Biodegradable fabric spools and plants such as organic cotton, linen, and hemp in orange and beige colors.
August 8, 2023
 in 
Slow Fashion

Eco-Friendly Wardrobe Made Easy: The Ultimate Guide to 16 Biodegradable and Sustainable Fabrics and What to Avoid

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ccording to the UN, 25% of the fabric that enters the global supply chain goes to waste. To add to the problem, the production of most fabrics involves heavy chemical and water use, leading to major pollution issues that tend to disproportionately affect developing nations. 

The situation as it stands isn’t great, but it’s getting better. As you’ll read in this article, there are plenty of non-toxic clothing materials that we can all support more. We’ll also look at the so-called sustainable fibers greenwashing their production processes and the fabrics worth avoiding when you can.

Table of  Contents

The Least Sustainable Fibers

Nothing demonstrates why using non-toxic fabrics is so important more than the damage done by some of the world’s least sustainable fibers:

1. Conventional Cotton

Though cotton is a plant-based fabric, as it’s become more industrialized its practices have become more harmful.

Let’s take a closer look:

  • Use of Agrochemicals: The conventional methods of growing cotton involve extensive use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers which not only harm the biodiversity of nearby ecosystems but cause even more issues when they end up in streams and rivers via run-off from cotton fields.
  • Soil Erosion: As with most industrialized crops, cotton growing has been linked to instances of soil erosion and damage. 
  • Water Pollution and Over-Use: Conventional cotton growing uses massive irrigation systems and with that, has done near irreversible damage to water availability in some areas. More than 90% of the water taken from Pakistan’s Indus Delta is used for agriculture, with cotton being one of the main crops it’s used to support.
  • Habitat Loss: Cotton farming has led to habitat loss in the way that most large crops do – by harming biodiversity through pollution and taking up land that wildlife would otherwise have used.

2. Polyester and Other Non-Biodegradable Fabrics To Avoid

The only fabric more popular than cotton is polyester. According to the CFDA, it accounts for about half of the global textiles produced. The problem is that like other synthetic materials such as nylon, acrylic, viscose, and “vegan leather” (usually polyurethane), polyester is derived from a nonrenewable fossil fuel and isn’t biodegradable.

These fabrics tend to be cheaper to make than plant-based textiles, but they come with a cost:

  • Damage from Production to Disposal: Nylon and Polyester are both made from petroleum, a resource that isn’t renewable and causes significant environmental damage from the way it’s extracted to the way it’s treated in manufacturing processes. Because synthetic materials aren’t compostable or biodegradable, it also means that the clothing waste made from them gets stuck in landfills and has been linked to extensive pollution.
  • Microplastics: A 2017 study found that 35% of microplastics come from clothing and textiles. When we wash fabrics like polyester and acrylic, they shed microfibers that are too small to be stopped by water filtration systems. This contributes to ocean pollution and elevated chemicals in our water.

3. Greenwashed: The Fabric That Isn’t as Sustainable as It Claims

Unfortunately, making more sustainable fabric choices is often complicated by how misleading many fashion brands and textile manufacturers can be. Rayon, a type of fabric made from cellulose, is often sold as an eco-friendly option because it doesn’t use fossil fuels the way most synthetic fabrics do.

It uses wood instead. Though made from a renewable resource, unmanaged rayon production in some parts of the world has led to deforestation and, because turning wood into spun fibers is such a chemically demanding process, has been linked to health issues among the workers involved. There have also been reports of hazardous waste produced from the chemical-heavy process.

Fabrics that fall under the rayon umbrella include Cupro, Tencel, Lyocell, and bamboo fabrics. While many manufacturers are attempting to improve rayon production by focusing more on recycled fibers and recycling the chemicals used, be wary about the marketing that rayon and its offshoots often get. Many fast fashion brands are still presenting a greenwashed reality about this fabric.

4. Down: A Biodegradable Fiber with a Dark Impact 

Much like leather, down and feathers are biodegradable but the use of them in clothing ultimately supports an unsustainable and often cruel slaughter industry. Some brands abide by the Responsible Down Standard but many claim sustainability by simply using down from animals already being killed for food production. While it’s recyclable and more sustainable than polyester filling, the ethics and animal welfare of using feathers are murky at best with some even plucking from live animals.

16 Sustainable Fabrics Including  Biodegradable Fabrics to Make Your Wardrobe More Eco-Friendly

Trying to make more sustainable fabric choices is not about throwing out all your polyester and replacing it with organic linen. It’s simply about being more informed and approaching your purchases differently when you can.

There is no perfect sustainable fabric anyway. Everything has its drawbacks and has to be judged within its context and every consumer’s personal affordability.

With that in mind, here are 16 of our favorite (more) sustainable fabrics along with some biodegradable fabrics that are worth looking at next time you want to add something to your wardrobe:

1. Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester fabric  in blue with paper label indicating this type of fabric

Unlike virgin polyester, recycled polyester is made from items such as recycled plastic bottles rather than direct-source petroleum. This means that it's not a compostable fabric and that it can contribute to microplastics, but choosing this recycled option is a way to reduce how much plastic waste gets stuck in landfills and that is why it is on our list of sustainable fabrics. Investing in a laundering solution such as a this washing bag by GuppyFriend can significantly reduce the amount of microplastics released into the water.

The production also uses fewer resources and generates less CO2 emissions than regular polyester. If it’s recycled using a chemical process (rather than a mechanical one), the integrity of the fiber can be maintained so effectively that it can survive being recycled over and over again. 

It’s not a perfect sustainable fabric, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction and continues to show improvements in creating a more circular fashion manufacturing approach.

2. Recycled Or Organic Cotton

zoomed in on cotton plant against cotton farm backdrop exemplifying organic cotton option

Recycled and organic cotton options are offering a new way forward for this plant based fabric. One of the biggest issues we mentioned when it came to cotton is the agrochemicals that are used to grow it on a big, industrial scale.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is all about using as little chemical intervention as possible so as to reduce this negative impact. It’s grown from non-GMO seeds and the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and insecticides is kept limited, mostly by adopting pre-industrial farming techniques such as crop-rotating.

Legally, organic cotton can’t be marketed in most places without some form of certification but take some time to double-check this if you can. There are multiple organizations around the world working to ensure that organic cotton, though only 1.4% of the total cotton industry, is being monitored properly.

Since organic cotton still makes up such a small proportion of its industry and will likely take a long time to expand, recycled cotton is another great option to look to. It retains many of the best features of cotton, like the fact that it’s a biodegradable fabric, whilst lessening some of the environmental impact of its agricultural processes.

3. Recycled and Sustainable Wool

Spools and knitted recycled or organic wool biodegradable fabric

Like cotton, wool is a compostable fabric and entirely natural. It’s also highly durable and easy to recycle. Wool recycling programs use three main routes and are generally not nearly as energy-intensive as something like plastic recycling:

  • The closed-loop system: Returns wool items down to yarn again and then creates new products with it.
  • The open loop system: Wool from a previous garment is upcycled into mattress padding, insulation, and other items.
  • Reengineering: This is when old wool pieces are reimagined into something new like a blanket being turned into a piece of knitwear, or vice-versa.

We’d have thought that all wool would be considered sustainable fabric just by virtue of it coming from sheep, but as with any manufacturing process that involves agriculture, sustainability is not guaranteed. Farming sheep for wool can use large amounts of land which may be treated with pesticides and the sheep themselves with parasiticides.

Sustainable and organic wool is anything that has certifications to show that it’s improved these issues. It’s not widely certified or available in the clothing industry yet, but we’re excited to see how this biodegradable fabric improves its practices even further going forward.

4. Recycled Nylon

Blue colored recycled nylon known as a sustainable fabric

Nylon, though made from fossil fuels, is a useful fabric because of its durability and moisture-resistant qualities. We can understand why it’s used so often for things like swimsuits, handbags, and other clothing items.

The problem however is that not only is the source material for this fiber bad for our planet, nylon also isn’t a compostable fabric and is another fiber adding to fashion’s waste crisis. Recycling nylon, be it from fishing nets, deadstock fabrics, or discarded clothes, has been a highly effective way to at least deal with the waste issue.

For environmental reasons, it’s far better to reuse and recycle nylon than it is to leave it to decompose on its own. The chemicals it’s made from are terrible for soil so breaking it down in a controlled environment is the better solution.

Though it can’t really be considered a non toxic fabric or a biodegradable textile, nylon is nonetheless a great sustainable fiber because of the recycling it involves and how widely available it is. It’s a more sustainable option than virgin nylon and tends to be more affordable than many other sustainable fabrics.

5. Silk

Rose and light blur colors square stacks of the compostable fabric silk

Silk is a compostable fabric and it’s the strongest textile made by all-natural processes. Made from a protein spun by silkworms, silk uses far less water, energy, and chemicals than many other fabrics such as cotton.

The main environmental risks it involves are that silkworms usually have to die for the silk to be obtained and mulberry trees maintained to feed and house the insects when this fiber is farmed. The only times this is avoided is when silk is harvested from the wild, or when it’s farmed organically so that this non toxic fabric is produced without synthetic fertilizers, etc.

6. Linen

The plant fabric named linen in beige color

Linen is a plant fabric made from flax and, as such, is a 100% biodegradable fiber. Flax is also the oldest known fiber that humans have used, but there’s a reason it continues to be so popular even in modern times. It’s stronger than cotton, more sun resistant, and is a much hardier plant to grow. Flax survives on less water, with less chemical intervention, and requires less nutrients from the soil to grow than cotton.

As a bonus to this sustainable fabric, the flax plant also has notably high rates of carbon absorption. Organic linen takes this nontoxic fiber to another tier of sustainability but honestly, even choosing regular linen over textiles like cotton or polyester is a step in the sustainable direction.

7. Hemp

Rolls and spools of the biodegradable fabric Hemp in ivory color laid out on wooden floor boards.

To the untrained eye, hemp looks and feels almost identical to linen, and it actually shares most of the same sustainability characteristics.

It’s a natural, biodegradable fabric, and a plant based fabric that is far less demanding on resources like water and pesticides than cotton is. Where cotton plants tend to strip the soil they’re grown in, hemp plants can even be good for it.

8. Ramie/Stinging Nettle Fibers

Three stacked squares of the plant fabric called ramie in neutral colors

Ramie is another plant fabric and is woven from cellulose fibers from the stinging nettle plant. It’s a biodegradable fabric and is often used as a plant-based alternative to regular silk.

The grass it's made from grows quickly and like linen and hemp, doesn’t require much in the way of water or chemicals. The use of nettle fibers in fabric dates back thousands of years and thanks to increased interest in sustainable fabrics, are slowly being used and researched more for modern-day fashion use.

9. Lyocell

Sustainable fabric named Lyocell in sky blur color

You may remember us mentioning lyocell as a type of rayon fabric and the greenwashing issues rayon has had. All that aside, lyocell is the best rayon option in terms of sustainability. This biodegradable fabric is mostly recognized as “Tencel ®”, the brand name under which lyocell is made, and uses cellulose from PEFC-certified Eucalyptus forests.

That means that the trees are grown without irrigation or synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The wood is also broken down into pulp using a non-toxic solvent with Tencel generally being far less chemically intensive than other rayons. 

10. Pineapple Fiber/ Piñatex®

Plant based fiber called Pinatex sample pallet by Ananas Anam.
Pinatex fabric by www.ananas-anam.com/

This plant-based fiber made from the agricultural waste of pineapple farming is an exciting new sustainable fabric alternative to leather. It’s a biodegradable fiber, doesn’t require harmful chemicals, and doesn’t require extra raw material to be grown. Even the waste created by the textile manufacturing process is used as fertilizer on other farms so that a circular process is maintained.

11. Apple Leather

Whole red apples to signify the origin of apple leather fabric.

Like Pineapple Fiber, Apple Leather is a plant fabric that uses upcycled agricultural waste. Early developers noticed how much cellulose-rich material was left over from fruit juice and compost factories and instead of throwing it out, thought to turn it into a fabric. Apple Leather isn’t completely bio-based though. It’s a mix of 50% apple waste and 50% polyurethane to ensure durability – a compromise most plant-based textiles must contend with.

Even with plastic in it, Apple Leather is still considered a sustainable fiber as it helps reduce waste and halves how much plastic is needed for vegan leather products.

The London based purse brand Demellier is already making some of their bags with this leather alternative.

12. Orange Fiber

A half of an orange layed next to ecru colored plant based fabric made with orange fiber.

Orange Fiber is very similar to Apple Leather as it also uses the by-products of the juicing industry to create a sustainable fiber. Instead of creating a leather-like fabric though, orange cellulose is spun into a variety of softer fabrics. It’s mostly been used in the luxury space and combined with cotton, silk, elastane, and recently, TENCELL. Look out for this fabric – like many bio-based textiles, the innovations and availability are expanding each year.

13. Recycled and Sustainable Leather

A pile of various scraps of leather layered on top of one another before they are recycled to create sustainable leather.

The cattle farming and leather industry has traditionally posed some serious sustainability issues. Though biodegradable, leather is not necessarily eco-friendly due to the amount of land, resources, and C02 that go into its production. It is however a very durable and useful material which is why new recycled and sustainable leather offerings are so promising.

Recycled leather uses reconstituted trimmings from the leather tanning and processing industry to create what is called “bonded leather”. One of the big manufacturers of it, Recycleather, uses 100% natural recycled materials and 50% less water than conventional tanneries. There are also many brands trying to make leather a more sustainable fiber by improving farming practices and reducing waste throughout production.

14. Down and Feather Alternatives

A close up of a puffer jacket filled with sustainable down alternative known as FLWRDWN.

The use of down and feathers has traditionally been for added warmth but here are three vegan alternative fibers that do the same:

  • FLWRDWN from Pangaia: Made from wildflowers and biopolymer.
  • Recycled PLUMTECH: Made from recycled plastic fibers, including plastic bottles. This fiber is used by the brand Save The Duck which is a Certified B corp. making high quality and cruelty free puffer jackets.
  • Primaloft: A world-renowned down-alternative made from post-consumer recycled content.

15. Alpaca

A close-up of loose alpaca fibers.

If you’ve ever seen or touched an alpaca, you know just how fluffy they are. It’s no wonder then that alpaca fleece is quickly becoming one of the most popular biodegradable textiles to use. Not only is the fabric warm and soft on the skin, but alpaca farming tends to be far more sustainable than what is required for wool or cashmere. 80% of the world’s alpaca fiber comes from Peru where it is mostly farmed by smallholders with less than 50 animals each who let the animals live free range, grazing in the Andes mountains. 

As such, alpaca fiber avoids many of the issues of large-scale agricultural practices and instead leans on the traditional approaches that are kinder to the animals, the farmers, and the environment.

16. Sustainable Cashmere

knitted grey sustainable cashmere.

Cashmere takes its name from Kashmir, a mountainous region between India and Pakistan where the Changthangi or Pashmina goats that cashmere is sourced from have traditionally resided. However, these goats are now also farmed across Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar, Mongolia, and Nepal. 

Various certifications and standards have emerged in recent years for sustainable cashmere options, most of which focus on three main issues: the environmental impact of cashmere farming, animal welfare, and the livelihoods of the farmers themselves. Some also add regulations about the chemicals used to treat the fibers during production, but all are helping to ensure that this biodegradable fiber maintains its best properties without doing added harm to the planet.

It's All About The Label

Next time you’re looking at clothes online or in-store, check what the fabric content is. Shopping for clothes made from sustainable fabrics is getting easier than ever – you probably have items in your closet made from some of the environmentally-friendly textiles on this list already!

The most important thing when moving towards a more eco-friendly wardrobe is to prioritize biodegradable fiber choices if and when you can, and to stay curious. Read labels. Try something new from a sustainable fabric you’ve never experienced before. It may be the thing that sparks your most-loved purchase.

If you are interested in learning more about sustainable clothing and fashion, get yourself acquainted with upcycled clothing as well. Alternatively here is our article about sustainable shoes and where to find them. Happy reading!