What Makes Fabric Sustainable Or Unsustainable?

By Adriane Marie •  Updated: 11/15/22 •  5 min read

What makes fabric sustainable or unsustainable? There are several factors to consider when determining if a particular fabric, material or textile is sustainable or unsustainable. HEALabel uses the following criteria when analyzing the environmental impact of fabrics, materials and textiles.

Factors That Determine If Fabric Is Sustainable Or Unsustainable

What Is The Material’s Fiber Source?

A fabric’s fiber source is simply where the materials come from. Fibers may be ‘natural’ or ‘synthetic’ and within both categories there may be sustainable and unsustainable examples. Here are three main categories HEALabel uses to categorize fibers. Again, within these categories we must look at each fabric individually to consider multiple aspects that will determine its eco-friendliness…

Browse all of HEALabel’s Fabric and Material snap-shots to see specific examples!

Is The Material Biodegradable?

When a material biodegrades it breaks down to base substances such as water, carbon dioxide, methane, basic elements and biomass. Technically, all materials will eventually biodegrade…even ones commonly thought to “last forever” like plastic.

However, the time it takes for a material to biodegrade is what’s important in regards to sustainability. The faster a fabric or material can biodegrade, the more sustainable it tends to be. The longer it takes a fabric or material to biodegrade, the more unsustainable it tends to be. This is because during that time it can be problematic, particularly in the case of harming wildlife and contaminating water, air and soil.

durable, long lasting fabrics, materials and textiles

Is Material Single-Use Or Durable?

Material durability is an important factor to consider when calculating sustainability. If a fabric or material is long-lasting it can be considered more sustainable, as it won’t need to be replaced as frequently. However, if a fabric or material is single-use it is most certainly unsustainable as it will soon be thrown into a landfill after its short-lived purpose is fulfilled.

Is Material Reusable Or Recyclable?

Is Material Reusable Or Recyclable?

Materials and fabrics that can be used again and again can be considered more sustainable, unlike its single-use counterpart. If a material is recyclable energy and water must be involved in the process, but the material will not go into a landfill, making it more sustainable than non-recyclable. New-life, second-life and repurposing materials are all terms that refer to this concept.

Check out this ‘Recyclable and Non-Recyclable Materials List‘ to see examples in your home!

Other Ways Fabrics And Materials Can Be Environmentally Destructive

side effects of seafood, unsustainable food that pollutes oceans with plastic

It’s not just the fiber source and biodegradability that determine whether a fabric is eco-friendly…we need to consider everything. Here are some forms of environmental destruction that will make a fabric or material ‘unsustainable’ even if it has a natural fiber source and is biodegradable…

Examples Of Sustainable Fabric And Material

Perhaps the most sustainable of all fabrics and materials would be a natural fiber that is plant-derived, requires little to no pesticides and is biodegradable.

Bamboo, hemp and jute are materials that match this description. Regarding resources, bamboo for instance, does not require much land and needs very little water to grow. It’s hardy, yield is plentiful and it is a non-invasive plant species with numerous uses and applications.

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Examples Of Unsustainable Fabric And Material

Leather is a natural fiber and biodegradable. However, it is often tanned with toxic chemicals that contaminate the environment. As previously mentioned, sourcing materials from animals is quite problematic. Cows require land, water and food. Being ruminant animals, they have multiple stomachs and emit high volumes of carbon emissions, bad for air, water, soil, etc.

Polyester is a synthetic fiber, a common plastic, essentially derived from fossil fuels or petroleum. Its production contributes to the oil manufacturing industry -the world’s largest pollutant. Polyester manufacturing uses energy-intensive heating process, requiring large quantities of water for cooling. Furthermore, polyester does not biodegrade quickly may take up to 200 years to decompose.

Why it’s important to consider all factors

As we’ve learned above, it’s not just fiber source and biodegradability that determine whether a fabric is eco-friendly. There are many other important aspects to analyze when determining the environmental impact of fabrics and materials. Observe the materials you use and that exist around your home. Be mindful the next time you shop for clothing and other textiles now that you know the impact they have on our planet.

That’s why HEALabel considers all factors to determine whether a fabric is sustainable or unsustainable.

This post was all about factors that make fabrics and materials sustainable or unsustainable.

Adriane Marie

Hi, I'm Adriane, creator of HEALabel! I organize info for you to comprehensively see how purchases impact health, environment, animals and laborers. Stay aware because you care! Subscribe below to get my weekly newsletter with tips, new info and other ethical consumer insight.