The Best Sustainable Fabrics Replacing Animal 'Materials'
Are animal materials really sustainable, and if so, why not, and what sustainable fabrics can we replace them with?
What is sustainable fashion?
This is a kind of fashion which focuses on the wellbeing of the environment, and which recognises that if we continue to deplete the earth of resources for the sake of irresponsible fashion, we will not have a planet to live comfortably and safely on. Sustainable clothing also means ethical clothing, as we cannot afford to sustain a system which exploits not only the environment, but garment workers and animals.
So then, what are sustainable fabrics and materials? These are the sustainable textiles that leave the smallest mark on our natural environment. They are often recycled fabrics and biodegradable fabrics, as these are a part of a ‘circular fashion system’. This is a system which, rather than trashing the environment when clothes are discarded, either makes use of what we already have, or uses only materials that are natural, and decompose into the earth when they are no longer in use.
Many people assume that animal materials are ‘natural’ and so they make for eco friendly ‘materials’. To the surprise of many, none of the most sustainable fabrics are animal-derived. Despite the claim that the skins and fibres of animals are ‘natural’ - though domesticating and slaughtering billions of selectively bred and non-native animals every year is certainly not natural - data shows that animal farming systems are not sustainable. So, neither are the materials which come from them.
Cattle who will be killed for their flesh and skin.
Why are animal materials so unsustainable?
The Material Sustainability Index by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which reports on sustainable fabrics and materials, and those which are harming the planet, shows that silk is the single most environmentally impactful material to produce, with alpaca wool coming second, leather in third, and wool fifth, after conventionally farmed cotton.
Animal materials are enormous drivers of the climate crisis, with massive greenhouse gas emission release associated with their production. Further, materials like cow skin leather, sheep and alpaca wool are responsible for disproportionately high levels of land clearing and degradation. Water scarcity and eutrophication causing low oxygen levels in water are other major environmental concerns noted by the Coalition.
Via Material Innovation Institute, the most unsustainable materials.
It makes sense then, that if we want to see true sustainability in the fashion industry, we should be looking beyond the animal-based ‘materials’ we have been using since we lived in caves, and sourcing kinder alternatives. We should be looking instead at ethical fabrics, which are vegan, more sustainable textiles. These are the materials which do not come directly from the slaughter of animals, or from the environmental destruction that animal agriculture causes.
However, when we are looking at what makes something ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’, we need to consider not only animals, but the people involved in the farming and production of a fabric. Only when we consider the planet, people and animals, do we have a more totally ethical and sustainable textile to create eco friendly fabric clothing with.
With those which are animal-based being some of the least sustainable ‘materials’, let’s look at the most eco friendly fabrics that are available to replace these, and how they are sourced. Below are some of the best alternatives to cow skin leather, and to wool from sheep and alpacas.
Models with pineapple leaf leather alternative bags, and wool-free clothing.
Alternatives to Cow Skin Leather:
Pineapple Leaf Alternative Leather
A great way to support sustainable fashion is to use what is currently going to waste. This is exactly what Piñatex, a pineapple leaf based alternative to leather is doing.
Pineapple is one of the most popular fruits in the world, and every year, the leaves from the pineapple fruit plants are simply discarded or burned, as they aren’t generally used. Now, these leaves are instead used as the basis of an alternative leather material that is being used by thousands of brands, including Kinds of Grace.
To make the sustainable material, pineapple leaf fibre is pulled apart, washed, dried and mixed with a corn-based polylactic acid which is then coated with a bio-resin made from other plant crops. This is exciting because this material is almost completely biodegradable, making use of plants, not slaughtered animals, and making use of waste.
The fruit leaves come from ethical farms, and support farmers who are able to make more money when selling both leaves and fruit, than if they were selling only fruit. This is far preferable to financially supporting a slaughter industry like meat or dairy.
Left, collection of pineapple plant leaves to be turned into 'leather', right, Kinds of Grace vegan bags made from the material.
Recycled Polyurethane Synthetic Leather
Virgin synthetic materials are not the most sustainable option, as they are neither recyclable or biodegradable, and are based in fossil fuel much of the time. Still, compared to animal leather, a far more sustainable synthetic fabric comes in the form of synthetic polyurethane, or PU leather. This material has half the environmental impact of cow skin tanned chemically into leather, so still makes for a more sustainable bag.
What’s more, today there are bio-oil based synthetic leathers, using crops not fossil fuels, and there are recycled synthetic leathers, which support a more sustainable use of synthetics. Recycled polyurethane synthetic leather is important because it looks great, but also is free from animal death, the environmental impacts of animal farming, and the human mental and physical health risks involved in abattoir work which forms part of the animal leather supply chain which turns cows into ‘materials’.
With recycled fabrics and materials, there is a real opportunity to make synthetic materials more eco-friendly. This is especially the case for synthetic leathers, which, unlike acrylic or polyester knitted fabric, won’t shed so many microfibres, or be washed in a washing machine which will release these microscopic pieces of plastic into the ocean. Recycled synthetic leather means no more need for more crude oil to be extracted from the earth for the sake of leather-look fashion.
Some ‘recycled’ vegan leather materials are also ‘deadstock’ materials, which would otherwise be discarded by big brands who don’t use all of the material they buy. Sourcing and reusing deadstock fabric is another kind of ‘recycling’ that is good for the environment, reducing waste.
Another fruit-based leather (we also have grape and apple based leathers!) is the wonderful mango leather. One of the newer, innovative, fruity leather alternatives, this creation also makes use of waste.
According to the brains behind the material, Fruitleather Rotterdam, 45% of all fruit grown around the world is thrown away between the farm and when it gets to our mouths. Sometimes fruit is discarded because it’s considered ‘ugly’, or because it doesn’t fit the size and shape requirements supermarkets demand from farmers.
Combating food waste, the entire ethical process which takes place in Rotterdam sees unsold food collected from Dutch food distributors who would otherwise throw it away. Next, the mangos are deseeded and mashed, before being boiled and mixed with an additive similar to those used in Piñatex. The dried ‘fruit soup’ is then backed onto a woven material.
This vegan fabric-backed material can be embossed to replicate not only cow skin leather, but crocodile skin, which comes from the cruel exotic skin industry. In this industry, crocodiles are confined to cages and concrete pits for their entire lives before they are killed.
A clutch made from embossed mango leather.
Another plant-based, sustainable material is cactus leather, being used to create sustainable fashion garments that are better for animals, the planet and people.
Made from cacti grown by Desserto, in Mexico where it is native, the production of this eco friendly fabric supports natural biodiversity and flora. No trees have been cut down for the existing cacti plantation, which is fed only by rain, not any irrigation water, making it very water efficient.
Unlike cow skin leather, which results in massive greenhouse gas emissions, the cactus species used absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and generates oxygen. They are planted and live in the ground for eight years, with small parts cut off for harvest every 8 months or so.
The organic material is, as with the other leather alternatives, blended with an additive, this time polyurethane to make it high-performing and able to last for years to come. This is important because there’s nothing sustainable about a material that will break down and be unusable quickly. This makes the cactus leather partially biodegradable, and still highly eco friendly, especially compared to cow skin leather, and when cared for to last a long time.
Cactus leather and a piece of cacti.
Alternatives to Sheep and Alpaca Wool:
Sustainably Farmed Cotton
Not all cotton is created equal, and questions about cotton as a sustainable fabric are valid, made clear by conventionally farmed cotton being in fact more environmentally impactful than wool. However, some cotton is far more sustainable, as shown by the same data from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
The majority of cotton’s environmental impact comes from water use. In Australia, water efficiency in the crop has increased by 40% in the decade to 2012. What’s more, there is rainfed cotton in some small parts of Australia, and around the world, including in Africa. This is far more water efficient. Some organic cotton is also much more efficient in this sense, and includes other benefits for those interested in avoiding pesticides.
Importantly, fair trade and other certified cotton ensures the people on cotton farms are treated well and paid fairly. Just as the wool industry commodifies and exploits sheep (and sheep shearers), it is not right to support materials which hurt humans.
Fair, sustainable cotton is an excellent alternative to wool, which comes from a slaughter industry. Like wool, cotton biodegrades, and comes to be without the same major land clearing and greenhouse gas emissions associated with wool fabric.
Tencel is a certified kind of lyocell material, meaning it is made from harvested wood pulp from eucalyptus trees. The big difference between Tencel and other lyocell materials is that it is certified as coming from sustainably harvested trees, not protected, old-growth forests which are too often cut down for fashion. Also, the water and chemicals used in the process of making this material are almost 100% recycled in Tencel’s closed-loop system.
Tencel has similar properties to wool, able to regulate temperatures effectively, keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer depending on how it is worn, while being breathable and biodegradable. This is a wonderful and versatile vegan fabric.
Hemp is another positive option for those looking for a biodegradable, eco friendly fabric replacement for wool. However, hemp is not as soft as cotton, so it is generally blended with organic or other preferably sourced cotton.
Hemp is very strong, and when it is grown, no pesticides are required. Hemp is a bast fibre, meaning that not the leaves, but the woody stalk of the plant is used to create the material. This means that it must be processed more than cotton, but these processes can be done in a sustainable manner.
It is important that, as with all materials, where hemp comes from is considered, as the ethics of the farm and its treatment of workers are an important part of ethical fabric choices.
A cosy hemp and organic cotton plaid skirt from Afends.
Recycled Plant Fibres
The last fibre that is used to make eco friendly clothing materials are those that are recycled. Recycled fabric made from cotton for example, is the most sustainable fabric form of cotton, because it is making use of what would otherwise be wasted. Recycled cotton comes from both pre- and post-consumer waste. This means it can come from cotton fibre waste in the production of the knitted material or of clothing, or, it can come from recycled cotton clothes that are no longer being worn. The cotton from both of these sources are shredded and remade into a usable yarn, turned into fabric and then clothing.
There are plenty of clothes already in existence, so making use of them and using recycled fabric to make new garments if we need them, rather than depleting the earth for more resources, or harming animals, is always a good idea.
A recycled cotton knit from Will's Vegan Store.
Remembering That Sustainable Materials Should Be Total in Their Ethics
With a better understanding of what sustainable fabrics look like, and don’t look like, it’s important to reaffirm the importance of total ethics as part of sustainability in the fashion industry.
While animal materials are already unsustainable in their inefficient use of the world’s finite resources, they are also unsustainable because the cruel treatment of animals, and of workers in these animal supply chains, is not something we can accept or sustain. There is no environmental justice without social justice, which should include justice for all beings we share the planet with.
Next time you’re looking for a new pair of shoes or a bag, or a new winter warmer, what material will you choose?