15 Vegan Fabrics Explained
I am a big believer that no animal should ever suffer at the expense of my wardrobe. It breaks my heart to see some of the conditions these animals have to live under just to be slaughtered for their fur or skins.
Thankfully, there are so many amazing sustainable vegan fabrics out on the market today that have become much more affordable!
Vegan fabrics really can be just as stylish, beautiful, and high quality as regular fabrics.
What makes a fabric vegan?
There are two main types of sustainable vegan fabric out there:
1. Synthetic fabrics: Synthetic vegan fabrics are man-made and usually come from plastic polymers. While we eco-conscious folks would probably not consider these fabrics eco-friendly, they are technically vegan.
2. Natural fabrics: Natural vegan fabrics come from a wide range of different plants such as bamboo or cacti. As long as they have not been chemically treated and are sourced sustainably, natural vegan fabrics are definitely the preferable option.
Why consider vegan fabrics?
More of us are adopting eco-friendly, vegan lifestyles than ever before! We are collectively turning away the fast fashion brands that are pushing out large quantities of cheap, trendy clothing.
Why? Because the process of turning animal skin and furs into something that is sold at the store takes an enormous amount of chemicals and produces tons of carbon emissions. In fact, the environmental impact of our clothes has roughly doubled in the last two decades!
If it’s not already clear, choosing slow fashion brands that offer more sustainable material options can make a BIG difference.
Best: natural vegan fabrics
Some of these wonderful fabrics have been around since the beginning of time (almost), while others are new and innovative. It's exciting to see so much "greenovation" in the textile space. We need it.
Jute can put up with some serious wear and tear. That is one of the many reasons I think it is so fabulous. Jute is also biodegradable, recyclable, can be grown without fertilizer and pesticides, and is very affordable.
But what is it exactly? Jute is a shiny material made from the cellulose and lignin fiber from the jute plant. These days, nearly all jute products come from Bangladesh but Jute has actually been used all over Asia for thousands of years.
Because of its durability, jute is also a great material choice for ropes, bags, and carpets! In fact, you’d probably recognize jute as a common material used to make picnic baskets.
Organic cotton is one of the most popular vegan-friendly fabrics out there. You can find it in dresses, hoodies, baby clothes, comforters, mattresses, men's clothing, t-shirts, bras, and socks…. The list goes on. It’s GMO-free and grown organically (without the use of hazardous herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers).
Organic cotton is also a big water saver compared to conventional cotton (FYI, I love my organic cotton sustainable sweatpants by Outerknown!!).
Hemp fabric definitely has more pros than cons. To start, hemp takes only about three months to biodegrade in the natural environment. It is also very durable and has UV-protective and antibacterial properties.
Another cool fact is that hemp can be easily blended with other natural fibers making it one of the most versatile fabrics out there and a favorite for those who love the outdoors.
You might also be surprised to hear that hemp is becoming a popular vegan shoe material! The brand Rawganique carries some really beautiful shoe styles for both men and women, all hemp-based and cruelty-free!
This beautiful fabric is made from the flax plant so it is biodegradable, much stronger than cotton, and vegan! What is not to love?
While conventionally grown linen is better than synthetic fabrics, it does come with some concerns, like chemicals, etc. This makes organic linen a better choice, it's very low maintenance but is more expensive.
Linen is the perfect fabric for home goods like sheets, curtains, and tablecloths. You can also find some beautiful linen clothing items at the thrift store, too!
Have you ever heard of cork leather? Cork comes from the bark of the cork tree, which is stripped periodically making it 100% renewable (and avoids unnecessary deforestation!). I highly recommend checking out cork leather bags, belts, sandals, and wallets!
Better: semi-synthetic vegan fabrics
These semi-synthetic vegan fabrics aren’t the best, but they aren’t too shabby either!
Faux Vegan Leather
Vegan leather has been a popular alternative to traditional leather since the 1920s. It is often marketed as a more eco-friendly option in the world of vegan synthetic fabrics because it is technically cruelty-free.
However, while it might be cruelty-free I wouldn’t say all vegan leather is eco-friendly. For years, vegan leather was made from Polyvinyl chloride and Polyurethane (both of which are plastic).
Some plastics that are derived from petroleum have been linked to some serious health risks including immune system damage and even cancer.
Luckily, tons of vegan leather options today are made from more innovative materials. For example, Piñatex is vegan leather made from the fiber of pineapple leaves, cool right? Find some great vegan leather alternatives in our sustainable sneaker guide.
Cactus leather is another plant-based leather alternative but it comes from the Nopal cactus! Because Nopal cactus grows naturally in abundance throughout Mexico, there is no need for extra irrigation or the introduction of pesticides and inscecities during the “farming” process (some brands that carry cactus leather like DESSERTO even carry a USDA Organic certification).
Unlike other vegan leather alternatives, it is also extremely breathable and waterproof. Unfortunately, cactus leather is only partially biodegradable as it can last in the natural environment for up to ten years.
Bamboo viscose is taking the sustainable fabrics industry by storm. Why? Bamboo viscose is very breathable and has excellent moisture-wicking properties. Because of this feature, bamboo viscose is very popular in athleisure wear.
But it's not perfect… To make bamboo viscose, bamboo pulp is processed and then spun into yarns of fabrics. During processing, chemicals carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide, and sulfuric acid are introduced, all of which can pose some serious health risks. What’s worse is about 50% of the hazardous waste from this process can’t be recaptured and reused.
Similar to bamboo viscose, lyocell also has natural origins and is processed with synthetic chemicals. Lyocell comes from eucalyptus trees where its wood pulp is dissolved in an NMMO solvent during processing.
While synthetic, the solvent waste can be recaptured and reused making the process more closed-loop compared to bamboo viscose.
Lyocell does have its positives, though! It needs half as much water as cotton, it is also very smooth and is a good option if you have sensitive skin. You might have even already heard about lyocell and didn’t even know it! TENCEL™ is a very common brand name for a type of Lyocell, and the names are often used interchangeably.
Modal is a type of rayon made up of a combination of organic and synthetic materials - making it another semi-synthetic option (similar to viscose rayon).
Modal is made partially from high-quality cellulose from beech trees but it's usually blended with other fibers like spandex and cotton to make it the soft, durable, lightweight fabric we all have come to know all too well. Because of its unique characteristics, modal is one of the great vegan-friendly fabrics for sustainable swimwear and comfy ethical sweats.
Cupro fabric also goes by its more common name “vegan silk” since it’s a much more sustainable vegan fabric option compared to regular silk. While it is cruelty-free, biodegradable, and uses less dye than traditional materials, cupro fabric also requires high amounts of copper, ammonia, caustic soda, and other toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process (only 50% of which can be recaptured and reused). Sigh, good but not great.
Not so great: synthetic vegan fabrics
We know that synthetic fabrics are not ideal but at the same time, it's so hard to steer clear of them completely. A big part of the problem is access to some of the more "unique' vegan fabrics we mentioned above. They are not as mainstream as I'd love them to be.
Fast fashion is a massive business and can be hard to avoid. But you can still have an impact by choosing second-hand clothing and shopping at thrift shops, or even holding a clothing swap, by doing this we are reducing waste by reusing clothing instead of discarding it.
Nylon is one of the most popular fabrics out there. It is a durable, low-cost, synthetic fiber made from plastic polymers. But unlike other synthetic fabrics, it’s a generic name that encompasses a family of synthetic polymers (called nylon 66, nylon 610, and nylon 11).
While I do not love the nylon that is sourced from crude oil, I do love ECONYL®! ECONYL® regenerated nylon is the same as brand-new nylon but it is made from waste and can be recycled, recreated, and remolded again and again. I would highly recommend checking them out.
Ah yes, another synthetic textile sourced from petroleum (PET based). People like polyester fibers because they are durable, won't wrinkle as much as cotton, or shrink. All of these factors make polyester a favorite of fast fashion companies like Forever 21 and H&M.
In fact, the human-made fiber industry demanded 58,250 thousand tonnes of polyester in 2019 alone. From jackets to leggings, scarves, hats, swimsuits…. Polyester is everywhere!
Elastane and Spandex
Elastane and Spandex are one and the same. This super flexible material is responsible for most stretchy fabrics out there (“the word “spandex” is literally an anagram from the verb “expands”). This is because elastane is made of a blend of about 85% polyurethane and polyethylene glycol.
Unfortunately, that means Elastane/Spandex can also go on the list of “fabrics made from plastic that don’t break down in landfills!”.
While rayon is made from cellulose, I wouldn’t call it sustainable. Rayon contributes to massive amounts of deforestation for a start. To make things worse, the solvent used in the manufacturing of rayon is also very toxic to humans and can lead to some serious health problems for the individuals that work in the factories to make rayon clothing.
Avoid these fabrics!
These are the most common fabrics in the world, but they don't come without a heavy price to the animals and the environment. And what makes matters worse it's so hard to avoid them. You can find lots of really great vintage and secondhand clothing in thrift shops, and online at places like Facebook Marketplace.
Leather is definitely not a sustainable vegan fabric. The majority of leather comes from cows, but there is also sheep, goat, and pig leather (thanks to the unethical meat industry). In some places, you can even find leather made from alligators, snakes, and kangaroos!
The worst thing about all of it is that leather usually comes from China where there is little regulation to protect animal welfare.
Wool is another no-no in my books. And for similar reasons… the leather industry is also riddled with horror stories of animal welfare violations. While I know wool can be tough to steer clear from because it’s just so practical and warm, I highly recommend switching to ethically sourced options if you are going to purchase wool. You can find ethical wool in our ethical winter hats, sweaters, scarves, slippers, and gloves guides.
Conventional cotton comes from a plant, but it is far from natural and does not follow the principles of regenerative agriculture! According to WWF, it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt! That is a LOT.
All this water is full of pesticides and leeches directly into groundwater, rivers, lakes, and other precious waterways. And don't even get me started on the lack of ethics surrounding the production of cotton. Manufacturers in the cotton business will endorse child labor and often do not pay their workers a fair wage. It really is awful.
Down feathers come from the plumage of ducks and geese. And while warm and a good insulator, I would also avoid this one as the birds can sometimes be plucked while still alive. Brands like IKEA and Patagonia have even gone as far as to state they will avoid live-plucked down in their products.
Still, there are so many other great vegan insulating fabrics out there we have better options that don’t involve animals.
A final word on vegan fabrics
Vegan fabrics are ethical, sustainable, and environmentally friendly! As consumers, we have so much power to change what is being offered in the fashion industry. And the first step is getting informed. If you happen to already own some of the materials listed on the naughty list, don’t stress!
Living a sustainable lifestyle isn’t about perfection, it’s about progress! As always, remember to also avoid greenwashing and be sure to look for third-party certifications like FSC Certification or B Corp when you go out shopping.