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Sustainable fabrics are fabrics that are cultivated and made in a sustainable way, using environmentally considerate processes and products and avoiding the creation of as much pollution as possible. Production of such fabrics needs to show how the impact on the environment is minimised, such as reducing or stopping the use of chemicals, the minimisation of emissions into air and water and growing organically where possible. The working conditions of people and the treatment of animals involved in production is also part of what makes fabrics sustainable, ensuring healthy lifestyles for both people and associated animals accompany the production of the fabrics. For example, a company that produces organic wool will be aiming to only carry as many sheep as the land can sustain without the addition of chemicals and the sheep will be fed pasture not treated with chemicals.
Typical sustainable fabrics
The most well-known sustainable fabrics include organic wool, organically grown cotton, hemp (where it is legal to grow it) and bamboo.
There are many attempts, some very successful, to create fabric from recycled products such as plastic PET bottles. The sustainability or otherwise of such items is dependent on the processes that result in the materials requiring recycling.
Sustainable fabrics are competing with low-cost fabrics that are produced using chemicals, energy-hungry production processes and processes that often don't take account of emissions into the environment. As a result, many sustainable fabrics have a higher cost factor for consumers and this has resulted in such fabrics being seen as a niche market for those who can afford them only. Hopefully as more farmers turn to creating sustainable fabrics and more non-niche companies choose to use and sell these fabrics, this will begin to change and the consumer availability will broaden and become more affordable for all.
The growing and harvesting methods also concern the well-being of the farmers. Fair trade approaches to sustainable fabrics mean that those workers involved in growing and harvesting sustainable fabric resources will earn better wages and work reasonable hours. Some companies are making it very clear to consumers that their products are not only sustainable but also fair trade, encouraging consumers to vote with their wallet for better conditions for all.
Certifying sustainable fabrics
A lot of considerations must be taken into account when calling a fabric "sustainable". The buyer of such fabrics will want to know about the entire supply chain. Certification with a relevant body can act as reassurance to consumers that the fabric is truly sustainable. Certification can reassure a consumer that: the plants were grown free of pesticides and chemicals, that the methods used for harvesting were considerate of both environment and workers, that wool was grown and shorn (sheared) under humane conditions and that waste has been properly accounted for and minimised or transformed into something harmless. Certification will probably also look at whether the fabrics are biodegradable or reusable.
Certification is an expensive process and some suppliers claim to be sustainable or eco-friendly when their fabrics may not meet these high standards. Look for certification from bodies such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or the International Federation of Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) on the labels of fabrics you are told are sustainable.
Other aspects of sustainable fabrics
As well as being grown and harvested under humane and eco-friendly conditions, sustainable fabrics should embody good quality. They should last, perform well and be cradle-to-cradle products that can either decompose or be reused at the end of their current use. Items made from sustainable fabrics should be of high quality and to be consistent, they should be made according to the same high standards expected for the fabrics themselves, such as garment industry workers being paid properly, working under good and safe conditions.
Using sustainable fabrics
Sustainable fabrics are used in the same manner as their non-sustainably produced counterparts. Some of the fabrics are less well known than others, such as bamboo or hemp, but once you've worked with these, you'll find they are high quality and very versatile fabrics, suitable for many purposes.