Many textile opportunities exist when a brand decides to produce a design—some good and some not so good. We have to remember that any new fabric being constructed holds with it various pros and cons. We see upcycling or using materials already in existence as the most sustainable option, but if a brand is to create something brand new, the options definitely fall on a spectrum from sustainable to wasteful. This blog seeks to break down some of the most and least innovative, sustainably harvested/manufactured fibers.

As with each fiber we discuss, sustainability depends not only on how it is grown, but on pretreatments and processing, dyeing and printing, finishing, etc. For the highest levels of sustainability, certification through third party verification (see blog) should be upheld to ensure the fiber, as well as its processing and work-conditions are eco-friendly, fair, and as low-impact as possible.

Organic Hemp

 Hemp use in textiles actually dates back to 5th millennium BC in China. Harvested hemp is derived purely from the stalk of the plant. Hemp actually requires much less water than cotton to successfully grow. And it grows quite quickly in a variety of climates—fast enough that weeds are not an issue, proving no need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Hemp also has a positive impact on the soil through replenishing nutrients and actually extracting harmful pollutants. Indeed, the Textile Exchange and The Made-By-Environmental Benchmark for Fibers agree that it is one of the most sustainable fibers in use (While rating hemp as a ‘C’ and organic hemp with an ‘A-’). Hemp produces 250% more fiber than cotton and 600% more than flax with the same acreage of land—naming it the highest yield producer of any natural fiber. And yay! Hemp is totally biodegradable as long as harmful chemicals have not been added.

Our negatives mainly focus on retting—how the natural fibers are pulled from the stem of the plant. This can be done mainly through chemical, water, or dew retting. Chemical is largely used due to the speed and quality of finished product. Water retting can require large amounts of water and energy to create the fiber. The Council of Fashion Designers of America suggests dew retting which requires little inputs and allows for nutrients to return to the soil. Dew retting utilizes natural moisture by fermenting the harvested stalks in fields or ponds. This loosens the gum that holds the fiber to the stem. Stalks are then dried, and the fibers are separated from each other.

Conventional Cotton

Cotton is a natural seed fiber derived from its plant, and it is the second most used fiber on the market. This fiber requires A LOT of water and a whole bunch of pesticides, insecticides, and chemicals to grow. Around the world, 73% of cotton relies heavily on irrigation, and unfortunately, it is produced in some of the most water-stressed countries. (See our Sourcing Organic Cotton Blog for some more detailed info.) Additionally, 3 out of the 10 most acutely hazardous insecticides are extremely common in cotton growth. Conventional cotton grows through a monoculture scheme where only one crop is grown on a field—depleting soil of vital nutrients and therefore demanding synthetic fertilizers. The machinery and planes for pesticide spraying also account for high levels of oil use. Cotton is one of the top 3 genetically modified crops in the world! GMO’s lead to the loss of biodiversity and patents on these GMO seeds force local farmers to purchase new seeds every year, meaning NO seeds from the previous year can be used. It puts extremely high levels of financial stress on farmers and has even been connected to high levels of suicide in Indian cotton farmer populations.

To summarize, conventional cotton ranks quite low on the sustainability scales mainly due to, high water use; pesticide, insecticide, and chemical use; monocultures; oil use in machinery; GMO’s; poor working conditions; and waste production.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton aims to clean up the negative impacts of conventional cotton. However, less than 1% of the global cotton production is rated as organic. Being grown with no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and processed without harmful chemicals, organic cotton proves to be friendly for the planet and people too. As explained by Patagonia, farmers have been growing cotton without chemicals for years with high yields and quality equal to or better than conventional cotton. Although it is more time consuming, it is worth it in terms of biodiversity and creating healthy ecosystems. Growing organically also improves the overall quality of the land and requires far less water than conventional. With that said, it still requires a fair bit of water.

Recycled Cotton

Recycled cotton is perhaps the most sustainable cotton fiber. Pre or post-consumer cotton waste can be integrated into recycled cotton pool if it contains 4% or less of synthetic blend. Currently, recycled cotton makes up far less than 1% of cotton around today . We love it since recycling cotton helps divert waste from entering the landfill.

For recycled standards, look for Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and The Global Recycled Standard (GRS). Other than those, it is typically difficult to certify and regulate recycled cotton since we do not know exactly where it comes from.

Linen (Flax)

Linen is derived from flax, which is a natural plant fiber harvested from the stem of the plant. Flax is the most ancient fiber known to be in use by humans—potentially as early as 8,000 BCE . Linen is known for its floaty, lightweight feel. It represents less than 1% of all textile production and is considered quite a rare and high-quality product. Unfortunately, it is not a very high-yielding crop, but it does require minimal fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. Most of flax for fiber is produced in France and other Western European countries while it is typically processed in China.

Made-By Environmental Benchmark Fibers rates linen as a ‘C’ and organic linen with an ‘A’, proving organic linens’ eco-friendliness. Most of the time, flax comes quite close to organic without much effort. In reality, no pesticides or fertilizers are necessary for growing flax. Those operations that that do use chemicals, use less fertilizers and pesticides used in cotton growing but more than what is required for hemp. Little irrigation is required—indeed most farms can be naturally fed by solely rainwater. Again, retting and processing—like necessary in hemp cultivation too—are our only negative impacts. The Council of Fashion Designers of America again suggests dew retting as the most eco-friendly option.

Rayon (Viscose)

Going by rayon, viscose, or viscose rayon, this is a cellulosic fiber that is neither natural or synthetic. It is a fiber made from cellulose, most commonly derived from wood pulp. Cellulosic fibers make up 6.6% of the global textile market. Breaking down this cellulosic fiber is chemically and water intensive, and viscose is actually the name for the process that uses sodium hydroxide—a harmful chemical—to break down the fiber. What really makes rayon unsustainable, however, is the lack of information surrounding wood sourcing. Indeed, Canopy—a non-profit dedicated to protecting the worlds’ forests—found that 30% of viscose rayon derives from endangered and ancient forests. Indeed, only 29% could be certified as sources sustainably. Unsustainable logging threatens protected species and entire ecosystems. It also destroys people’s livelihoods. As the demand for dissolving pulp is set to continually increase, the continued harvesting of threatened forests poses massive issues for the planet and demands a solution.

This technology has led to the development of lyocell, which is a much more eco-friendly process than viscose discussed below.

Tencel™ Lyocell 

Tencel™ is a type of lyocell made through dissolving wood pulp and then using a specific drying process called spinning. Tencel™ itself is a brand by Lenzing. What sets Tencel™ apart from other wood pulp fibers is that it is made from sustainably sourced wood—coming from certified PEFC and FSC tree plantations. Like viscose, transforming the wood into a textile is chemically intensive. Instead of using a highly polluting treatment system with sodium hydroxide, Tencel™ utilizes a closed loop system using N-Methylmorpholine N-Oxide. This solution is easily recoverable and able to be used over and over again—saving our ecosystems from water-way pollution. Up to 99.8% of the process is able to be reused. The 2% unusable is broken down in biological treatment plants. Tencel™ also is pure white when produced and requires much less dye than fibers like cotton. Tencel™ is still extremely water intensive and requires trees to be logged, but its certifications demonstrate that it is a good alternative to rayon. Overall, Tencel™ and other lyocell fabrics are better than other similar fabrics, but they still do not reach the sustainability of organic and recycled cotton, organic hemp, or organic flax.


Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on our planet, and the plant itself does not need to be completely harvested to source the fiber. It is great for carbon sequestration and can survive purely on rainfall without any synthetic inputs. Bamboo can be harvested while leaving the plant intact and ready to renew quite quickly, which is an aspect that makes it sustainable. This product is called bamboo linen. When processing bamboo linen, it uses basically the same process as hemp or flax and is quite sustainable and eco-friendly. Or it can be harvested similarly to rayon/viscose as a manufactured fiber, called bamboo rayon or lyocell. The processing of bamboo rayon requires harmful chemicals and high energy inputs. Bamboo rayon is preferable to traditional since the raw resources are more sustainable. Bamboo fiber can also be created through a closed loop lyocell process as well, which would lower its impact. Be sure to look for bamboo linen in its raw form without any sneaky rayon/ viscose added.


Polyester is a manufactured synthetic fiber and the most commonly used on the market today—accounting for about half of the global fiber market. It is constructed through plastic made from petroleum. Petroleum is a non-renewable resource that causes significant environmental and social impacts through the production, use, and disposal of it. Our demand for petroleum is much more intense than the planet is able to supply, and we will eventually run out since, you know, it takes like millions of years to form naturally. The origin of petroleum is also one of the trickiest natural resources to trace. From extraction to the final product, the supply and labor chain is practically invisible. Manufacturing plastic-based fibers also requires about 342 million barrels a year. Although polyester requires less water and chemicals for dyeing, it is extremely polluting. The wastewater associated with facilities producing polyester can have significant impact for surrounding ecosystems. In addition, leaks and spills involved in extraction and transport occur and pose further negative impacts on the natural environment. In addition, transforming petroleum into polyester requires a whole lot of energy and greenhouse gases. Producing polyester is accountable for releasing around 280 billion kg of CO2 annually. And this is all just information on extraction and production—polyester leaves further negative impacts throughout its lifecycle as an owned garment (think microplastics and landfill).  

Recycled Polyester

Recycled Polyester contributes to about 7% of all polyester fiber in the global market. While we love addressing the wastefulness of plastics, recycled polyester does pose some concerns involving microplastics, including micro plastic offset during laundering garments. The effort to recycle and process plastic also requires high energy inputs. Look for standards like The Global Recycled Standards (GRS) and Recycles Claim Standards (RCS) and OEKE-TEX STANDARD 100 to know your recycled polyester purchases are traceable, lack harmful chemicals, and follow strict standards.

Designing Sustainably

Unfortunately, no fiber is a home run, but we do know which ones are preferred—organic cotton, organic flax, organic hemp, recycled cotton. And those to be highly avoided—rayon/viscose, conventional cotton, and polyester. Luckily, the designer makes the decision of which fibers to source, and here at eMpulse, we will always choose the most sustainable and low-impact fibers that we can source.


Continuously Questioning the Norm,

eM and the eMpulse Team

May 13, 2021 — Kristy Karrer