A Guide To Cruelty-Free Sustainable Textiles


Vegans avoid leather because it’s a product of animal slaughter. But what about other fabrics? Is there such a thing as vegan textiles? Are natural fabrics the same thing as vegan fabrics? What about sustainable fabric? Finally, what fabrics are vegan, and where can you find them?

What Fabrics Can Vegans Wear?

woman in faux leather taking a photograph

The simple answer to that question is that vegans can wear fabrics that don’t involve the slaughter or exploitation of animals. Fabrics made from plant fibers and synthetic fibers fit this description nicely.

At the same time, many vegans are also concerned with sustainable vegan fashion. This means fabrics that are also eco-friendly in their manufacture. And the sad truth is that some vegan fabrics, particularly synthetic fabrics and leather substitutes, are very hard on the planet.

Here’s a rundown of some vegan friendly fabrics, what they’re made of, and their sustainability.

Linen

linen jacket vegan textiles

Linen fabric is a soft, thin cloth woven from the fibers of the flax plant. Linen fabric has been used for over 30,000 years, and in many parts of the world. It’s strong, attractive, and delightfully easy to work with. (1)

What’s more, linen is hypoallergenic, moth resistant, pill resistant, and absorbent.

Linen is more durable than cotton fabric, but it’s also more expensive. It’s often used in high end shirts and dresses. This woven fabric is also a popular choice for bedding, tablecloths, and napkins, hence the terms “bed linens” and “table linens.”

Linen doesn’t take dye as well as cotton fabric, so you’ll often find it in its naturally occurring shades of ecru, oatmeal, beige, taupe, and grey.

Linen is one of the most sustainable vegan fabrics. The flax plant grows in a variety of climates and doesn’t require intensive farming. In fact, it can survive on rainwater alone. 

In addition, processing flax requires very little in the way of chemicals. Different industries use different parts of the plant, so there’s very little waste, either. And on top of that, linen is recyclable.

Organic Cotton

vegan fabric organic cotton

It’s difficult to beat cotton for versatility. Whether you’re using closely woven cotton fabric for fine clothing, loosely woven cotton fabric for crafts, stout cotton fabric for denims, or glazed cotton fabric for upholstery and housewares, it is, as the advertisers say, “the fabric of our lives.”

Cotton fabric is easy to work with, combines well with other fabrics, and takes dye very well. Durable cotton fabric is breathable and washable, too. You can even use waxed cotton fabric as a leather substitute.

Cotton is a plant fibre, so it’s vegan. And as far as sustainability goes, it does have some good points. Cotton grows well in different climates and it’s not difficult to harvest. It’s also recyclable and biodegradable.

At the same time, conventionally grown cotton uses a lot of polluting pesticides. Raw cotton bolls also often travel a long distance to a processing facility, and this creates a large carbon footprint. Cotton cultivation also depletes the soil, requiring the clearing of new grounds, and the resulting destruction of natural habitats. It’s also quite water intensive.

But organic cotton is another story. According to one lifecycle study, organic cotton can be produced using 91 percent less water than conventional cotton, and processed using one third of the energy. (2)

So although conventionally produced cotton fabric has some sustainability issues, you can count organic cotton amongst sustainable fabrics.

Coconut Fiber

The humble coconut provides so much vegan goodness in terms of food, but did you know that the fibers can be woven into fabric? It’s true. (3)

Coconut fiber fabric is made from fibers stripped from the husk of a coconut. The fibers are then boiled in sea water and crushed, very much like in the production of jute. 

As you might imagine, the fabric woven from coconut fiber is quite coarse. Thus, coconut fiber fabric is often used for things like automobile upholstery and cosmetic brushes, mattresses, mats, and so forth.

Coconut fibers are a waste product, so using them to make fabric is a sustainable practice.

Hemp

Hemp is a popular material for garments and other applications where you might use either lightweight cotton fabric or even heavy cotton fabric. Hemp fabric is a smooth, plain woven fabric. It’s breathable, UV-resistant, moisture-wicking, and very easy to sew, dye, and work with. Its most common uses are clothing and home textile products.

Hemp is one of the most sustainable fabrics on the market today. It’s very fast growing and the same acreage of plants yields more fibres than either flax or cotton. It also requires no pesticides or fertilizers. Hemp is water efficient, and, unlike cotton, makes soil more fertile rather than less.

Although it can be a bit rougher on the skin than some finer fabrics, it does soften over time. Hemp is vegan, and, just as importantly, it’s a sustanability superstar.

rPET

If you recycle your plastics, you’re probably already familiar with PET, or polyethelene tetraphyte plastic. This is the plastic that’s used in drink bottles, clamshell packaging, and other places. rPet is short for recycled PET. When you see a garment advertised as being “made from recycled soda bottles,” this is rPET.

rPET is definitely vegan. It’s a completely synthetic fabric. And the fact that it’s recycled from something that might have gone into a landfill is great. After all, PET plastic takes 700 years to biodegrade.

At the same time, PET comes from crude oil and natural gas. Some might say that we should focus on eliminating fossil fuel derived products in addition to finding new uses for the ones that already exist.

Lyocell

Lyocell (also called Tencel) is a type of rayon fabric made from cellulose derived from wood pulp. So, technically, it’s one of the vegan fabrics. 

Lyocell is a lightweight, stretchy knit fabric often marketed as an eco-friendlier alternative to polyester and viscose rayon. It’s soft and breathable, and is hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial, too. (4)

On one hand, though it’s a synthetic fabric, Lyocell is naturally biodegradable. Often the wood pulp from which it’s made comes from trees farmed without pesticides or irrigation. Many manufacturers recycle the solvents they use in producing Lyocell, too. And Lyocell production uses less water and energy than polyester production.

On the other hand, the fibers undergo a lot of chemical processing between start and finish. And that chemical processing does release pollutants into the environment.

The best way to make sure your Lyocell is maximally sustainable is to look for a manufacturer’s guarantee that the fabric for that particular garment was harvested and produced in a sustainable, eco friendly manner.

Bamboo

Bamboo isn’t one of the most used vegan fabrics, but it’s gaining in popularity, and it’s really no surprise.

Like hemp, bamboo grows fast — up to a metre (three feet) a day — and requires no pesticides or fertilizers. It’s a plant fiber, so it’s totally vegan, too.

But not all bamboo fabrics are created equal.

There are three types of bamboo fabric: bamboo linen, bamboo viscose, and bamboo modal.

Bamboo linen, like flax linen, is a natural fabric woven from the fibers of the bamboo plant. In terms of use and handling, bamboo is a plain woven textile a lot like a strong cotton fabric. It’s durable and long lasting, and, though it’s a bit rough at first, it softens over time.

Bamboo viscose and bamboo modal are semi synthetic fabrics. That is, they combine natural and synthetic fibers, using chemical processes.

Bamboo viscose (also called bamboo rayon) is made from a combination of bamboo pulp and synthetic fibers. Production is very chemically intensive and polluting. In addition, because of the chemicals used, bamboo viscose isn’t biodegradable.

Bamboo modal uses fewer chemicals than bamboo viscose, but also creates its share of pollution.

The upshot is that yes, bamboo fabric is vegan, but if you want sustainable vegan fabrics, then look for bamboo linen and skip the viscose and modal.

Plant-Based Leathers

You’ve seen that vegan fabrics aren’t the same as sustainable vegan fabrics. 

Guess what? 

The same can be said for vegan leather substitutes. Leather substitutes can be made from a lot of different things, and some of those things are better for the planet than others.

PU Leather

If you’re looking for vegan shoes and faux leather jackets, you’ve probably encountered PU leather. Before we go any further, it’s important to distinguish between PU leather and PU “coated” or “bicast” leather.

PU leather is made from polyurethane, and it is vegan. “PU coated” or “bicast” leather, on the other hand, is made from animal leather coated with polyurethane, and it’s not vegan, though some unscrupulous sellers may try to pass it off as such.

So how is a person to tell? 

Animal leather has a distinct smell that you won’t find with synthetic leather. PU leather has a more plasticky and less uniform texture. Also, PU leather takes dye better than animal leather, so PU leather products will come in a wider range of colors than real leather.

PU is also substantially less expensive than animal leather, though this is already changing, as the market moves away from animal derived products.

The downside of PU leather, you might have guessed, is its environmental impact. PU leather is an entirely synthetic fabric, and its manufacture requires a lot of chemicals. These chemicals are highly polluting. In fact, the by-products of PU production are one of the worst pollutants in oceans today. (5)

At the same time, it’s been estimated that pollution aside, the production of vegan leathers is less environmentally damaging than the production of real leathers. 

PVC Leather

PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is another synthetic material that is a popular leather substitute. PVC is common in handbags, shoes, and jackets. Being synthetic, PVC is technically a vegan leather. 

PVC is durable, attractive, and less expensive than either PU leather or animal leather.

Unfortunately, like PU leather, PVC leather production is devastating to the environment. PVC manufacture uses chlorine and other highly toxic chemicals. 

In addition, production releases dioxins into the environment. Dioxins cause cancer, reproductive problems, developmental problems, and more. And once it’s in the environment, it stays there for a very long time. (6)

PVC leather may not come from animals, but its manufacture harms animals, people, and the planet.

Natural Fiber Leather Substitutes

So are there any leather substitutes that are gentler for the environment? Yes. Here are a few.

Cork

Cork comes from the bark of the cork tree. It’s attractive, durable, waterproof, and both recyclable and biodegradable. On top of that, the bark can be harvested without harming the trees. Using cork also supports cork forests, which are home to numerous animal species.

Pineapple

Pinatex is fabric woven from the fibers of pineapple leaves. This attractive, durable woven fabric is not only natural, but makes use of what would otherwise go to waste. Pinatex also provides employment for people in pineapple producing communities.

Mushroom

Mushroom leather, or MuSkin, is an up-and-coming leather substitute. It’s softer than suede, antibacterial, and can be grown to the size and shape needed. It can also be waterproofed without the use of harmful chemicals.

Apple

The discarded skin and cores of apples can be processed into a thin, leather-like material that can be coated and dyed in numerous ways.

Kelp

“Ocean leather” is made from kelp, a fast-growing brown sea plant. Its growth not only requires no poisons, but kelp itself absorbs poisons and runoff, helping to protect the oceans.

Barkcloth

Barkcloth is a traditional cloth from parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. It’s made from the bark of trees from the Moraceae family, and resembles paper. When you see “paper” clothing advertised, it’s often actually barkcloth.

Mango

If you’ve ever eaten a mango, you know how fibrous it is, and how tough the skins are. Mango leather is another leather substitute that’s made from the waste parts of the fruit. It’s sustainable, biodegradable, and has low carbon and water footprints.

Vegan fabrics FAQs

vegan fabric tote bag

Want to know more about vegan fabrics? We have the answers that you need.

How Can You Tell if a Fabric is Vegan?

A lot goes into making fabric, and it’s difficult to know the complete provenance of any given material. However, certification from organizations like BeVeg and the Vegan Society can be a good place to start. (7, 8)

Are All Vegan Fabrics Sustainable?

No. 

In fact, as we’ve described above there are a number of vegan fabrics, the manufacture of which is highly polluting. Some of the more polluting vegan fabrics include:

Which Fabric is the Most Environmentally Friendly?

That’s a tough one. For our money, hemp fabric is the friendliest, though flax linen comes in a close second.

Which Fabrics are not Vegan?

All of the following fabrics involve the slaughter or exploitation of animals.

  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Leather and suede
  • Tweed
  • Down
  • Taffeta
  • Velvet
  • Tulle

Which Vegan Fabrics Should Be Avoided?

This depends on your personal philosophy.

For some vegans, the main point is to avoid the harm and exploitation of animals. If this is your main goal, then any animal-free vegan fabric should do.

On the other hand, if you want to also minimize the environmental impact of your textiles, then choose minimally processed natural fabrics like hemp, linen, and organic cotton, and give the synthetics a miss.

Final Thoughts

Whew! The world of vegan fabrics is more complicated than it looks! But fortunately, as more people choose to walk lightly on the planet, textile manufacturers are making new and better materials for the journey.

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guide to sustainable vegan fabrics
About The Author:
Jess Faraday

Jess Faraday is a vegetarian from a family of vegetarians. A recent vegan, she wants to spread the word about the benefits of plant-based eating for health, for animals, and for the planet.

REFERENCES

  1. You Sew and Sew | What is Linen and How Easy is it to Work With? | https://yousewandsew.com/linen/
  2. Semantic Scholar | Lifecycle Assessment of Cotton Made in Africa | https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Life-Cycle-Assessment-(LCA)-of-Cotton-made-in-out/db5ae0eaabdcd596b710690a68186cdcc7b25a02
  3. Science Direct | Engineering Coconut Fiber | https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/coconut-fiber
  4. You Sew and Sew | What is Polyester? | https://yousewandsew.com/what-is-polyester/
  5. Harpers Bazaar | Is Vegan Leather Worse for the Environment than Real Leather? | https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/fashion/fashion-news/a30640996/vegan-leather-sustainability/
  6. US Environmental Protection Agency | Learn About Dioxin | https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin
  7. BeVeg | Clothing Certification | https://www.beveg.com/vegan-textile-and-fashion-certification/
  8. The Vegan Society | Fashion and Textiles Certification | https://www.vegansociety.com/vegan-trademark/fashion-and-textiles
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