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The fashion industry is one of the most resource-intensive and polluting industries in the world after oil and gas. It’s also responsible for the cruel treatment and slaughter of billions of sentient animals each year. Faced with these facts, it can all start to feel a bit doom and gloom.

But if we want to build a kinder, more sustainable future, then we can choose to spend our money on clothing and accessories made from natural, innovative and sustainable vegan fabrics.

What I’ve come to understand is that not all vegan fabrics are created equal. Whilst it’s a big tick when no animals are harmed in the manufacturing process, there are still considerations when it comes to the environment, heavy chemical processes and people in supply chains.

In this article, I’ll try to explain vegan fabrics as simply as possible so that you can make more informed purchasing decisions moving forward.

What Are the Different Types of Vegan Fabrics?

Simply put, what all vegan fabrics have in common is that they are made with no materials derived from animals. However, there are some differences in their composition which we can roughly split into three categories:

  • Natural Vegan Fabrics – Made from plant fibres, these natural fabrics require minimal chemical processing and are the best option all around.
  • Semi-Synthetic Vegan Fabrics – Usually start life as plant cellulose fibre, these vegan fabrics require chemical processes that mean the end product is a blend of natural and synthetic materials (some are better than others).
  • Synthetic Vegan Fabrics – Synthetic fibre production is manmade and usually comes from plastic polymers, meaning that although these fabrics are technically vegan, they can be harmful to the environment and human health.
Sustainable vegan fabrics for the future

If a Fabric Is Vegan, Does That Automatically Make It Sustainable?

In short, no – vegan fabrics do not necessarily equal sustainable fabrics. In fact, many common and technically ‘vegan’ textiles such as PVC, conventional cotton and synthetic textiles (like nylon and polyester) are cheap to produce and firm favourites of the fast fashion industry.

They can be harmful to the environment, the people who produce them, and cause chaos within delicate ecosystems, meaning that they can still end up being harmful to animals in a roundabout way.

It is easy for brands to greenwash and promote themselves as ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’ when they’re simply mass-producing plastic-based fabrics that are chemical-intensive, highly polluting and awful for the people making them. Let’s be clear – there is nothing admirable or sustainable about this kind of production process.

A genuinely cruelty-free wardrobe is kind to animals, people and planet. Fortunately, there are vegan textiles that are sustainable, renewable, durable and biodegradable, and that also rely less on toxic dyes and harmful chemicals. These are the fabrics we’ll delve into in more detail.

Here are 8 low-impact, cruelty-free fabrics to add to your vegan wardrobe

For vegan-friendly textiles that are having a positive impact on the world at large, make sure to look out for the below natural and semi-synthetic vegan fabrics the next time you go clothes shopping! Whilst they can be more expensive than their fast fashion counterparts, they’re well worth the investment.

Vegan fabric organic cotton fibre

1. Organic Cotton

Let’s start with one of the most popular fabric choices (that just so happens to be vegan). Cotton is a natural and renewable resource that is used in roughly a third of all textiles worldwide.

Although cotton is a naturally vegan fabric, it’s important to note that conventional cotton is one of the world’s dirtiest crops.

It exposes farmers and the environment to huge amounts of toxic pesticides and carcinogenic chemicals, which have significant health and biodiversity implications (check out Rachel’s Carson’s Silent Spring for further reading).

Sadly, there is a significant amount of forced and child labour in the cotton production industry. Plus, farmers have to buy expensive patented cotton seeds that cause crippling agricultural debt (it’s no surprise that this directly correlates with the increasing rate of farmer suicides).

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is non-GMO and grown without the use of hazardous pesticides and fertilisers. It is less likely to contribute to acidification, eutrophication or climate change, instead encouraging natural ecosystems to flourish and healthy soil fertility. So it’s worth opting for organic cotton fabric (ideally GOTS-certified) where you can.

Pros

  • Natural, renewable, biodegradable & recyclable
  • A versatile fabric with many different uses
  • Easier to find than some options in this list

Cons

  • A water-intensive material
  • Requires more land than other fabrics
  • Organic cotton is more expensive than conventional
A clothes rail of linen garments

2. Linen

As a vegan, you probably know your flaxseeds pretty well by now! But did you know that this is also where the lovely lightweight fabric linen comes from?

Yep, linen is made from the reed of the flax plant, a quick-growing crop that does best in cool climes and requires very little water. It particularly thrives in European soil, which is where the majority of flax comes from.

It has actually been used for a LONG time to make fabrics (and has a more ancient history than cotton). Traditionally, linen has symbolised luxury, extravagance and wealth.

With minimal growing requirements and lots of excellent qualities, these natural fibres are some of the most ethical and sustainable around (just make sure to opt for organic linen where possible!).

Pros

  • Less water-intensive than cotton
  • Natural, renewable, biodegradable & recyclable
  • Lightweight, breathable & antimicrobial
  • Quick drying & moisture-wicking
  • Durable material for homewares

Cons

  • Can be expensive, particularly if its organic
  • Prone to creasing (you’ll definitely be getting the iron out!)
A hemp leaf

3. Hemp

Humble hemp comes from the Cannabis sativa plant (in this case, better worn than smoked!) and is one of the oldest fibres, having been used to make garments for many thousands of years. It remains to this day one of the most ethical and sustainable vegan fabrics.

Hemp grows quicker than most trees with less need for chemical treatment. It also has a very high yield – producing as much as two to three times more fibre than cotton when grown in the same amount of space. Hemp returns many nutrients to the soil whilst absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it an incredibly environmentally friendly material.

Ideally, look for organic hemp, although the USDA certification is difficult and expensive to apply for, so don’t necessarily be put off if an item isn’t certified organic.

Pros

  • Requires less land & chemicals
  • Natural, renewable, biodegradable & recyclable
  • Easily blended with other natural fibres
  • Soft, breathable & lightweight
  • Hypoallergenic, antibacterial & UV-resistant

Cons

  • Harder to find than organic cotton and linen alternatives
Jute sustainable vegan fabric

4. Jute

Jute is made from the cellulose and lignin fibres of the jute plant and has been produced over Asia for thousands of years. Jute plants grow from late spring to summer in tropical lowland areas and require a lot of rainfall. Without pesticides or fertilisers, it typically needs a warm climate with humidity levels above 60%.

Often handwoven into rugs and other home textiles, jute is a versatile fabric that can be grown without the need for pesticides or fertilisers. Another excellent natural choice that is both cruelty-free and eco-friendly.

Pros

  • Natural, renewable, biodegradable & recyclable
  • Strong & durable
  • Heat-resistant & moisture-retaining
  • Very affordable

Cons

  • Discolours with sunlight exposure
  • Can lose its strength if it gets wet
  • Less flexible than other materials
Semi-synthetic vegan fabric lyocell

5. Lyocell

Lyocell is a soft fabric manufactured from the wood pulp of the eucalyptus tree (and occasionally birch, oak or bamboo). From these natural origins, the wood pulp is then processed with synthetic chemicals to make vegan textiles.

The reason that this synthetic material is a more sustainable option is that although it requires heavy chemical treatment to turn wood and plant fibre into textiles, the manufacturing process is closed-loop. This means that water and solvent waste are captured and endlessly reused rather than getting dumped into the environment.

To be truly sustainable, it’s also important to ensure that the wood pulp is a result of responsible forestry. To make things easier, look out for Tencel, which is a certified form of lyocell made from sustainable wood pulp.

Pros

  • Requires half as much water as cotton
  • Renewable, biodegradable & recyclable
  • Breathable, lightweight & moisture-wicking
  • Soft, stretchy & durable
  • Good for sensitive skin

Cons

  • Semi-synthetic so requires more chemical processing than natural materials
Vegan leather alternative cork

6. Cork

Cork is made from the bark of cork oak trees, which primarily grow in Mediterranean Europe (particularly Portugal) and act as vast carbon sinks. It is produced by harvesting the spongy layer just beneath the outer bark.

Cork – aka ‘cork leather’ or ‘cork skin’ – is a wonderful vegan leather alternative.

It’s easy to assume that regularly removing bark from cork oak trees would have a negative impact. But in actual fact, this process stimulates cork tree growth. Harvesting cork is therefore a renewable resource which also helps to fight global warming and prevent deforestation (supporting biodiversity and protecting the habitats of endangered species).

It doesn’t need the same toxic tanning treatment as real leather – it can simply be boiled in water, then pressed and moulded into fabric sheets.

Pros

  • Natural, renewable, carbon-negative, biodegradable & recyclable
  • Eco, cruelty-free & chemical-free alternative to the leather industry
  • Has similar qualities to real leather
  • Flame, water & tear-resistant
  • Hypoallergenic

Cons

  • Less widely used than leather (check out Watson & Wolfe for their stylish collection of cork leather products)
Pineapple leather vegan fabrics

7. Piñatex & Fruit Leathers

Pineapple is made from cellulose, which is extracted by hand from pineapple leaves and then processed into a fabric that mimics the look and feel of leather (minus the cruelty).

Piñatex launched in 2015, and other new innovative leathers are growing in popularity like Mango and AppleSkin.

This fruit industry by-product requires no further water input and would otherwise be a waste product – either burnt or left to rot. Importantly, it helps to support local economies, as farmers can generate extra income by selling the pineapple leaves for vegan leather production.

The only downside is that as a semi-synthetic fabric, it is coated with a petroleum-based material, meaning that it is not chemical-free and takes longer to biodegrade.

Pros

  • Pineapple has a high yield per acre
  • More eco-friendly than real leather
  • Strong, durable & water-resistant
  • Comes in a variety of finishes & colours
  • Looks & feels expensive
  • Farmers can make additional income

Cons

  • It isn’t 100% biodegradable
  • Still not quite as long-lasting as real leather
Recycled textile label

8. Recycled or Deadstock Fabrics

With more styles per season than we could ever realistically keep up with, textile waste is a real problem in the world of fashion (watch the 15-minute film Unravel for a short but powerful visual of the issue at hand).

Recycled materials are a great option which take the waste fabric from post-consumer garments and breathe new life into them.

While conventional production of synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester may be very harmful to the environment, recycled options naturally have a much lower impact.

Just remember that these fibres continue to do damage even when recycled, as washing the fibres releases microplastics – one of the leading causes of plastic in our oceans. Therefore, it’s better to opt for recycled cotton where possible.

Deadstock fabrics are the leftovers of the fashion industry. For example, they didn’t go to the intended buyer or make it into finished garments. Typically, these fabrics would end up in landfill or an incinerator. Thankfully, more companies are choosing to intentionally use up these fabrics.

Pros

  • Less resource-intensive than new textiles
  • Closes the loop on fashion’s waste problem
  • Recycled polyester & nylon are durable fabrics

Cons

  • Vegan synthetic fabrics continue to release micro-plastics when washed

Sustainable Vegan Fashion: Opt for Vegan-Friendly, Plant-Based Alternatives

I hope that this article has given you a better understanding of what to look for when assessing the fabric choices behind your wardrobe. I’ve spoken at length about ways in which you can intentionally start to shop more ethically. For example, buying second-hand, repairing and upcycling your existing clothes, as well as simply buying less.

While these are all valuable ways to reduce your impact and enjoy a more minimalist lifestyle, I’m also a great believer in supporting the clothing brands that are pioneering the way for sustainable vegan fabrics, so do check out my guide to the best 100% vegan fashion brands in the UK.

Buying organic and up-and-coming materials can admittedly be more expensive, so by embracing slow fashion, you can also purchase fewer pieces of higher quality.

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