The Ultimate Guide to Clothing Material

Ever wondered what you are wearing? Where is the fabric coming from? Or from what is it made out of? Is it sustainable or not? Materials and fabrics are one of the oldest technologies of humanity. The life cycle of a fabric uses numerous resources from nature like land, water to chemicals, dyes and pesticides. No matter where you are on your ethical fashion journey, becoming informed about the impact your clothes create is necessary.

Here is a quick guide on well-known clothing materials:


1. Cotton

Soft, light and breathable, cotton is a staple in many wardrobes. It is often associated with quality clothing and can be found in various clothing articles such as jeans and t-shirts etc. Further, it has the advantage of being entirely biodegradable.

Organic cotton addresses many problems of conventional cotton, one being sustainability. It is grown without use of pesticides, from seeds which have not been genetically modified. The organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and fewer usage of resources. Learn more about cotton production in India.

2. Linen

Linen is one of the most biodegradable fabrics in the history of textiles. It is strong, naturally moth resistant and made from flax plant fibers, so when untreated it is fully biodegradable.

3. Hemp

Hemp is a type of “bast fiber” which means its fibers are derived from the stems of plants. It is a sustainable crop that requires little water and almost no pesticides. The hemp fabric has many advantages like providing warmth in winters, cool in summer and even protecting from UV rays.

4. Viscose/Rayon

Rayon and Viscose are very similar and both are derived from the ‘cellulose’ or wood pulp from fast growing regenerative trees such as eucalyptus. This cellulose material is dissolved in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy substance, which is then spun into fibers that can be then made into threads. Some viscose is made from sustainable forest products. Also, alternatives to viscose include TENCEL Lyocell and new materials such as ECOVERO made using sustainable wood from controlled sources.

Learn more about Sustainable fabrics


1. Wool

Wool is a natural breathable fiber that comes from sheep. It is a renewable resource with plenty of benefits. However, due to the practice of mulesing the sheep, which involves removing away the skin to reduce flystrike without anesthesia, the fabric wool is not considered sustainable. Hence, it is advisable to use recycled wool or wool certified by the ZQ Merino Standard, the Responsible Wool Standard or the Soil Association Organic Standards.

2. Cashmere

Cashmere is one of the finest and most luxurious fibers in the world. The fabric material is unique because of its exceptionally silky material and its characteristic of being three times as warm as wool. However, cashmere is not sustainable, also cashmere production has a social impact as there is growing concern about working conditions of cashmere goats herders.

3. Leather

Leather is a staple in everyone’s wardrobe. Despite their longevity and versatility, leather used in garments or accessories are unlikely to be ethical. From the obvious animal welfare issues, leather production has a negative impact on the environment and workers too.

However, many innovative materials are emerging which are designed to mimic the qualities of leather for instance pineapple leather, upcycled rubber.

4. Silk

Silk is spun from the long threads which make up the inner cocoon of a silkworm. The raw silk threads are harvested and then reeled together for commercial use.

Silk has a relatively high emissions intensity, particularly at the yarn and fabric production stages. According to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the supply chain of silk is one of the most intensive per kg. More ethical substitute of animal silk, which has a less negative impact is vegan silk like vegan spider silk.

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