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9 Sustainable Fabric Choices for T-shirt Printing

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I Dress Myself has been printing onto sustainable garments for well over a decade and we know a fair bit about the qualities of different fabrics, particularly when it comes to eco-friendly print. 

We remember the first few organic cotton T-shirts that Continental Clothing Company sold (before their EarthPositive or Salvage brands were introduced) and were printing on organic cotton long before Stanley/Stella even existed.  

In the last few years, lots of new fabric types have made their way into the sustainable blank garment arena and they each have strengths and weaknesses.  Of course, all of them are marketed as eco-friendly and there’s some truth in that but it’s certainly not the whole story.  


Here we give the lowdown on 9 sustainable fabric choices, which we’ve split into three sections: 


CONTENTS:

PART 1 - NATURAL FIBRES

1. Organic cotton

2. Organic hemp

3. Organic linen

PART 2 - SEMI-SYNTHETIC FIBRES

4. Bamboo

5. Tencel (lyocell)

6. Modal

7. EcoVero (viscose)

PART 3 - RECYCLED FIBRES

8. Recycled polyester

9. Recycled cotton


For each sustainable fabric type, learn about its pros and cons plus how eco-friendly it actually is!  


PART 1 - NATURAL FIBRES

These natural fibres are easy to grow, fibre extraction is mechanical and straightforward, and they are fully biodegradable.  Let’s take a closer look!

 

 1. Organic Cotton

Cotton supports around 100 million rural families across the globe. It provides employment and income, and is the mainstay of the economies of some of the poorest countries in the world.  

 

It's thirsty work being a cotton plant

However, cotton is a very thirsty crop and it can require a jaw dropping 2700 litres of water to create just one T-shirt. Cotton is naturally drought-resistant and irrigation is not always required, e.g. 60% of the cotton grown in the USA is grown with just rainwater.  However, cotton is often grown in naturally dry areas in developing countries, where water may be scarce and this can impact on local populations and wildlife.  Organic cotton farmers often utilize rainwater far more, for irrigation, and tend to use far less water than standard cotton growers.  

 

Dangerous use of pesticides on standard (non-organic) cotton

Cotton crops, especially GMO crops, tend to have high amounts of harmful pesticides used on them and the pollution, debts, damage to health and deaths that arise from this are massive.  Just the acute pesticide poisoning is estimated to cause 200,000 deaths per annum, plus there are many more due to chronic poisoning and suicide.  You can read more about the effect of pesticides in our post ‘Why use organic cotton?’  Standard (non organic) cotton is not eco-friendly and should be avoided. 

 

Sustainability of organic cotton

Organic cotton, grown with no pesticides, is massively better for the environment but only about 1% of all cotton produced is currently certified organic.  Organic cotton farmers often use beneficial insects to control unwanted pests (instead of relying on pesticides) and this can encourage biodiversity.  Cotton is a natural crop that doesn’t require a chemical-intensive process to extract the fibres. 

cotton bolls organic cotton sustainable fabric

What are the properties of organic cotton?

Cotton fabric is light, soft and breathable so it’s ideal for garments that will be worn next to the skin.  Cotton fibres absorb moisture so it naturally wicks moisture away from the skin, making it comfortable to wear in hot weather and the fibres do not weaken when wet.  Cotton fabric is strong and durable so garments tend to last well.  It’s fully biodegradable (as long as it’s not been blended with polyester or another plastic derivative) and costs less than other eco-friendly fabric options.  What a hero!

 

What organic cotton blank garments can I choose for my custom printing?

By far the most popular of sustainable fabric choices, there is now a huge range of organic cotton garments that can be sourced for custom printing.  Continental Clothing Company and Stanley/Stella are the biggest players in Europe and both have extensive collections, featuring lots of different styles (all of which are certified by the Fair Wear Foundation).  

 

Continental Clothing Company (CCC) manufacture some organic and some non-organic garments.  Their EarthPositive collection currently comprises 50 garments, which include T-shirts, sweaters, hoodies, baby garments, a kids T-shirt, tote bags and (most recently) aprons.  EarthPositive garments are organic cotton or Tencel blend and have a 90% reduced carbon footprint.

CCC have a smaller Fair Share range, which is much like the EarthPositive range but includes a 10p surcharge that goes to the factory workers to increase their wages.  Amazingly, adding as little as 10p to the price of a T-shirt, or 54p to the price of a hoody, results in a 50% increase in the wages of the poorest workers at their factory in India.

 

Stanley/Stella have 142 garment styles, all of which are sustainable options and the majority of which are organic cotton.  They have a great adult range with a variety of styles, a kids range and lots of different bag types. Stanley/Stella work with only 7 factories in Bangladesh and have 19 local staff that work with the factories every day, to ensure that ethical conditions are met.  Bruno Van Sieleghem, from Stanley/Stella says that "Sustainability is a very long journey. It is an ideal that we try to reach but that we will probably never meet. Our exclusive choice for organic cotton is the only one we can do when you know how harmful conventional cotton cropping can be, because of the heavy chemical usage."

 

Mantis Clothing has a great organic cotton baby range called BabyBugz , some nice organic adult garments and amazing organic cotton denim bags.  They’re looking to move their whole range over to organic cotton in the next few years. 

US brand Alternative Apparel have started selling organic cotton blanks in the UK and we’ve been keeping an eye on Danish company Neutral, who manufacture Fairtrade organic cotton garment blanks. 

Other manufacturers have dipped their toes in the water too, producing a few organic cotton garments: AWDis has a small range called Ecologie and Asquith & Fox, Russell Brand, Kariban and B&C Collection have some organic cotton options too. 

As consumers become more eco conscious, even the standard suppliers are waking up to the necessary call for more eco-friendly garments!  

 

2. Organic Hemp

 

How sustainable is hemp?

Hemp is a super sustainable crop.  It grows all over the world, it’s naturally pest resistant, requires little water for growth and naturally fertilizes the ground it grows in.  It provides strong fibres and has been used for fabric production for hundreds of years.  However, so far, none of the big brands have started to use it for blank T-shirt production.  Clients have brought us hemp T-shirts to print on, over the years (usually sourced from China), and we’ve noticed one property that may explain why.  

 

What are the properties of hemp?

The fabric is very heavy, relative to its thickness, so garments are either very heavy (affecting distribution costs) or very thin (no problem in very hot weather but this may not appeal to everyone).  The T-shirts we’ve printed tend to be loosely woven (perhaps to keep the fabric weight down) and feel quite rough, although hemp fabric does soften over time with washing.  It’s extremely hard wearing and a very sustainable fabric solution so we hope to see blank hemp T-shirts readily available in the UK soon.   

 

3. Organic Linen


How sustainable is linen?

Linen is another fabric choice that’s been used for centuries.  Linen comes from the flax plant which can be grown all over the world, requires little water, can grow in poor quality soil and is naturally pest resistant (so pesticides are not used).  Every part of the plant is used in fabric production and the fibres can be extracted without a chemically-heavy process.

 

What are the properties of linen?

Linen fibres are strong and highly absorbent (naturally wicking moisture away from the skin).  Linen fabric doesn’t pill or create lint. It’s highly durable (and in lots of ways actually improve with washing) but it’s also quite rigid.  This means that linen T-shirts are either stiff or they have to be loosely woven to allow the fabric to drape naturally.  Linen creases easily and tends to be ironed before wear.

Linen T-shirt blanks are hard to find, come in limited colours and cost significantly more than organic cotton.  Stanley/Stella produce a women’s linen T-shirt called the Stella Glows Linen, which is 155 gsm but this is looking to be discontinued in the next year.

 


PART 2 - SEMI-SYNTHETIC FIBRES

 

Rayon and viscose are terms to describe fibres made from cellulose - they are often used interchangeably but viscose is more commonly used in Europe and rayon is more commonly used in North America.  Cellulose is a suspension of fibres from wood or other plant material so is made from natural sources and is fully biodegradable. 

Unfortunately, the extraction process is usually very chemical intensive and so fabrics made from rayon are considered semi-synthetic and can be very harmful to the environment. 

That is of course unless the wood or plant material is sustainably sourced and the manufacturer uses a closed loop system to re-use chemicals and water, rayon fibres can be very eco-friendlyRayon fibres subsequently need to be woven into fabrics - a process that can use high levels of water and chemicals - so the fabric manufacturing factory must also be reputable and have a strong environmental policy.

 

We’ll pull apart four rayon fabrics that are commonly used to make T-shirts: bamboo, tencel, modal and viscose. 

So, what are the differences and how eco-friendly are they?

 

4. Bamboo 

 

How sustainable is bamboo?

Bamboo is a grass crop that grows fast (up to 1m or more per day) and can reach maturity in just four years.  The roots left behind after harvesting naturally regenerate so bamboo does not need replanting.  It’s also naturally pest resistant so pesticides are not used.  The bamboo plant itself is very sustainable.  

However, the fibres are difficult to extract and the extraction process can be carried out mechanically or chemically.   The mechanical way requires vast amounts of water, crushes the woody parts of the bamboo plant and then use natural enzymes to break the bamboo walls into a cellulose suspension so that the natural fibers can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. This is essentially the same eco-friendly manufacturing process used to produce linen fabric from flax or hemp and bamboo fabric made from this process is sometimes called bamboo linen. 

bamboo trees

Sounds good, huh? Unfortunately, only a small percentage of bamboo manufactured for clothing is made using this mechanical process because it is more labor intensive and costly, and the end product is not as soft and less likely to meet customer expectations. 

The vast majority of bamboo fabric is produced using a chemically-intensive process, similar to that used to produce viscose (from trees).  This uses highly toxic chemicals and although bamboo is a natural fibre, the end product (often described as bamboo rayon or bamboo viscose), is considered semi-synthetic because of the number of chemicals used in the process. 

It is possible for the chemicals used during extraction to be recycled and reused and environmentally conscious manufacturers should have a good chemical recycling system in place to reduce waste and should also ensure that all waste is safely disposed of.  Working conditions in factories making bamboo rayon must be carefully regulated because the chemicals used for extraction are known to cause health problems.

 

What are the properties of bamboo fabric?

Bamboo fabric is not as hard wearing as other fabrics so is usually mixed with cotton to increase its longevity.  It has a smooth surface and can easily take detailed prints but we’ve found that white bamboo T-shirts yellow slightly in the dryer at the temperatures required to dry and cure inks.  Bamboo fabric is very soft and T-shirts tend to be thinner than cotton ones. They drape well though and create a flattering shape. It has been claimed that bamboo has natural antibacterial properties, which means it shouldn’t  that prevent it smelling of sweat, which has ensured its popularity for sportswear, although this claim has been disputed. It’s soft handle means that it feels great against the skin. 

 

What bamboo garments can I use for my T-shirt printing?

Continental Clothing Company (CCC) have a small range of two T-shirts and a women’s vest top.  Their factory is based in Turkey and is carefully regulated by CCC and by the Fair Wear Foundation, with whom they are certified.  The garments aren’t part of their fully organic EarthPositive range, presumably because of the chemicals during extraction preclude this, but they are certified Oeko-Tex 100 which means that a list of (more than) the worst 100 chemicals are not used during production.

 

5. Tencel (lyocell)

 

How sustainable is Tencel?

Tencel is the branded name for lyocell, which is a cellulose fibre made from dissolved wood pulp.  The solution is then pressed (extruded) through fine holes to produce the fibres. All lyocell is produced by using one solvent to dissolve the wood pulp, ready for fibre extraction.  Tencel is made by innovative Austrian company Lenzing who developed a closed-loop system that enables more than 99% of the solvent to be recovered and then fed back into the production process, reducing the production of harmful waste.  This means that Tencel is much more environmentally friendly than standard lyocell. Tencel requires less energy and water to produce, compared to cotton and is certified fully biodegradable or compostable.

 

What are the properties of Tencel?

Tencel fibres are not as strong or durable as cotton and it costs more too, so is usually blended 50:50 with organic cotton for T-shirt production.   It is highly absorbent (up to 50% more than cotton) so great for wicking moisture away from the skin.  Tencel is very soft and drapes well, so it creates flattering garments that feel good next to the skin.  


What Tencel garments are available for T-shirt printing?

Continental Clothing Company produce four Tencel blend garments as part of their EarthPositive range.   This means that the garments were made in manufacturing facilities powered by green renewable energy allowing the carbon footprint of the EarthPositive® products to be reduced by 90%.  Stanley/Stella produce a lightweight Tencel blend sweater. Both garment manufacturers use Lenzing Tencel with a vastly reduced environmental impact (compared to other manufactured lyocell). 

 

6. Modal

 

How sustainable is modal?

Modal is another type of rayon made specifically from beech wood fibres, which are pulped into liquid cellulose and forced through micro-fine holes, to form modal fibres.  Modal was originally developed in Japan in the 1950s and requires a complex, multi-step production process that involves a number of chemicals harmful to the environment.  

Austrian company Lenzing started making modal in the 1960s and has refined the technique considerably.  They use a closed-loop system so that all the chemicals and water are recycled back into the production process.  They source fibres from sustainable beech forests in Europe that are well managed.

Lenzing Modal is carbon-neutral, requires less land per tonne than cotton fibres and has a water consumption level that’s at least ten times less than that of cotton.  Other modal sources may not be eco-friendly; less reputable manufacturers have been accused by the Rainforest Action Network of forest destruction in Indonesia and China.  


What are the properties of modal?

Modal rayon is very soft and sheer because of its small fibre size, it’s shrink resistant and highly resistant to pilling, which is when individual textile fibers tangle and form knots that disfigure fabric.  Modal is especially soft (perhaps even more so than the other rayon garments) and feels amazing but costs more.  


What modal garments are available for T-shirt printing?

Stanley/Stella use Lenzing Modal for their range of modal garments, although they’re currently reducing that range from four T-shirts to only two: Stanley Enjoys Modal and Stella Lover Modal, which are both blended with organic cotton for better durability.

 

7. EcoVero (viscose)

 

How sustainable is EcoVero viscose?

Viscose is made from wood pulp and therefore fully biodegradable but it’s considered semi-synthetic because of the chemicals used in fibre extraction.  Viscose fibres, like modal, require a chemical heavy, multi-step process for extraction from the wood pulp and this can be very harmful to the environment.

 Austrian company Lenzing, who specialise in rayon fibre production, have a closed-loop production process that recycles and reuses these chemicals.  EcoVero is the brand name for viscose made in this manner by Lenzing.  The manufacturing of EcoVero fibres uses 50% less energy than regular viscose and is derived from certified renewable wood sources.  

beech fibres for ecovero viscose sustainable fabric production

What EcoVero garments are available for T-shirt printing?

Continental Clothing Company manufacture three garments made from Ecovero viscose - a unisex T-shirt, a women’s T-shirt and a women’s vest.  Like other rayon garments, these have a soft, sheer surface and are blended with 30% organic cotton to improve durability.


Added bonus - viscose embroidery thread

Off-topic slightly, but very relevant to eco-friendly garment decoration: German company Madeira produce a viscose embroidery thread that is completely biodegradable.  Since most embroiderers use polyester (plastic!) thread, this is much more eco-friendly.  The viscose thread has a high tensile strength when wet or dry and can be washed up to 95ºC. It’s made from treated fibres from sustainable European forests and they use REACH approved chemicals in a closed loop system with renewable energy and recycled water.  Madeira CLASSIC viscose is fully biodegradable and has been Oeko-Tex certified. Unfortunately, there is still no industrial supplier for plastic-free embroidery backing or for the pre-wound bobbins so plastic-free embroidery is not yet available in the UK.

 


PART 3 - RECYCLED FIBRES

 

Whether or not a garment can be considered eco-friendly is not just down to the way it is made.  The whole life cycle of the garment must be considered, including how long it will last and its disposal.  Natural materials are biodegradable but surely it’s even better to recycle them if the fibres can be repurposed with a smaller carbon footprint and less pollution than when using virgin fibres.  Polyester garments cannot usually be recycled as the polyester is usually blended with natural fibres, such as cotton. Recycled polyester is used in garments though and this tends to be polyester from a waste source such as plastic bottles.

 

8. Recycled Polyester

Up to 64% of the world’s clothing contains plastics such as polyester and this is expected to increase massively in the next ten years.


What’s so good about polyester anyway?

Well, polyester is very strong making clothes more hardwearing.  It doesn’t wrinkle, which makes clothes much easier to care for - ironing not required!  It’s not absorbent, so clothes don’t tend to be stored in an airing cupboard or tumble dried after drying because they’re dry enough for storage. 

Polyester can be used to make stretchy fabrics, like it’s cousin Lycra (aka spandex or elastane). The athleisure trend means there are an increasing number of consumers that are looking for stretchier, more resistant garments and plastic derivatives such as polyester and elastane provide just that.  It’s a cheap and readily available material.

Sounds perfect, right?  Wrong, there are huge environmental drawbacks.


Polyester is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common type of plastic in the world and originates from crude oil. Crude oil is a non-renewable source and so polyester is not a sustainable material.  Additionally, lots of chemicals are required to create polyester and very high temperatures are required to dye the fabric so that polyester production produces three times more carbon dioxide than cotton.  Toxins are released during manufacture of polyester garments but also during their lifetime, so it’s not a good idea to wear polyester clothes against your skin.  Sob, goodbye fleecy dressing gown.


Every time a polyester garment is worn or washed, microfibres are released into the environment.  During each wash, up to 700,000 microfibres may be released from a single T-shirt, into the waste water.  The amount can be reduced by changing the way that you wash your clothes but, even with best practise, microfibres will continue to be lost throughout the lifetime of the product.  


Plastic, including microfibres can persist in the environment for centuries.  8 million tons of waste plastic ends up in our oceans every year.  Most of this is single-use plastic (so think for plastic-free packaging for your T-shirts).  But microfibres, such as those which wash off our clothes contribute up to 35% of that waste.  These numbers are rising and an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report suggests that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish (by weight).  


This is a danger to wildlife by larger waste items and by microfibres.  Large items such as plastic packaging or fishing nets can cause choking, strangulation or blockages of the digestive system when the plastic waste gets swallowed or tangles around wildlife.


Microfibres (small fibres up to 5 millimetres in length, such as those from clothing) are commonly ingested.   Larger microfibres are thought to pass through the body without causing harm but nanoplastics have attracted recent attention.  Nanoplastics measure from 1 to 100 micrometres in length and, at that size, can potentially enter the bloodstream and cells. They cause harm in three ways:


  1. Plastic contains toxins such as phthalates, dyes, flame-retardants and other chemicals (famously bisphenol A or BPA) and these may be released during its lifetime.

  1. Plastic is known to bind other environmental toxins.  Once ingested, this barrage of chemicals may cause a whole host of health problems such as hormone disruption, infertility and even cancer.  

  1. Biofilms are microfibres that host a large number of microorganisms and these may cause infection

This toxicity can concentrate up the food chain, affecting wildlife and humans alike.  Plastic pollution already so widespread that it is estimated that people across the world may be ingesting roughly 5 grams of plastic each week, or about the weight of a credit card, and that the majority of this comes from drinking water.  


OK, so new polyester is a terrible idea!  


How sustainable is recycled polyester?


Using recycled polyester for garment manufacture helps to use waste plastic (which may have ended up in landfill) and it prevents the manufacture of new plastic from crude oil.  It also takes less energy to repurpose plastic, than it does to create it from oil.


However, chemicals are still required for this purpose and chemicals are given off.  Plus recycled polyester still has many of the same issues that new polyester does. It generally goes to landfill because polyester clothing is rarely recycled, as it’s usually blended with another fibre.  And it still creates microfibres and pollution during its lifetime. Recycled polyester is lower quality than new polyester so cannot be recycled endlessly.


So, recycled polyester is better than new polyester but still causes harm to the environment


Yes, it’s definitely not our favourite material.  On top of all the environmental considerations, it’s not nice to work with.  The printing process requires that all garments have to be heated to dry and cure the ink (so the garment is wash-proof).  Heating garments that contain polyester gives off fumes. We have a big extraction hood over our dryer but you can still smell it.  We don’t tend to recommend the Salvage range or any garments that contain more than 15% polyester.  


So why do you supply garments with recycled polyester in?


The majority of sweaters and hoodies, even by innovative companies known to provide sustainable options, still contain polyester.  This is to improve the strength and durability of the fabric. Stanley/Stella do some hoodies that are 100% organic cotton and they are amazing but they are significantly more expensive.  Ecologie do a hoodie that is 100% organic cotton and much cheaper but this is very thin and would not be suitable for winter. There currently just aren’t many options out there!

 

What recycled polyester garments are there?

Continental Clothing Company do the most extensive recycled range, which is called Salvage and comprises eleven items.  Most of them have a melange effect, with flecks of varying colour, because the dye does not take to the polyester as well.  However, some items are double-dyed to achieve a flat, solid colour. The double dyed garments cannot be printed using a light coloured water based ink, because heating the plastic fibres allows migration of the ink into the print.  It’s possible to use additives to circumvent this, but these are not eco-friendly options so we avoid printing light colours onto the double dyed items.

 

9. Recycled Cotton

 

How sustainable is recycled cotton?

Cotton garments can be recycled and the reclamation of the cotton fibres is usually carried out mechanically.  The garments are separated by colour and shredded, down to a small size, before the fibres are spun again into yarn to be reused.  It uses less energy and chemicals to make recycled cotton yarn than it does to create it from cotton plants, e.g. it’s not usually dyed again because the dyed fibres are already sorted together into colours.  However, shredding the cotton shortens and weakens the fibres, creating yarn that has different properties to virgin cotton yarn.  It is considered lower grade as it’s not as strong and is usually used for mop heads, rags, stuffing and insulation.  There’s also quite a high risk of other fibres contaminating the process, e.g. spandex, polyester, etc.  The recycled fibres are less suitable for further recycling as they have already been shortened and weakened by the shredding and recycling process so, at present, cotton recycling cannot be used infinitely.  It’s possible to blend some recycled cotton with virgin cotton to retain strength and durability but it can’t be used in a fully closed-loop or circular system. 

 

What recycled cotton garments are available for T-shirt printing?

Continental Clothing Company use recycled cotton in their Salvage range, of eleven items, but they use cotton offcuts from an organic cotton textile manufacturer and partially circumvent the problems by mixing this with recycled polyester (from plastic bottles) to increase the strength.  The Salvage collection includes T-shirts, sweaters, hoodies, bags and aprons. 

 

bamboo continentalclothingco earthpositive ecovero fairtrade fairwear greenfabricchoice hemp linen lyocell modal organiccotton rayon recycledcotton recycledpolyester salvage stanleystella sustainablefabric sustainablegarments sustainabletshirt tencel viscose

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