Fashion’s Sustainable Fabric Alternatives

Fashion’s Sustainable Fabric Alternatives

Circular fashion. It’s pegged as an antidote to an industry that poisons the planet. That’s because today’s fashion industry is characterised by overproduction, overconsumption and the over-filling of landfills. Well, many of us are over the old ways. We’re tired of the waste. We’re tired of having to discard our wardrobe so we can replace our clothes with items that will make us look ‘on-trend.’ We’re saying no to apathy, unable to turn a blind eye to the way fashion destroys the planet in the cyclical mining and dumping of materials. We’ve had enough of how fashion exploits and enslaves vulnerable people in the name of cheaper production costs. 

So yes, it’s time to embrace circular fashion. It’s time to commit to an industry that says no to wastefulness, that refuses to produce low-quality clothing designed to be worn only a couple of times. Let’s plan against the planned obsolescence of what we wear. Instead, we opt for a system that keeps long-lasting design in use for as long as possible. It’s a system that promotes the reselling, reusing and upcycling of old clothes. 

We can’t achieve a circular fashion economy if we don’t address the issue on a grassroots level. If a fabric can’t be recycled, if it’s a product of unsustainable design, then it will always arrive at the same destination. Ultimately, it’s headed to landfill. That’s why Ethical has been rethinking textiles, we’ve made a list of sustainable textiles for eco-friendly fashion.

To deliberately misquote Yves Saint Laurent, “fashions fade, sustainable style is eternal.”

Organic Hemp

Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that has been grown for non-drug use. Unlike its sister, marijuana, hemp is used to refer to cannabis that contains 0.3% or less THC by dry weight. So it’s essentially the leaves without the psychoactive component.

Perhaps it’s due to the associations with the recreational drug that businesses have traditionally shied away from using hemp. The reality is that there’s no good reason not to use the plant in all manners of production. 

Hemp is one of the most eco-friendly natural fabrics available. It is high-yielding, its growth is healthy for the soil, and it requires much less water to grow than cotton. What’s more is that it’s a ‘carbon negative’ raw material, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. Clothing made from hemp fabric is lightweight, durable and absorbent. Truly, the only high you’ll get from hemp is the buzz from knowing you’ve made a choice that benefits the planet. 

Bamboo Linen

Bamboo linen. Let’s say it again. Mouth it out with me: “bam-boo lin-en.” If you’re like me, you’re mindblown to discover that linen can be made from this wood-hard grass. You’re also thrilled to know that it’s super-sustainable, fast-growing and makes for soft, stretchy, breathable clothing. 

Why is it so high-yielding? Bamboo can be harvested without killing the plant itself. This makes for a ridiculous quick rate of growth (about an inch an hour). Combined with the fact that it consumes more carbon than some trees, bamboo can help produce one of the most eco-friendly (and versatile) fabrics on the market. That said, bamboo is often harvested in a chemically intensive process that’s harmful to the planet, so it’s best to work with an organic bamboo fabric that hasn’t been tainted with plastics.   


Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric that has been very popular in the world of sustainable fashion. Given the fact that it’s produced from eucalyptus trees (which are famously hardy) and that it requires comparatively little water and pesticides, it’s easy to see why. 

lyocell sustainable fabric

Lyocell is a form of rayon (a name for cellulose fibres) and is made from ground wood until it creates a pulp. What’s left is raw cellulose – a sticky, sap-like substance, which is reformed and spun into fibres, before it’s finally woven into fabric. Although this process is more expensive than the traditional process of making rayon, it has no toxic side-effects. It’s for these reasons that ‘Lyocell’ is a trademarked term.

All that said, the fabric’s main appeal is probably its silk-like texture. Smooth, hypoallergenic, absorbent, flexible, Lyocell is loved by luxury and active-wear brands alike. When high-street brands are showcasing their sustainable lines, there’s a good chance they’re using Lyocell.


Modal – a suitable name for a fashionable fabric. Like Lyocell, it’s made from tree pulp. This time it’s from the beech tree, and the rayon produced is typically more durable and flexible than its alternatives. Again, it’s produced with far less waste and chemicals than other rayon processes. 

You’ll see Modal used for eco-friendly underwear and sleepwear lines. It’s texture is like high-quality cotton, only more durable, breathable and cozy. That said, this plant-based material tends to be used for high-end sustainable fashion lines.


As the name suggests, Pinatex comes from pineapples. And when pineapples collide with the world of fashion, we’re met with a cruelty-free replacement for leather. Essentially a food-byproduct, this sustainable fabric is made from scrapped pineapples leaves that would otherwise be burned. Made in the Philippines, cellulose fibres are taken from these leaves, woven into strands, and processed into a leather-like texture. Like leather, it’s perfect for all manner of clothing and footwear. However, unlike leather, the fabric is highly breathable and flexible. 

Pinatex can be printed on and sticked, and can be purchased on a roll. This means that you’re avoiding wastage that would otherwise be found in purchasing irregularly shaped leather hides. Afterall, a cow’s body isn’t exactly the shape of a bomber jacket. 

Ethical Wool Varieties

Merino Wool

Firstly, there’s merino wool. You’re probably familiar with the sheep from this herd. Like a Shar Pei dog, merino sheep have wrinkly skin, a genetic trait that has a distinct effect on their outer fleece. Having wrinkly skin means that merino sheep produce great quantities of wool. However, that doesn’t always mean that the wool is ethically sourced. If you were like me, you used to think that the wool industry was a sustainable one, an industrial response to animals with overgrown fleece. You’d have thought that shearing helps sheep to cool down during the warmer months. You’d be wrong. The shearing process often leaves sheep battered and bruised, and in the case of merino sheep, it’s worse. 

In Australia, the most commonly farmed sheep are merinos, bred specifically for their skin. The sheep’s excessive wrinkling can collect urine and moisture. Drawn to this moisture, flies lay eggs in the folds of skin, and the hatched maggots can begin to eat the sheep alive. To prevent this from happening, farmers perform a brutal ‘mulesing’ operation, wherein the carve off strips of flesh off the backs of lamb’s legs and tails. 

So why do I recommend merino wool? 

Well, New Zealand farmers are at the forefront of the industry, producing ethical varieties of the wool. There, animal welfare standards are extremely high, and mulesing is forbidden. If you research ethical providers, looking for labels like ‘Soil  Association Organic Standards’, the ‘ZQ Merino Standard’ and the ‘Responsible Wool Standard’, you’ll be rewarded with light, comfortable and luxurious wool. 


sustainable alpaca wool, sustainable fabric

Alpaca wool is considered to be one of the most ethical varieties available. Related to camels but indiginous to Peru, the adorable animal is an environmentally-friendly one. Alpacas don’t destroy the environment in the way that other livestock does. In fact, Alpacas could be considered to be one of the greenest animals on the planet. Their hooves are softly padded, reducing environmental impact, they produce more fleece than sheep,  and they have more efficient eating habits than other grazing animals. Local Peruvian farmers respect these animals, raising them humanely and sustainably. 

Concluding Thoughts

If we want circular fashion to work, brands have to take responsibility and source ethical fabrics. The consumer needs to buy selectively, supporting sustainable and biodegradable clothing. We all can invest in durable clothing, refusing to waste in the name of consumption. Textile waste is a grave issue, both in its severity and because it’s dragging the planet to the grave. In 2018, around 350,000 tonnes of clothing was sent to landfill. It’s time to put an end to that destructive habit. Sustainability is in season, and it’s here to stay.

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