What Are the Best Eco-Friendly Fabrics? A Complete Guide

You want to look your best while living sustainably, but shopping for eco-friendly fabrics can be a challenge. With complex supply chains and confusing labels, it’s difficult to know what materials are actually good for your health and the planet.

Synthetic fabrics fill shopping malls, but they have a big impact on the environment. Plastic-based fabrics like polyester release an average of 9 million microfibers into waterways every time you wash them. Sadly, up to 35% of ocean plastic pollution comes from these tiny fibers. 

To help you find the best eco-friendly fabrics, we’ve investigated and rated 16 of the most common textiles so you can shop with peace of mind.

Least Eco-Friendly Fabrics


  • Made from: Plastic polymer threads made from fossil fuels
  • Is acrylic biodegradable?: No
  • Does acrylic fabric release plastic microfibers?: Yes
  • Eco-friendly rating: Very poor

Acrylic is a synthetic fabric made from plastic. It’s meant to replace expensive materials like wool or cashmere, but it has a short lifespan and often invites bacteria. Once it’s in the landfill, it can take up to 200 years to break down. In the meantime, it releases toxic chemicals into the environment. The manufacturing process also requires chemicals that can harm textile workers.


  • Made from: Plastic made from crude oil
  • Is nylon fabric biodegradable?: No
  • Does nylon release plastic microfibers?: Yes
  • Eco-friendly rating: Poor

Nylon was invented in 1938 and was the first fully synthetic fabric. It’s a type of polymer plastic made from crude oils. Since nylon is strong and stretchy, it’s often used in stockings or activewear. Nylon production uses high amounts of water and energy. It also creates harmful nitrous oxide. Some brands, like Outerknown and Swedish Stockings, use recycled plastic to create more sustainable nylon products. 


  • Made from: Plastic threads made from polyurethane and polyethylene glycol
  • Is spandex biodegradable?: No
  • Does spandex release plastic microfibers?: Yes
  • Eco-friendly rating: Poor

Spandex, also known as elastane or Lycra, is a stretchy synthetic fabric. Spandex is fairly durable and lightweight, and it helps keep fabrics snug. It’s used in everything from socks to activewear. Spandex production uses a lot of toxic chemicals. However, it releases fewer microplastics than polyester. Spandex is difficult to avoid, but you can reduce your impact by washing it in cold water and air drying.


  • Made from: A plastic polymer derived from petroleum and terephthalic acid
  • Is polyester fabric biodegradable?: No
  • Does polyester release plastic microfibers?: Yes
  • Eco-friendly rating: Poor

Polyester is a popular synthetic fabric that is usually made from petroleum. It’s durable, lightweight and wrinkle-resistant. However, polyester needs a lot of energy, water and chemicals to make. It also releases plastic microfibers every time you wash. You can lower your impact by choosing recycled polyester or shopping second-hand.

Somewhat Eco-Friendly Fabrics


  • Made from: Bamboo, a fast-growing grass typically farmed in Asia
  • Is bamboo fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does bamboo release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Okay

Bamboo uses less water than cotton and doesn’t need pesticides to grow. However, most bamboo fabrics are actually bamboo rayon. Rayon is made by dissolving plant cellulose in toxic chemicals and spinning it into fabric. This process destroys the original bamboo fibers and is dangerous for workers and the environment. Two more sustainable bamboo fabrics are bamboo linen and bamboo lyocell. Bamboo linen is produced naturally but is relatively coarse. Bamboo lyocell, also known as Monocel, is soft and durable. It’s made in a closed-loop system with a safer solution than rayon. Bamboo has a lot of potential, so keep an eye out for more eco-friendly innovations in the future!


  • Made from: Cotton plants
  • Is cotton fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does cotton release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Okay

Cotton is a natural fabric that does not create plastic pollution. It’s breathable and versatile, so it’s used in many kinds of textiles. One of the main concerns with conventionally-grown cotton is the heavy use of water and pesticides. Also, most non-organic cotton seeds are GMOs designed to be sterile. This means that farmers have to buy new seeds every year instead of harvesting their own.


  • Made from: Cellulose from tree fibers
  • Is modal fabric biodegradable?: Yes, but takes many years to break down
  • Does modal release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Okay

Modal is a semi-synthetic fiber that is similar to viscose, but processed to be stronger and more durable. It’s absorbent and resists shrinkage and pilling, so it’s popular in active and intimate wear. The chemicals used to make modal are toxic, polluting the environment and creating a hazard for workers. Since Modal is made from trees, it can also contribute to deforestation if not sourced responsibly. One eco-friendly option is TENCEL™ Modal. This brand has developed environmentally friendly processes and sources its trees sustainably. 


  • Made from: Cellulose pulp from plants like trees, bamboo or sugar cane.
  • Is viscose fabric biodegradable?: Yes, but it can take 20-200 years to degrade
  • Does viscose release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Okay

Viscose, also known as rayon, is a semi-synthetic fabric. It’s made by treating cellulose pulp with chemicals and spinning it into fibers. Worldwide, it is the third most common textile fiber used. Viscose is relatively durable, lightweight and inexpensive. However, the toxic chemicals used to make it are dangerous for textile workers and pollute the environment. Viscose is often sourced unsustainably, with an estimated 30% coming from endangered and ancient forests.

Canvas (Organic)

  • Made from: Typically cotton or hemp
  • Is canvas fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does canvas release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Good

Canvas is a thick, durable fabric that’s usually made from cotton or hemp. Cotton canvas requires a lot of water and energy to be produced, and non-organic cotton creates harmful pesticide pollution. However, reusable products like canvas bags help keep plastic out of landfills and oceans. When possible, shop for recycled or organic canvas to avoid pesticides and toxic dyes.


  • Made from: Silkworm cocoons
  • Is silk fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does silk release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Good
Silk has been a luxury fabric since it was first invented in China in the 27th century BCE. It’s made from the inner cocoons of silkworms. Silk is soft and drapes well, so it’s often used in clothing like dresses or ties. Chemicals are sometimes used in the process of making silk, so choose brands with transparent manufacturing. Vegans and others concerned with animal welfare may choose to avoid silk or source brands that use “peace silk,” made without harming silkworms.

Cotton (Organic)

  • Made from: Organic cotton plants
  • Is organic cotton fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does organic cotton release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Good

Organic cotton is grown without pesticides or other chemicals, which is better for the environment and human health. It’s also free from GMOs and harmful dyes. Organic cotton still requires a lot of water to grow and process, but is easier on the planet than conventional cotton.

Most Eco-Friendly Fabrics

Cotton (Recycled)

  • Made from: Recycled cotton fibers
  • Is recycled cotton fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does recycled cotton release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Very good

Recycled cotton is made by reclaiming used cotton. This extends the fiber’s lifespan, keeping material out of landfills. Recycling cotton uses fewer resources than making new fabric, so it is easier on the planet. Products made from recycled or upcycled cotton, like these Cotton Napkins, are a great way to enjoy cotton without creating harm to the environment.


  • Made from: Stalks of hemp plants
  • Is hemp fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does hemp release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Very good, preferably hemp linen or lyocell 

Hemp is more gentle on the environment than many other crops. It uses 50% less water and land than cotton. And since it’s fast-growing and competitive, it doesn’t need pesticides. However, some brands use chemicals to create “hemp viscose,” which is harmful to the environment and workers. Instead, look for brands that use hemp linen or hemp lyocell.


  • Made from: Flax plants
  • Is linen fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does linen release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Very good

Linen is a strong, lightweight fabric that’s been popular since ancient times. It’s durable, breathable and naturally resists bacteria and moths. It’s made from flax, a versatile crop that’s easy on the environment. Linen dyes can be harmful to the environment, so look for natural hues or organic options.


  • Made from: Wood pulp
  • Is Tencel fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does Tencel release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Very good

Tencel is made by dissolving wood pulp, treating it and spinning it into yarn. Unlike viscose or modal, it doesn’t use harmful sodium hydroxide. The chemicals used to make Tencel are easily recoverable, so they can be used for future batches. Tencel is made from sustainably sourced wood. And since it’s naturally white, it doesn’t have to be bleached before dyeing. It is versatile and can mimic the feel of fabrics like cotton or silk. Tencel is also durable, absorbent and breathable.


  • Made from: Sheep’s wool
  • Is wool fabric biodegradable?: Yes
  • Does wool release plastic microfibers?: No
  • Eco-friendly rating: Very good, when sourced sustainably 

Wool is a natural, biodegradable fiber that has been used for centuries. Wool is completely compostable, unlike synthetic materials. It is breathable and comfortable in both hot and cold weather. Intensive sheep farming can harm the environment by degrading land. The well-being of sheep is also important. You can source ethical, sustainable wool by checking for certifications like the Responsible Wool Standard. Recycled wool and second-hand garments are also eco-friendly ways to experience the benefits of wool clothing.

Striving for Sustainable Shopping

Whether you’re shopping for curtains, sheets or clothing, your choices matter. With this guide, you can decode labels and easily find the best eco-friendly fabrics that meet your needs.

You can also help lower your environmental impact by:

  • Buying clothing and textiles secondhand
  • Washing laundry on cold
  • Air drying when possible
  • Washing clothes less often
  • Using a microfiber filter like the Cora Ball
  • Mending fabric to extend its useful life
  • Repurposing old fabric, such as turning it into cleaning rags

What are your favorite sustainable fabrics? Share your top choices in the comments!