Sustainable Fabrics & Textile Technologies – Reducing Impact on the Environment

Sustainability in fashion and textiles is becoming an increasingly prominent issue, and more consumers are now educating themselves on the environmental impact of their choices and actively seeking sustainable textiles. Facing a potentially catastrophic ecological crisis but empowered by improved access to information and the emergence of more sustainable fabrics and textile technologies, consumers are turning to brands that adopt an eco-friendlier approach.

In this article, we examine how sustainable textiles and innovative textile technologies combine to deliver ever-more sustainable products. We discuss why sustainability is critical, what makes a fabric sustainable, which textiles are most sustainable, and how textile technologies can improve fabric performance.

Understanding the current state of the textile industry

One of the most significant reasons textile sustainability is such a critical issue is the size of the sectors that depend on fabrics for their products. The global fashion industry alone is valued at over USD 25 trillion and employs more than 75 million people (UN). Its sheer scope means that it has a remarkable impact on the environment. For instance:

  • Approximately 8-10% of all human carbon emissions can be attributed to the fashion sector. This exceeds those generated by all flights and maritime shipping services combined (UNEP). 
  • The fashion industry is responsible for around 20% of the world’s industrial wastewater pollution (WRI).
  • The fashion industry utilizes enough water every year to satisfy the needs of five million people, directly impacting water scarcity in some areas (UNCTAD).

These statistics apply to the fashion industry alone and do not include the environmental impact of other textile-heavy industries, such as homeware, agriculture, transportation, and construction.

Realizing change in the industry and adopting new materials, technologies, and techniques to make it more eco-friendly is essential to protect the natural environment and citizens’ health and create a more sustainable future.

Why is fabric sustainability important?

The textile industry’s intense impact on the environment is compounded by the speed with which the industry is growing, the business model underpinning that growth, and shifting consumer behavior. Fast fashion practices are at the heart of these concerns.

Between 2000 and 2015, clothing production doubled. During that same 15-year period, the average number of times a garment is worn dropped from 200 to around 160 (EMF). This reflects the ever-growing influence of the fast fashion model, in which textiles with short lifespans are prominent, and consumers are encouraged to ditch and refresh their wardrobes regularly.  

Fabric sustainability in the textile industry is important because it helps reduce resource use and mitigate environmental damage. But also because major textile-based industries are growing at an astounding rate and pursuing an economic model that emphasizes short product lifespans and regular repurchasing. An emphasis on sustainability could counteract this.

Green sustainable fabric

Is the sustainable textile sector having an impact?

There is no doubt that sustainable textile use is becoming an increasingly prominent issue, and there are positive signs of growth in the sustainable sector.

  • The sustainable fashion industry is currently valued at USD 6.5 billion and is expected to hit over $10 billion by 2025 (The Round Up). 
  • Products marketed as sustainable have grown 5.6 times more quickly than those that were not (HBR).
  • 73% of millennials are willing to spend more on sustainable items and brands (Inc).

These statistics illustrate a gradual shift in consumer attitudes and greater opportunities for companies using sustainable textiles. However, much work still needs to be done to encourage adoption and grow the sustainable sector. This starts with ensuring people and producers have a comprehensive understanding of what sustainable textiles are.

What makes a fabric sustainable?

Generally, we view textile sustainability through the prism of three core factors. These areas determine just how sustainable or unsustainable a fabric is. They are:

  1. Sourcing of raw materials
  2. Material processing
  3. Lifespan and end-of-life disposal

Recognizing that textiles can perform well in one area but not another is essential. The most environmentally friendly fabrics excel in all three areas. We also need to understand that various other concerns, such as workers’ rights and animal welfare, intersect with environmental issues. 

For this reason, definitions of sustainability can vary. For example, vegans may eschew animal-derived textiles, considering them unethical and unsustainable. However, not all consumers would agree with this line of reasoning.

Benefits of using sustainable fabrics and textile technologies

Sustainable fabrics and textile technologies have clear environmental benefits. They:

  • Reduce resource use.
  • Require less energy and water to process, resulting in a lower carbon footprint.
  • Avoid harmful chemicals that impact biodiversity and the natural environment.
  • Reduce textile waste.

However, the advantages are not limited to environmental factors. There are also valuable benefits for businesses and consumers.

  • Consumers receive a product that lasts longer and performs better, minimizing the need to replace items regularly and saving them money in the long term.
  • Businesses can leverage an improved brand image to encourage greater customer loyalty and trust.
  • New sustainable materials drive innovation in the industry, moving it forward and preventing stagnation.
  • Sustainable textiles prepare organizations for a future in which they are vital, helping them transition smoothly to an increasingly sustainable business model and offering long-term stability.

What fabrics are sustainable?

When identifying sustainable fabrics, things are not always as straightforward as they seem. The same raw materials can be grown and processed in vastly different ways, producing products that occupy very different positions on the sustainability spectrum. 

For instance, regular cotton has a reputation for being the “world’s dirtiest crop” because of the amount of pesticides utilized and water required to grow it. WWF research suggests a single cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water. On the other hand, organic cotton is typically considered more sustainable. As a result, we need to make distinctions between different subsets of materials. Even then, not all organic cotton is the same. There can still be more and less sustainable organic growing and production methods.

With these caveats in mind, let’s take a closer look at a few fabrics often touted as the future of the sustainable textile industry.

Organic or recycled cotton

Organic cotton is not perfect; it is still considered a thirsty crop and depends on a large growing area. But it is a much, much better option than regular cotton. Research suggests that organic cotton requires Organic cotton requires approximately 88% less water and uses 62% less energy than regular cotton (AboutOrganicCotton). Organic-certified products are also grown without using synthetic pesticides. That said, non-synthetic alternatives are often applied in larger quantities due to the lower organic yield. 

Recycled cotton is theoretically even more sustainable than regular or organic cotton, as it is made from industrial or consumer waste. This reduces both the demand for fresh cotton and the amount of cotton going to landfills, improving sustainability at both ends of the material’s lifespan. There are some issues surrounding the sourcing of recycled cotton, but consumers can look for a range of certifications to ensure the material meets the required standards. These include bluesign® and OEKO-TEX certifications, Global Recycle Standard (GRS), and Recycled Content Standard (RCS) approval.

Organic hemp

Hemp is a high-yield crop that is neither water nor chemical-intensive, making it one of the most eco-friendly sources available. It also absorbs more CO² than other crops and benefits from several valuable characteristics, including antimicrobial properties. It is harder to grow than many crops on this list. Historically, this has made it more expensive for consumers, but prices are dropping.

Organic linen

Linen is another sustainable textile that is a fantastic alternative to traditional cotton and polyester. Light, breathable, and comfortable, it is an extremely pleasant textile to work with and well-suited to the fashion industry. Much like hemp, it requires much less water and pesticides than cotton. On the other hand, it is not as high-yielding as cotton or hemp and requires quite a specific climate to grow.

Recycled polyester

Recycled polyester is made from the most common type of plastic (the kind you will typically find in plastic bottles) and is sourced from items that would otherwise be heading for landfill. This makes it a much more sustainable option than newly manufactured polyester. It also benefits from being incredibly versatile, ensuring it is a favorite amongst sustainable textile brands. There are a few drawbacks – recycled polyester still sheds microplastics, and there are concerns over toxicity. The latter of these issues can be resolved by checking for certifications that guarantee non-toxic materials have been used.


Lyocell is one of a new generation of materials that have been developed with sustainability in mind. A semi-synthetic textile manufactured from wood pulp, the raw materials can be grown in a wonderfully environmentally friendly way. They can also be grown in a not-so-friendly way. If you want to guarantee quality and eco-friendly growing and processing, keep an eye out for the TENCEL™ brand, as it has implemented a closed-loop manufacturing process that significantly improves sustainability.


Finally, Piñatex is made from pineapple leaf fibers, which are historically discarded after the harvest. As a food by-product, it is a very sustainable choice. However, this also limits the amount of Piñatex available. If we were to grow more pineapples primarily to meet any increase in demand for Piñatex, it would no longer be eco-friendly, as pineapples are a space and water-intensive crop.

An array of other fabrics, including wool, cashmere, and silk, are sometimes considered more sustainable options. However, there are lingering concerns, doubts over ethical practices, and questions surrounding their environmental and social impact.

If you are looking for a list of materials to avoid, here is a quick list of textiles that are usually considered unsustainable or environmentally damaging:

  • Polyester
  • Rayon
  • Acrylic
  • Nylon
  • Regular cotton

Innovative sustainable textile technologies

Identifying sustainable fabrics is just one part of the equation, though. There is also a whole range of innovative textile technologies out there that can play a role in creating a more eco-friendly and sustainable textile industry. These technologies seek to reduce a product’s environmental impact by improving performance across its entire lifespan. 

Polygiene StayFresh™ is an excellent example. An advanced antimicrobial treatment based on silver ion technology, it eliminates odor-causing bacteria at the source, keeping clothes fresher for longer and reducing the frequency with which you need to wash items. This has two main environmental advantages:

  1. It reduces resource use. Fewer washes mean you use less water and electricity.
  2. It extends the item’s expected life span. Washing it less makes the clothing last longer, making it a more sustainable option. 

In the case of Polygiene StayFresh, a life cycle assessment demonstrated that by enabling users to skip every other wash, the solution:

  • Reduces an item’s environmental impact by as much as a third.
  • Saves 51 kWh per year – that equates to roughly 500 hours of computing.
  • Saves 3,800 liters of water.
  • Saves users significant amounts of time – freeing up approximately four full days every year.

Polygiene StayFresh is integrated into materials during the manufacturing stage and provides antimicrobial protection for the product’s entire lifespan. It does not leach and is entirely skin-safe. The technology is also bluesign and Oeko-Tex Eco-Passport accredited. In other words, it is a fantastic way to enhance fabric performance and make materials even more sustainable.

Polygiene solutions are part of a more sustainable future

At Polygiene, we believe innovative technologies are central to achieving a more sustainable future. From groundbreaking growing techniques and revolutionary synthetic fibers to antimicrobial treatments like Polygiene StayFresh, innovation in the textile sector can help us create a more environmentally friendly and ethical industry that protects the natural environment and the people within it.

However, this will require collaboration between forward-facing brands who value sustainability and want to create a better world. Polygiene is committed to playing its part and creating the Freshness and Protection solutions the sustainable textile sector demands. 

To learn more about our odor-eliminating antimicrobial solution, head to the Polygiene StayFresh product page.