The Fabric Guide: What to Know About Sourcing Sustainable Materials

The Fabric Guide: Sourcing Sustainable Materials

Sustainability is integral to excellent design, rooted in the understanding that all aspects of our world are interconnected. A sustainable approach ensures that the design, development, production, and use of fashion products meet current needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own. The fashion industry, as it stands, is far from sustainable, depleting natural resources and exploiting labor in ways that endanger future profitability and opportunities.

However, change is possible. By adopting sustainable practices, the industry can achieve greater influence and profitability. While complete sustainability remains an ideal, incremental steps can significantly impact.

Sustainable material sourcing in fashion is a complex but vital endeavor. By understanding the types of fibers available and making informed decisions about their environmental and social impacts, designers can contribute to a more sustainable and responsible fashion industry. This approach not only protects resources and people but also aligns with the growing consumer demand for ethical and eco-friendly products.

Sustainability doesn’t have to be expensive. It can even begin with something as simple as minimizing the use of water and energy at home or at work. Below are some more considerations that can go a long way in becoming more sustainable:

Reducing materials and waste

Use less: Minimize material usage at every stage of production.

Zero-waste patterns: Develop patterns that produce minimal waste at all stages

Reduce packaging: Consider reducing the weight and size of packaging components to minimize waste.

Using fewer materials

Single material products: Create products from a single material to facilitate easier recycling.

Design for disassembly: Ensure products can be disassembled, allowing different materials to be separated and recycled at the end of life

Designing for durability and longevity

High-quality products: Invest in high-quality materials and craftsmanship to extend the life of your products.

Repair services: Where possible, you can offer repair and mending services to prolong the lifespan of products.

Choosing the right materials

The best moment to make low-impact choices and environmentally conscious decisions about
materials and production is at the very beginning of the creative process. The fabrics you choose and the manufacturing process they entail will often set the tone for how sustainable the product you create is. Below are some general ideas to help you understand how different materials are made and their sustainability impact.

Manufactured and synthetic fibers

Used more than any other, synthetic fibers are made by chemical processes unlike natural materials which are derived from natural organisms. This includes materials such as polyester, nylon, spandex, and most fake leathers and fur. Most synthetics are derived from crude oil, which is a non-renewable resource that takes millions of years to form. one problematic issue with synthetic fibers is that they shed microplastics during washing, which can contaminate our water and enter our food chains.

Manufactured fabrics do offer some solutions that other materials lack; synthetic clothing can provide technical or performance functions, for example in athletic wear; they require less washing, have long durability, or can be infinitely recycled in the case of some polyesters. Some synthetics fibers such as recycled polyester, nylon, and acrylic offer more sustainable options but still pose challenges like microfiber shedding. Another sustainable choice are biodegradable polymers, which are made from renewable resources like corn or castor oil, offering an alternative to oil-based synthetics.

Natural fibers

These are fibers that occur organically in nature. They come mostly from plants and plants, and they include fibers such as leather, cotton and wool.

For plant-based fibers, which includes cotton, hemp, and flax, it’s important to consider the environmental impact of cultivation, such as water usage, pesticides, soil health and other processes that go into the growing, harvesting, and processing of a crop. Although plants are renewable resources, their production can often require large amounts of water, chemicals, energy, and transportation across long distances. Industrial agriculture can have negative impacts on biodiversity when natural habitats are removed to make room for farming, for example.

Animal fibers also require the same considerations and more. Whether it’s wool, silk or leather, consider the welfare of the animals involved, the environmental impact of feed crops, and the processing chemicals. In the fashion supply chain, transparency and following standard guidelines are key when working with animal products. Some designers do choose to forego animal products all together, however this comes with its own tradeoffs as replacements are usually made from plastic.

Regenerated natural fibers

These are fibers that are derived from cellulose, often from trees, such as rayon, bamboo, modal or Lyocell. Their level of sustainability varies based on manufacturing processes; some processes involve toxic chemicals, while others use safer, non-toxic methods. Breaking down of trees into pulp can require large amounts of chemicals and energy, for example. So even if trees are sustainable to grow, processing them might not be sustainable.

There are more sustainable alternatives for turning trees into pulp, including non-toxic solvents and some mechanical breakdown processes, although this can use a lot of energy, too. However, the type of fiber itself does not necessarily determine its sustainability; the manufacturer does. Fibers such as rayon (also known as viscose), bamboo, modal and Lyocell are not inherently sustainable; they can be can all be produced in better or worse ways instead.

What to consider for all materials

According to Annie Gullingsrud, the author of Fashion Fibers: Designing for Sustainability, “there is no single solution to sustainable fiber selection. Each fiber has different impacts at different points in the life cycle, and appropriate (and actionable) responses can be complex.“

The CFDA Guide to Sustainable Strategies has provided the below questions that should be asked when
considering any material for your products. In addition to fashion materials, this includes packaging, disposable cutlery, paper and any materials you might use in your business.

Raw materials 

  • What raw materials go into making a material or product? 
  • Where do they come from? 
  • What impact does the cultivation/ extraction of that raw material have on the environment, wildlife, and the communities where it comes from? 
  • What processes does a raw material go through before it becomes useful to you? What gets added or taken away (and from where does that stuff come and to where does it go)? 
  • Be thoughtful about the intended use of your product. Are you using the material the best suited for your product over its entire lifecycle – production, use, and end-of-life?


  • How much water is used in the cultivation/ extraction and processing of the material? • Where does the water come from? 
  • Do you have a way to measure quantity and quality of water coming in and going out? 
  • How much water is wasted? Can it be recycled? 
  • Is your wastewater clean?
  • Is the process happening near any water sources (groundwater, lakes, etc.)? Is your process affecting that water in any way? 
  • If your raw material involves animals, is their waste contaminating water sources? 
  • Will the material require large amounts of water in terms of consumer care?


  • Where does your energy come from? 
  • Is it renewable? 
  • How much energy does it take to create a material? Can this be reduced? 
  • How much energy will that material require when the product is in use and disposed of or recycled?


  • What is the carbon footprint of a material? Are you measuring this? 
  • Are any other parts of the process sending pollution into the air? 
  • Is air safe for workers to breath in the fields/mines/factories/mills/refineries/etc. where your material is produced? 
  • How much travel is required between all the different phases of production? Can you reduce this? 


  • What chemicals go into the making of a material? (Don’t forget, these aren’t just synthetic, nature produces some harmful chemicals too!) 
  • Are these chemicals harmful to the environment or people along any part of a product’s lifecycle? 
  • Where does the chemical come from? How is it made? Who makes it? Chemicals are made out of raw materials, so don’t forget to ask all the raw materials questions for those too. 
  • Do you use a Restricted Substances List? (If not, you should consider creating and using one.)


  • What raw materials go into making a material or product? 
  • What are the bi-products of producing that material? 
  • Where does that waste material go? Can it be used for something else? If not, how is it disposed of? 
  • What kind of packaging is being used and discarded?


  • Think about all the people that play a part in that material’s lifecycle, including your employees, your local community, every worker along your entire product supply chain; all the different communities those people are a part of such as customers or consumers. 
  • Do workers in your supply chain have good, stable income? A true living wage, not just the national minimum wage?
  • Are workers empowered? Do they have a voice in the workplace, the right to organize, and equal opportunity? Are working conditions safe?  
  • Do workers have the resources they need for them and their families to live healthy lives?  
  • We have a tendency to think of just the people with whom we work directly, but we need to think of entire communities, which are often effected by environmental pollution, cycles of poverty inflicted by poor labor practices, and more. 
  • Does your supply chain have a negative impact on human health? 
  • How does your supply chain impact urban migration? This can also mean the destruction of smaller communities, rural life and artisanship, or the creation of vast urban slums that encourage dangerous living situations).