Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future?

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future?

Written by Aqilah ZailanFebruary 24, 2020

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future?

Climate change is no longer a distant threat – its effects are being felt worldwide, with urgent action now called for. It’s no secret that the fashion industry is among the leading contributors to this global crisis second only to oil production. In light of this, consumers have newfound resolve to seek out sustainable options.

As the industry pivots around consumer demand, retailers are adapting to this change in behaviour and have made it their priority to scale back fashion’s environmental impact. Brands like Reformation have sustainability embedded into the core of their brand identity, defining its business model. Others are taking a more methodical approach in adopting sustainable retail practices by venturing into recommerce.

Retailers are actively finding solutions that reduce their environmental footprint. One of the best ways you can do so is by incorporating sustainable materials into your assortments.

Organic & Recycled Cotton

Cotton is the most commonly used fabric in the world, accounting for at least half of all garments. However, conventional methods of growing cotton require large amounts of water and pesticides– depleting resources and emitting carbons at an alarming rate. Organic cotton reduces these outcomes as it is grown without chemicals, but cotton remains a thirsty crop that needs water to thrive.

To up the ante on sustainability, recycled cotton is the best choice. Procured from post-industrial and post-consumer cotton waste, recycled cotton is much less detrimental to the environment. Its effects are twofold– reduce energy consumption and prevent cotton apparel from ending up in landfills. 

Omnilytics data detected an 80% increase in new organic cotton products in 2019. Recycled cotton saw an even bigger YoY growth of 174%. Asos and H&M have the largest assortments of organic cotton, although the two retailers cater to different consumers. Asos utilised organic cotton mainly in menswear and womenswear, while H&M is focused on kids. Recycled cotton on the other hand, appears to be favoured by high-end retailers like Hugo Boss and Nordstrom.

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future? - Organic & recycled cotton from Asos & Hugo Boss
Best-selling organic & recycled cotton from Asos & Hugo Boss. Image credit: Asos & Hugo Boss


Derived from the flax plant, linen is a fabric that can trace its origins as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Linen’s benefits as a fibre are its durability and cooling properties. On top of that, linen is lightweight, absorbent and biodegradable. While linen and cotton share similar qualities as fabrics, growing flax is far less resource-intensive as it requires minimal water and pesticides.

Like cotton, linen is a widely-used fabric in the apparel industry. In 2018 there were over 50,000 new linen items in the US market. YoY new-ins for linen increased by 50% in 2019, which further evidences the global shift in retail towards a sustainable direction. Farfetch and Asos have the largest assortment of linen products and both retailers achieved 65% sell-out rate.

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future? - New-in count for linen


Hemp’s popularity wavered in many countries due to its association with marijuana– both by-products of the cannabis plant. However, it has been revolutionised and is making a comeback as the ban on growing industrial hemp was lifted in countries like the US and Australia. Hemp is extremely versatile and has been cultivated for thousands of years in creating high-quality and long-lasting clothes. It is a sustainable alternative to cotton as it is able to grow with little water and is a natural fertiliser to the soil.

Hemp’s YoY growth in the US is more significant compared to the UK– increasing by 189% compared to 64% for the latter. This is likely due to the ban lift on industrial hemp farming in the US. The fibre appeared in nearly every category including dresses, jewelry and shoes. Hemp bags have been consistently trending upwards in the last year despite a very low SKU count, signifying a demand in the market.

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future? - Trend movement for hemp bags


A great alternative to viscose, Lyocell is a fully biodegradable fibre of botanic origin. Its moisture-wicking and anti-bacterial properties makes it best-suited for the warmer months. 

Lyocell’s new-in SKU count nearly doubled in the last year, showing substantial growth in the US & UK markets. Jeans and Tops are the leading categories, making up half of all Lyocell products. High-end denim lines, J Brand and 7 For All Mankind, favour the material for their jeans.

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future? - Lyocell distribution by category

Today, Lenzing’s Tencel brand is likely the most widely recognized Lyocell fabric in the world. Tencel fibre is generated through a sustainable closed-loop process developed by Lenzing that recycles water and solvents.

Fast fashion brand H&M, capitalised on Tencel’s sustainable elements by working the fibre into its Spring/Summer collections. For two consecutive years in 2018 and 2019, H&M launched the highest SKU count on newness with Tencel in April, in preparation of the humid Summer season (as seen in the chart below). Overall, H&M’s YoY new-ins for Tencel increased by a strong 57%. This validated the brand’s effort towards fulfilling its recent pledge to use 100% recycled or sustainable materials by 2030.

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future? - New-in count for Tencel

Plant-based Leather

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future? - Piñatex sneakers from Hugo Boss
Piñatex senakers from Hugo Boss. Image credit: Hugo Boss

In an effort to reduce wastage, waste materials from plants and fruit are being used to make leather alternatives. Piñatex, for instance, is derived from pineapple leaves that are grown in the Philippines and are utilised in products by H&M and Hugo Boss, among others. Another innovative addition to the list is Mirum, made from biodegradable materials like waste cork, hemp, coconut and vegetable oil. 

Omnilytics data reveals that there are only a handful of plant-based leather products in the market. Piñatex is mainly used in creating wallets, jewellery and shoes. Nonetheless, the rise of veganism brings with it a demand for animal hide substitutes that these plant-based ‘leathers’ could potentially fulfil.


One of the main culprits for ocean pollution is plastic, an ingredient found in fabrics such as nylon and polyester. As plastic can take up to a millennium to decompose, it is crucial to get the most out of it.

Econyl is a fibre that utilizes recycled plastic from industrial waste – waste fabric as well as fishing nets – and is regenerated into yarn that is comparable to virgin nylon. This process creates a closed-loop system that is infinitely renewable and far more sustainable than traditional nylon.

Econyl is used predominantly in swimwear and beachwear as its durability means it’s able to withstand UV rays, chlorine and saltwater, much like traditional nylon. The fibre is gaining prominence in the US & UK markets as Econyl’s YoY new-in count increased by 308%.

Are Eco-friendly Materials Retail’s Answer for a Sustainable Future? - New-in count for Econyl


The future of fashion is one that implements recycling, remanufacturing and reusing in order to set better sustainability standards in the industry. It is a collective effort that brands and retailers must embark on to align with consumer demand. While the industry is largely set in its ways, gradually phasing out carbon-intensive materials in favour of sustainable alternatives is a stepping stone for retailers towards an eco-friendly future. Start research and development on these new fibres now, rather than being left behind.

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