social and environmental consequences. However, this is not the way it has to be. There are sustainable denim brands, both big and small, who are committed to people and the planet. The best way to reduce the footprint of your denim purchase is to look for jeans made from certified organic cotton. Most brands will proudly promote this on their websites and tags.

Hemp

Hemp, from the cannabis plant, is a type of “bast fibre” which means it’s one of a number of fibres derived from the stems of plants. It is a highly sustainable crop that requires little water and no pesticides—however, only organic hemp guarantees that no harsh chemicals are used. The fabric has various intrinsic advantages such as keeping you warm in winter, cool in summer, and even protecting you from UV rays. The fibre produced from pure hemp is similar to linen in texture.

Our verdict: 

Hemp is a far better option than similar fabrics like conventional cotton, and organic hemp is top shelf. To guarantee sustainability, look for GOTS certified options.

Linen

Linen is one of the most biodegradable and stylish fabrics in fashion history. It is strong, naturally moth resistant, and made from flax plant fibres, so when untreated (i.e. not dyed) it is fully biodegradable. Linen can withstand high temperatures, and it absorbs moisture without holding bacteria. In fact, it is actually stronger when wet than dry and becomes softer and more pliable the more it is washed.

Our verdict:

Linen is one of the most sustainable options on the market—just be sure to purchase garments in its naturally occurring shades of ivory, ecru, tan, and grey, and especially avoid bright white linen which has to go through an intensive bleaching process. Go for organic linen, one of our top ranked materials, to ensure no harmful chemicals were used in production.

Modal

Modal fibre is the generic name for a semi-synthetic rayon. Breathable and silky smooth to the touch, modal is around 50% more water-absorbent per unit volume than cotton. Boasting similar properties to other cellulose fibres like viscose and Tencel lyocell, it’s designed to absorb the dye and stay colour-fast when washed in warm water, making it a popular choice in the manufacture of underwear and activewear alike. Today, one of the best-known producers of modal is the Austrian company Lenzing AG, who now market their version under the name TENCEL™ Modal (previously Lenzing Modal). TENCEL™ Modal is protected by a global certification system which is registered worldwide, and while their production process is sustainable, they do not produce ready-to-wear fabrics. Lenzing sells yarns to mills and others who use the yarns to make fabric and other goods, which means it could be mixed with less eco-friendly fabrics before turning into your next clothing purchase.

Our verdict: 

Be sure to choose brands with transparent production processes to make sure you’re making the most ethical choice. Rest easy if the brand can assure you that their fabric is made from 100% TENCEL Modal.

Tencel lyocell

TENCEL™ is actually a brand name used by the Austrian company Lenzing AG. Tencel lyocell is a cellulose fibre which is made by dissolving wood pulp. After chemical treatment, the lengths of fibre are spun into yarn and woven into a breathable cloth suitable for activewear. Lenzing has built Tencel’s reputation by sourcing its wood and pulp from certified and controlled sources like sustainably managed plantations, and by ensuring Tencel is made in a closed loop system, meaning that the chemical solvent is recycled time and time again to produce new fibres and minimise harmful waste. Lenzing Group says the solvent recovery rate is 99% for their lyocell fabric. Recently Lenzing has started using their TENCEL™ brand to apply to their modal fabric as well (see Modal above).

Our verdict: 

Tencel lyocell is a good replacement for cotton or silk in everything from shirts to underwear. It’s breathable, absorbs moisture, and is soft on the skin. While it is pricier than your average workout tank top, something we always try to prioritise at Good On You is quality over quantity. Opt for Tencel over viscose and rayon, which are typically less sustainable.

Viscose/Rayon

Viscose and the very similar rayon are both derived from the ‘cellulose’ or wood pulp from fast growing, regenerative trees such as eucalyptus, beech and pine, and sometimes plants such as bamboo, soy, and sugar cane. This cellulose material is dissolved in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance, which is then spun into fibres that can then be made into threads. Despite being a plant-based fibre, there are two big problems with viscose. First, it’s the third most popular clothing material after polyester and cotton, and second, the fast fashion boom means there is as much wood pulp used for viscose manufacture as for creating paper, and so it’s now one of the leading causes of deforestation in places like Indonesia, Canada, and the Amazon. What’s more, viscose production leads to untreated waste being dumped into lakes and waterways causing harm to lives and livelihoods.

Some viscose is made from sustainable forest products—look out for brands that use only FSC certified forest inputs and/or work with the Canopy NGO.

Alternatives to viscose include TENCEL Lyocell (closed loop capture of chemicals) and new materials such as ECOVERO™ made using sustainable wood from controlled sources.

Our verdict:

If a brand isn’t upfront about the sustainable status of their viscose, give it a miss!

Animal-based

Angora

Angora is a long, silky fibre obtained from one of the four breeds of angora rabbit. The fur is highly prized for its softness, warmth, and strength. It is often blended with other wools to add softness to things like jumpers and scarves. The production of angora has come under fire since PETA released information about the appalling conditions in which it was being produced in several Chinese factories. As a result, many major fashion labels ceased using the controversial fibre.

Our verdict:

In theory, there is an “ethical” way to harvest angora fur—by simply collecting the animal’s natural moults—but there is no recognised welfare standard so we recommend avoiding angora products entirely.

Cashmere

Cashmere is one of the rarest and most luxurious fibres in the world. This exceptionally silky material is said to be three times as warm as wool and is known to be long-lasting. However, cashmere is not as sustainable as you might think: the goats this fabric comes from are the first to pay the price of cheap cashmere production. As they have very little fat, shearing them too early mid-winter means they can freeze to death. Cashmere production can also have a social impact—there’s growing concern about the working conditions of cashmere goat herders.

The increased demand for cashmere has meant herd sizes have increased, driving the desertification of Mongolian grasslands. And climate change is exacerbating these impacts: the changes in temperature in Mongolia has meant poor quality cashmere as goats need to be sheared in a narrow range of temperatures.

Our verdict: Buy recycled or second hand cashmere if you must have it.

Fur

Traditionally, fur was worn as a source of warmth and protection. For centuries, animals were killed for meat, with their pelts providing a practical and durable material that would keep people safe from the elements. In the 20th century, fur became a regular feature of luxury fashion, when Hollywood stars appeared draped in exotic pelts. Since then, fur has been marketed as a measure of wealth and glamour—expensive and desirable. As fur’s popularity grew, fur farming became big business. At the same time, the animals involved became commodified—opening the door to inhumane practices, like being skinned alive. For many of us, wearing fur is simply cruel, and to be avoided at all costs. Campaign groups such as PETA have long highlighted the inhumane practices of fur farms. That isn’t to mention all the environmental and labour issues fur-farming has, many the same as leather.

While second hand fur is available, it still perpetuates the idea that it is okay to wear the bodies of our fellow earthlings. Numerous brands and countries have banned the farming and distribution of fur products, so don’t stay stuck in the past on this one.

Our verdict: 

An ethical consumer motivated by the interests of animals would avoid any new product made from fur.  At Good On You we take a zero-tolerance approach to brands that use fur, or any other non-domesticated animal.

Leather

From James Dean to Prada, punk to professional, leather has earned staple status in many wardrobes. But despite their longevity and versatility, leather garments and accessories are unlikely to be an ethical investment. Leather is the skin of animals, the most common being livestock, but it can also be sourced from pigs, goats, sheep, crocodiles, snakes, sting rays, seals, emus, deer, fish, kangaroos, horses, cats, and dogs. Aside from the obvious issues with animal welfare, leather production has negative impacts on the environment and workers, too. It requires more water and land than almost any other material, and the tanning process involves extremely harmful chemicals like chromium 6 that end up in waterways and labourers’ bodies.

Vegetable tanning, which has long been considered the sustainable option for tanning, is under scrutiny about how sustainable it really is. It’s a bit better, but likely not as good as previously thought.

There are many innovative materials emerging designed to mimic the qualities of leather, from pineapple leather to cork to upcycled rubber. While the full environmental impact of these new materials has not been fully assessed, they are certainly preferable to “faux leather” made from PVC, or likely the more common vegan or “faux” leather made from PU. While PU has significant environmental impact, it’s a better option than other synthetics like PVC.

Our verdict: 

Depending on your personal ethics go for second hand or recycled leather or avoid it altogether.

Silk

Silk is spun from the long threads which make up the inner cocoon of a silkworm. The fibres are in fact saliva, produced by the worm to insulate itself until it is time to transform. The raw silk threads are harvested and then reeled together for commercial use. The silkworms are killed during the process of extracting the silk. There have also been reports of the abuse of child slaves in India in silk production, so checking sources is important.

In addition to this, silk has a relatively high emissions intensity, particularly in the yarn and fabric production stages. In fact, its supply chain is one of the most intensive per kg according to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

It is possible to find less lethal alternatives to the silk-making process. Ahimsa silk, also known as ‘peace silk’, allows the moth to evacuate the cocoon before it is boiled. Some silks that fall under the Ahimsa umbrella include ‘Eri silk’ and ‘Tussar silk’. Unfortunately, peace silk isn’t necessarily much better for the environment!

For those who want to avoid animal silk for its negative impacts, one vegan silk innovation that is worth looking out for is vegan spider silk! Microsilk is the trademarked name of a lab-made spider silk produced by California-based company Bolt Threads. It is a synthetic fabric, but one which requires no land or chemicals to produce—only water, yeast, sugar, and a pinch of DNA.

Our verdict: 

When it comes to buying silk or its alternatives, check sources to ensure that you don’t buy into exploitation or environmental destruction.

Currently, Microsilk is only commercialized to a limited extent, but the fabric has already received a stamp of approval from renowned brands like Stella McCartney.

Wool

Wool, a natural breathable fibre that comes from sheep, is a great renewable resource with plenty of benefits, from biodegradability to stain resistance. However, the impact on the planet and the animals is significant. There is controversy over the practice of mulesing the sheep (cutting away skin to reduce flystrike, usually done without anesthetic). Until a humane mulesing process becomes common we recommend against sheep from mulesed wool. Industrial scale livestock grazing can also increase land clearing and degradation, though more holistic land management methods for grazing livestock animals are gaining popularity and support.

Wool lasts well and so it’s always worth looking out for pre-loved or vintage wool items to ensure the garment gets a longer, useful life.

Our verdict:

Look for clothes made from recycled wool, resale and vintage items, or wool certified by the Responsible Wool Standard, ZQ Merino Standard, or the Soil Association Organic Standards.

Synthetic

Faux fur

The significant ethical and environmental impacts of the fur industry have caused a shift in the industry towards fur-free, which is great news. But the look of fur is still, unfortunately, in vogue, and the mass-produced faux fur alternative is far from eco-friendly. Faux fur is generally made from plastic-based materials (hello, microfibres) and that automatically speaks to negative impacts on the planet, but even more shockingly, it has come out that since fur is in such high demand, a significant amount of faux fur products actually contain real fur!

Our verdict:

Steer clear of this harmful material. If you must have it, look out for second hand options, but seriously consider a completely different material—you don’t have to buy real or faux fur to make a bold statement with your outfit!

Fleece

Fleece is a synthetic insulating fabric made from a type of polyester called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or other synthetic fibres. It is very comfortable due to its lightweight and anti-perspiration qualities, making it ideal for outdoor and activewear. Unfortunately, fleece is made from non-renewable resources and needs an extra chemical coating to make it windproof and/or water resistant—not great for the environment. Eco-fleece, using recycled PET plastic, can be seen as a better option saving its primary ingredient—raw petroleum—as well as energy. It also potentially reduces the number of bottles in landfills.

Synthetic fibres, recycled or not, pose a problem as they are not biodegradable and tend to bind with molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater, such as pesticides.

Fleece, especially when it is used in frequently washed clothing, is one of the main shedders of microfibres on the market. If you opt for eco-fleece, you should learn how to care for it so minimal shedding occurs.

Our verdict:

As far as possible steer clear of fleece.

Glitter

Much of the glitter available for cosmetics, craft, and clothing is made from sheets of thin plastic such as PET, coated in a shiny substance like aluminium, and cut into millions of tiny pieces—in other words, glitter is microplastic. That means every time we rinse our glitter-laced clothes, wash our glitter adorned hair and face, or let our glitter-encrusted accessories shed little pieces of sparkle, we’re likely contributing to microplastic pollution in our oceans, and that’s bad news for everyone.

But glitter fans, don’t fret! Several companies have created eco-friendly glitter alternatives made from biodegradable materials, so you don’t have to give up sparkles if you care about the planet.

Our verdict:

Avoid plastic glitter in all products. Look for products with glitter made from biodegradable sources.

Conventional nylon

Nylon was the first entirely synthetic fabric, created in the time of World War II. Essentially, nylon starts as a type of plastic derived from coal and crude oil that is then put through an intensive chemical process to create the strong, stretchy fibres that make it so useful as a fabric. In addition to supporting some of the world’s dirtiest industries, the manufacture of nylon has several other direct environmental impacts that means it’s bad news across the board.

Econyl is an innovative alternative made from recycled plastic in a closed loop system. Note that products made from nylon and Econyl are both likely to shed microfibres.

ECONYL, created by Italian firm Aquafil, uses synthetic waste such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets from oceans, then recycles and regenerates them into a new nylon yarn that is exactly the same quality as virgin nylon. This regeneration system focuses on six steps that form a closed loop that uses less water and creates less waste than traditional nylon production methods. Waste is collected, then cleaned and shredded, depolymerised to extract nylon, polymerised, transformed into yarn, and then re-commercialised into textile products.

Our verdict:

Avoid traditional nylon and instead go for Econyl while remaining vigilant about microfibre shedding!

But while ECONYL is a fantastic innovation that is helping to clear plastic waste from our oceans and protect sea life, it is still a plastic fabric that means it sheds microfibres when washed (one of the biggest water pollutants). To avoid this but still support the initiative, choose ECONYL items that are less frequently washed like footwear, and make sure to use a washbag or washing machine filter if you buy clothing made from this (and other plastic-based) material. Companies are in the process of creating a form of ECONYL that doesn’t shed, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Conventional polyester

Polyester is a common plastic derived from oil with a wide application that includes and extends beyond the fashion industry. The majority of polyesters are not biodegradable, meaning that the polyester fabric shirt you bought last season will not decompose for 20 years at best and 200 years at worst, depending on conditions. What’s more, polyester is, in part, derived from petroleum—and the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest polluter.

In the past few years, the sustainable fashion sphere has been introduced to recycled PET plastic. Recycled PET plastic is usually made from recycled plastic bottles or fishing nets. Buying recycled PET plastic means you’re minimising waste and cutting out the fossil fuel industry, but it doesn’t erase the issue of microplastic pollution.

Our verdict: 

Avoid virgin polyester. Consider buying recycled PET plastic products, especially for products that don’t require frequent machine washing like shoes.

PVC

PVC is a petrochemical product that is heavily processed from start to finish and can take an enormous variety of forms. Vinyon, as the textile derivative of PVC, is popular for its weather-resistant qualities in coats, jackets, and even skiing equipment, artificial leathers, or fetish fashion. PVC/Vinyon requires oil to extract the base components and lots of energy to react the chemicals together. That means it’s hugely reliant on fossil fuels. Couple that with the potential health risks of phthalates, and the overwhelming pressure of plastic waste on our oceans, and you have yourself one of the most unsustainable materials on the market.

Our verdict:

For a sustainable wardrobe, avoid PVC!

Velvet

The word “velvet” refers to the structure of the fabric, not the actual fibre or material used. You can recognize velvet thanks to its short pile, raised loops, tufts of yarn that cover its surface. Velvet can be woven from any type of yarn. While in the past it is traditionally woven from silk, today cheaper materials are commonly used alone or in combination, such as cotton, linen, wool, or synthetic fibres. The fashion industry, and especially fast fashion retailers, mostly replace silk or other plant-based materials with polyester.

Our verdict: 

If you really want a velvet item in your wardrobe, we recommend shopping second hand, in order not to increase the use of new plastics or silk. Alternatively, try and look for velvet made out of a modal rayon which is made from sustainably harvested beech trees and eco-friendly processing methods.

In summary

Okay, that was a long journey! To make it simple, here are the most commonly used eco-friendly materials:

Editor's note

This article will be regularly updated, so look out for new guides in the near future! All images via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,500 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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