Feature Article

A Guide to Selecting Sustainable Textiles

Textiles’ good looks hide an ugly environmental legacy, but there are five straightforward ways to make responsible design choices.

February 9, 2016

This solution-dyed woven upholstery is bleach cleanable, does not require any surface coatings, and is available with a waterproof backing, making it a suitable replacement for PVC in high-performance applications.

Photo: Carnegie Fabrics

Textiles can make a space what it is. Through a carefully chosen combination of texture, color, and pattern, they create a feel of opulence, coziness, or no-nonsense practicality. They can encourage a spirit of play and creativity or one of contemplative silence. Found as woven or non-woven fabrics, contract textiles can also improve acoustics, privacy, and daylighting.

We all want the best of both worlds—both beauty and sustainability. But we have to face the reality that the global textile industry has one of the worst environmental and social-equity records of any industrial product. Selecting the most sustainable options should be a priority; yet they are often chosen for visual features alone, even by the most sustainability-driven project teams.

Finding healthier, lower-impact alternatives that meet aesthetic needs and budget constraints is difficult, but it can be done. In our guidance on textiles, you will learn rules of thumb to manage the complexity of selecting fabrics, which can include:

  • the materials and chemicals that go into fiber production and finished fabrics
  • water pollution and other life-cycle concerns
  • the problematic chemistry of surface treatments
  • performance standards and certifications used in the industry

In this article, we’ll take a look at textile types, including some of the most sustainable options available, where they are used, and why they may or may not work for your project.