Where To Source Sustainable Fabrics (with low minimums)
At least once a day, I get an email from someone asking me for help finding sustainable fabrics. I hate getting emails like these because the world of sustainable fabrics is huge. Also, the right fabric for a brand depends on what the brand is making as well as their personal values. Founders want this stamp of approval from me that, yes, this is the most sustainable fabric. But the truth is the process is not one size fits all. What is the perfect supply chain for one brand might be a total disaster for another brand.
But, before we get started.
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It's a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers use it, but you can't find it anywhere publicly.
The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I'm giving it away for free until the end of the month.
so, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT SO SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE
So, in this article, I am going to share with you some of the most cutting-edge sustainable fabric suppliers.
But, know this, there are hundreds of others out there just like them. Just because they are not on my list, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing amazing work.
And, that is why I don’t want you to skip the first section of this article “A Little Textile Industry Background” - it is going to teach you how to spot the real eco friendly fabrics from the greenwashing yourself.
I hope that by making this info free and public, fewer people will email me the “can you help me find sustainable fabric” request and instead be able to do the research on their own, figuring out what exactly it is they need.
In this article, you will learn . . .
- A little sustainable textile industry background
- Recycled fabrics
- Eco leather options
- Ethical silk
- Other random cool textiles that should be on your radar
- Chemicals and finishes
- Trim and packaging
- Certifications (I know I normally say I hate certifications because they often have as much value as the paper they are stamped on, but this one is really cool!)
- Additional resources to help you source fabrics
Before I share all of my fav fabric suppliers, I need you to first understand what sustainable fabrics are and aren’t.
IF SUSTAINABLE FABRICS ARE SO GREAT, WHY ISN’T EVERYONE USING THEM?
The truth is, most brands give up before they ever really get going.
The bottom line, no fluff, no bs answer? New technology is expensive, and most customers don’t see value in it. In other words, brands can invest a ton of money into making products out of sustainable fabrics. Then they need to sell these products at a slightly higher price point to offset the cost of production. But what happens at the checkout counter is that the customer often chooses the cheapest (usually less sustainable) option. Sure, there are plenty of keyboard warriors who demand that brands create more sustainable options in the comments section of Instagram. But when it comes to making an actual purchase, even they pinch pennies.
Is the juice worth the squeeze?
There is actual data to back this up – check out this article that proves the disproportion between people who say they want to shop more consciously and those who actually do.
Case in point is recycled polyester and recycled nylon. This technology of making new fabric from recycled plastic bottles is nearly 50 years old but only became popular in the past five years. Now, we see it everywhere from Target to the brand your trust fund friend is starting to “save the oceans” (yes, that was a jab at a company I know that boasts a sustainable supply chain but has never even been to the country where their products are made . . . talk about greenwashing).
Anyway, when large brands start using something like recycled polyester, they are able to drive down the price because of their large order sizes. As a result, the fibers and sustainable fabrics become more accessible to everyone. Today, recycled polyester fabric is just about the same price as virgin (new) polyester.
This didn’t happen overnight. For years, the price of recycled poly was 4-5x or even more, higher than virgin, but as more and more people started using it, prices came down.
A lot of influencers, like usual, get sustainability wrong.
(jeez, I am throwing a lot of shade in this article, but hey, it’s the truth). I often see sustainable fashion influencers suggest on social media that brands are too big, so they need to adopt a model of de-growth. And that for the world to be truly sustainable, these big brands basically need to go away.
But this is the opposite of what needs to happen, IMO. Because if we didn’t have big orders coming from big brands, these new technologies would be crazy expensive (read financially impossible) to use.
The thing is, whether you like it or not, it is impossible to bring down prices without volume. Anyway, enough of that. If you want, you can scroll on down to the bottom of this page and leave me your thoughts in the comments section.
Now, there is another problem with big brands being the earliest adopters of new technologies. Even if small brands can get the same fabric price big brands can, small brands are still at a disadvantage. Why? Because they can’t compete with CMT (cut, make trim – aka sewing costs). The price of making 10,000 shirts is drastically different than making 100 or even 1000.
So customers can often get this new technology from brands like Patagonia or LVMH group for cheaper than they can get it from the small brand.
But don’t lose hope, small startup fashion founders – this is where good marketing comes in.
Here is what I recommend if your research into sustainable fabrics is giving you sticker shock.
- Use it strategically. Meaning, instead of making an entire garment out of a $30 fabric, only use the fabric in small strategic areas.
- Then, educate your customer. Teach them about the textile.
- Ask for feedback. Are your customers into it? Or do they not care as much about sustainable fabrics as you thought they would? Sometimes brands spend all of this money on the newest sustainable fabric technology and their customer would have been just as happy with simple organic cotton.
- If they like it, start investing in a higher percentage of the garment being made out of the expensive textile.
SUSTAINABLE FABRIC SUPPLIERS THAT SHOULD BE ON YOUR RADAR
Now, the part you have been waiting for . . . the most sustainable fabrics (IMO) and suppliers who make them!
Before you can start chatting with suppliers, you should understand the different types of recycled fabrics.
Let’s use recycled cotton as an example.
Mechanical cotton recycling is a physical process that shreds fabrics and garments apart back to their original fiber state. Once we have fibers again, we can spin yarns and knit or weave those yarns into whatever fabrics we want to use.
Chemical cotton recycling is a lot like the rayon production process. Actually, it basically is rayon production. But, instead of wood pulp, this technology uses old cotton garments. With the help of chemicals the cotton dissolves into a pulp, and then new semi-synthetic (or synthetic, depending on who you ask) fibers are made.
This process is chemical-heavy. And you might be wondering why anyone would choose to do chemical recycling when mechanical sounds a lot more natural.
There are pros and cons to all fabrics
Well, one of the biggest cons with mechanical recycling is that the fibers become weaker in the process. Because of this, fibers can only be mechanically re-recycled so many times. And eventually, newer, stronger fibers (like ones from conventional cotton production methods), might need to be blended into the recycled ones to give the fabric strength.
But, with chemical recycling, the new rayon fibers are just as strong or stronger than the original cotton. And they can be recycled and re-recycled technically forever.
See, everything has its pros and cons – no system is perfect.
If you want to dive into all the differences and pros and cons between mechanical and chemical textile recycling, you can check out this post on recycled cotton. There is a lot of info in this 15-minute read, so I reccomend clicking on over.
All fibers can be either mechanically or chemically recycled. So it’s important to specify to suppliers what you are looking for.
RECYCLED COTTON - SANTIS TEXTILES
Santis Textiles is a Swiss family-owned company that operates out of Singapore. They create 100% mechanically recycled cotton fabrics, and they are RCO 100 certified. In 2016, they created the first 100% mechanically recycled cotton fabric.
RECYCLED DENIM - BOSSA
Bossa, founded in 1951, is one of the biggest textile companies in Turkey. Today, they have an entire sustainable denim collection called RESET. All fabrics are made with 100% recycled cotton or PET, and are dyed with natural dyes.
FOR RECYCLED POLYESTER, CHECK OUT THIS ROUND-UP HERE
FOR RECYCLED WOOL WITH LOW MOQS, CHECK OUT THIS ARTICLE
LEATHER AND SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES
This is one area where, no matter how hard brands try, they just can’t seem to please everyone.
Vegetarians and vegans insist that pleather and animal-free products are the best.
And, the people who are into fewer carbon emissions will almost always opt for natural leather.
The thing is, there is no right answer here. Deciding whether to go vegan or oui natural is a personal preference based on your values.
So let’s talk about both.
REAL LEATHER WITH ECO TANNING
In traditional leather tanning, the industry uses toxic and cancer-causing chemicals like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and arylamines. Not only do these chemicals end up on the leather clothes you buy, but they also end up contaminating the local groundwater of the people who make them.
If you are going to buy natural animal-based leather, make sure to look for eco-friendly tanning options like vegetable-based tanning.
And, to give you a sourcing head start, here are a few vegetable-tanned leather suppliers you should consider.
FISH LEATHER - Nova Kaeru - Pirarucu
Pirarucu is a luxury leather made in Brazil from the skin of the pirarucu fish. The skins used in the leather are actually a waste product from the current fishing industry.
And as an added eco bonus, this leather can biodegrade back into the earth in 120 days!
VEGAN LEATHER BY BELEAF
The problem with vegan leather is that until recently, it was made with petroleum and was basically plastic – that’s how it got its nickname, pleather. Plastic leather.
But today, there are so many different plant leather options. You have probably already heard of Piñatex and Bananatex – two of the more popular options, so I’ll skip getting into detail about these and share a few more options you may not have heard about yet.
beLEAF, is also made by Nova Kaeru.
This leather alternative uses elephant ear plants and has a completely organic tanning process.
The process of creating the product not only doesn’t contribute to climate change but actually helps reverse it. Growing the plants for beLEAF helps to capture CO2 (greenhouse gas) from the environment and sequester it back into the soil where it belongs.
ECO AND ETHICAL SILK
Let’s talk silk. Silk has the same ethical philosophical debate as leather. If animals are being harmed in making it, is it really ethical and sustainable?
Quick background on how silk is made in case you don’t know, it’s actually pretty violent.
Silkworms spin cocoons made of silk. Left in nature, the silkworm, when done in its cocoon, would munch a hole and emerge. But when the silkworm munches a hole, the long lustrous filament of the cocoon becomes destroyed. So silk farmers essentially boil the worms alive and gently unwrap the cocoon in one continuous thread.
The reason we want one long continuous thread is that it will create the shiny, smooth, luxury fabric silk is synonymous for.
Ethical Natural Silk
There is something called peace silk where the worm is able to do its thing naturally, and then the bits and pieces of silk fibers are spun into yarns. But the overall effect of the fabric is very different. It tends to be stiffer and has a lot of little bumps and knots in it.
Now, there is nothing wrong with peace silk, but if you are going for the look of flowy, sexy, drapey, it might not be the fabric for you. Instead, you might want to think about trying a man-made option.
The first vegan silks were nylon
Meaning, they came from petroleum. Did you know that nylon was actually invented to replace silk parachutes during World War II?
The only problem with nylon is that it's basically plastic.
But today, there are more and more plant-based options that are popping up.
VEGAN ORANGE FIBER SILK
Ferragamo was the first to use this man-made silk (basically a rayon) made from the waste of the orange juice industry. But today, even fast fashion industry giants like H&M are using this eco-alternative to polyesters.
MORE VEGAN SILKS
Other plant-based silk fibers to look into are ramie, modal, cupro, and lotus silk.
OTHER SUSTAINABLE FABRICS I LOVE
One of the most environmentally damaging parts of supply chains are where color is added. Many of these chemicals are seriously toxic and have been linked to a variety of health issues.
Thankfully, there are more and more natural and toxin-free dying methods being used in the industry.
But what if you didn’t have to use dye at all?
COLOR GROWN COTTON
Did you know that it is possible to grow cotton varieties with color? Imagine a field of millennial pink or sage green cotton instead of the fluffy white balls we normally see. How cool is that?
The only downside is that there are not a lot of colors to choose from (think yellows, pinks, and greens only).
“Organic Cotton Colours has been working with organic cotton for 30 years in colours that are born naturally from the seed; ecru, green, and brown. No added dyes or chemical processes. Just as it grew 5,000 years ago. They preserve naturally colorful organic cotton varieties thanks to the OCC Guarantee Social Project, under which more than 350 families of farmers in the northeast of Brazil are protected. They work the land following farming methods typical of regenerative agriculture that seeks to generate a positive impact on the ecosystem through cultivation.”
Another place a lot of toxic chemicals are used, is in the finishing process.
When you see words like “waterproof” or “wicking” on your clothing tags, it probably means there is a chemical finish that helps the fabric repel water. (FYI wool is a fiber that has natural water repellency build into the fiber). Some of the most toxic garments in our closets are in our performance clothing.
Thankfully, today there are alternatives available.
Beyond Surface Technologies works with some of the top companies in the world, including Patagonia and Lululmeon. And they have an extensive portfolio of eco-friendly fabric finishes that use algae and plant seeds. The finishes even have GOTS - which stands for Global Organic Textile Standard - approval.
PFCs are Perfluorinated Chemicals that help fabrics repel water. The thing is, these chemicals are not the best for people or the planet.
But, Rudolfs Bionic Finish Eco provides waterproofing protection, without any of the bad stuff:
Or you could skip the chemical finishing altogether by using something called fiber welding by RLX CLARUS.
What exactly is fiber welding?
“The patented CLARUS technology platform uses ionic liquids to swell, mobilize and then reconstruct cellulosic bonds at the molecular level (e.g., different methods of “welding” fibers). When carefully engineered and controlled, this creates stronger, more durable, and functional yarns and fabrics. Lastly we remove and recapture the salt for reuse, leaving nothing but the original natural fiber behind. The end product is 100 percent natural fiber, nothing more, nothing less—but with new performance characteristics.”
Polo was first to market with this one, collaborating with the fiber manufacturer to create a limited edition iconic polo shirt.
TRIM AND PACKAGING
While technically not a sustainable fabric, trim and packaging are two other categories that you should consider paying special attention to greenifying.
For example, have you thought about how eco the threads are that sew your garment together? Often, in manufacturing we use polyester threads in sewing and embroidery because they are strong. But, they aren’t the most eco. Try checking out Madeira’s tencel and lyocell threads if you want a sustainable and biodegradable sewing option.
PACKAGING AND PAPER OPTIONS
Have you ever thought about the impact that all of those little paper hang tags that come on your clothes has on the planet? Well, the folks over at Green Whisper have. They specialize in creating paper products with the smallest environmental impact possible and focus on reusing waste from other agricultural industries like pineapple leaves waste.
And, another company, Ecovative is a packaging company that uses mycelium to grow new materials out of waste that can be used for packaging and construction. Pretty cool, right?
And, BTW, they also create animal-free leather.
Certifications are basically stamps that show consumers that a garment upholds a certain set of ethical or environmental standards. Common certifications in the industry are BlueSign, FairTrade, and GOTS.
I know, I know. I normally advise people to stay away from certifications. They are expensive, and IMO a bit corrupt. Don’t just take my word for it, check out this GOTS expose here.
NATIVA PRECIOUS FIBER
But, I have to say that I am liking this Nativa Precious Fiber certification for traceable wool. What I like about them is that they aren’t trying to certify every fabric in every supply chain like a lof of the other companies I mentioned. Instead, they are really specialize in the world of wool. And, again, this is my opinion, but, I think for people to make real change, they really have to be dialed into their supply chain. The more specialized, the better.
Now for my Fashion Startup Club students and clients, I have a list of over 1000 low moq, startup-friendly sustainable fabric suppliers. Don’t email me, I won’t share it with you - that’s for VIPs only. This article was just a small sampling of everything that is out there.
MORE SOURCING HELP
And, before I go, here are a few more sourcing resources you might find helpful!
- Where to meet sustainable fabric suppliers in person
- Tips for working effectively (read, not get ghosted) by a fabric supplier
- More innovative textiles