Quick Reference Materials Guide

Updated: Aug 25

by Alex Berryman


The world of sustainable material is wide and ever-changing! But not all materials are created equal. Some are more sustainable than others and there are many ways to evaluate sustainability in material cultivation and production.


We compiled this list of sustainable materials outlining the pros and cons of the raw material cultivation, processing, production, and end-of-life disposal of the material. By no means is this list exhaustive, just a quick reference guide to get the conversation started!


Let's dive in!



Organic Cotton

With its farming accounting for 2.5% of the world's arable land and many toxic agents used in its cultivation and production, conventional cotton has the potential to be highly toxic to the land, workers, and consumers. Organic cotton is steadily reintroducing both modern and traditional practices to clean up the supply chain.

Pros:

  • Organic cotton cultivation uses toxic-free alternatives for pest management and harvest preparation such as sulfur dust; and citric acid, nitrogen, and zinc sulfate respectively.

  • Cultivation techniques incorporate ancestral farming methods such as crop rotation to prevent soil depletion.

  • Cotton can be composted as long it is not blended with any nonbiodegradable materials - once blended with synthetic materials it will have to be recycled or thrown into landfills.

Cons:

  • Organic cotton cultivation requires A LOT of water - due to a lower yield, organic cotton actually requires more water than conventional cotton.

Things to look out for:

  • GOTS certification on the supplier or product - GOTS was established to ensure safety throughout the cotton supply chain.

Linen

Linen is widely considered one of the most sustainable materials on the market. Derived from finely brushed and spun flax, linen is breathable and durable - no wonder humans have been using it since 8,000BC.


Pros:

  • Flax cultivation consumes 60% less water than traditional cotton, requiring only rainwater for cultivation.

  • Flax can grow in poor soil quality, utilizing land that is too poor in nutrients for food production.

  • Flax has a high rate of carbon absorption, with 2.1 tons of carbon is absorbed per 1 ton of flax produced.

  • Widely produced as 100% linen, the final product can be recycled or composted very easily at the end of its life.

Cons:

  • Harsh chemicals and bleaches are required to achieve a white color.

  • Linen naturally creases and therefore can be ironed or washed excessively by the consumer.

Things to look for:

  • GOTS certification on the supplier or product - Global Organic Textile Standard is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain.


Silk


Made from the protein fibers of worms' cacoons as they become moths, silk is a strong but refined material that is easily dyed. While beautiful, strong, and versatile, silk production has come under fire from animal and human rights activists.


Pros:

  • As it is not 'grown' like many plant-based materials, silk cultivation requires less water and energy.

  • Silk's tight weave and strength makes it incredibly durable.

  • Silk is biodegradable and recyclable as long is it was not combined with a synthetic material.

Cons:

  • To harvest and process silk, the worms are boiled in their cocoons so that they separate more easily - 3,000 cacoons are used to create 1 yard of silk.

  • While water usage is low for the initial stage, a considerable amount of water is needed to wash and process silk.

  • Silk production is very labor-intensive and often takes place in lower-income countries with fewer labor laws, leaving workers open to exploitation.

Things to look for:

  • Consider fair trade silk or wild silk for more ethical options.

  • Natural dyes are very effective in silk processing, opting for natural or plant-based dyes ensure the fabrics can be recycled or composted at the end of life.


Leather

Leather has gotten a bad wrap as an unethical and wasteful product, but some companies have created sustainable alternatives to these practices, eliminating or lessening the effects of leather's tanning and processing chemicals on the environment.



Pros:

  • Leather production offers a waste reduction strategy for other industries. When paired with meat production, animals are not raised exclusively for their hide or meat but are efficiently used in both industries.

  • Leather is durable. When processed, made and cared for correctly, a leather product can last for decades.

  • There is a better tanning option which uses vegetables instead of the destructive chemical, chromium.

Cons:

  • Leather will never be vegan, it will always come at the cost of an animal's life.

  • The industry has a long way to go, harsh chemicals, water and lots of energy is used to create both eco-friendly and traditional leather.

Things to look for:

  • Search for ratings from OEKO-Tex or Leather Working Group to understand how the environment is being impacted during your supplier's production.


Hemp

While some sectors of the fashion industry still associate hemp with granola, smoking and dreadlocks, other sectors see the huge potential of this up-and-coming material. While technically cultivated from the same species as cannabis, the hemp plant has none of the psychoactive properties of its toke-takin' cousin.

Pros:

  • Derived from a weed, hemp is extremely hardy - it requires little to no herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers, and very little water.

  • Due to its dense growth, hemp yield is two times the amount of cotton.

  • Hemp fabric is naturally antimicrobial and provides UV protection to the wearer.

  • Considered to be carbon negative, hemp can absorb more CO2 than trees.

  • Hemp fabric is biodegradable as long as it has not been mixed with synthetic components or had chemical processing.

Cons:

  • Hemp cultivations is very heavily regulated by regional governments due to its relation to cannabis.

  • Harmful chemicals are used during the "retting" process - the processes that separates the leaf from the stem.

  • Due to how the fibers are spun, color vibrancy and colorfastness tends to be less in hemp than in cotton.

Things to look for:

  • Hemp will not be GOTS certified as it is already very organic in nature, but still, check-in on the practices of your supplier to ensure sustainable and ethical production.


Bamboo

Often used as the base for Viscose, Modal, Tencel and Lyocell, bamboo has quickly become the favorite cotton alternative. Due to is cultivation, bamboo has been labeled the world's most sustainable material, but not all bamboo is created equal.


Pros:

  • Bamboo grows incredibly quickly and requires very little input - not requiring pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, and could be grown almost anywhere.

  • After harvesting, the bamboo plant continues to grow - it does not require replanting between harvests.

  • Bamboo can be grown in rural areas with little technology input, therefore, can be a source of income for more rural communities.

Cons:

  • Most bamboo processing requires highly toxic chemicals - but bamboo linen is created through a mechanical process, therefore utilizes less chemicals.

  • Just like Hemp, the retting process can use toxic chemicals but can be avoided.

  • Almost all of bamboo production is in China, therefore has to be transported, often multiple times, before it reaches the final consumer.

Things to look for:

  • Choose bamboo linen over bamboo rayon, viscose or modal; the mechanical process of linen is less detrimental to the environment than the chemical process needed for knit fabrics.

  • GOTS certification does not certify bamboo rayon or viscose therefore look for other certifications when searching for a supplier.


Lyocell

Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric that is derived from wood cellulose (often, but not exclusively, from eucalyptus tree bark). Lyocell is very versatile, retaining good color fastness and often favored for its soft hand feel. Another name for lyocell is Tencel, named after a subsidiary of Lenzing.


Pros:

  • Eucalyptus can grow in varied conditions and does not require irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers.

  • While the process does require petrochemicals, suppliers such as TENCEL (Lenzing) use closed-loop systems to reuse material and ensure toxins do not enter water sources.

  • Lyocell requires less dye than traditional cotton and creates a similar look and vibrancy.

Cons:

  • Lyocell still uses a wide variety of chemicals in its processing and dying systems.

  • Is not biodegradable because of chemical processing, therefore, will be disposed of through landfill.

Things to look for:

  • Because many wood types can be used, look into the transparency of the supplier's supply chain.

  • A key certification to look for is OEKO-Tex 100 to ensure its sustainability.


Recycled Polyester

Polyester makes up more than half of the world's clothing production - therefore half of its clothing waste. While more brands are shifting towards natural fiber alternatives, many sportswear and swimwear brands are opting for recycled polyester, derived from plastic bottles.


Pros:

  • Creates an alternative recycling stream for products that would otherwise be wasted.

  • Processing takes 59% less energy and produces 32% less CO2 than its nonsustainable alternative.

  • Just as durable and vibrant as traditional polyester.

Cons:

  • Recycled polyester is still plastic-based - therefore fabric releases microplastics when worn and washed.

  • Fabric recycling is very difficult, therefore recycled polyester is unlikely to be recycled after use and therefore will end up in landfills.

Things to look for:

  • When opting for recycled polyester, check the composition ratio as almost all recycled polyester must be mixed with another virgin material and may not be as green as you think

  • Look for the Global Recyclers Standard to ensure ethical practices in production.

Know Your Impact

There is no perfect business or perfect material - switching to a sustainable material will have an impact on the look and performance of your product and possible unknown environmental consequences.


Therefore, ensure you have a production partner that will help you map your impact and draw upon their production experience. At Purnaa, we work with a wide variety of sustainable materials and use this experience when speaking with customers about sustainability goals. Our passion is to create sustainable, ethical, and durable products that are sure to impress.Begin the production process and submit your design idea.


Ready to Start Manufacturing?

Purnaa would love to help you Get Started on your production using sustainable materials. Learn more here to see if we're a good fit for your manufacturing needs.

Read More About Sustainable Materials:

Sustain Your Style - Fiber Eco Review

CFDA - Materials Index


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Transparency - Mapping your Supply Chain

How Fabric Printing Effects Sustainability

Fabric 101: Five Fundametnals