A lot of the conversations I have with startups are about needing help with sustainable fabric manufacturers. The conversation always starts the same - I am looking for sustainable fabric suppliers, can you give me your sustainable fabric list? And, my answer is always the same - What are you even making? The problem with this question, which I get asked on the regular, sometimes multiple times a day, is that there is no such thing as a "sustainable fabric".
Let me explain.
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Think Holistically When You Incorporate Sustainable Fabrics
Most newbie ethical fashion brands jump right into Carvico, Repreve, or Econyl - all companies that create recycled plastic polyesters and nylons. While many of them assume the plastic comes from the ocean, the shocking reality is that most of the plastic is pre-consumer and the end fabric did nothing to clean up the waterways. It kind of sounds like greenwashing to me.
Regardless, it is almost always good to reuse something old and make it into something new instead of taking up space in a landfill. But, let's think about the fabrics supply chain geographically. Most of the fabric that small brands are using are actually being made in multiple countries. Fibers might be made and spun in China, knit in the USA, and then cut and sewn in Canada. That is a lot of travel, just for a sustainable fabric.
Instead of buying newly recycled fabric with a one-way ticket around the globe, it might actually be more sustainable for your brand to go out into your local markets, and find deadstock fabrics to use.
The lesson here - there is no clear definition of "sustainable fabric". Before you start reaching out to sustainable fabric suppliers, figure out what the term means to you and your brand.
What Is The Goal Of Using Sustainable Fabrics?
So, new brands. Instead of asking what is the most sustainable fabric, or, what are all the publications like Fashionista writing about, ask yourself what is the best option for you and your brand? Don't get sucked into the media hype. Do the research, and always, always, always, think holistically when choosing what fabric is right for your company and its core values.
Here are a few more examples of different things to think about when choosing sustainable fabric suppliers for your supply chain.
Thinking About The End Use
For example, if you are trying to make a swimsuit out of organic cotton knits, your end product is going to be terrible. Once a person gets out of the water the organic cotton fabrics are going to weigh 30lbs. Cotton is not a comfortable fabric to swim in. Also, it will degrade quickly when exposed to sun, salt, and chlorine. Polyester or nylon are the right choices for a product like this because they will help the swimsuit last the longest, and get the most wear. And, you know, your customer will actually want to wear it because it will be good quality and comfortable, and most importantly function.
Focus On Longevity
Speaking of good quality. Think about this. 5 years ago I went on a pro-polyester crusade and wrote this blog post all about buying quality denim. Uneducated bloggers called me "crazy". Today, they have realized they were the wrong ones. Side note, stop getting your information from influencers - please! And now, multiple publications have been writing about what I have been saying all along, polyester isn't all that evil… what can I say, I have always been ahead of my time ;)
Basically, my point was that (especially in denim) if you use a little bit of polyester (or even better-recycled polyester) it helps to prevent the fabric from bagging, sagging, and wearing out after sewing it into a garment. You only need about 10-20% in your wovens. But, that little bit will help you wear your jeans for years longer.
To me, it's way more sustainable to have jeans that have a bit of strategic polyester in them and will last 10 extra years than ones that don't and I throw away after 1 season when they stretch out.
Again, the take away here is end-use. Is polyester the most eco fiber? Absolutely not. But, is it a fiber that could add longevity to a garment and prevent it from ending up prematurely in a landfill? You bet it is! So, if its use is coming from an engineering standpoint, then I say go for it!
Sustainable Fabric List
Don't worry, I would never leave you hanging. I have put together a comprehensive list of sustainable fabric suppliers, what they really are, and their pros and cons.
Remember, you aren't ready for this list if you don't clearly understand your garment's end-use and the best type of fabric that will holistically make it sustainable. So make sure you do all the product research before choosing one.
Deadstock / Available Stock
I have kind have become the go-to source on all things deadstock. That is because I was the first to break the greenwashing scandal. A lot of the stuff brands think is deadstock, and that they are saving from the landfill, is actually planned excess inventory. Suppliers actually purposely make the extra fabric to sell to small brands exactly like them. If you want to learn more check out the article I wrote, and my feature in Sourcing Journal.
There is nothing wrong with using available inventory. It is a great option for small startup brands that don't have the budget to custom knit or weave their own textiles. But, to avoid unnecessary greenwashing, just be clear about what you are using, and why you are using it.
And here is a pro tip. If you are a small brand, instead of searching for sustainable fabric suppliers for deadstock fabric, try reading out to bigger brands and asking if they have leftover yardage from past seasons. Most brands love to give this fabric away instead of throwing it away.
Organic Textiles + Fair Trade
Organic fabrics are one of the only regulated certifications in the sustainable fashion world. For sustainable fabric suppliers to be GOTS certified, organic a garment must adhere to specific qualifications.
According to the USDA, only 70% of the contents need to be organic to have an organic label.
In my opinion, organic is always a better option than conventional fibers. I also like to go with a fair trade product if I can. TBH, I prefer fair trade certification over GOTS, because fabrics made under fair trade are more holistic of the entire supply chain, and help to ensure ethical treatment at every level.
The other problem with GOTS is that it's super expensive. There are lots of really amazing farmers who are doing great work, but they can't get the certification simply because they can't afford to pay 10k or more per year (yea, that's how much it costs). Personally, I would love to see the industry move away from paid certifications like this.
Regenerated vs Regenerative
These two words sound the same, but, they are extremely different.
Let's start with regenerated. Regenerated is basically a fancy and kind of eco-sounding way of saying rayon. The definition of regenerated fibers is "created by dissolving the cellulose area of plant fiber in chemicals and making it into fiber again. "
Wow. That doesn't sound very eco to me. Be careful working with sustainable fabric suppliers that use this terminology - you will need to do a little more digging into their supply chain.
And, get this, the rayon fibers can come from almost any type of plan. (Read oranges, seaweed, etc - but we will talk more about that in a minute).
What about regenerative? Regenerative fibers come from regenerative farming practices. Regenerative farming is a system of farming principles and practices with the goal of rehabilitating and enhancing a farm. Each farm is looked at like its own mini-ecosystem. A big part of regenerative farming is working to capture CO2 and draw it back down into the soil. Doing this not only helps to prevent global warming but actually reverses it.
That's pretty cool.
Be careful. Brands love using the term regenerated fibers because they know it is often confused by consumers for the much more eco-friendly regenerative type. Don't be fooled, or fall into a greenwashing trap.
Different Rayon AKA Vegan Silk
Viscose, Modal, Tencel, Bamboo... The list goes on and on.
Speaking of regenerated rayon, let's break that down now. I am going to do a quick run-through of the different types. But, if you are looking for a super detailed lesson about rayon - check this out. It's literally everything you could possibly want to know about rayon and rayon manufacturing.
Let's start with the 3 main types of rayon. There are more, but for now, let's stick with the 3 most commonly used in fashion. They are viscose, modal, and Tencel, generically known as lyocell. While all these fibers are very different. Technically they are all under the umbrella of rayons.
Viscose is the original rayon. To many, it is also considered the most toxic form of rayon. And, that might have been true 5-10 years ago. But, keep up. There are now more eco-friendly viscose rayon options like Birla Spun Shades Viscose Fiber.
"The Birla Spunshades Viscose Staple Fiber, their spun-dyed viscose fiber, is colored by injecting the dye into the fiber itself, eliminating the need for conventional dyeing and saving more than 30 liters of water per meter of fabric. It is Cradle to Cradle Gold Certified."
Second generation modal is made from the wood pulp of birch trees. Modal is made in a closed-loop system so there is no waste. Technically the system is toxic, just like viscose production. But, because the process takes those toxic chemicals and reuses them instead of releasing them into the environment, the process then becomes eco-friendly.
Modal is a great vegan silk alternative, especially modal fibers that are woven using a satin weave pattern.
Tencel + Lyocell
Here is a secret, Tencel and lyocell are the same things. Tencel is just a brand name lyocell produced by Lenzing. A benefit of working with Lenzing is they do offer some transparency into their fiber producing supply chain as to where the wood pulp is coming from.
Lyocell feels very similar to the feel of certified cotton, and is extremely breathable, just like cotton. But, it has a much more flowy and silky feel. One problem designers often having using natural fibers like cotton and hemp is that they can not get flowy garments. Lyocell solves this, if you like the natural cotton feel, but want more drape, definitely try this fiber out.
Orange, Seaweed, Bamboo, Etc
Spoiler - all of these fabrics are just different types of rayons. While the companies that make them market themselves as sustainable fabric suppliers of the future, they are really just kind of taking something old and rebranding it.
Remember, the definition of rayon is that its derived from cellulose taken from plants. Each of these new fabrics is really just different types of rayon with different cellulose source materials.
The thing you want to watch out for when working with new rayons is which process they use. Bamboo is a great example of this. Bamboo rayon made under the viscose process is usually not really eco-friendly. But, bamboo rayon made using the closed-loop eco lyocell process is much more earth-friendly.
To recap, the most important thing to consider when working with rayons is not necessarily what they are made of or where their cellulose came from, but how they were made.
Corn + Soy
I guess that if you are here, or have been reading my blog for a while, you already know that fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic (often used for vegan sweaters) are actually plastics and made from petroleum.
There is a new generation of plastic fibers today and they're made from agricultural products. Reebok made eco waves with their shoes made of corn.
There is also a growing trend to make vegan sweaters in soya fabric, also known as vegetable cashmere.
The only downside to plastics, even the new ones is how they are processed once the consumer is done with them.
But, do they biodegrade?
The problem with a lot of plastics is that they basically last forever. Or, break down into microfibers that pollute our waterways and harm ecosystems.
Even plastics that claim to biodegrade have been found to still be totally useable almost 3 years later after being buried in the ground. A big problem with this new biodegradable technology is that it has only been tested in labs, where there are perfect conditions. And, the real world is not perfect. So, we are only now finding out they do not do what they are supposed to do.
So, please remember to do your research when picking alternative and biodegradable plastics.
Did you know there are actually two kinds of fabric recycling? And, they are very different. They are chemical and mechanical.
Chemical recycling takes a fiber, chemically breaks it down into a liquid and then makes a new fiber out of that. So cotton fabric that is chemically recycled actually becomes a type of rayon. Chemical recycling also takes place with polyesters and nylons using different pre-and post-consumer sources for plastic.
Mechanical recycling takes a piece of fabric and mechanically breaks it down back into fiber form. The fibers are then spun into new yarns and then knit or woven into a fabric.
Pro tip - When you are talking about textile recycling make sure to understand which type you are using, and the pros and cons to each.
Vegan vs Natural
This is a debate that will never end, and in my opinion, there is no correct answer about.
Historically, vegan leather options have been limited to plastics, as their nickname "pleather" would suggest. But, today there are more "eco-friendly" leather options that I can keep up with.
There is banana leather, pinnable leather, cactus, mushroom, and more.
One of the original alternative vegan leathers was Pinatex. Pintatex made waves being made from the waste from pineapple plantations. At first, it seems like the perfect textile, made from plants and looked like leather.
But, then as we (the industry) all did a little more digging, we found out that while their Pinatex product was being marketed as natural and plant-based, unlike plants it could not biodegrade. Meaning, just like conventional pleather this too would sit in the landfill for thousands of years.
That doesn't sound eco friendly to me.
Let this be a lesson. Dig deep, and ask questions. Find out if what you are buying is technology greenwashing or the real eco deal.
Sustainable Fabric Suppliers Of The Future
On the topic of new fibers, here is a list of new types of fabrics that I have my eye on.
Fabric made from coffee beans "After baking, brewing, and one other patent process, S.Café® is able to offer something far beyond your wildest imagination."
S. Cafe uses coffee as the base of everything they do. From a patented print technique that creates a "quick-drying touch, odor control reduces condensation rate, and a tremendously sustainable product" to the "worlds-first sustainable bio-foam" made from coffee oil. S. Cafe is a technology company to watch. And, with big companies like L.L. Bean as clients, coffee fiber technology looks like a trend that is here to stay.
The name "Brewed Protein™ refers to protein materials produced from plant-derived biomass using Spiber’s proprietary fermentation process.
"Brewed Protein materials can be processed into a variety of forms, with examples ranging from delicate filament fibers with a silky sheen to spun yarns that boast features such as cashmere-like softness or the renowned thermal and moisture-wicking properties of wool."
They even make animal-free fur!
With all-new technology companies I always ask, but is it scalable? Can this really revolutionize the industry? And, will it be affordable to the masses? And, it looks like for Spiber, it is - "Spiber’s Thailand plant, currently under construction, is scheduled to begin commercial operation in 2021 with an annual capacity of several hundred tonnes, and preparations are underway for additional scale-up initiatives aimed at further reducing environmental burden and production costs."
I know Stella McCartney and the bros over at Bolt Threads would like us to think that her spider silk is a new idea. But, for us industry folks it is old news.
Spider silk has actually been around since the 1990s (read 30 years old), thanks to a company called Nexia Biotechnologies and their invention BioSteel. They were able to grow spider silk protein in goat milk!
Unfortunately, Nexia when out of business and is no longer around, but Spiber continues this science with the qmonos fibers.
If you want to check out the technology in action take a look a The North Face Moon Parka.
I love this idea, but with full transparency, this company has been basically impossible to get in touch with to sample the fabric.
Everything is made from recycled milk protein from the dairy industry, And, the product range includes vegan silk-like yarns, vegan yarns that feel like wool, felt, and now even cosmetic applications.
If you are able to get in touch with this company let me know because I have been dying (get it) to check these textiles out.
Personally, I have never been into wool. It's itchy, it's scratch, and I just don't like it. Now, real, luxury cashmere, that is a whole other story. But, thanks to greenwashing from brands like Nadaam and bad PR tactics, real luxury cashmere is becoming harder and harder to find.
I think that's why I am naturally so drawn to vegan wool alternatives.
Woocoa is a wool fiber made from coconuts. It looks like the fibers developed by students from the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota is still in the very early stages, but I am keeping my eye on them, and hope this fiber becomes commercially viable in the near future.
This is probably my favorite eco textile because you can DIY at home.
All you need is some kombucha scoby, and a few other household ingredients like sugar and black tea. How cool is that?
See, sometimes sustainable options don't have to be crazy science, and can be as easy as brewing tea in your own home kitchen.
Do you love any other sustainable textiles that you think are going to change the industry?
Please share them here in the comments. And, what do you think? Should I do an ethical (very different from sustainable) fabric roundup next?