Story at a glance:

  • The mass production of conventional textiles has numerous negative environmental consequences.
  • All fabrics generally fall into three categories: naturally derived, semi-synthetic, and synthetic.
  • Industry leaders are pioneering sustainable textile products using recyclable materials.

We’ve all heard of the harmful effects of fast fashion on the planet—and textiles used in the built environment are no exception. Sadly the textile industry generates one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution, and textile dyeing is the second largest water polluter in the world. Chemical pesticides involved in cotton farming and the petroleum required to create synthetic fabrics are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, the population will increase to 9.6 billion. That means that we could require almost three planets worth of finite natural resources to sustain our current rate of consumption. With the increase in population, the built industry will be forced to accommodate eco-friendly alternatives based on the inevitable environmental limitations.

Fortunately, sustainable fabrics are on the rise in an attempt to reverse the negative environmental effects associated with the textile industry. To help make more eco-friendly choices on your next project, reference this guide to sustainable fabrics.

Why Textiles Typically Aren’t Green

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Carpet waste in a landfill. Photo courtesy of Aquafil

Often textiles aren’t sustainable in part due to a global model of mass production that supports a culture of consumption. Conventional textile production is reliant on the unregulated use of pesticides, toxic fertilizers, overuse of water, coal, and petroleum. 

For example, cotton, a natural fabric, and polyester, a synthetic one, are not significantly different in their environmental impacts. Conventional cotton depletes land biodiversity, uses mind-blowing amounts of water, and is one of the most chemically intensive crops in the world. In fact, seven out of the 15 most commonly used pesticides in the production of cotton are listed as “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the EPA.

Polyester on the other hand is the most popular synthetic fabric and is derived from a chemical process involving coal, petroleum, air, and water. Although polyester does not use as much water as cotton does, the carbon emissions and energy needed to produce it make it a very high-impact textile. For instance, in 2015, polyester produced for clothing emitted 620 billion pounds of CO2—nearly three times more than that of cotton.

Illustrative of all conventional textiles, both fabrics are produced in factories on a mass scale, undergoing chemical processes involving detergents, bleaches, and chemical softeners. Additionally, if factories producing these textiles do not have wastewater treatment systems, potentially toxic chemicals like antimony, cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide, and titanium dioxide go straight into the environment affecting waterways and aquatic life.

What Makes For Sustainable Fabrics

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Photo courtesy of Aquafil

Given the range of materials used in textile manufacturing, some fare better in the way of pollution than others. Conventional cotton and polyester are at the worse end of the spectrum for their significant carbon footprint and water consumption. Materials like linen, hemp, and organic cotton are innately more sustainable due to the reduced water and pesticides needed to produce them.

What is tricky about sustainable textiles are the trade-offs. For example, organic cotton is not genetically modified nor does it use pesticides the way conventional cotton does. However, with organic cotton, there can be up to 25% lower yields. This suggests that to produce the same amount of cotton as a conventional plant, more cotton plants need to be tendered. Thus organic cotton farmers require more land and more water but save on the chemical processes.

Ideally textiles of all kinds can become more sustainable through conscious consumer and manufacturer actions. By implementing slower production schedules and designing small-batch collections, textiles can be created more sustainably.

The reality is, every ton of reused discarded textiles prevents 20 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. From a consumer’s point of view, choosing to purchase used, upcycled, or recycled fabric extends its lifetime and reduces its carbon footprint.

Types of Sustainable Fabrics

Natural, semi-synthetic, and even synthetic fabrics can sustainably be used in shade structures, carpets, wallcoverings, and more.

Naturally Derived Fabrics

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Crafted from a blend of wool and flax, the new Craggan Flax fabric retains the raw appeal of its natural composition while maintaining its contemporary aesthetic of a chunky weave. Photo courtesy of Camira

Natural textiles are made from plant and animal sources such as bamboo, wool, hemp, linen, and silk. These types of fabrics predate man-made synthetics.  Natural fabrics are easily biodegradable and can be sourced sustainably but are dependent on the manufacturers’ individual processes.

As a centuries-old textile, linen’s natural fibers are made from flax making it a natural and biodegradable fabric. Linen is also a highly absorbent fabric, stronger when wet, and softens the more it is worn and washed. Its sturdiness makes linen an ideal choice for upholstery or industrial uses. However, because of the laborious nature of producing linen yarn, linen products may be more expensive than others.

Another example is Biobased Xorel, sourced from sugarcane rather than fossil fuels. Developed by Carnegie, Xorel is a durable textile generated without a significant carbon footprint. It has earned Cradle to Cradle Gold and is Living Product Challenge-certified. Xorel yarn is free of dyes and plasticizers and inherently non-absorbent and antimicrobial. This high-tech textile is a great option for wrapped panels, upholstery., or wallcoverings.

Camira, known for its low-impact textiles, has also made a natural fabric made from wool and flax called Craggen Flax. Its chunky weave gives the fabric a unique textured quality and has earned the Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development. Along with its numerous bright and neutral colorways, this is a sustainable option suited for task and lounge seating as well as panel construction.

Semi-Synthetic Fabrics

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ECONYL® yarn spools at one of Aquafil’s production facilities. Photo courtesy of Aquafil

Semi-synthetic fabrics are made in part from naturally occurring fibers, such as tree pulp or bamboo grass, that are broken down by a chemical reaction of acid and alcohol and eventually spun into yarn. They are widely used throughout the world from bedspreads to hospital draperies. Common examples include rayon, lyocell, modal, and Cupro.

Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric derived from wood pulp. The plant-based fabric is mixed with solvents, dissolved, and chemically treated before becoming fibers used for yarn.

A tier above lyocell is a particularly sustainable type of fabric called TENCEL. TENCEL is a biobased proprietary blend of lyocell and modal fibers made from renewable raw material wood. It requires less water and fewer dyes than cotton, as it is naturally white, and has wide applications due to its textural versatility.

Some semi-synthetic fabrics were created to mimic silk or to reduce costs inherent to higher quality textiles. Semi-synthetics are considered beneficial due to their stain resistance, technical performance, waterproofing, and their cheaper price point.

However, treatment processes can involve toxic chemicals like ammonia, formaldehyde, and sulphuric acid. These chemicals can leave residues that linger on the textiles post-production and cause adverse health effects such as skin irritation, nausea, headaches, or chronic respiratory infections.

The best practice for incorporating textiles is to research how and where they’re made, whether the fabric in question is synthetic or natural.

Synthetic Fabrics

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Photo courtesy of Designtex

Synthetic fabrics are textiles created from plastic. As with anything, there are positives and negatives to these man-made fabrics. Namely, they can be advantageous in that they’re often more durable and accessible than natural fibers. Synthetic fabrics can also be produced using recycled materials helping to divert waste from landfills. However, they can be highly flammable, giving off poisonous gases as they burn, and unless said fabrics are within a closed-loop recycling model, they can take as many as 200 years to decompose in landfills.

Part of the debate between natural and synthetic fabrics is their usage. Synthetic fabrics are generally better for technical use and have a wide range of applications. Some companies are disrupting the industry by creating textiles that are both synthetic and sustainable.

One such fabric created by industry leader Aquafil is a regenerated nylon fabric called ECONYL; it’s made from 100% plastic waste, derived from materials like reclaimed carpets and fishing nets. They’re able to produce yarn from these waste products and generate new nylon fabrics with the same quality as traditional nylon. ECONYL is infinitely recyclable and does not lose quality after reclamation. Compared to traditional nylon fabric, ECONYL has a 90% reduction in global warming potential. This fabric is versatile and particularly suited for interior products like rugs and curtains.

Another popular choice in synthetic fabrics is recycled polyester. Traditionally made from crude oil, polyester is essentially plastic produced from a finite resource. Recycled polyester is made from breaking down existing plastics that would normally end up in landfills. The plastic is then reduced into tiny pieces that are eventually processed into yarn. American design and manufacturing company Designtex uses recycled polyester in their carbon neutral Rider, Tailor, and Wend collection, consisting of high-performing upholstery fabrics. The versatility of recycled polyester means that Designtex can offer its sustainable fabrics in 52 colors and several textures. This synthetic fabric achieves the same desired look as virgin polyester but with a sustainable impact.

We can all take part in mitigating the effects of climate change through well-researched and conscientious textile choices. As this guide to sustainable fabric shows, there is a huge opportunity to allocate sustainable fabrics within commercial and residential projects.