Materials matter


Did you know?

Producing one cotton T-shirt requires 3000 liters of water. For one pair of jeans you may even need as much as 8000 liters!

Deciding on which fabric to use is one of the most crucial aspects of the design process, affecting not only the look of your piece, its lifespan and quality, but also its environmental impact.


First and foremost, try to learn more about which materials are currently available and which are frequently used. What is their impact and which resources are environmentally friendlier than others?

Next, it is important to think about the end of your product’s life from the very beginning: what are your plans for your clothes after their use? What are the options for recycling them, for instance? Which resources are easiest to reuse at the end?

Also take into account the consequences of using certain coatings, accessories and finishings. Ask yourself what would stand in the way of a thorough recycling process.

Maybe you want to go about things differently and experiment with non-traditional textiles, like fabric made from (bio) waste? Especially the bio industry has a lot of interesting new materials in the pipeline. You’ve probably heard of fabric made from PET bottles, but did you know it’s also possible to turn milk and coffee into fabrics?

You can work with leftover textiles too; even a small country like the Netherlands tends to burn 135 million tons of textile each year. Can’t we use this waste to create fashionable new pieces?

And finally: something that may not come to mind immediately, but that could be very interesting, is to look at nature for solutions to the problems you encounter on the way to your perfect piece of clothing.

strategies for Resources

Go for low impact materials

Arranging fabrics according to their impact is not an easy task. It is hard to tell which is environmentally friendliest: fabric from natural fibers or synthetic fabric. Each material affects the environment in its own way.

Research has shown that the impact of the cultivation and production of textile crops continues to be a topic of discussion. Synthetic materials are usually considered evil, while natural materials are regarded as good. Even though the production of synthetic materials undoubtedly has an impact, there are drawbacks to natural materials too.

Food for thought:

  • Producing 1 kg of cotton requires 3800 liters of water, while only 17 liters are needed to produce 1 kg of polyester fibers. As far as the use of pesticides is concerned, cotton is not scoring well either.
  • On the other hand, the production of polyester takes up twice as much energy as that of cotton, it causes more water and air pollution (CO2) and it draws on non-recyclable materials.

It should be clear by now that each material has its own strengths and weaknesses. When trying to establish which has the lowest impact, a material comes to mind that is:

  • derived from natural products (bio-waste),
  • biodegradable,
  • renewable or that quickly recovers/regrows.

Given recent (successful) experiments in this direction (with lyocell, hemp, bamboo ...), such materials are expected to play an important role in the fashion industry of the near future. Yet cotton and polyester remain the industry’s darlings. These two (commercially) most important fibers take up more than 80 % of the fabrics in fashion (with numbers still rising yearly for polyester).

Below, we'll dive a bit deeper into conventional and new fabrics. A quick tip & trick in the picture: Textile Exchange’s Material Snapshots and Materials Summaries are a set of tools designed to help understand why the choice to use certain materials makes a difference in the textile, apparel, and footwear industry. That choice could result in positive or negative impacts depending on the material and supply network details.



(Source: Lynsey Dubbeld)

  • Regular cotton
    The amount of land taken up by the production of regular cotton has increased drastically. In 80 years’ time, it has tripled, mainly due to the use of artificial fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. As a consequence, soils lose their fertility, waters become polluted, the crops’ resistance levels drop, and residents of neighboring areas experience health problems. Cotton farming is responsible for the industry’s largest water consumption. Irrigation of the fields causes salinization which, in turn, ruins the land for agriculture. Moreover, irrigation makes the surrounding areas run dry.
  • Genetically modified cotton
    Genetically modified cotton provides some answers, but it meets with resistance. On the one hand, these crops are modified to resist harmful insects and diseases, which means they require less pesticides. On the other hand, specialist warn that working with modified crops can negatively affect a region’s biodiversity. The seeds are also much more expensive and need to be bought each year anew.
  • Organic cotton
    Organic cotton clearly has its advantages over regular as well as modified cotton. Its production steers clear of both chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers, and uses crop rotation to keep the soil fertile and to protect biodiversity. The big downside: productivity is half of that of regular cotton, meaning more land is required to produce the same amount. This discourages regular farmers from switching over. Today only 1 percent of the total cotton production is organic. Yet a complete turnaround could mean a big environmental profit.

(Footnote: to receive an OE Blend trademark of Textile exchange, a product needs to contain merely 5% of organic cotton. However, the minimum standard for GOTs certification is 70%. The OE 100 (Textile exchange) certificate does even better, guaranteeing 100% organic cotton. Apparently, labels do matter!)


Polyester suffers from a bad image; it is considered unattractive and environmentally unfriendly. Yet it has its merits compared to cotton. Polyester does better in terms of water use and chemicals; the fabric is hardwearing and better suited to recycling.

The production of polyester, acrylic fibers and nylon does require a large amount of energy and fossil fuels. Yet this disadvantage is compensated by the fact that these fabrics can be washed at lower temperatures, dry quickly and hardly need ironing. On the downside again, plastic particles are freed during washing and will eventually wind up in the sea. And an ocean filled with plastic is hardly an attractive prospect, right?


Wool is an organic and hardwearing product that nevertheless does affect the environment. The production of wool involves a lot of water as well as poisonous insecticides against moths, parasites and fungi. Organic wool production does away with that, though: the goats and sheep are fed organic food, have plenty of room to roam and get no antibiotics or chemical medicines. Yet no matter the circumstances, these animals do produce a lot of methane (which reinforces the greenhouse effect).


To produce raw silk threads, the cocoon of a caterpillar is either steamed or cooked. One cocoon yields 300 to 900 meters of thread and needs no artificial fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals whatsoever. Yet chemical products are involved in the process of washing, painting, bleaching and strengthening the silk.

Peace silk represents an animal-friendly alternative to regular silk (for which caterpillars are boiled alive). Though in general its quality is poorer than that of traditional silk, peace silk is cultivated in open forests, without the use of chemicals, and the cocoons are not collected until the butterflies have emerged from them.


Leather has a positive image because it lasts long, but tanning releases a lot of toxic chemicals. Furthermore, once the leather is tanned it becomes hard to degrade.
Here as well we have an organic alternative that focuses on natural tanning processes which make use of tannic acid and fishing oil, as well as taking into account the circumstances in which the animals are held.

Fish leather is gaining popularity as a responsible alternative to regular leather. Leather made from the skin of bass, salmon, catfish, ray or cod fish is even said to be stronger than classic leather.


Blue jeans are made from cotton and then dyed intensively. A lot of poison, dye and water is used in the process. Due to this, some rivers in China have even turned completely blue. In addition, sandblasting the jeans can cause a serious lung disease (silicosis). Several companies try to prohibit their suppliers’ use of this method, but this is hard to check up on.

More and more companies are turning to alternatives such as organic cotton, recycled cotton and lyocell. Unfortunately, organic dyes are still more expensive on account of the small size of the market (though this is actually promising in terms of growth potential).


Hemp grows super fast without the help of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides or irrigation. Whereas one hectare of cotton yields 300 to 1100 kilos of fibers, the numbers for hemp vary between 1200 and 2000 kg. A pair of pants made from hemp is said to last five times longer than a cotton pair, while also being biodegradable.

Yet we have limited access to hemp fibers, which impedes the material’s breakthrough. Big buyers are not interested because the quantities are too low, and production won’t increase until the demand is guaranteed… Vicious circle, anyone?


Bamboo is another fast grower that can do without chemicals or large quantities of water. Its impact lies rather in the chemical process of turning bamboo sticks to pulp: this is accomplished with the help of toxic acids. When done carelessly, the process can lead to soil and water poisoning. Bamboo can also be turned to pulp mechanically, but this is a small-scale technique, meaning it’s more expensive and rarer.


Lyocell is made from eucalyptus, a fast-growing tree from which fibers can be extracted with only a minimum of toxic waste. The production of the fabric is also toxic-free. Lyocell invites re-use, is biodegradable and can be washed at low temperatures. Unfortunately it’s a difficult-to-dye textile, so producers are tempted to turn to chemical dyes.


The search for new and sustainable materials is ongoing.

  • In 2011, the German company Qmilch Deutschland GmbH also developed a milk fiber, named Qmilk. This soft and natural fabric is antibacterial and perfectly suited to the textile industry.
  • Piñatex is next on the list of innovative materials. This fabric is made from pineapple leaves and can be used as an alternative to animal leather.
  • The Japanese company Teijin presents our last example. The company has kept busy for the past 10 years, developing a new technology to turn old polyester fibers into new (polyester) yarn. This closed-loop system was termed ECO CIRCLE and has spawned a series of recyclable polyesters with various characteristics since 2002.

(Source: Kate Fletcher)


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Choose recycled or recyclable fibres

The family of recycled textiles is continually welcoming new members these days. Recycling fabrics scores well in terms of impact, because the process requires less energy, less resources and less chemical products than the production of new textile. Turning to existing yarn and textile, moreover, means reducing the need to make fabrics from virgin (raw) materials like cotton, wool or synthetic yarn. This saves energy and avoids the pollution that takes place during traditional dyeing, washing and harvesting processes.

In addition, it’s always a good idea to learn more about the recyclability of fabrics and to take into account guidelines which guarantee that clothes stay in the loop at the end of their lives. You can read all about the relevant criteria by clicking your way to ‘Design for rebirth’ and ‘Recycle textiles’.

Keep in mind that avoiding waste is still the best solution, and that recycling should be the last resort.

  • Natural materials
    Recycling natural materials (like cotton and wool) happens mechanically: it’s a process of stripping and shredding fabrics into smaller particles; fibers. The fibres that emerge from this process have been broken and torn, making them very short. Using (only) these kinds of fibers would endanger the quality of the fabric; the product would not be strong enough and would disintegrate quickly. To achieve a better quality, the short fibers are mixed with long (new) and less fragile fibers.
  • Synthetic materials
    While this is the only way to recycle natural materials, there are more options for synthetic fabrics. The latter can be recycled both mechanically and chemically. Polyester, in this case consisting mainly of industrial waste and ‘post-consumer’ plastics (like bottles), is pulverized, melted and then spun into new fibers.

The demand for recycled polyester is on the rise, especially in the niche market of sports and outdoor wear. Meanwhile, the recycling of natural materials lags behind and runs the risk of remaining in the margins for some time to come. New natural materials have a low price tag, which is why they continue to dominate the market and incite little desire for new developments in recycling. Yet innovation is exactly what’s needed. Once we have a method for extracting longer fibers, chances are the quality (and with it, the demand) will increase.


The cotton industry is a big consumer of water, pesticides and insecticides. Recycled cotton, then, is an alternative that helps to reduce pollution as well as the consumption of resources. Because cotton waste is already dyed, there is no need to color it. This is a plus, as dyeing processes also involve the use of chemicals and a lot of water.

Large amounts of cotton waste can be found both in pre-consumer and post-consumer phases. ‘Pre-consumer phase’ means waste is released during each step of the production process. During the production of the yarn and the fabric as well as during the manufacturing of the clothing itself, waste is created. ‘Post-consumer waste’, by contrast, refers to clothes that are discarded after use.

The first step in recycling cotton is sorting the waste by type and color. Next, the sorted fabrics are mechanically ripped into strips, then unraveled into fibers. The resulting fibers are shorter than new fibers, making it harder to spin them. This is why recycled cotton is often mixed with new cotton fibers to ensure the quality and strength of the yarn. Sometimes no more than 30 % of recycled cotton finds its way into a new fabric.


When it comes to environmental friendliness, polyesters are not the best of the bunch. So starting from the existing (plastic) waste heap is preferable to producing more new plastic. Choosing recycled polyester means avoiding the use of crude oil, which is an essential component in the production of new polyester.

Today, the production of recycled polyester is mainly powered by plastic bottles, production waste and discarded clothing. The fabric or plastic is pulverized, melted and then pulled into yarn.

The use of recycled polyester is on the rise, and its fame along with it. While earlier on Patagonia was a rather lonely pioneer in recycling polyester from bottles, nowadays many brands are catching on. The popular RAW for the Oceans collection by G-star and Pharrell Williams, for instance, was made from Bionic Yarn, a happy mix of recycled plastic and cotton.


Nylon is made from petroleum, just like polyester, but it is much harder to recycle. After years of research and testing, recycled nylon fibres that can be used in clothing and that meet the quality requirements have finally been developed.

Recycled nylon is made from post-industrial fibers, yarn from the spinning process and waste from weaving. Econyl even goes so far as to experiment with discarded industrial fishing nets.


Wool has to meet strict requirements for color and quality before it can be used to spin a new thread. Working with recycled wool is quite laborious, but it has its ecological benefits. The coloring process can be skipped completely, and excessive use of water and chemicals can be avoided.


A pair of jeans can be recycled in various ways and the search for new ideas to extend the life of these fibers is ongoing. Nudie jeans, for instance, has made new denim from worn-out jeans that were cut into strips and milled down to a cottony pulp, which in turn served as raw material for new yarn. Because recycled yarn consists of relatively short fibers, virgin cotton was added to get a strong fabric.


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Reuse and redesign waste

Reusing discarded pieces of fabric to create new products has been popular for quite some time, but nowadays this process is becoming ever more professionalized. Reusing, redesigning or upcycling is regarded as an eco-efficient strategy, even though this approach does not tackle the real problem, namely the increase in both production and consumption. This being said, we have an enormous amount of textile and clothing waste at our disposal, which (rightly) boosts the popularity of this strategy.


There are several brands that use fabric surplus coming from the regular fashion industry to produce their own fashionable clothing.


The most obvious way in which to go about this, is to work with used clothing (also called post-consumer spills). The process comes down to making new clothes from old pieces or fabrics. Not only fabrics from the fashion industry are eligible for this -- think for instance of old fire hoses, parachutes, flags, car tires … You name it! As long as discarded textile is creatively reused and can re-enter the market as a new, upcycled product, it fits the bill.


Rather than focusing on the end of a product’s life, you can intervene much earlier. Designers working with pre-consumer spills go for pieces of fabric that were already labeled as waste during the design or production process (before entering the consumer’s closet that is). Pattern cutting or fabric production often generate these kinds of surpluses.


Another type of waste that is often overlooked for these purposes, is biological waste. Turning food scraps into fashion? Yes we can!

Qmilk is a beautiful example that has an exceptional production process in which milk proteins are turned into textile fibers. The protein is extracted from milk that is no longer suitable for consumption. Just in Germany alone, 1.9 million tons of milk are thrown away each year, while still containing valuable substances. The proteins-turned-fibers can be used for clothing, interior designing, industrial applications and medical equipment.

Other examples are Piñatex, which is produced from the fibers of pineapple leaves, or S.Café, a fabric made from coffee.
These kinds of developments are definitely worth keeping an eye out for!


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Learn from nature

Though you may not immediately think of it, it’s actually amazing how much inspiration can be gained from simply looking at nature. After all, nature has been through millions of years of innovation and has come up with very clever solutions to problems that we, too, may be facing. The scientific term for this principle is biomimicry, which comes down to imitating nature.

In addition, it’s interesting to find out which finishings are environmentally friendly and to look for alternatives to man-made products in order to raise the odds of a natural recycling process (also called cradle to cradle).


Cradle to cradle is one of the oldest principles of the circular economy, but at the same time it’s one of the hardest. Everything has its place in nature: something springs to life, consisting of natural resources, and at the end it slowly disappears back into the earth. This is the most advanced closed-loop system ever. As is apparent in the clothing industry, for man-made products this is next to impossible to attain. However, we can still try to imitate the principle.

Cradle to cradle (C2C) was introduced at the beginning of the 21st century by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. They considered a garment an environmentally friendly product, because it is (for the most part) made of natural materials. This entails the possibility to return it to nature, or to make it biodegradable. Click through to ‘Biodegrade organic textile’ to find out all about biodegradable fabrics.

In reality, however, clothes do not consist of only one fabric; they are often made from a blend of fabrics (often polyesters) or are heavily coated or dyed, which impedes biodegradation. The prerequisite for a successful C2C process is a radical change in the way our products are made, keeping biodegradability in mind from the very start.

We’ll look into some finishings that could be interesting alternatives to more traditional methods, facilitating biodegradation and thus cutting nature some slack.


These days we are confronted with a huge offer of synthetic dyes. They have driven natural dyes off the market because they come in more colors and don’t easily wash off over time.
Yet plants could become the go-to option when preparing dyes. This actually used to be the way fabrics were dyed up until 1850.

It’s not always immediately clear which color a certain plant will yield. It makes sense that red beetroot will exude a red color, but it takes a little more effort to see how an onion can be turned into a brown paste.

Below you’ll find an overview of colors that might be fun to experiment with. The downside: natural dyes often require treatments that are harmful to the environment. So there’s definitely room for innovation here!

(Source: Natuurlijk Verven - Roos Soetekouw)


Coating is another man-made finishing process that impedes recycling. A coating is a protective layer: a tissue or non-woven, film or sheet (PVC, PU, silicon or something else) that is put on top of a carrier material (nylon, polypropylene, polyamide, cotton, wool) to improve the latter’s qualities and characteristics. Here as well it’s worthwhile to look for an environmentally friendly alternative.
(Source: Sioen)



Next to looking into environmentally friendly options, you can also turn to nature to find solutions to specific problems. Some examples:


Any fluids dropped onto a lotus leaf simply glide off its surface, cleaning the plant as they go. This effect is called ‘superhydrophobicity’ or ‘the lotus effect’ and is often applied to clothes that benefit from such self-cleaning qualities, like raincoats or workwear.


Others turn to chitosan, which can be found in crab shells and which has natural antibacterial properties. Researchers are currently looking into the possibilities for fire and rescue gear, or children’s nightwear.


You probably know that the principle of Velcro straps was modeled after the burrs of a plant, or you may have heard the fuss about Michael Phelps’ ‘shark suit’, a swimsuit that so closely resembles the texture of a shark’s skin that other swimmers thought this gave him an unfair advantage.

In short, there are plenty of examples. Elaborating on all of them would take us too far, but you catch our drift.

To conclude, we’d like to refer you to AskNature for more information and inspiration.


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Think through every aspect of your product

By now we know that the possibility of giving your garment a second life depends largely on the choice of resources.

However, there’s more to clothes than just pieces of fresh cotton: a lot is added to them before they’re done. These small additions that you may not immediately think of can spoil your good intentions to recycle.

The key to recycling actually lies in the sorting process, so it's vital that the machines have as little trouble recognizing the fabric as possible, in other words: what your product is made of should be as obvious as possible. Keep this in mind during the finishing process, or when picking haberdasheries.  

A few pointers:

  • If possible, limit yourself to only one type of fiber per garment; avoid mixing.
  • Make sure your type of fiber is easily recognizable from the surface. Using a coating (especially laminates) can really complicate the sorting process.
  • Your weaving technique also has its influence: wovens in which one fiber hides or contains another can lead to incorrect results.
  • Metal spells trouble, so you’d want to avoid that. Metal detectors filter it out, because it can do serious damage to the recycling machines.
  • Zippers, buttons and labels should be easy to remove. In ideal world you’d leave them out altogether.
  • Make sure your tags and labels are made from the same material as your garment.
  • Choose seams you can easily remove. When you use thread, don’t go for polyester on a cotton garment.


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