Green Design: Sustainable Textiles

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Green Design: Sustainable Textiles

Many of us are accustomed to thinking about sustainability when it comes to everyday items we use as part of our busy lifestyles. It’s not actually a thought process, but rather an adaption we have developed while living our lives on auto drive. We recycle our water bottles, inquire about the newest auto models’ MPGs, shop for local produce, and take reusable bags to the market.

But what about our fabric choices? How much thought goes into the choices we make regarding fabrics that we use over and over on a daily basis: the fabric on our sofas, our bedding, the draperies we open and close each day. How sustainable are these choices and the end result of the decision we made about them? Let’s start by defining what makes a fabric “green.”

When looking at how a fabric relates to sustainability there are several elements one must consider. How much energy does it take to produce? How big is that carbon footprint?  How much waste was created during the process? How far did the fabric have to travel? And what happens to the fabric when you are finished with it?

True sustainability involves a product leaving the least impact throughout its life span, starting at construction, continuing through its useful life, and to the end of its usefulness. Sustainable textiles are made with materials and processes safe for ecological and human health throughout the entire life span of the product. Sustainable products can also be returned to their natural state or become part of a recycled product at the end of the original product’s life span.

What are these fabrics and where can you find them? Knowing what to look for is half the battle in selecting sustainable fabrics. A good rule of thumb is if it comes from the earth, unmodified it can return to the earth. Natural fibers made from plant and animals fall into this category. Plant fibers such as cotton, linen, bamboo, and hemp can all be made into beautiful, durable fabrics. If these plant fibers are organically grown, it greatly reduces this fiber’s carbon footprint.

altAnimal fibers such as silk, wool, cashmere, and mohair are known to be luxury fabrics. Both plant and animal fibers are renewable and can be used as composite fabrics. Although some are more delicate than others, they can all eventually become compostable.

A new upholstery textile made from cork recently caught our eye! Cork trees regenerate their outer layers twelve or thirteen times during their 150 year plus life span. Cork is not only a renewable resource, but extremely durable and washable.

Another sustainable fabric option is recycled polyester. Most recycled polyester upholsteries are a blend of post-industrial and post-consumer fibers. Unlike raw polyester, which is made with petroleum, recycled fibers are made from PET, which is most commonly found in water and soda bottles. The most sustainable polyesters are woven with no additional chemicals or treatments. To extend this even further, only water-based products and environmentally approved dyes are used during the finishing process. 

After the fabric has reached its life end, it can be recycled into other products. Recycled polyesters can be made into a variety of colors, patterns, and textures and can simulate the look of wool, cotton, or velvet. 

Regardless of which you choose, the upholstery you select should be a conscious decision regarding a furniture piece you love. This will create a lasting value and the longer you keep an item in use, the more sustainable it becomes. Buy what you love while keeping the quality, process, and longevity in mind and you can never go wrong.
—By Jennefer Guthrie
Editor’s Note: Jennefer Guthrie is a LEED accredited professional and a member of Middle Tennessee Chapter of USGBC (United States Green Building Council).Beth Haley Design, an urban interior design firm, focuses on remodeling and revitalizing established homes, as well as creating stimulating, functional, sustainable spaces in new homes. Jennefer Guthrie is an allied member of ASID (American Society of Interior Designers). E-mail your questions to her at or visit

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