Which Fabrics Do Less Harm? A science-based guide to sustainable shopping


By Rachael Atkinson

I have a self-proclaimed shopping problem and an obsession with current trends. This  led to me amass a huge wardrobe by the age of 18. It was so large that for four years I did not once repeat the same outfit. That’s not to say that I didn’t wear the same pieces more than once, but never did I ever wear the same top, bottom, and shoe combination twice…for four entire years. That’s a lot of clothing. As a high school student with little disposable income, maintaining this routine required a lot of shopping at fast fashion stores that offer inexpensive, up-to-date trends. I am also a self-proclaimed environmentalist, a sustainability major, Greenpeace member, and vegetarian. I’ve always been aware of the issues surrounding fast-fashion, but upon entering university I learned about the astounding extent of pollution and human rights violations embedded in the industry. Suddenly, I realized that my lifestyle and my values were at odds. Something had to give.


Recently, I have severely cut down on my buying. I only purchase things that I really need, or really love. When I do make additions to my closet, I try to buy high-quality, sustainable, and/or second-hand garments. Of course, buying with your conscience isn’t always feasible.  We can’t always afford to buy sustainable and sometimes we just can’t find what we’re looking for from an ethical source. Every once in a while, you see a piece you just have to have, in that fast fashion store you swore you would never shop at.

I struggle with making environmentally conscious decisions every time I make a purchase. It is important to remember that it is ok to not be 100% sustainable 100% of the time. Instead, do the best you can given the circumstances. With that in mind, I have compiled a science-based guide of what to look for and what to avoid that you can follow no matter where you shop.

The Science Behind Textile Sustainability

paper published by the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, investigates the environmental impact and ecological sustainability of the production of ten common consumer textiles. The study refers to sustainability as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Muthu uses this definition to determine what criteria are relevant in measuring the sustainability of a textile and creates an Ecological Sustainability Index (ESI) considering twelve indicators. The study takes into account CO2 absorption during the production process, the use of renewable resources, land use, the use of pesticides and fertilizers, the recyclability and biodegradability of the textile, energy use, water consumption, and the damage to human health, the ecosystem and resources. Each textile is  given a score based on these 12 metrics.

Most of the textiles that were tested will be familiar to you: conventional cotton, organic cotton, wool, flax, polyester, nylon 6, nylon 66, polypropylene, acrylic and viscose. My list below summarizes the findings of the study, reviewing the seven fabrics that are most commonly found in retail stores; use this as a guide next time you’re shopping by taking a quick look at the tag in the seam of clothes to check for these fabrics!




Look For: Organic and Conventional Cotton

  • You may not be surprised to discover that organic cotton was found to be the most sustainable of these ten textiles. Organic cotton is produced using renewable resources, is created without the use of fertilizers and pesticides,  and is biodegradable. The textile also scored well for energy use, CO2 emissions and absorption, and damage to human health, ecosystem quality and resources. Unfortunately you’d be hard-pressed to find it in most stores.
  • Luckily, non-organic cotton was number three on the list, and is much easier to find than the organic variety. Most ‘denim’ fabrics are made almost entirely from cotton, and you can often find good staple pieces like white t-shirts made from cotton, or cotton blends. Cotton was found to be relatively sustainable for many of the same reasons as organic cotton; it uses a renewable resource, is biodegradable, absorbs a great deal of CO2, uses little energy and does little damage to human health, the ecosystem and resources.

Look For: Linen

  • Of the ten textiles, linen, a textile produced from the flax plant, came in second place for ecological sustainability (Encyclopedia Britannica). This is a textile that is more common than you may expect and is often found in blouses, tunics, and suit pants and jackets. Linen ranked well among the textiles because it uses renewable resources, is biodegradable, has the lowest energy use and the least damage to human health, the ecosystem and resources.

Limit: Viscose (Rayon)

  • Viscose came in fourth overall, meaning it’s one of the better textiles of the group, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling it sustainable. Viscose can sometimes be hard to avoid because it is included as a small percentage of the material makeup of many garments. The textile is so prominent because it is easily blended with other fabrics and can be added to clothing to reduce the cost (Swicofil). Viscose is often made from soy, sugar cane, or bamboo, and although these are natural resources, the textile has a negative environmental impact for a variety of reasons (Transparency Market Research). First, its production requires direct land use, meaning the inputs need land for their growth. Viscose is also difficult to recycle, has large water requirements, and the highest level of CO2 emissions of all the textiles tested.
  • Viscose does, however, have redeemable factors as it uses renewable resources, does not require fertilizers and pesticides, and is biodegradable. On the whole, viscose is not the most environmentally damaging textile available, however, limiting your consumption is wise if you want to make sustainable purchases.

Avoid: Acrylic

  • Of the ten textiles that were tested, acrylic came in dead last and you should try to avoid it. Make sure to always check the tags of any knit pieces before purchase. Oversized sweaters and cozy cardigans that are often associated with wool or cashmere are more likely to be 100% acrylic in fast fashion stores.  The textile is produced with oil, coal, and limestone which contributes to its poor sustainability score as these are not renewable resources (Textile School). Acrylic is also very difficult to recycle, is not biodegradable, and had the worst scores for energy use and damage to human health, the ecosystem and resources.

Avoid: Nylon

  • Two varieties of nylon were tested, Nylon 6 and Nylon 66,  both of which fell in the bottom half of the textiles for ecological sustainability. This textile isn’t just found in nylons or tights, it’s also found in sweaters, scarves, a lot of  water resistant pieces, and more. Nylon is a synthetic fabric made from petroleum products and is therefore, not produced from renewable resources (McMahon, “Nylon”). Adding to the textile’s poor score is its inability to biodegrade, the large amount of energy and water required to produce it, the large amount of CO2 emitted during the production process and the large damages to human health, the ecosystem and resources that occur as a result of the production process.

Avoid: Polyester

  • Polyester is probably the most common fabric found in fast-fashion stores. From handbags to leggings, hoodies to blouses, nearly everything has some polyester in it. Although the textile tested better than nylon and acrylic it still has a large environmental impact and you should avoid it as best as you can. Polyester’s poor sustainability is due to the fact that it is produced from the non-renewable resource polyethylene terephthalate, the same material that is used to produce plastic bottles (McMahon, “Polyester”). Additionally, it is not biodegradable, the production process requires a relatively large amount of water and has high damages to human health, ecosystem quality and resources.

After Your Purchase

A large part of the environmental impact for any garment is the consumer’s use, and fortunately you have a great deal of control over this. Limiting how frequently you do laundry to limit water use, and always ensuring you have a full load and natural detergent is a good first step. If possible hang your clothes to dry to reduce energy consumption. (See other tips for best laundry practices, here). Take good care of your clothes to ensure their longevity and try to mend them, rather than throw them away. Find a good tailor near you to modify thrift-store finds, and support a local business in the process.  Finally, when it’s time to say goodbye to those pieces that have reached the end of their life, make sure to get rid of them in a sustainable way. For more information on responsible donation practices and textile recycling options, read our blog post here.

Following these tips, checking the labels of the clothes you buy, and purchasing pieces that are made to last, will lessen your environmental impact, but it will also go beyond that. It can change your relationship with your wardrobe. When I started altering my buying habits I thought that it would require a trade-off that would force me to give up my style to be more sustainable. Instead I found the opposite. When I let go of fast fashion I stopped following trends so closely and began to truly define my personal style. I was more attentive in my purchases, buying pieces that I felt reflected my style and would be timeless in my wardrobe and I started loving my clothes even more because of it. There’s truly no reason not to bring sustainability into your style.






  1. “Acrylic Fibres - manmade artificial fibres.” Textile School, www.textileschool.com/articles/87/acrylic-fibres-manmade-artificial-fibres. Accessed 15 March, 2018.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Linen.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/technology/linen. Accessed 16 March, 2018.
  3. McMahon, Mary. “What is Nylon?” wiseGEEK, 11 March, 2018, www.wisegeek.com/what-is-nylon.htm#comments. Accessed 16 March, 2018.
  4. McMahon, Mary. “What is Polyester?” wiseGEEK, 28 Feb. 2018, www.wisegeek.org/what-is-polyester.htm. Accessed 16 March, 2018.
  5. Muthu, Subramanian Senthilkannan, Y. Li, J.Y. Hu, P.Y. Mok. “Quantification of Environmental Impact and Ecological Sustainability for Textile Fibres.” Ecological Indicators, Volume 13, Issue 1, 2012, pages 66-74.
  6. Viscose Market - Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecast 2017 - 2025.” Transparency Market Research, www.transparencymarketresearch.com/viscose-market.html. Accessed 15 March, 2018.
  7. “Viscose Rayon.” Swicofil, www.swicofil.com/products/200viscose.html. Accessed 16 March, 2018.

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