What Types of Sustainable, Recycled Materials Are Used in Modern Fashion Production?

It used to be that choosing what to wear was simply a matter of personal style. Today, it’s one of the ways we can support our environment.

Taken as a whole, modern fashion production remains one of the most pollutive industries on the planet, but many in the field are committed to changing that. Leaders of environmentally conscious apparel are not only pioneering organic production processes, but are also dedicated to using sustainable, bio-based or plant-based materials, recycled materials, and vegan leathers and furs.

 These sustainable materials are changing the way we see our clothes and think about fashion. Here are some of the best fabrics and materials for the environmentally-conscious consumer: 

What Types of Organic Material Are Used in Fashion Production?

Some natural fabrics are better for the environment than others. The best natural fabrics are not only made of organic material (meaning they have not been radiated or genetically modified), they are also pesticide-free and water/space efficient.Both linen and hemp are excellent materials for environmentally-minded fashion producers and consumers because these materials don’t need nearly as much water as other fabrics (including cotton). While both fabrics are great options, hemp is considered to be one of the best materials for sustainable fashion; hemp yields are highly productive and have even been shown to absorb carbon dioxide at a higher rate than any commercial crop.

The production of conventionally grown cotton is one of the most chemically intensive processes in the fabric industry. These chemicals inevitably seep into and contaminate the soil, which makes sustainably growing conventional cotton almost impossible. Some producers are trying to change this with organic cotton.

Organic cotton is not only grown without environmentally harmful pesticides and chemicals, it also uses much less water and energy than non-organic cotton because organic cotton fields are diligently maintained and restored using organic agricultural practices. These involve growing cotton in rotation with other crops to replenish and maintain soil fertility and support biodiversity, in addition to omitting the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic engineering. Some fashion leaders are going one step beyond organic farming and investing in regenerative farming, which aims to actually give back to the environment, instead of simply reducing impact.

What Types of Materials Are Easily Recycled?

Circularity refers to the idea that what we wear should be both recyclable and reusable, creating a loop between consumption and production. In other words, our clothes should circulate. As this concept takes off in the fashion industry, so has the practice of recycling used fibers. Because cellulose, a primarily component of cotton, is so versatile, recycled cotton is particularly popular. Recycled material projects like NuCyl and Circulose are further popularizing this highly sustainable material by partnering with brands and designers to center recycling and sustainability in their production process. Both projects divert textile waste from landfills and repurpose it using cutting-edge technology so that products can be regenerated.

Some brands are also incorporating recycled polyester into their eco-conscious missions and designs, spinning the material with other fabrics like cotton for strength and durability. Polyester is made from Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which is the same material in most single-use plastic water bottles, meaning that a recycled water bottle could end up in your favorite T-shirt.

Other recycled materials gaining popularity include wool and cashmere. Like recycled cotton, these materials are often recycled through a process that begins with pre-consumer off-cuts, which is the textile waste that can be found on factory floors and would otherwise end up in a landfill. These rescued materials are sorted by type and color, ripped and unraveled, and sometimes combined with other materials to be re-spun and, ultimately, made into new garments.

How Are Natural Fibers Used in Fashion?

Some of the most environmentally-friendly fabrics aren’t recycled or organically produced crops. Instead, they are created from sustainably sourced, pesticide-free materials like wood. TENCEL™ is a semi-synthetic fabric made from the cellulose in plant pulp, which is woven into a soft, strong material.

TENCEL has become more popular in environmentally-conscious circles of the fashion industry because it is harvested from low-impact forests rather than commercial crop fields, meaning that it uses far less water and pesticides than other materials. TENCEL is a type of lyocell produced by the Lenzing Group, the process of which requires the wood pulp (often from eucalyptus trees) to be dissolved in water using chemical agents. What sets TENCEL apart from other lyocell materials is its sustainable construction. The chemical dissolving agents of TENCEL are 99% reusable, creating a circular production loop. TENCEL is also biodegradable and can even be composted. Sugarcane bagasse is another material that can be used to produce lyocell, in addition to other fibers. Up until recently, excess bagasse, the fibrous residue from sugarcane, was often burned, contributing to air pollution. Now, leaders in sustainable apparel are supporting better air quality and reducing waste by using sugarcane bagasse in their designs. Sugarcane offers other environmental benefits, too. Perhaps most notably, it stores carbon in its roots, meaning that even after the crop is harvested its ecological contribution continues.

Castor seeds are another crop with many diverse yields, which contribute to a broad range of industries, from pharmaceuticals to biofuel, and now, to fashion. Castor yarn, which is made from castor oil, is light, quick-drying, stretchable, and breathable, making it an ideal fabric for athletics and outdoor apparel. Castor oil is also considered a green resource, as it is both biodegradable and sustainable.

What Are Alternatives for Leather and Fur?

Animal products aren’t a prerequisite for style. Many of the most innovative ways the fashion industry has responded to the environmental crisis is through leather and fur alternatives. Leather and fur production doesn’t just kill animals; it’s often highly pollutive as well. There are many alternatives: materials like banana stalks, pineapple leaves, and fungus threads can all be used to make animal-free, vegan leather and fur. Companies like Pinatex, Reishi, and Post Carbon Lab pioneering alternatives to animal leather and fur while staying committed to thoughtful style and sleek design. 

The Challenges of Sustainable Apparel 

There are still challenges to making environmentally-conscious apparel. Some apparel pieces, like shoes, can’t be made from just one material but have to be constructed from a number of durable, connective pieces. Organic farming and environmentally-conscious production processes also come with their own unique set of challenges, like weed and pest maintenance, in addition to potential derailment from more and more extreme weather events. Perhaps the most notable challenge is that for decades the fashion industry has operated with a “more is more” mentality, with both producers and consumers making, buying, and disposing in unnecessarily large quantities. 

That said, as brands and shoppers alike contend with a rapidly changing world, the culture of fashion production and consumption is also shifting. Leaders in the fashion industry are putting sustainability and style at the center of their missions, so that when you pull on a T-shirt or lace up a pair of sneakers, you can not only feel like you’re putting your best foot forward, but that you’re helping move our planet in the right direction.

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