Not all fabrics were created equal - How ethical is sustainable fabric.

From organic cotton to clothes made of hemp and bamboo, over the past few years there seems to be a plethora of 'new' fabrics one claiming to be more sustainable than the next. Some people seem to be saying natural fibres are better for the environment and then others say recycled synthetics are best. I've been having a little read around what these different sustainable fabrics are and what it means for a fabric to be sustainable and ethical. 
I hope you enjoy my fabric guide and the information I have found out about the benefits and pitfalls of each fabric!


This is regarded as one of the best and easiest substitutes for cotton and other natural fibres. Because of its fast-growing time and the fact that it needs very little water, it uses fewer resources than other plants (like cotton and hemp) which some would argue makes it a more sustainable option. The bamboo plant also does not need fertilizers and pesticides to grow, it helps the soil in areas plagued by soil erosion and it also is said to have antibacterial and antifungal qualities. While I don't dispute that it is a better option in terms of sustainability, I did find a few questions surrounding just how sustainable and ethical it actually is. 

The market for bamboo has expanded in recent years, meaning large areas of forest and farmland are now being used to grow fields of bamboo. Growing any large monoculture in this way becomes a problem for local animals and biodiversity, as habitats are destroyed and the balance within the ecosystem in the surrounding areas is often upset.

There are also environmental concerns around the processes which turn the bamboo grass into a fibre to be used in the textile industry. Fibers can be extracted from the bamboo mechanically to form bamboo linen, but more often than not they are extracted chemically. This is done through cooking the bamboo in chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide  NaOH and carbon disulphide. These chemicals can cause nerve damage and other health problems for the people that work with them. However, when customers buy clothes there is also a risk of these chemicals leaching into customers skin which many people (including myself) neglect to think about. 

Personally, I would still buy bamboo and I definitely think its a good quality fabric and is more sustainable than other unethical fabric sources. 

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton differs from regular cotton as it is grown without the use of GM crops, fungicides, insecticides, pesticides heavily and requires intensive irrigation. The farmers also use crop rotation and wait for a freeze to inhibit defoliation of the crops, both of which care for the soil and stop the degradation of soil organic matter. 

This helps lower the environmental impact of cotton production; farming in this way requires less water and doesn't erode the soil as much. It also is better for the farmers, as spraying chemicals on the plants and soil cause widespread health problems for the farmers, their families and the communities. These chemicals also linger in our clothes that we put on every day and have an impact on our health in both the long and short-term. 

Organics because they don't use GM, also ensure that farmers don't get into debt to large companies, or have their land seized because they can't repay their debts.Although you might pay a little more for an organic cotton t-shirt this little bit more we pay helps farmers in places like India have enough money to feed their families and send their children to school.

I would choose organic cotton where you can over regular cotton every time. The issues surrounding GM crops are so far-reaching it's important to recognise this. 


Hemp is considered a sustainable fabric because its cultivation requires less water, fertilizer and pesticides. It also is fast growing with a high yield; however, it is quite hard to find good stylish brands who use hemp. Hemp is also mould and mildew resistant and can be blended with other fibres to enhance the strength of those fibres.

As a crop hemp is also better for the environment because it puts nitrogen (one of the key nutrients that crops need to be healthy) back into the soil. Cotton, on the other hand, depletes the land's nutrients extracting all the nutrients from the soil and then when the plan is harvested and nothing is given back to the soil, it ends up depleted and starts to erode. Soil erosion, in my opinion, is the biggest and also the most important environmental problem that the globe faces. 

(I will be writing about this at another time if people are interested in reading about soil.... or I might just write it anyway)

Opinions on how sustainable wool production is can be very highly contested. Personally, I would love to see the re-appreciation and re-valuation of British sheep wool. I defiantly feel like young British people need to start buying more British wool, it can be a very sustainable fabric and produces some of the most classically British clothing on our island. Currently, many farmers don't get a good price for their wool and it is often shipped over to the EU where they can get a better price. I would love to see bigger retailers like Jack Wills really take advantage of this British fabric, especially due to the uncertainty Brexit has caused for sheep farmers.

Wool as a material is used to make jumpers and tweed suits, providing a fabric that is durable moisture resistant, breathable for your skin. Many vegans or animal rights activists disagree with the use of wool however as it is an animal product and they take issue with the practice of mulesing the sheep. I'm not very clear on the issue, but have linked the PETA website; however, I would add that this practice although cruel saves the lives of around 3 million sheep a year from flystrike. Although I don't agree with breeding Merino sheep there seems to be an absence of an alternative.

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) "recognises the welfare implications of mulesing of sheep. However, in the absence of more humane alternatives for preventing strike fly, the AVA accepts that the practice of mulesing should continue as a sheep husbandry procedure".      

I would like to point out that I am for the use of British wool and this practice doesn't happen here, where we do not breed Marino sheep. I also believe that if there was more of a market for high-quality British wool, it would encourage farmers to better care for the animals and with good land management and welfare standards, this can be a good sustainable source of fabric. It would also help keep money in the country and build a stronger farming economy.               

Silk is another natural fibre that sustainability and ethical stance is very contested. It is made from small silk caterpillars that weave silk nests to pupate inside. Although silk is a really good fabric in terms of its effect on consumers (its lack of endocrine disruptions) many vegans don't agree with silk farming as the silk moths never pupate and develop into moths and are killed by steam before they can develop.

It is low impact in terms of the water and resources required in the process; however how it is then dyed, sewn and depending on if the mulberry tree has had any pesticides sprayed on it before it is fed to the silk moths will depend on how sustainable the fabric is. 


Tencel is made from the wood cellulose of the eucalyptus plant and is produced in a circular way, reintroducing the chemicals in the production cycle rather than disposing of them. This makes tencel one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics. This is because tencel less toxic as 99% of the chemicals are filtered and reused, it also needs less water and the whole production process emits fewer greenhouse gases.  The supply chain is more transparent and has been awarded the FSC and the European Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification has also endorsed tencels farming practice. 

The production process also does not need bleach and the toxic chemicals that are used are biologically decomposed and purified; this makes it one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly products. 

As for its use, it can be blended with other fibres or used on its own. Quite a few brands have started using it, like People Tree who have developed many of their new products using tencel.


Rayon is made from wood pulp which is chemically converted into a soluble compound, it is considered to be a semi-synthetic fibre. Rayon can also be identified as viscose modal and lyocell. 

The process of manufacturing is extremely toxic and generates highly polluting air and water emissions, uses catalytic agents containing cobalt or manganese, and creates a strong, unpleasant odour. Because of the carbon disulphide used to make rayon workers can have extream health repercussions mostly strokes from working with Rayon. 

Although it biodegrades faster than cotton the main problems with rayon pollution is found in the deep oceans where it contributes to over half of the total fibres found deep under the oceans and is considered to be a microplastic. This means that everytime you wash clothes made of rayon it will release microplastics into the waterways which will then be released into the oceans. 

If you want to stop your washed releasing microfibres into the oceans click here.

Currently, I believe the best course of action regarding environmental problems like this is to ensure all wastewater is filtered for microfibers. 


This is created out of seaweed and has been regarded as an eco-friendly fabric. To create these brown algae is mixed with cellulose, is regarded as sustainable because of the algae's ability to regrow. It is mainly a mix of tencel and Algae and is a relatively new fabric.

I couldn't find much information on using algae as a fabric but from what I found it does at present seem sustainable. Part of the problem is not the fabrics per-say its the scale of production of many of these 'sustainable fabrics'. Any production on a small scale could be considered sustainable, but when things are commercialised and grown on a huge scale it becomes unsustainable. The best thing we can do for the planet is reduce our consumption of clothes and other fabrics.


Sheryl said...

Very informative post! It's always nice to find organic products.

xx Sheryl |

Ethical Bunny said...

Thank you sweetie :) yes it is I am loving how much more accessible they are now! xx