The 10 Most Used Fabrics In Fast Fashion And What You Need To Know About Them
What are the most used fabrics by fast fashion brands? To answer this question, we’ve looked at the 10 newest listed items of clothing from some of the top fast fashion brands to avoid – 390 items in total – and checked how many times each fabric has been used.
We’ve identified 21 fabrics in total. Out of 390 clothing items, 128 (32,82%) were made from a fiber blend, while the information was incomplete for 21 (5,38%).
In this article, we’ll discuss the top 10 most popular fabrics in fast fashion clothing in descending order to give you an in-depth overview of what these fabrics are used for, how they are produced, and all their pros and cons.
Let’s get started!
Discovered in a DuPont lab in the late 1930s, polyester first emerged in the fashion industry in the 1970s. Today, 45.64% of clothes contain polyester – from essentials to sportswear, from underwear to outerwear. This synthetic, plastic-based material is derived from oil and has great tenacity, durability, lightweight, and wrinkle resistance. It’s a cheap (extremely polluting) fiber, and fast fashion brands love it.
Polyester doesn’t biodegrade, and every single time you wash polyester clothing – and the same goes for all the synthetic fibers made from oil – more than 700,000 microplastics are released into waterways. From Mount Everest to the ocean’s deepest point, every place on this planet is contaminated with microplastics. So it is the human food chain. And recently, a study found microplastics in human blood too.
Our suggestion is simple: don’t buy polyester clothes and wash as less as possible the ones you already have.
Cotton is used in 39.23% of clothes and has a millenary history: some fabric fragments containing cotton fiber found in Mexico date 5,000 B.C.! But the traces this fiber’s left behind are terrible: in the 1700s, the cotton industry enslaved millions of people. Today, it’s destroying this world: 1 kilo of cotton requires up to 20,000 liters of water to produce, and the cotton industry uses 7% of the world’s pesticides.
You can say it out loud: cotton is unsustainable! So why is it so loved? Because it absorbs odors, is breathable, soft at touch, versatile, and doesn’t need to be washed too often. Cotton is used for every type of clothing, including basics and even business wear. On the other side, it’s easy to wrinkle and shrink.
Is there a more sustainable alternative that doesn’t compromise conventional cotton quality? Yes, organic cotton is a fantastic eco-friendly fabric that won’t make you miss regular cotton at all. Unfortunately, only 1.79% of fast fashion items contain organic cotton.
Have you ever wondered why your yoga pant feel so comfy? It’s due to the elasticity of a fiber alternatively called elastane, spandex, or Lycra. And 33.33% of sportswear, swimwear, and underwear contain this fiber. Spandex and elastane are more generic names, also used interchangeably, to identify this elastic synthetic fiber, while Lycra is the brand name.
What’s its coolest feature?! The incredible elasticity, of course! Elastane can stretch up to 500% of its length and is very resistant to wear, tear, and pilling. Yet its breathability is poor. And just like any other synthetic fiber, it requires a lot of toxic chemicals to produce and doesn’t decompose easily.
Even a small percentage of elastane is enough to get the most of its properties. That’s why many sustainable brands also use this fiber and blend it with other materials to give them added elasticity. Does this make their garment still sustainable? Yes, but only if the percentage is low. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) labels garments as ‘organic’ if they contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibers. And so, clothing with 5% of spandex can be labeled as organic.
Similar to cotton in structure and feel, breathable, hypoallergenic, and soft viscose was originally created in 1883 and is a type of rayon (more on this later in the article). Its main issue is the tendency to shrink quickly. Viscose is a versatile fabric, is a vegan (and cheap) alternative to silk, and 14.36% of clothes – blouses, dresses, skirts, jackets, and more – contain it.
Viscose is a plant-based fiber derived from wood cellulose but is controversial from a sustainability point of view. To be spun into fibers, the cellulose undergoes heavy chemical processes that, especially in the fast fashion world, have a huge polluting impact on the environment. Furthermore, viscose production contributes to forests depletion, thus endangering lots of animal species and local communities.
Just like polyester, nylon is a plastic-based material. And just like polyester, nylon sheds microplastic into the environment. We’ve found this fiber in 7,95% of clothes – including swimwear, sportswear, windbreakers, raincoats, and other items like tights. It has great elasticity and resistance to tears and abrasions, and it’s easy to blend with other fibers. As well as polyester, nylon resists water, but it’s not waterproof.
And no, nylon is anything but breathable – and yes, it’ll make you sweat a lot! In a timid attempt to look more sustainable, several fast fashion brands have started using ECONYL, a regenerated nylon fiber made from ocean waste like old plastic bottles and fishing nets. What’s ECONYL’s brightest side? It can continuously be regenerated into new yarn.
6. Recycled Polyester
Recycled polyester is better and somewhat more sustainable than virgin polyester. It requires 33-53% less energy, creates less CO2 emissions, and no other non-renewable resources are needed for its creation. But less than 5% of fast fashion clothes – it’s popular for outerwear and sportswear – contain recycled polyester.
This fiber is made by turning waste plastic materials like water bottles, containers, and even old garments into new yarn. It’s a great way to turn waste into something new instead of leaving it in landfills. Yet all that glitter isn’t gold. If you can’t do without polyester’s wrinkle-resistant properties, choose options made from its recycled alternative. But in this case, nothing changes in terms of microplastics released every time you wear and wash your clothes.
Linen is probably the oldest fiber ever produced. The first linen textiles date back nearly 10,000 years! Linen is made from the cellulose fibers of the inner bark of the flax plant. It’s a breathable fabric that can easily absorb as much as 20% of its weight in moisture before feeling wet. As an added bonus, linen keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The comfort that linen gives you is unique.
This fabric is usually associated with more expensive clothes. Still, it can actually be used to create a wide range of garments, from casual to formal wear, including shirts, pants, dresses, blazers, vests, and jackets. The biggest downside? As much as we love linen, it loves creases, plus it’s very porous – stains are unlikely to leave your linen clothes anytime soon.
Also, although linen is a truly sustainable fiber, it’s not as commonly used. Only 4.10% of clothes contain linen, and most often it is blended with other materials such as polyester or viscose. Indeed, turning bast fibers into fabric is a time-consuming process.
You can find polyurethane (or PU) fabric in almost any clothing made of vegan leather, from pants to boots. We’ve seen it in 3.59% of clothes (this number doesn’t include shoes or bags, but only clothing like faux leather pants and jackets). PU faux leather fabric is made by applying a plastic layer to a base material like polyester, cotton, nylon, or rayon. Its production involves tons of non-biodegradable chemicals and solvents.
In a nutshell, PU is a durable, lightweight, flexible, and vegan alternative to leather. On the other side, it’s far from breathable (better not wear PU shoes…), and it’s definitely not eco-friendly. And yes, PU breaks down into microplastics too.
Don’t buy PU clothes for vegan purposes – that’s just a (plastic) trap! We can’t love animals to the point of not wanting them to be slaughtered for fashion and then agree with using hazardous chemicals that pollute the environment. Alternative fabrics to genuine leather made from food by-products are definitely the best option: Desserto, Piñatex, and Vegea are just a few examples.
Modal, Lyocell, and viscose are types of rayon. The main differences between them lie in the fabric’s manufacturing processes. Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber that resembles the texture and feel of silk. It has great breathability, which makes it perfect for sportswear and outerwear. 3.59% of the analyzed clothes contain rayon.
Like viscose, rayon is made from wood and undergoes intense chemical processing. And just like viscose, despite being made from natural materials, rayon’s chemical processing is what makes it not so sustainable. The variant of rayon with the lowest environmental impact is Lyocell, and it’s one of our favorite fabrics!
We made it to the last fabric on this list, acrylic. It’s another artificial fiber that became popular around the 1950s and is contained in 2.82% of clothes. Acrylic is a polymer fiber created from fossil fuels through a chemical process that never breaks down. Or rather, it breaks down into microplastics.
Because it resembles the look and feel of wool, acrylic is often used in knitwear – sweaters, socks, gloves, and hats. It’s a lightweight, warm, and soft fabric. It’s not breathable and is also highly flammable.
Alberta Bernardi is a Ph.D. in Management, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. She likes to call herself a “sustainability warrior” because she aims to spread knowledge on the environment, ethics, and plastic pollution day after day. Her love of nature and battle against plastic around the world are on Instagram @together_no_plastic