In recent years sustainable, environmentally friendly travel has gained significant momentum. Beyond choosing eco-friendly destinations and transportation, mindful travelers are also opting for better clothing options. Selecting sustainable fabrics for your travel wardrobe can significantly contribute to reducing your carbon footprint and preserving the natural resources and ecosystems we love to explore. In this article we’ll look at what are the most sustainable fabrics, and which of these are the best choices for eco-conscious globetrotters.
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Properties of ‘Sustainable Fabrics’ and ‘Travel-Friendly Clothing’
Choosing the right clothing for your travel adventures can be challenging by itself, but adding the desire to have those clothing choices sustainable adds a bit more complexity. Let’s compare the attributes we’ll be looking for:
- Materials: Sustainable fabrics are made from natural fabrics – fast growing plants or animal fur.
- Environmental Impact: Sustainable fabrics are made using practices that minimize harm to the environment and require fewer natural resources. In addition, sustainable fabrics are not made using toxic chemicals.
- Social Responsibility: Sustainability extends to prioritizing ethical labor practices and supporting local communities.
Properties of Travel-friendly Fabrics
- Breathability: Travel typically involves more activity than your day to day life. Look for fabrics that breathe to stay fresh.
- Odor resistance: Look for fabrics that are antibacterial to allow for multiple days wear.
- Easy-care: The best travel clothes resist wrinkling and are durable for multiple wears. Choose items that you can wash easily and dry quickly.
- Lightweight: Always opt for the lightest items to avoid baggage fees (and an aching back!)
- Versatile: Bonus points if you can wear an item in several ways or in varying climates!
Fortunately for us, the first item on the sustainable fabric list – natural materials – checks most of the boxes on our travel-friendly clothing list. Most natural fibers are odor resistant and can be worn several times before washing. Many are temperature-regulating adding to the versatility of the item. And with a little research you can find lightweight options that’ll save you a lot of luggage space.
Overall, choosing clothing made with sustainable fibers aligns with a responsible and mindful approach to travel. It allows travelers to reduce their environmental impact, support ethical practices, and enjoy the comfort and durability of well-crafted garments. By making conscious choices, travelers can contribute to a more sustainable future while exploring the world.
7 most sustainable fabrics (with a ‘fit for travel’ rating)
This fabric has gained popularity due to its fast-growing nature and low environmental impact. Bamboo crops require minimal water, no pesticides, and have a high yield per acre. However, it’s important to note that the manufacturing process to convert bamboo into fabric can involve the use of chemicals. Look for bamboo fabrics produced through a closed-loop process with certifications such as Oeko-Tex Standard 100.
Bamboo is a relatively new option for clothing and there is some debate on odor-resistance and durability. I have found my bamboo pieces require more washing than my TENCEL or merino pieces. YMMV
Fit for Travel? A good choice but may require a sink wash after a few wears.
Photo: Yala Newport Stripe top
Organic cotton is one of the best sustainable fabric choices. It is cultivated without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Compared to conventional cotton, it requires less water and is less harmful to the soil and surrounding ecosystems. It is a versatile fabric, suitable for a wide range of climates and activities.
Look for certifications like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) to ensure the authenticity of the certified organic cotton.
Fit for Travel? Maybe… Cotton requires more laundry time as it’s not odor resistant and takes a long time to dry. Cotton is fine for a short trip, or longer with laundry facilities available.
Photo: Toad & Co. Manzana – organic cotton button-down.
Hemp is a rapidly renewable resource that requires minimal water and grows without the need for pesticides. It is known for its durability and breathability, making it an excellent choice for travel clothing. Hemp fabric has natural antimicrobial properties, reducing the need for frequent washing during your journeys.
Fit for Travel? Yes. Hemp meets all the requirements – odor-resistant, lightweight, and comfortable. The men’s shirt shown is one of Dave’s favorites on every trip!
Photo: Toad & Co. Taj Hemp button-down shirt.
Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant and is considered one of the oldest and most sustainable fabrics. Flax requires fewer pesticides and fertilizers compared to other crops, and it can grow in diverse climates. Linen is highly breathable, lightweight, and quick-drying, making it ideal for warm weather destinations. Additionally, it becomes softer and more comfortable with each wash.
Look for organic linen if possible.
Fit for Travel? Depends on your style. Linen is a lovely warm weather fabric. It’s lightweight so doesn’t add much to your luggage and quick to dry if it needs a wash. But be prepared for wrinkles.
Photo: wool& ‘Florence’ – linen/merino wool blend button-down shirt worn over merino wool shirt and Julahas Ikat belt.
TENCEL™ Lyocell is a cellulose-based fabric derived from sustainably sourced wood pulp, usually from eucalyptus trees. The production process of TENCEL™ Lyocell involves the use of a closed-loop system, where solvents are recycled, minimizing waste. The fabric has excellent moisture-wicking properties, breathability, and a soft texture, making it perfect for travel in various climates.
Fit for Travel? Yes. TENCEL lyocell is naturally odor resistant. The fabric is soft to the touch but holds up to wear.
Photo: Encircled dressy sweatpants (These are a sustainable OEKO-TEX® certified MicroModal blend, but the sweatpants are now available in TENCEL Lyocell.)
Worn with an Icebreaker merino wool hoodie, one of my favorite travel pieces.
For centuries people in the Andean region of South America have raised alpacas, a domesticated form of the native ruminant vicuña . Alpacas have a minimal impact on the environment. They graze on native grasses, requiring less land and water compared to other livestock. Alpacas’ padded feet also prevent soil erosion.
Alpaca wool is known for its exceptional softness, often compared to cashmere. The fibers are naturally hypoallergenic and contain no lanolin, making it suitable for those with sensitive skin. Alpaca wool has excellent thermal properties, providing warmth in cold climates and insulation in warm weather. It effectively regulates body temperature, keeping you comfortable during travel.
Fit for Travel? Yes. Alpaca is lightweight, odor resistant and quick-drying.
Photo: baby alpaca cardigan from Museo Sulca Textiles in Cusco
Merino wool comes from Merino sheep, known for their fine, soft wool. Fabric made from merino is highly breathable, moisture-wicking, and temperature-regulating, making it suitable for a wide range of climates. It has natural odor-resistant properties, allowing you to wear it for extended periods without the need for frequent washing. Additionally, Merino wool is biodegradable and renewable, as the sheep regrow their fleece annually.
Look for recycled wool (eg. Prana) or ethically sourced merino options to ensure animal welfare. Check to see if your favorite merino brand has certifications such as the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) or the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
Fit for Travel? Yes. Merino wool is my favorite travel fabric. I can pack 4 merino shirts in the space of two cotton shirts. Just be sure to check where your wool is sourced.
Photo: wool& ‘Cora’ merino wool dress.
Exploring recycled options for sustainable clothing
First stop for recycling options would be your local thrift store or an online source like thredUP. Giving second life to a piece of clothing is the best example of sustainability!
Recycled fibers (Cotton, Wool, etc.): Many companies are recycling fibers to create new fabrics. This is a win-win situation.
Recycled Polyester: While virgin polyester is not considered eco-friendly due to its petroleum-based origin, recycled polyester offers a more sustainable alternative. It’s made from recycled plastic water bottles, reducing the demand for new raw materials. Recycled polyester retains the qualities of conventional polyester, including durability and quick-drying properties, making it suitable for adventure travel.
It’s important to note that the sustainability of recycled fabrics depends on several factors, including the recycling process itself, the quality of the recycled fibers, and the end-of-life options for the fabrics. Additionally, other aspects of sustainability, such as the welfare of garment workers and other social considerations, should also be taken into account when assessing the overall sustainability of recycled fabrics.
Watch for future options for sustainable fabrics for travel
As sustainability continues to be a driving force in the clothing industry, new fabrics are being developed. Here are a few interesting fabrics to keep an eye on:
- Piñatex: Piñatex is a vegan leather alternative made from pineapple leaf fibers. Piñatex is durable, lightweight, and has a unique textured appearance. It offers a sustainable alternative to traditional leather.
- Mycelium Leather: Mycelium leather, also known as mushroom leather, is another plant-based alternative to animal leather. It is made from the root structure of mushrooms called mycelium.
- Seaweed Textiles: Seaweed-based textiles harness the renewable and abundant resources of the ocean. Seaweed fibers create fabrics that are soft, breathable, and have natural antimicrobial properties. This sustainable fabric has the potential to reduce water and land usage, as well as offer benefits for marine ecosystems.
- Orange Fiber: Orange Fiber is created from citrus waste, such as orange peels. By repurposing agricultural waste, Orange Fiber would help reduce landfill waste.
The Bottom Line: What fabrics are in my travel bag?
If you’ve visited this website before you know that I love packing lists. The scientist in me loves the challenge of creating a capsule travel wardrobe that’ll carry me through a long trip with minimal luggage. It’s especially rewarding if I can minimize the care my clothing needs on the road. I don’t object to doing the occasional cold water sink wash, but don’t want to spend a day doing laundry. And there’s no space in my bags for travel irons or steamers. (No judgement here! You do you!)
So what’s in my bag? TENCEL Lyocell, bamboo, and lots of merino wool. In my experience merino wool is the best fabric for durability, odor resistance, wrinkle resistance, and temperature regulation. All of which means it’s the perfect travel fabric. I can (and have!) packed for a week with just a merino wool dress, leggings, and two merino wool tops. I switch it up with a few accessories and no one is the wiser.
Ethical Merino Wool: sourcing and certifications
Since I first began this website, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about merino wool. There are a lot of misconceptions:
– Is merino wool itchy? No, it’s as soft as cotton.
But there also some very legitimate concerns. Though packing lightweight, easy care, merino lessens your luggage weight and laundry use (and thus carbon footprint a bit), it is only an eco-friendly option if we choose wool from ethical and humane farms.
As with any animal ‘industry’, there are humane standards that should be adhered to (eg. the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare). Unfortunately, some merino sheep farmers continue to practice a practice called mulesing to address the dangers of flystrike to their animals. Mulesing involves cutting a strip of skin from the hindquarters of the animal to create smooth scar tissue and is as painful as it sounds. New Zealand has outlawed this inhumane practice but many Australian farmers are still using the technique.
Your best option is to choose clothing brands that are committed to using only wool from non-mulesed sheep. (a few of my favorites – Icebreaker, Patagonia, Smartwool, Woolx, Unbound Merino.) and check for brands using wool sourced from farms that have earned certifications.
One of the widely recognized certifications for ethical merino wool is the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). The Responsible Wool Standard is a voluntary standard that addresses the welfare of sheep and the land they graze on. It sets requirements for farm management, animal welfare, and traceability throughout the wool production process.
The RWS requires transparent and accurate information about the origin of the wool, allowing consumers to trace the wool back to the farms where it was produced. This helps ensure accountability and supports sustainable practices in the industry.
Other certifications and standards related to ethical wool production include the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which covers organic wool production, and the Textile Exchange’s Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), which includes similar principles as the RWS but also emphasizes environmental sustainability.
When planning your next adventure, consider the impact of your travel clothes on the planet. Opting for sustainable fabrics such as bamboo, hemp, and merino wool can help reduce your ecological footprint. Beyond the fabrics themselves, also consider the durability, versatility, and multi-functionality of your clothing choices to make the most of your sustainable travel wardrobe. By making conscious decisions, we can travel the world responsibly and contribute to a more sustainable future.
What’s the problem with Fast Fashion?
The fashion industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Too much of the clothing manufactured is ‘fast fashion’ – mass-produced, poor quality, trendy pieces made with synthetic fabrics.
- Between 80 and 100 billion new clothing garments are produced globally every year.
- Many of these items are worn only seven to ten times before being discarded. (A decline of 35% from 15 years ago.)
- In the U.S., an estimated 11.3 million tons of textile (clothing) waste ends up in landfills every year. 84% percent of donated clothing ends up in landfills and incinerators, according to the EPA.
Fast Fashion results in a huge waste of resources. And because synthetic fibers release microplastics when they breakdown, textile waste has led to nearly 10% of microplastics in the ocean.
Statistics from Earth.Org