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Innovators in Eco-Friendly Packaging and Shipping Supplies

Guide to Fabric Sustainability

Guide to Fabric Sustainability

Designing The Most Eco-Friendly Reusable Bags

by Saloni Doshi  • published April 6, 2023

In 2022, EcoEnclose launched a line of reusable packaging options, including reusable mailers and shippers, as well as tote bags for retail stores.
 
In this guide, we share guidelines and frameworks for assessing the sustainability and ethics of different fabrics - including Higg MSI and Made-By. This information is relevant for all fabrics and garments.
 
We also share a deep dive into materials that work well for reusable bags, with the pros and cons of each and recommendations to consider.
 
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EcoEnclose Reusable Packaging

Most brands we work with are looking for highly unique, branded, reusable packaging solutions at volumes of 2,500 or more. At these levels, we can customize almost every aspect of the packaging - material, structure, size, features, etc.

As we work with brands to custom design the right reusable bags for their business, the conversations often start with the question - what kind of fabric is most sustainable and still meets my functional requirements? Anyone in the sustainable fashion space knows that there are many different fabric options in the fashion world, with innovations emerging every year.

When it comes to reusable bags, there are a narrower set of fabrics that we typically talk about with brands:
  • Recycled PET (rPET)
  • Organic Cotton
  • Recycled Cotton
  • Jute
  • Jute / Cotton Combination
  • Recycled Linen
  • Organic Linen
  • Organic Hemp
Other fabrics considered to be sustainable alternatives in the fashion space typically don’t make economic or functional sense for reusable bags, so we don’t discuss them as potential options for reusable bags.
  • Tencel
  • Viscose
  • Regenerative cotton
  • Regenerative wool
  • Cork
  • Etc.
As with all things related to sustainability and packaging, there is no perfect sustainable fabric. Ecological pros and cons exist, and different sustainability priorities will lead brands to different decisions, particularly after factoring in cost and functionality. As we work together, we help steer you in the right direction and ensure we source the fabric you’ve selected as thoughtfully as possible.

How To Assess The Sustainability of Fabrics and Materials

The sustainability of fabrics can be evaluated in different ways. In this section, we’ll talk about three common approaches and share commentary on the benefits and challenges of each.

Life Cycle Analysis of Fabrics

An LCA measures the environmental impact of every phase of a product or material’s life, from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and end of life.
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Typically an LCA produces a variety of environmental impact metrics. Carbon emissions (often called climate change impact) are the metric brands, and environmentalists focus on most. However, LCAs output other critical impact metrics such as ocean acidification, eutrophication, freshwater consumption, and energy consumption. LCAs can be high-level or extremely specific and detailed. A detailed LCA requires a brand to assess its supply chain and get specific operational data from its raw materials producers, finished goods factories, and logistical partners. This process is very time-consuming and expensive. Despite so much operational data being required, the calculations rely heavily on global industry assumptions, meaning the output is imperfect. A more high-level LCA will use software (such as ThinkStep, now part of Sphera) to allow brands to compare materials based on aggregate industry-wide data. For example, this type of software will output an LCA simply based on a material type and weight and a few other data points such as recycled content levels and region of manufacturing.
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Again, global and regional industry assumptions are utilized. Therefore, the output is imperfect and often quite variable, with the algorithm and assumptions of one system outputting wildly different results than another. There are a lot of benefits to using a basic, high-level LCA when making decisions, and we believe that, in general, materials decisions should take LCAs into account. However, it is also essential to recognize the limitations of these calculations and why we don’t recommend solely relying on LCAs when assessing the sustainability of a fabric type.
  • LCAs don’t capture all impact areas - such as biodiversity, ocean pollution, soil health, human rights, animal welfare, and other social impacts.

  • The system boundaries assumed by LCA studies can vary, particularly concerning material derived from crops or trees. In many cases, system boundaries set forth by LCA tools don’t fully capture the environmental impact of raw materials. Additionally, these system boundaries are often unknown and hidden, making it impossible for users to compare, contrast, and understand the LCA’s limitations.

  • LCA studies, particularly high-level LCAs, are generally based on global averages meaning that unique nuances in how raw materials are produced from region to region aren’t considered. For example, studies have shown that hemp or cotton grown in China has higher carbon emissions than these same raw materials grown in India or Africa. These important nuances get lost in many LCAs and don’t help guide decision-makers in the best way possible.

These LCA limitations are not unique to the apparel, textile, and footwear industries. We have written about the pros, cons, and limitations of utilizing LCAs to assess the sustainability of packaging material and why we have developed a comprehensive sustainability vision and framework to guide our decisions rather than rely solely on LCAs to guide our choices.

Higg Materials Sustainability Index

The Higg MSI, an index rooted in LCA assessments, emerged from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a non-profit group representing brands (like Nike and Patagonia) and fabric manufacturers (like Lenzing and Lycra) and environmental alliances (like TÜV and WWF). The Higg Materials Sustainability Index aims to give each fabric type a sustainability “score”, based on its environmental impact from extraction (or production of raw materials) through manufacturing and finishing to the final product that is ready for assembly into a product. This is referred to as “cradle-to-gate.” The single MSI score given by Higgs can be broken down into sub-scores for global warming potential, eutrophication, water scarcity, fossil fuels, and chemistry. The wonderful thing about the Higg MSI is that it is intended to be used to compare different fabric types and determine - at a glance - which is more sustainable. The Higg MSI relies heavily on LCA data, which shares many limitations with LCA assessments. Additionally, the fact that the Higg Index has been developed under the leadership of SAC, whose members include the world’s largest fast fashion brands, has cast doubt on the tool’s validity. Many consumers and environmental advocates are frustrated that the Higg MSI labels almost all fossil-fuel-based materials as being significantly more sustainable than renewable materials such as wool and cotton. This is primarily driven by the fact that the production of petroleum-based fabrics has lower resource demands than many common natural fabrics, which rely heavily on water and fertilizer. Because LCAs and Higg don’t consider garment care and end-of-life, they don’t credit natural fabrics with the fact that these materials are typically naturally biodegradable and do not contribute to microplastic pollution. In 2022, articles in the New York Times and The Intercept highlighted criticisms by analysts and environmentalists of the Higg MSI for using dubious data to promote polyester as the most sustainable fabric available. Because of this, the Norwegian Consumer Authority recently banned the Higg MSI, ruling that Higgs-backed marketing claims are considered inaccurate. These issues aside, the Higg MSI is a valuable tool as long as its limitations are considered during decision-making and brands do not solely rely on these scores.
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Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers

The “Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers” was another attempt to compare the environmental impact of fashion's most commonly used materials. The Made-By Benchmark ranked 28 fibers on six criteria: greenhouse gas emissions; human toxicity; eco-toxicity; energy; water; and land. Each fiber was scored and placed into one of five classifications—Class A to Class E. Fibers for which insufficient data was available were listed as Unclassified. The Made-By Benchmark was published in 2011 and does not - unfortunately - speak to significant trends that have emerged over the past decade, such as microplastics shed by polyester clothing or the technological advances of both mechanical and chemical recycling and new materials that are emerging in popularity. When considering the Made-By Benchmark, it is important to recognize that it is outdated in this way.
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Other Environmental Approaches

LCAs and comparative indexes are helpful. Still, they don’t always fully align with a brand’s specific sustainability goals, and - as we’ve already described - they are constrained as they fail to consider critical environmental factors. Because of this, many brands consider other environmental characteristics alongside their use of the tools described above.

Garmet Care Implications

Higg focuses on cradle-to-gate, or the step in the supply chain right before materials become part of a finished product. Cradle-to-gate makes sense because much of a garment’s lifecycle depends on how the material is constructed, what kind of product it is going into, and what other materials are being used. However, this is a significant limitation because garment care (and end-of-life) can significantly impact the planet. There are two concerns regarding garment care - the release of microplastics into waterways and the volume of chemicals needed for laundering. Synthetic fabrics generally shed microplastics when washed. These microplastics cannot be properly filtered in the laundry or by water treatment facilities, so they end up in our water supply and rivers, lakes, and oceans. The collective impact of these microplastics on human health, soil health, biodiversity, ocean life, and so much more is massive. The potential for microplastic generation of apparel laundered relatively frequently - shirts, pants, undergarments, socks, etc. - should be a significant consideration when choosing fabrics. That said, some soft goods such as outerwear and shoes are not laundered frequently, if at all. Most reusable packaging will not be laundered frequently. Reusable totes rarely, if ever, get washed. Reusable shippers are more likely to be wiped down than laundered. Given this, traditional microplastic issues may not be as important a criterion as they should be when considering materials for other products and garments. The other critical garment care issue is whether or not chemicals must be used when cleaning garments. But, this is not a significant issue regarding reusable packaging.

End-Of-Life

92 million tons of textile waste is created by the fashion industry, and it is estimated that by 2030, an additional 57 million tons of waste will be generated annually, reaching an annual total of 148 million tons. Some of this waste comes from manufacturers and retailers, generating around 13 million tons of textile waste annually. This waste is mainly driven by the fact that they - by design - deliberately overproduce by 30% to avoid inventory shortages. They then want to landfill or burn excess goods to prevent deflation in their product and brand value. Consumers also throw a lot of clothes away. The average American throws away 81 lbs of clothing annually. Unfortunately, most are landfilled because consumers have limited access to textile recycling. So while a lot of apparel is donated, much ends up landfilled or clogging up the supply chains and struggling waste management infrastructure of underdeveloped countries. Because of this, many sustainable brands factor in end-of-life implications when choosing their fabrics, asking questions such as: Can the fabric and the final product be easily recycled? Can it be upcycled? How durable is it, and can it last a particularly long-time before reaching the end of its useful life? When comparing reusable with single-use packaging, it is important that reusable packaging be used enough times. This reusability is called the “cycles” of reusable packagingareBut this packaging will eventually end its useful life, at which point it should be recycled if possible. Because reusable packaging typically replaces single-use recyclable packaging, we believe it is crucial to factor fabric recyclability into the decision-making process. Luckily, EcoEnclose takes back all of our reusable packaging options and ensures they are recycled back into fabric or furniture insulation.

Protecting Ancient and Endangered Forests

is a category of materials made from fibers derived from the dissolved wood pulp (“cellulose”) of trees or bamboo. Examples of MMCs include viscose, rayon, lyocell, acetate, and modal. While many embrace MMCs as a renewable fabric, they are made from trees, which may contribute to deforestation and the destruction of ancient forests. Additionally, converting tree fiber into a fabric is chemical and energy intensive. As such, many brands have set sourcing policies in place that aim to ensure the MMCs in their products are not part of illegal logging, deforestation, or unsustainable plantation management. They do this through supplier mapping, working with fabric producers with well-vetted supply chain policies, and partnering with organizations like Canopy. TENCEL Lyocell and TENCEL Modal are examples of MMCs produced by Austrian-based Lenzing AG, a company committed to sourcing all tree fiber from sustainably managed woodlots versus primary forests. Additionally, these fabrics are made from water-efficient eucalyptus and beech trees (respectively) and manufactured through a closed-loop system that recycles over 99.5% of the chemicals used in production, with the remaining 0.5% discharged as non-hazardous effluent.

Prioritizing Renewable, Soil-Nourishing Fibers

There is a big sustainability difference between traditional cotton and traditional hemp. Cotton has led to the destruction of so much forest and native grassland, depleted soils of nutrients, polluted waterways, and consumed unfathomable amounts of freshwater. Hemp is now used to fix carbon and regenerate soils. While hemp has water requirements, these requirements are much lower than cotton. Hemp is imperfect, but it has significant advantages over other natural fibers. Many brands have set materials and sourcing policies prioritizing using low-resource, more regenerative inputs. These brands tend to ensure they avoid traditional, chemical, and water-intensive crops, first embracing “organic” versions of these raw materials and then pursuing regenerative options.

Focusing on Circularity

A small but growing set of brands focus on “circularity” when developing their apparel lines. Circularity encompasses some of the factors already outlined. At its core, it consists of a few concrete topics:
  • As little material is used as possible to get the job done
  • The item is as durable as possible
  • The item is made with as much waste as possible
  • The item can be easily recycled back into a high-value item in its next life
All of these are critical to consider regarding the design and fabric selection of reusable packaging. It is important to note that most recycled natural fibers are pre-consumer and made with manufacturing scraps. This is important, as there needs to be an end market for those scraps; otherwise, they will overwhelm the waste management supply chains of countries that are often underresourced in this area. Recycled polyester (rPET), on the other hand, typically comes from post-consumer recycled PET water bottles. While many materials are technically recyclable, most countries still need to implement a textile recycling infrastructure. Additionally, most apparel recycled in the US by consumers is often shredded and used to create furniture or home insulation.

Ethics and Labor Concerns

Besides sustainability, supply chain ethics is another core driver of fabric decisions in garment manufacturing for many forward-thinking fashion brands. It can factor heavily into what materials brands prioritize and avoid. There are three primary issues of importance - forced labor, child labor, and animal cruelty.

Forced Labor

According to Walk Free, 27.6 million people live in forced labor. In addition, their 2018 report revealed that over $125 billion of fashion garments imported to G20 countries were created via some form of modern slavery. Over the past few years, much attention has been given to forced labor in the Uyghur region of China. As of 2017, 2 million members of ethnic and religious minorities, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs, have passed through mass internment camps across this region (referred to as Xinjiang by the Chinese government). There is clear evidence that the Chinese authorities are committing what many consider genocide - enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, reeducation, forced sterilization, and forced labor. Forced laborers in this region produce more than 80% of China’s cotton and more than . As information about these atrocities became more apparent, the US signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in 2021, a policy that bans products partly or wholly made in Xinjiang, China, based on the assumption that these goods are linked to the region’s labor camps. Forced labor in this region is also a significant supplier of inputs to other industries - including automotive and electronics. Historically, forced labor was also prominent in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In 2009, the Cotton Campaign initiated a boycott of Uzbek cotton 2009, stating that the government was "forcing over 1 million children and adults, including medical staff, public sector employees and students, to pick cotton every year during the harvest.” In 2022, this 13-year boycott was lifted due to evidence that there was “no systemic or systematic, government-imposed forced labor during the cotton harvest” in 2021. The Cotton Campaign also has a boycott against state-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan. It says the authoritarian government “forces tens of thousands of public sector workers to pick cotton in hazardous and unsanitary conditions and extorts money from public employees to pay harvest expenses.” While slavery in these regions has received a lot of attention and boycotts over the past few years, forced labor issues are considered widely prevalent in the world of fast fashion in general. For example, few workers in Bangladesh, the second biggest clothing producer outside of China, are adequately paid. Nine out of ten workers interviewed in Bangladesh cannot afford enough food for themselves and their families, forcing them to skip meals and eat inadequately regularly. Know The Chain’s recently ranked 37 of the world’s biggest fashion companies on a scale of 0 to 100 on their efforts to fight forced labor, with 100 representing the best practices. Across these brands, the average score was just 41. Luxury brands tend to have a much lower average score. Brands of all sizes have found it virtually impossible to fully and concretely audit supply chains to verify that materials aren’t being produced, harvested, or processed by forced labor. In most cases, brands must rely on documentation provided by their factories. However, cotton and other materials undergo very complicated supply chains. Hence, the accuracy of this documentation is challenging to verify - particularly at large factories procuring material from all over the world. Certifications like Fair Trade and GOTS are a constructive step in the right direction; however, because these schemes rely on single state-of-time documentation (often with period audits), they are also imperfect. Forced labor issues in the Uyghyr region are particularly complicated for brands because the Chinese government flatly denies claims of genocide and slavery. As such, brands that have been vocal about boycotting cotton produced in this region face boycotts within China - by the Chinese government and their massive consumer base. More importantly, this government response makes it difficult for brands to rely on claims being made by their Chinese manufacturers that fabric isn’t being produced by forced labor. As such, an increasingly common approach is for brands to reject material produced in entire countries altogether. For example, brands like Patagonia are rejecting all China-produced cotton. But, again, this practice is still relatively fraught for brands that produce a large volume of their products in China (or within the country accused of slave labor).

Child Labor

According to Unicef, 170 million children, 11% of the global population of children, are engaged in child labor. Unicef states that child labor is particularly problematic in the fashion industry because much of the supply chain requires low-skilled labor. In addition, children better execute some tasks than adults. For example, small fingers are preferred for picking or pollinating cotton to minimize crop damage. The countries where child labor is most prevalent include India, China, Egypt, Bangladesh, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan, which account for most of the world’s apparel manufacturing. Again, certifications like Fair Trade and SA8000 Standard can help brands verify that their supply chain does not violate child labor laws; however, these certifications are never a perfect guarantee.

Animal Cruelty

Furs, feathers, hides, and skins (such as crocodile skin and snakeskin) continue to be common materials in the fashion industry. An alarming number of animals are killed solely for fashion, such as raccoon dogs, minks, chinchillas, foxes, coyotes, alligators, snakes, and lizards. According to Collective Fashion Justice, 95 percent of all fur sold in the fashion industry comes from wild animals kept and killed in fur factory farms, mainly in the EU and China. Materials like wool and duck feathers are taken without killing animals but can be obtained in cruel and unethical ways. For example, many sheep in the wool industry are subject to mulesing – where the skin around the backside is sliced off, and tails are severed. Alpacas have been documented vomiting under stress when tied down to be sheared. Leather is often derived as a co-product. Cattle are slaughtered for meat, and their skins are a byproduct used for leather. However, cattle are often treated horrifically in the food and leather industries. For example, their horns are often cut off or burned from their skull without pain relief. Because of this, many progressive brands reject fur and skins and put clear sourcing protocols in place when working with materials like leather, feathers, and wool.

Examples of Brand Frameworks

There are a lot of factors for brands to consider when sourcing suitable materials for their garments and accessories, and all brands take different approaches. Here are examples of how three progressive brands have approached fabric sourcing and innovation. Any reader interested in seeing more examples should check out sourcing and sustainability policies by brands like Pact, prAna, Eileen Fisher, Everlane, Outerknown, VETTA, ADay, ABLE, and many more!

Reformation

Reformation is a women's fashion company aimed at designing sustainable clothing and accessories. .

They consider nine factors in evaluating fabrics:
  • Water impact
  • Energy input
  • Land use
  • Price
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Human toxicity
  • Eco-toxicity
  • Garment care implications(like microfiber shedding)
  • Availability
They have used these factors and their analysis to rank fabrics from A through E, and aim to source as much of their fibers from the A category as possible.
  • A - All Stars: TENCEL Lyocell, TENCEL REFIBRA, Recycled Cotton, Regenerative Cotton, Deadstock and Vintage
  • B - Better Than Most: Linen, TENCEL Model, Viscose, Recycled Cashmere, Recycled Wool, Regenerative Wool
  • C - Could Be Better: ECONYL regenerated Nylon, Alpaca, REPREVE Polyester
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Patagonia

Patagonia is an American retailer of outdoor clothing. Durability is a core priority in the design and manufacturing of every Patagonia product. . Patagonia’s extensive and diversified product line means they work with many more fabrics and materials than Reformation. As such, they take the approach of seeking the most “preferred” versions of materials possible. Additionally, they focus heavily on repair, recycling, and durability to minimize the clothing consumers need to purchase. In 2023, 89% of their fabrics are made with preferred materials, 100% of their down is responsibly sourced, and 100% of their virgin cotton is organic. They then share priorities concerning over 30 materials, setting specific goals and initiatives within each. For example:
  • They are committed to ensuring that 100% of their polyester is recycled by 2025
  • They developed a first-of-its-kind recycled down program and are committed to increasing recycled down in their outwear
  • All of the virgin wool they source comes from farms that are certified
  • They focus on organic cotton, recycled cotton, , and .

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Veja

Veja is a unique French footwear company whose production is based in Brazil. Since its inception in 2005, they have focused on incorporating social and economic justice, materials innovation, and sustainability into its product development. . As such, they are very focused on R&D and innovation - more so than other brands that may focus on choosing the right materials, but less on pushing for brand-new ones. For example:
  • B-Mesh is their 100% recycled polyester material, used in most of their footwear. Hexamesh is a mesh combination of recycled plastic bottles (30% of the material), and a top layer of organic cotton (70% of the material) is knit into a hexagonal pattern.
  • C.W.L. is a leather alternative Veja developed that is vegan and bio-based (versus fossil-fuel based), with all cotton inputs 100% certified organic.
  • They source Amazonian rubber at 5 times more than the market price, including a bonus for quality and Social and Environmental Services (PSES) to improve the rubber tappers' living conditions and help protect the forest.
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How Different Reusable Fabrics Stack Up

This article has discussed fabric sourcing and sustainability broadly. In this section, we’ll talk more about suitable and available fabrics for reusable bags. We’ll share the fabric and why it should or should not be considered for your reusable bag project. Note that LCA output should be considered a comparative estimate and should not be used to make sustainability claims or carbon calculations. Carbon emissions, water usage, and energy requirements derived from Sphera for most fibers. In certain instances, Sphera results were used as a baseline, and comparative LCA results (between cotton and other fabrics) were applied to derive output.

Cotton

Cotton is the most widely produced natural fiber on the planet and is derived from the seed coat or the outer layer of the cotton plant's seeds. These cotton seeds must first be separated from the plant. Then the fibers must be separated from the seeds. Each seed may have as many as 20,000 fibers. Once harvested, these fibers are cleaned and spun into yarn that is woven and dyed into the durable fabric we know.
  • Higg: High (standard), Low (recycled, organic)

  • Made-By: E (standard), B (organic), A (recycled)

  • LCA Assessment:

    • Standard Cotton: Carbon Emissions: 7.5 kg CO2 eq. / 1000 grams | Freshwater consumption: 2967.5 kg / 1000 grams | Energy Consumption: 158.53 MJ / 1000 grams
    • Organic Cotton: Carbon Emissions: 4.1 kg CO2 eq. / 1000 grams | Freshwater consumption: 254.76 kg / 1000 grams | Energy Consumption: 60.88 MJ / 1000 grams
    • Recycled Cotton: Carbon Emissions: 1.5 kg CO2 eq. / 1000 grams | Freshwater consumption: 148.38 kg / 1000 grams | Energy Consumption: 47.56 MJ / 1000 grams
  • Fabric Care and End-of-Life: Naturally biodegradable. Can be recycled but rarely is recycled by consumers. Most recycled cotton is pre-consumer.

  • Issues: Standard cotton is highly water intensive and requires extensive chemical use. It's production has led to the displacement of significant acres of natural land. It is the fabric most likely to be intertwined with slave labor and child labor.
  • General Recommendation for Reusable Bags: Avoid. Reusable packaging rarely requires the functional benefits of cotton and there are better materials available. If cotton is absolutely necessary, be sure to select Recycled or Certified Organic Cotton. If Regenerative Cotton is available, select this.

  • Preferred Cotton: Regenerative Organic Certified Cotton, Fair Trade, Organic, BCI, Recycled

Polyester

Polyester is a synthetic fabric generally derived from petroleum, though plant-based options are emerging. In the world of apparel, it’s common for polyester to be blended with cotton or another natural fiber to reduce costs, shrinkage, improve durability, and minimize wrinkling. Polyester comprised 52% of global fiber production in 2018, with 55 million metric tons produced annually. Many believe this cheap material has been the main catalyst for the rise of fast fashion.
  • Higg: Low (virgin), Low (recycled - rPET)

  • Made-By: D (standard), A (recycled)

  • LCA Assessment:

    • Standard Polyester: Carbon Emissions: 4.4 kg CO2 eq. / 1000 grams | Freshwater consumption: 26.45 kg / 1000 grams | Energy Consumption: 97.09 MJ / 1000 grams
    • rPET: Carbon Emissions: 1.2 kg CO2 eq. / 1000 grams | Freshwater consumption: 5.08 kg / 1000 grams | Energy Consumption: 13.63 MJ / 1000 grams
  • Fabric Care and End-of-Life: Washing of synthetic material like polyester (virgin or recycled) contributes to microplastics in our waterways. Can be recycled into insulation and new technologies are emerging to recycle the material back into apparel. Most polyester apparel is landfilled.

  • Issues: Largely derived from fossil fuels (bio-based options are very limited). Contribution to microplastics crisis.

  • General Recommendation for Reusable Bags: Select rPET when weatherproofing and durability are required and in situations when washing can be kept to a minimum. Optimal material for reusable mailers which accumulate a lot of dirt and dust.

  • Preferred Polyester: 100% recycled (rPET) derived from rigid PET

Linen

Linen comes from flax plants. These plants don’t require the fertilizers or harsh chemicals to grow that cotton requires and need only 100 days between sowing and harvesting. The entire plant is harvested and woven to create the fabric, making it a very low waste material. It is a very strong and durable fabric; however, it is expensive (the plant itself needs high attention, and flax thread is difficult to work with). Additionally, coloring linen requires heavy bleaching.
  • Higg: High (standard), Medium (organic), Low (recycled)

  • Made-By: C (standard), A (organic, recycled)

  • LCA Assessment:

    • Standard Linen: Carbon Emissions: 3.4 kg CO2 eq. / 1000 grams | Freshwater consumption: 738.18 kg / 1000 grams | Energy Consumption: 184.33 MJ / 1000 grams
    • Recycled Linen: Estimated to be 20-30% of the impact of standard linen
    • Organic Linen: N/A
  • Fabric Care and End-of-Life: Naturally biodegradable. Can be recycled but rarely is recycled by consumers. Most recycled linen is pre-consumer.

  • Issues: Industrially produced flax carries many of the same challenges of all monocrop agriculture - water and chemical use - even though linen’s requirements are far less burdensome than cotton. Additionally, dyed linen must be bleached first, a chemical-intensive and polluting process. Because of this, brands are urged to opt for tan and gray (naturally occurring) colors.

  • General Recommendation for Reusable Bags: Consider for retail totes and inner packaging but avoid for reusable mailers, which will become very dirty in transit. Opt for organic or recycled linen when possible and only use tan or natural gray shades.

  • Preferred Linen: Recycled Linen, Organic Linen, Natural Colors

Jute

Jute fabric comes from the long, soft, and shiny fiber made from the cellulose and lignin material from the jute plant. While there are several species, most Jute fabric is made from Corchorus capsularis (white jute). Once processed, Jute fiber is used to make rope, bags, carpets, and much more. 90% of the world’s jute comes from Bangladesh, with India as the second largest producer of the fabric.
  • Higg: Medium (standard), N/A for organic

  • Made-By: N/A

  • LCA Assessment:

    • Standard Jute: Carbon Emissions: 3.2 kg CO2 eq. / 1000 grams | Freshwater consumption: 61.21 kg / 1000 grams | Energy Consumption: 41.79 MJ / 1000 grams
  • Fabric Care and End-of-Life: Naturally biodegradable. Can be recycled but rarely is recycled by consumers.

  • Issues: Highly water absorbent, making it extremely difficult to wash as the material can fall apart when soaked in water.

  • General Recommendation for Reusable Bags: Consider for totes and inner packaging, but avoid when weatherproofing and washing are critical.

A Note On Jute/Cotton Blend

EcoEnclose offers a blend called “Juco” (some call it Jutton), which combines cotton and jute to leverage the sustainability and cost benefits of jute while bringing in the functional and textural benefits of cotton. Jute/cotton blends are used in jeans and household goods like rugs. It is a great way to reduce dependence on cotton in products that require its unique softness, washability, and durability. However, given that reusable bags don’t have the same functional requirements as apparel, we recommend brands seeking natural fabrics and do not need waterproofing simply work with 100% jute or 100% linen materials instead if the price point and aesthetic work for their brand.

Hemp

Hemp is a natural bast fiber, which means it comes from the stem of a plant (like linen, jute, and bamboo). Hemp is often considered sustainable and far less environmentally harmful than natural fibers like cotton. It is carbon sequestering and strengthens the soil it is grown on. Many believe hemp does not need water or chemicals, but this is incorrect! Industrial hemp production - like most monocrop agriculture - needs water and fertilizers to maximize yields and profitability (though far less than cotton requires). Additionally, the steps to process hemp - chemical retting, bleaching, etc. - can be very energy and resource intensive. Finally, the cost of hemp is relatively high due to both how labor-intensive the crop is to cultivate and the minimal availability. There are fewer than 1 million acres of hemp under crop globally versus 33 million acres of cotton.
  • Higg: High (standard), Medium (organic)

  • Made-By: C (standard), A (organic)

  • LCA Assessment: N/A

  • Fabric Care and End-of-Life: Naturally biodegradable. Can be recycled but rarely is recycled by consumers.

  • Issues: Industrially produced hemp carries many of the same challenges of all monocrop agriculture - water and chemical use - even though hemp’s requirements are far less burdensome than cotton.

  • General recommendation for reusable bags: Consider for retail totes and inner packaging, but avoid if weatherproofing is critical. Opt for organic hemp.

  • Preferred Hemp: Organic

Bamboo

Bamboo is often considered a sustainability superstar. It is a grass native to tropical and subtropical regions worldwide and is one of the fastest-growing plants. While the plant has many eco-benefits (though it is important to note that bamboo production can quickly lead to deforestation and the proliferation of invasive species), converting bamboo into fibers is not environmentally friendly. Most bamboo fiber has been chemically processed (versus mechanical process), in which chemicals are used to crush the woody part of the bamboo plant, breaking it down into a cellulose solution. This solution is then treated with various chemicals, including carbon disulfide, caustic soda, and sulfuric acid, resulting in a soft fabric known as viscose bamboo or rayon. This process is quite energy-intensive and harmful to the environment, polluting local water sources and soil. Because of this, the Natural Resources Defense Council recommends avoiding bamboo fibers. If bamboo fibers are necessary, seek out mechanically processed or lyocell bamboo as a greener alternative.
  • Higg: Medium (standard viscose)

  • Made-By: E (standard viscose), Unclassified (natural bamboo)

  • LCA Assessment: N/A

  • Fabric Care and End-of-Life: Naturally biodegradable. Can be recycled but rarely is recycled by consumers.

  • Issues: Converting bamboo into viscose is a dirty, energy-intensive, polluting process.

  • General Recommendation for Reusable Bags: Avoid

  • Preferred Bamboo: Mechanically processed or Lyocell bamboo
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A Note On Preferred Fabrics

In most use cases in the fashion industry, brands aren’t selecting their material solely based on sustainability or ethics. Instead, they choose a fiber type based on their functional needs and aesthetic preferences. For example, you can’t make a shirt out of cotton and then decide to swap it with recycled polyester or jute and achieve the same style. You can’t replace polyester on a ski jacket with linen and fulfill your functional needs. Because of this, the focus in the sustainable, slow fashion industry is often to select the most sustainable fabric for one’s functional needs and then do everything possible to select “preferred” versions of those textiles. For example, if cotton is needed, brands should avoid all conventional cotton and choose preferred cotton - recycled, GOTS (organic) Certified, Fair Trade Certified, and manufactured and sourced from a region without major known issues related to forced labor. If manmade cellulosic is required, brands should work with sourcing partners who are known to avoid sourcing their inputs from ancient and endangered forests. The Textile Exchange has developed guidance to help brands through this process:
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Note that in the world of reusable packaging, brands aren’t as limited by functionality and aesthetics. In some cases, an organic cotton bag would work as well as a polyester bag. That said, we encourage brands to factor in aesthetics (is a certain color preferred, does a certain type of thinness and shapability work better, etc), and functionality (does it need to be dustproof and waterproof) as they are making decisions. Functionality is essential for reusable mailers, which will encounter a lot of dirt and dust as it is shipped back and forth. In these situations, it is rare for an entirely natural fiber - moisture and dirt-absorbing - to work.

Functionality, Cleaning, Repair, and Reuse

Ultimately, we believe one of the most important ecological questions to ask of fabric, or more specifically the finished good made with fabrics, are:
  • How durable is it? Suppose something has a poor eco impact but can, and will, be used for decades. In that case, it is much better environmentally than a comparable product with a better ecological impact only used for a single season.

  • Does it successfully do its job? If the fabric needs to protect, be waterproof, be lightweight, etc., does it do so successfully?

These questions often get lost in the deep analysis of LCAs and Higg Scores. The best thing the fashion industry - and all industries, including the packaging industry - can do is encourage consumers to buy less and use things for much, much longer. In reusable packaging, durability, usability, and lifespan are critical. A reusable retail tote can be a great eco alternative to a single-use plastic or paper bag. However, if that tote is made poorly and rips quickly, and therefore is only used two or three times before getting landfilled, it would have a very significant net negative impact on the planet. If a linen liner bag replaces an inner poly bag, the first question a brand should ask is: will most of my customers really use this reusable inner bag, and how can I help make it as functional long-term as possible? Solving for usability and durability thoughtfully will ensure that reusable packaging is used enough times such that it is a net positive for the planet and leads to lower levels of materials consumption long-term.

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Additional Reading and Sources

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