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 the materials that are currently available and that are frequently used. What is their impact? 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?

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? The bio industry in particular 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, for instance?

You can work with leftover textiles too. Worldwide, 73% of all leftovers are burned or dumped, leading to a huge waste of net energy and resources. Can’t we use this waste to create fashionable new pieces?

Something that may not come to mind immediately, but that could also be very interesting, is to look to nature for solutions to the problems you encounter.

Finally, it is important to address the issue of resources systematically: take your product, your customers and your business model into account when deciding which material would be the most sustainable. Opting for quality is a good strategy in any case: it will extend the lifespan of your items, and premium fabrics make for better new materials after recycling, too.

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 best for the environmental: fabrics from natural fiber or synthetic fabrics. Each material affects the environment in its own way.

Research has shown that the impact of the cultivation and production of textile crops remains 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 kilo of cotton requires 3,800 liters of water, while only 17 liters are needed to produce 1 kilo 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.

Materials like lyocell, hemp and bamboo are becoming more popular in fashion. Yet cotton and polyester remain the industry’s darlings. These two fibers are the most important (comercially), taking up more than 80% of the fabrics in fashion (with numbers still rising yearly for polyester.

In what follows, we'll dive a bit deeper into conventional and new fabrics. We also have this quick overview of the most frequently used materials, how they are made and which risks, impacts and alternatives they each have. Another quick tip & trick in the picture: Textile Exchange’s Material Snapshots and Materials Summaries are a set of tools designed to help you understand why the choice for certain materials makes a difference in the textile, apparel, and footwear industry. That choice could result in a positive or negative impact, depending on the material and supply chain details.



(Source: Lynsey Dubbeld)

  • Regular cotton
    The amount of land taken up by the production of regular cotton has increased drastically. In eighty years’ time, it has tripled, mainly due to the use of artificial fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. As a consequence, soil fertility reduces, 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 anew each year.
  • 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, farmers use 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 of material. This discourages regular farmers from switching to organic cotton. Today only 1% of the total cotton production is organic. Yet a complete turnaround could mean a big environmental profit.
    Today, the demand for organic cotton exceeds the supply. So it’s preferable to opt for certified organic cotton, with either a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or an OCS (Organic Cotton Standard) label.

(Footnote: to receive an OCS Blended trademark of Textile Exchange, a product needs to contain merely 5% organic cotton. An OCS 100 certificate, by contrast, guarantees at least 95% organic cotton. The minimum standard for GOTS certification is 70% ('made with organic') or 95% ('organic') organic cotton, and other environmental and social factors need to be taken into account as well. Conclusion: labels do matter!)


Polyester and other synthetic fabrics like acrylic and nylon suffer from a bad image. They are considered unattractive and harmful for the environment. Yet synthetic fibers have advantages over cotton. For instance, polyester does better in terms of water and chemical use. In addition, the fabric is hardwearing and more recyclable.

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 in our food chain. An ocean filled with plastic is hardly an attractive prospect, all the more so because these fibers are non-biodegradable.


Wool is an natural 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, without any need for artificial fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals. 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). 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 into the environment. Furthermore, once leather has been tanned it becomes hard to degrade.
Here as well we have an organic alternative: natural tanning processes that make use of tannic acid and fishing oil, and that take 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 traditional leather.


Blue jeans are made from cotton and then dyed intensively. A lot of poison, dye and water is used in the process, even causing some rivers in China to turne completely blue. In addition, sandblasting the jeans can cause a serious lung disease called silicosis. Several companies try to prohibit their suppliers’ use of sandblasting, 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 1,100 kilos of fibers, the numbers for hemp vary between 1,200 and 2,000 kilos. 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. Hemp cultivation has long been illegal due to the link with marihuana, and this has stalled the innovation process. Yet research into hemp as a sustainable material has recently picked up aggain, which bodes well for the future.  


Bamboo has a lot of advantages: it is softer than many other fabrics, it is highly absorbent and has better temperature regulating properties. Its cultivation process is also more sustainable than that of cotton: bamboo is a fast grower that can do without chemicals or large quantities of water, and it absorbs more carbon dioxide, which is good news for the environment. A grove of bamboo also releases 30 to 35% more oxygen than any other forest. Bamboo processing is done either chemically (bamboo viscose) or mechanically. The mechanical process is the most sustainable, but it is also labor-intensive, hence expensive. The negative impact of chemically turning bamboo sticks to pulp lies in the toxic acids that are needed for this. When done carelessly, the process can lead to soil and water poisoning. Fortunately, important steps have been taken to reduce its environmental impact, leading to the introduction of less poisonous chemicals.


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 reuse, 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.

Lyocell is often mentioned in the same breath as Tencel©. Yet while lyocell is the name of the fabric, Tencel© is a brand: it’s the name of a well-known fabric made by Lenzing in a closed-loop system. It is a good idea to ask for a FSC, PESC or EU Ecolabel certificate when working with lyocell that is not produced by Lenzing.

Recently, Lenzing introduced a new and even more sustainable version of lyocell: EcoVero, which is made with less water and energy, and has excellent color fastness.


Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant. It is manufactured in France, Italy and Belgium, among other countries. Contrary to cotton cultivation, flax cultivation requires no artificial fertilizers and little to no pesticides. Organic linen is grown and processed without chemicals. European linen is preferable to its non-European counterpart, which often involves the use of chemicals after all.



The search for new and sustainable materials is ongoing.

  • In 2011, the German company Qmilch Deutschland GmbH developed a milk fiber, named QMILK. This soft and natural fabric is antibacterial and perfectly suitable for making clothes.
  • Another protein fiber that is worth mentioning is Biosteel fiber, which AMSilk has been manufacturing since 2015. This synthetic spider silk is completely biodegradable.
  • 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.
  • Teijin presents another interesting example. For the past ten years, this Japanese company has been developing a new technology to turn old polyester fibers into new (polyester) yarn. Their closed-loop system was termed ECO CIRCLE and has spawned a series of recyclable polyesters with various characteristics.
  • Kapok, in turn, is a cellulose fiber taken from the fruit of the kapok tree. The kapok fiber is pesticide-free, 100% biodegradable and 100% recyclable. Yet because it is relatively short, it always needs to be mixed with other fibers before it can be spun into yarn.
  • Cellulose fibers can also be harvested from seaweed and then turned into fabrics like viscose and modal. The German company Smartfiber produces seaweed fibers called Seacell.
  • Belgium, the Netherlands and France are currently experimenting with textiles made from various alternative, natural resources, like tomato stems, fruit waste, cow dung and mycelium (the ‘root’ of mushrooms). These natural fibers are still in the research phase and are not yet commercially available.
  • The Brussels-based company Noosa is known for its 100% recyclable textile fiber made from corn.
  • Finally, Re.Verso is an Italian fabric that is mainly made from wool waste.

(Sources: Kate Fletcher and


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Choose recycled or recyclable fibers

The family of recycled textiles is continually welcoming new members. Recycling fabrics scores well in terms of impact, because the process requires less energy, less resources and less chemical than the production of new textile. Turning to existing yarn and textile, moreover, means reducing the need for 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) mainly happens mechanically: it’s a process of stripping and shredding fabrics into smaller particles. The fibers that emerge from this process have been broken and torn, making them shorter. 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 shorter fibers are mixed with long (new) fibers. Chemical recycling is also an option for natural materials. Cotton is dissolved into cellulose, for instance, which can be turned into viscose or lyocell. What’s interesting about chemical recycling is that it doesn’t cause deterioration and that it removes the dye from the fibers. Yet the products that are up for recycling cannot contain hard items like buttons or zippers.

    The recycling of natural materials lags behind as compared to that of synthetic materials. New natural materials are cheap, which is why they continue to dominate the market and the necessary new developments in recycling are slow to emerge. Once a method has been developed for extracting longer fibers, chances are that the quality (and with it, the demand) will increase.

  • Synthetic materials
    Synthetic fabrics can be recycled both (thermo)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 markets of sports and outdoor wear, but also in the fashion industry in general. 

The cotton industry is a big consumer of water, pesticides and insecticides. Recycled cotton, then, helps to reduce pollution as well as the consumption of resources. Because cotton waste has already been 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 the pre-consumer and post-consumer phases. ‘Pre-consumer phase’ means that waste is created during each step of the production process: during the production of the yarn and the fabric as well as during the manufacturing of the clothes themselves, waste is created. ‘Post-consumer waste’, by contrast, refers to clothes that the consumer discards after use.

The first step in mechanically 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 protect the quality and strength of the yarn. Sometimes no more than 30% recycled cotton finds its way into a new fabric.


When it comes to environmental friendliness, polyesters are not the best of the bunch. Starting from the existing (plastic) waste heap is preferable to producing more new plastic. Opting for 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, discarded clothing and ocean plastic. 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. 


Nylon is made from petroleum, just like polyester, but it is much harder to recycle. After years of research and testing, recycled nylon fibers 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 experiments with discarded industrial fishing nets.


Wool has to meet strict color and quality requirements 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 stronger fabric. With #HackyourJeans, the European Spinning Group (ESG) shows that post-consumer denim can be recycled into premium new clothes, towels, bags, and so on.

If you opt for recycled fabrics, you do well to limit yourself to certified ones. GRS (Global Recycle Standard), for instance, is a product standard for tracking and verifying the content of recycled materials. It also takes into account product criteria like the use of energy, water and chemicals, and labor conditions. RCS (Recycled Claim Standard), in turn, consists of two standards. The first, RCS Blended, guarantees that a product contains 5 to 95% recycled content, while RCS 100 applies to products that contain at least 95% recycled material (no additional environmental or social factors are taken into account).


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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 more professionalized than ever. 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 from the regular fashion industry to produce their own fashionable clothing, like Studio AMA or Current Antwerp.


The most obvious way to go about this, is to work with used clothing (also called post-consumer spills) 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. This is the case with Be the fibre products, for instance.


Designers working with pre-consumer spills go for pieces of fabric that were already labeled as waste during the design or production phase (before entering the consumer’s closet that is). Pattern cutting and fabric production often generate these kinds of surpluses.


Another type of waste that is often overlooked for these purposes, is organic 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. In Germany alone, 1.9 million tons of milk are thrown away each year, while still containing valuable substances. QMILK's proteins-turned-fibers can be used for clothing, interior design, industrial applications and medical equipment.

Other examples are Piñatex, which is made from the fibers of pineapple leaves, or S.Café, a fabric made from coffee; and Orange Fiber, made from citrus fruits
These developments are definitely worth keeping an eye out for!


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Learn from nature

It’s 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 you, too, may be facing. The scientific term for this principle is biomimicry, which ccan be translated as 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 and one of the hardest principles of the circular economy. The basic idea is that 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 from the clothing industry, for man-made products this is next to impossible to attain. However, you 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 eco-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 degradable. 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 (like 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.

We’ll look into some finishings that could be interesting alternatives to more traditional methods, facilitating degradation 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 case up until 1850.

It’s not always immediately clear which color a certain plant will yield. It makes sense to use red beetroot to dye a garment red, 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)

Natrual Textile dyes


Coating is a 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)



You can often 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 called ‘superhydrophobicity’ or ‘the lotus effect’ is often applied to clothes that benefit from self-cleaning qualities, like raincoats or workwear.


Chitosan can be found in crab shells and has natural antibacterial properties. Researchers are currently looking into the possibilities for fire and rescue gear, as well as 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 about Michael Phelps’ ‘shark suit’. This swimsuit 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. 

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


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Think every aspect of your product

By now you 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 virgin 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 selecting haberdasheries.  

A few pointers:

  • If possible, limit yourself to only one type of fiber per garment; avoid mixing materials. After all, mono-materials are much easier to recycle.
  • 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 matters: wovens in which one fiber hides or contains another can lead to incorrect sorting results.
  • Metal spells trouble, so you’d want to avoid that. Metal detectors filter it out, because it can seriously damage the recycling machines but it’s even better to steer clear from metal parts altogether.
  • 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.
  • Premium fabrics, finally, allow for higher-quality recycled fabrics.


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