by Edwina Robinson 16 November 2016

scarf detail

Linen scarf with botanical dye. Image: Edwina Robinson

We all need to wear clothes, right?  

And most of us are keen to reduce our environmental impact. But choosing sustainable fabrics let alone sustainable fashion labels isn’t easy.

We’ve looked at where fabrics are made, chemicals that are used in their production and treatment of workers and animals.

Most clothes aren’t made in Australia. When you take off your clothes today – check the labels. It probably says ‘Made in China’.


Cotton, as used in these jeans,  is probably the most popular fabric on the planet. Unfortunately cotton has a high environmental impact. Choose clothes made from organic cotton or fair-trade cotton. Image: Pixabay

We recommend you choose natural fabrics over synthetic fabrics. Natural fabrics like organic cotton, linen and wool break down over time and cause little harm to the environment. Polyester and nylon are petroleum based textiles and take a long time to break down and can contribute to plastic micro-beads in our waterways.

Woman cotton picking

A woman picking cotton in India. Workers are often from poor rural areas and are exposed to chemicals used in cotton production. Image: Wikimedia.

One of the other advantages of natural fabrics is they smell less from body odour than synthetics. If you are hiking or cycling you can wear a woollen top for many days without offending your companions. 

Some natural fabrics are better than others. Bamboo grows rapidly with little chemical or water input and is a great timber - however, to make material from this plant requires a lot of chemicals. Non-organic cotton has a heavy environmental and social impact on growers and is best avoided. 

TABLE - Natural fabrics (a green star indicates this type of fabric is a better choice)

Green star rating *


Where grown

Environmental & social impact

Plant or animal origin


Cotton is an incredibly popular fabric and is used in t-shirts, jeans, underwear, sheets……

Cotton comes from the Gossypium hirsutum plant and is grown in China, India, Bangladesh, US and Australia.

Cotton grown in Australia is sent overseas to be made into fabric.

Heavy reliance on pesticides and heavy water use.  Tends to be grown in developing countries by poor farmers exposed to chemicals. Impacts waterways, soils and carbon in atmosphere.

A significant proportion of crops are genetically modified.



Grown in India, China Turkey, Tanzania and US and a few crops in Australia. 

Organic cotton – no pesticides or chemical used. Non- GMO.

Fair-trade cotton – workers are paid a fair wage and given protective equipment when working with chemicals.

Fair-trade cotton is usually organic.


LINEN tends to be an exclusive fabric and is used in clothing and bed linen. 

From the flax/linseed plant, Linum usitatissimum. Grown in Europe and China.  Plant is also used for linseed oil and linseed seeds.

Pure white linen is bleached (ie chemicals used).

Some chemicals may be used in processing the linen once harvested. Best to choose organic linen.


HEMP tends to be associated with 'hippy' clothes. Some contemporary designers have started using hemp.

From the Hemp or Cannabis sativa plant. Leader of world hemp production is China.Some hemp is grown in Australia.

Pesticides and extra irrigation usually unnecessary.  



Bamboo is touted as a sustainable fabric, however, its sustainability credentials are questionable. 

Most bamboo fibre is produced in China. 

Although a wonderful crop for wood production – to turn bamboo into a fibre requires significant chemical use.

Look for Bamboo-Lyocell for a more sustainable option.


SILK has been around for thousands of years and tends to be an exclusive fabric.

A large amount of the production occurs in China.

Silk is made from the fibres of the silkworm case.

Production of silk has a relatively low environmental impact.

With traditional processing silkworm case is heated and silkworm is killed during making of the fibre. 

For those concerned about animal welfare - peace silk is available - larvae are allowed to complete their lifecycle and leave the cocoon prior to the case being heated. 

Animal product – not for vegans.

WOOL was a popular product in antiquity and a very important fibre in Australia's European history. 

Wool is shorn from sheep, alpacas, rabbits, goats.

Australia and New Zealand are well known for sheep wool production.  Superfine wool is valued for use in business suits and active wear. Most  wool is processed in China.

Some growers in Australia have introduced a wool sustainability scheme to let consumers know that farmers take care of their animals and protect  the environment.

Animal product -  not for vegans.

* Green star rating - by our office

Source: Summer Edwards (2016) Guide to Sustainable Textiles

Natural fabrics, like linen and wool, may come with a higher price tag but we recommend re-evaluating your wardrobe and your relationship to clothes and shopping.

blue linen dress Flickr

Linen is a light cool fabric which crushes. It's probably best to accept the crushed-look and know you've made a good environmental choice. Image: Flickr

Hemp beanie

Hemp has many uses - from ropes to beanies and has a low environmental impact. Image: Hempwise

sheep in snow

Australian merino sheep produce fine wool that's great in suits, warm weather gear and active wear. Some Australian growers have introduced a wool sustainability scheme to let consumers know that farmers take care of their animals and protect  the environment. Image: Wikipedia

Last week I bought a cream-coloured Australian wool and viscose (viscose is manufactured from treated wood pulp) jacket from Vinnies at Dickson for $9.  

Cream isn’t my colour so I used my new-found botanical dyeing skills to transform it into a pale vanilla. Voila – one upcycled original garment with a low environmental impact.

wool jacket and linen scarf

Upcycled woollen/viscose jacket with Eucalyptus dye and hand dyed linen scarf. Image: Edwina Robinson

More information

Take the 20 day Sustainable Fashion Challenge with Tortoise and Lady Grey.

For more detailed information on textile environmental credentials check out Summer Edwards (2016) Guide to Sustainable Textiles

living sustainably

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