Sunday, March 3, 2024

From Organic Fibers to Biodegradable Fabric: A Sustainable Materials User’s Guide


Here’s what you need to know about sustainable materials textiles, from organic fibers to biodegradable fabric.

As much as we all love fashion, the industry contributes to 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. The life process of fabric goes through countless resources, from oil, land, and water, to pesticides, chemical agents, and dyes. This leads to severe pressure on the planet, contributing to the depletion of its resources.

So, now that you’re ready to make more sustainable choices, one of the questions we know you might be asking is which clothes—which fabrics—are actually sustainable? Let us help you understand more about sustainable fabrics through this guide.

The sustainability of fabrics is divided into three categories:

1. Resources: What is the dependency on water, pesticides, land and energy? Also, how much carbon emissions are caused in the process of creating the fabric.

2. Treatment: Does it use harmful chemicals? How intensive is the process?

3. Disposability: How are fabrics disposed of? What is the longevity of the fabric? Is it durable? Is it recycled and biodegradable?

Sustainable, organic materials

Several organizations have established certifications for fabrics like cotton and linen such as the National Organic Program, Fairtrade, Organic Content Standards, Global Organic Textile Standard certification, Soil Association and Oeko-Tex. Look for these certifications that guarantee you that your clothing is free from toxic chemicals and pollutants, from harvest to the factory and to you.

fashion wastewater
Courtesy Jingwen Yang via Pexels

So which are the most sustainable fabrics out there? Let’s take a look.


Hemp tops the list of sustainable fabrics. Hemp is derived from the stem of the hemp plant. It is naturally pest-resistant, antimicrobial and sun protective. It requires no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Hemp needs a relatively small amount of land to cultivate and less water. Hemp fabric is highly UV-resistant. It keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Hemp grows almost everywhere, cleans air and soil.

Due to the high oxygen content of the hemp fibers, no anaerobic bacteria can settle, so clothes made of 100 percent hemp remain hygienic and smell neutral. The hemp fiber is 8x stronger and 4x more durable than the cotton fiber.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton minimizes environmental impact compared to conventional cotton. It takes 20,000 liters of freshwater to make a single kilogram of regular cotton. Organic cotton however uses 91 percent less water than regular cotton. Organic cotton fosters soil fertility and uses no pesticides.

The Higg Materials Sustainability Index shows that recycled cotton is a more sustainable alternative to both conventional and organic cotton. Recycled or upcycled cotton is made using post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste. Recycled cotton helps reduce water and energy consumption, as well as keep cotton clothes out of landfills.

linen shirt
Linen shirt, courtesy Gabriela Hearst


Linen is made from the stem of the flax plant. It’s naturally moth-resistant and gets stronger with every wash. It is breathable and when untreated, entirely biodegradable. Linen can be grown in poor-quality soil, requires minimal water and no pesticides. Ensure that you buy organic linen, with eco-friendly dyes to ensure it’s sustainable and can be easily biodegradable.


Tencel is a light cellulose fabric that is created by dissolving wood pulp. It is said to be 50 percent more absorbent than cotton and requires less energy and water to produce. Created by Austrian textile giant Lenzing, Tencel is softer and more breathable than cotton. It is produced in a closed-loop system which means 99 percent of the chemicals used in the process to break down the wood pulp are recycled with minimal waste and low emissions.


Nylon is an environmental disaster. Producing nylon creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. However, Econyl is a great silky eco-alternative for nylon. Econyl is created using synthetic waste, such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets from the ocean, which are then recycled and regenerated into a new kind of yarn that is exactly the same quality as nylon. Econyl is embraced by brands such as Stella McCartney and Prada.

Innovative and biodegradable fabrics

Are you ready to wear clothes made from pineapple, apple, mango, or even mushroom? Designers and inventors are innovating new kinds of sustainable fabrics, many of which have been developed from agricultural waste. Solving two problems in one, these exciting fabrics turn wastage caused by food consumption into natural fibers for the fashion industry

sustainable materials
Courtesy Pinatex

Fruit leather

About 45 percent of all fruit grown globally is discarded between the field and the plate. Fruit and vegetables represent 24 percent of the food thrown out by households and small businesses. Companies like Fruitleather Rotterdam are tackling food waste through fruit leather (not the edible kind!) made from unsold food and agricultural waste.

One in particular, Pinatex, is made from pineapple. An estimated 40,000 tonnes of pineapple waste is generated globally each year. Ananas Anam, maker of Piñatex utilizes waste taken from pineapple plantations in the Philippines and turns it into a non-woven fabric that can be used for clothes, footwear, or furniture. Ananas Anam supports rural farming communities in the Philippines and takes a cradle-to-cradle approach, which means that waste from one process is used in other processes so that nothing is wasted.

Pinatex is slowly gaining popularity in the mainstream fashion world. Eco-activist Livia Firth wore a dress made from Piñatex ORO, created by Italian designer Laura Strambi to the 2017 Met Gala. Hugo Boss was one of the first brands to use Pinatex leather to make fashion accessories.

Fruit leathers are made by taking fruits, peels, and their agricultural waste, and filtering and mashing before being boiled to eliminate bacteria and prevent rotting. The fruit “soup” is then spread on a surface for drying. This produces sheets of material that can be easily worked, sewn, and printed like genuine leather. 

Courtesy PresetBase on Unsplash

Fungi bacteria leather

From celebrated fashion designer Stella McCartney to Lululemon, the mushroom is one of the hottest sustainable leather materials. Companies making mushroom leather include Modern Meadow, MycoWorks, Sqim, and Ecovative.

There are also innovations happening with bacteria. Most recently, Ganni debuted a vegan leather jacket made from brewed bacteria.

Fabrics that are a big ‘no’

Originally published on abillion.

Related on Ethos:


Is Peppermayo Sustainable? Or Is It Just Fast Fashion In Disguise?

Is Australian fashion brand Peppermayo sustainable or just more fast fashion?

Can You Recycle Your Old Denim Jeans? The Answer Isn’t Straightforward

Can worn denim be recycled? Sort of. Here's what you need to know.

Heron Preston Launches Upcycled H&M Collection, Circular Design Initiative

Designer Heron Preston has joined forces with H&M on a collaborative inaugural H2 collection, debuting on March 14, 2024. The launch comes alongside a new design effort that turns garments donated by New Yorkers into new works of fashion.

Hilary Swank’s Mission Statement Joins Nigel Barker As Part of the Ecofashion Family: ‘A Force for Good’

Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank has transitioned her sustainable clothing label, Mission Statement, to the hands of the Ecofashion group, stepping into a pivotal role on the conglomerate's executive team.

Our Democracy Hangs In the Balance, So Cue Monica Lewinsky In an Eco Reformation Suit Voter Campaign

Reformation, the Los Angeles-based sustainable clothing label loved by Millennials and Gen Z celebs including Taylor Swift, Hailey Bieber, Kaia Gerber, and Olivia Rodrigo, has launched a new campaign featuring Gen X icon Monica Lewinsky.