What to look for when choosing eco-friendly fabrics

June 23, 2015

Making an earth-friendly choice about what to wear is not as straightforward as it sounds. After all, Just because something comes from a natural source doesn't mean it's eco-friendly, and synthetic fibres aren't all bad. Here's some more information on your options when you're shopping for eco-friendly fabrics.

What to look for when choosing eco-friendly fabrics

Choosing a fabric

There are two main issues to consider when you're choosing materials: whether the fabric is healthy and comfortable to wear and use, and whether it has been produced without damaging the environment.

Here's some in-depth information on a few common fabrics:


  • Cotton fabrics have many virtues, but conventional cotton production uses large amounts of water as well as pesticides, fertilizers and bleaches; large doses of chemicals are also required to fix dyes.
  • If you really want to buy cotton, consider buying organic cotton.
  • Try to avoid cotton products labelled 'easy care' or 'non-iron'. As well as exposing the wearer to potential off-gassing of these fabrics' chemical coatings, this coating decreases the absorbency and 'breathability' of the fabric, making it less comfortable to wear.
  • Instead, watch for cotton products that are "unbleached," since these are less likely to be treated with formaldehyde.

Linen and hemp

  • For a durable, breathable fabric that grows softer with wear, choose linen. It's made from the fibres of flax, a sustainable crop.
  • Also, linen is sometimes combined with other natural fabrics such as hemp.
  • If you suffer from allergies or asthma, hemp is a good choice as it has natural antibacterial and anti-viral properties and is cool in summer and warm in winter. It's also the ultimate eco-friendly crop!

Sheep's wool

  • Sheep's wool is a versatile and resilient fibre that is absorbent and naturally dust- and flame-resistant as well as having good insulating properties.
  • Compared with cotton production, wool production involves far fewer chemicals, though some treatments are used and wool can contain pesticide residues. To avoid chemicals altogether, seek out organic wool.


  • Silk comes from the cocoons that silkworms spin. These silkworms feed on mulberry leaves.
  • Silk has the highest tensile strength of any fabric and silk production has a low environmental impact.
  • However, formaldehyde is sometimes applied to silk to increase wrinkle-resistance but should not be used on products labelled "100 per cent silk."


  • Tencel is a wrinkle-free fabric made from renewable wood pulp, using non-toxic methods.
  • This fabric is highly absorbent, so it requires less dye than cotton, and is breathable, durable and biodegradable.

Recycled polyester fleeces

  • If you're after some polyester, look for recycled polyester fleeces.
  • This fabric is available from a number of sports and hiking shops.
  • This fabric is quite environmental because it's made from recycled PET plastic bottles and is normally free of formaldehyde and chlorine bleaches.
  • Remember, however, that garments made of recycled polyester fleeces will not biodegrade.

Other choices

  • Other eco-friendly choices include clothing made from bamboo, which has natural antibacterial properties.
  • You could also try ramie, made from the bark of China grass stalks (Boehmeria nivea), which looks and feels like linen; or soy silk, which is made from the by-products of the tofu-making process.

Clothing made from hemp

Hardy and prolific, hemp can be grown just about anywhere and, unlike cotton, requires little water and no chemical fertilizers.

Hemp also outgrows most weeds, resists pests and reinvigorates the soil. Hemp fibres are long and strong, and absorb dyes without the use of chemical fixatives. On top of all that, hemp fabrics are durable, comfortable and breathable.

Naturally dyed clothing

Wool, silk and many synthetics may be coloured with petro-chemical based dyes, which can leach heavy metals into groundwater and waterways during the production process.

  • To avoid these consequences, choose naturally coloured cotton, which is whitened using non-polluting active oxygen, rather than chlorine bleaching whenever you can.
  • If you choose dyed cotton, favour lighter colours.
  • Consider using fabrics that have been coloured with natural dyes, which are derived from plants and minerals. Use of natural dyes is usually indicated on labels.

Speak to companies with your cash

Choosing more eco-friendly fabrics when you're shopping for clothes isn't just important for your own well-being and for doing your part for the environment. Buying eco-friendly fabrics and avoiding fabrics that are harder on the environment sends the message to clothing companies that consumers want and prefer eco-friendly options.

So, to help make clothing more eco-friendly overall, make your preference for eco-friendly fabrics heard through your purchases.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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