With single-use plastic seeing bans the world over, it’s never been more important to explore sustainable materials as alternatives to traditional materials.
But, it’s also never been more difficult to make the right choice – every company claims their material is perfectly sustainable and often they’re not.
That’s why today we’re going to show you 10 sustainable materials to look out for in 2023, so you can make the right choice when it comes to picking sustainable products.
3 Types of Sustainable Materials
Natural materials are materials that can be found in nature. They’re naturally occurring and can generally be safely disposed of, unlike synthetic or man-made materials. Natural materials are generally grown, like wood or cotton, or mined like stone, clay, and metals. They’re a great choice if you’re looking for materials that contain less harmful chemicals and are easier to safely dispose of or reuse.
Renewable materials are materials from renewable sources. Just because a material is natural, does not mean it is renewable. For something to be renewable, it must be able to naturally replenish what is used at a rate that allows for the resource to be maintained not depleted over time. Many natural materials are not renewable but materials that can be grown and re-grown or infinitely recycled, by people or in nature, are considered renewable.
Harmless and Non-toxic Materials
Many materials, natural and synthetic, are manufactured or treated with harmful chemicals that have a toxic effect on people, animals, and the natural environment. These substances can be harmful for a long time after the initial application and can cause problems with the safe disposal of the material. Choosing non-toxic alternatives makes the material more sustainable, even if it is man-made.
8 Sustainable Materials for All Industries
Wood is one of the oldest sustainable materials, which we have used for centuries to make everything from furniture to ships, homes, and fences.
More recently, wood has been used to make smaller, household, items as a sustainable alternative to plastic. These items include everything from scrubbing brushes to innovative timber magnetic soap holders for zero-waste soap bars, like this one by moss & pear:
Wood is an infinitely renewable resource and, when forestry is managed correctly, it offers many additional benefits for the environment.
These include sequestering atmospheric carbon, creating habitats that support biodiversity (in monoculture forestry, many sustainable forestry regulations require a percentage of the land to be set aside for conservation), and preventing urban sprawl.
Take a look at this video by oregonforests for more on the sustainability and benefits of responsibly grown timber:
Wood’s top attributes
- Infinitely renewable resource when farmed responsibly
- Forests provide many environmental benefits, including carbon sequestration
- Heavy, strong, and durable material, which is fully biodegradable
- Can withstand water, extreme temperatures, and heavy winds
- Has a vast number of applications and can be used as an alternative to many plastics
Wood is a very sustainable material, but forestry has to be managed correctly to avoid some severe negative impacts, such as loss of sensitive habitats (especially rainforests, grasslands, and wetlands) when they’re converted to timber farms.
Timber is also a water-intensive crop, which can use more water than the surrounding areas can support, and it often involves the use of pesticides and other chemicals.
That said, responsibly grown timber, that is certified by an independent organization, has to meet strict requirements to limit and compensate for negative impacts.
Bamboo is a common sustainable material choice for manufacturers and companies and nowadays you’ll find all sorts of products made from Bamboo.
Bamboo’s top attributes
- Cultivation requires no pesticides
- It regenerates from the root, so it doesn’t require re-cultivation
- Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on the planet!
- It is biodegradable
Bamboo can be grown with ease, making it a top pick for a sustainable material in it’s raw form.
By contrast, Viscose (the textile form of Bamboo) is made with harsh chemicals and requires lots of water and energy to make, so it is not always so great.
When shopping for fabric Bamboo products in the form of t-shirts, socks, boxer shorts etc. make sure to opt for Tencel or Lyocell, which is made without producing chemical waste.
You may have not heard of adobe but it is a building material that’s been used for centuries and is pretty commonplace in some parts of the world.
In its simplest form, adobe is made from earth, water and dung/straw which may sound unimpressive (or even a bit gross). But, these common and eco-friendly ingredients make it one of the most sustainable building materials around!
Adobe’s top attributes
- Adobe is very durable (some of the world’s oldest buildings are made from adobe)
- All of it’s ingredients are readily available
- Adobe bricks are naturally baked in the sun so require no energy to bake
Now, for most of you reading this, using adobe may not be that applicable to day to day life. However, if you’re taking on a construction project or are just interested in adobe and it’s usage you can check out this great resource.
Coconut is no longer just a food product but is now seeing usage in a variety of products including scouring pads, bowls, cutlery and even as a sustainable building material.
To see how a humble old Coconut can be transformed into a beautiful bowl watch the video below:
Coconut’s top attributes
- The Coconut shell can be used in its entirety, making it zero waste
- No additional chemicals, such as glue, are needed for Coconut as a construction material, which makes it a ‘low to no’ toxin product
- It’s biodegradable
As manufacturers are looking at more uses for this wonder material, it’s becoming more commonplace. Keep your eyes peeled for coconut products in 2023!
Bio-plastics are a hot material at the moment and many single-use plastic items are now being manufactured from all manner of bio-plastics in place of traditional petroleum based plastics.
But what are bio-plastics? Bio-plastics are semi-synthetic plastics that are derived from plants, including corn, sugar beets and castor beans.
If you’re scratching your head as to how these materials can be transformed into plastics, this video explains everything you need to know!
Bio-plastic’s top attributes
- They are created without use of fossil fuels.
- Bio-plastics are just as robust as their fossil fuel equivalents.
- They may be compostable and biodegradable.
BUT a word of caution: Bio-plastics are not without their problems. Much like other plastics, they’re often non-biodegradable and produced using an abundance of harmful chemicals.
My best advice is to only use bio-plastics as an alternative to petroleum plastics but always opt for reusables and other sustainable materials where you can.
6. Stainless Steel
You’re no doubt already familiar with Stainless steel as a very sustainable material, but it deserves a place on this list nonetheless.
Stainless steel is ideal for items that you’re planning to use and keep for years to come. Think reusable water bottles, cutlery, reusable straws and other cookware.
It is even being used in place of Carbon steel, as a more sustainable (and fully recyclable) material for large scale items like bridges:
Stainless steel’s top attributes
- It is produced toxin free, which is why it makes a great choice for items like cutlery and even surgical implants.
- Stainless steel is super durable and with care, items can last 100s of years
- It doesn’t degrade during recycling, which means it can be recycled 100s of times.
Looking at the points above it’s clear stainless steel is a great material to choose when it comes to products you plan on having with you for life!
7. Recycled Plastics
Plastics have been vilified in recent years and with good reason: they’re littering beaches and oceans and becoming a real hazard to wildlife.
One of the biggest problems we face with plastic waste is what to do with all the plastic we’ve already produced. That’s where recycled plastics come in.
Loads of products are now made with recycled plastic, including shoes, bags, cookware, furniture and more.
Recycled plastic’s top attributes
- Stops millions of tonnes of waste from entering the environment.
- It conserves natural resources and energy
- Saves landfill space
Recycled plastics are part of the solution to the masses of plastic waste that would otherwise be in landfill or littering the environment and the products are pretty great too!
However, don’t forget that recycled plastic products can’t always be recycled again, so it may be best to opt for another material if you’re choosing a product with a limited lifespan.
Yes, straw, the very same straw that’s used as cattle feed can also be used in a number of applications including clothing, bio-fuel, packaging, paper and more.
Straw’s top attributes
- It’s cheap and readily available
- Straw is biodegradable
- It’s strong when woven
You may not see it in every shop, or on every shelf like some of the other materials on this list, but it’s growing in popularity every day. Straw is becoming more and more common as a replacement for single-use plastics.
If that video has inspired you to switch to straw, keep an eye out for it in 2023!
7 Sustainable Materials for Clothing & Accessories
Since many countries have started lifting their ban on growing Hemp, it has increased in popularity.
It’s quickly becoming an everyday sustainable material, used in food products, fabric products and even as a green building material.
Check out this short video on Hemp and sustainability by Pildora:
Hemp’s top attributes
- Hemp is a weed (no pun intended), so it grows readily without water or pesticides
- It produces far more pulp per plant than the equivalent amount of timber
- Doesn’t require much space to grow
- Its biodegradable
- Virtually every part of the plant can be used, so it’s very low waste
If you’re looking for an alternative to less sustainable materials like cotton, Hemp is a great choice thanks to it’s impressive list of eco-credentials.
2. Recycled Cotton
Cotton is one of the most popular and plentiful natural materials used in the textile industry. It is all-natural and biodegradable, and it makes a strong but soft and breathable fabric.
On the face of it, cotton is an ideal and sustainable material. However, in terms of sustainability, cotton farming at the scale and intensity that is needed to keep up with the demand from the fashion industry is highly problematic.
Cotton farming is water-intensive and the crop requires the use of pesticides and a large land footprint. It is not a very eco-friendly crop at all.
That’s where recycled cotton comes in. There are already vast quantities of cotton fabric in the world. The majority is in landfills, as offcuts and waste from factories or whole articles dumped by the fashion industry or discarded by consumers. Recycling reduces waste and reduces the need for intensive cotton farming.
Recycled cotton’s top attributes
- Cotton is a natural, biodegradable material that is soft, breathable, and strong
- No impacts from the farming of cotton – no excessive water use, no pesticides, or land degradation
- Reduces textile waste because the cotton being recycled would otherwise go to landfills
Recycled cotton is a great alternative to virgin-use cotton and an excellent shift away from wasteful practices in the textile industry.
3. Organic Linen
Linen is a natural fiber made from the flax plant. Linen is both recyclable and biodegradable. While not as versatile or widely used as cotton, linen fabric varies from course and stiff to smooth, fine, and silky.
As a crop, Flax is much more eco-friendly than cotton. It grows in areas where the natural rainfall is all that is required for the crop, and it requires no irrigation. Flax is not easily susceptible to pests and it grows very well organically, without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Organic linen’s top attributes
- Natural fiber from the Flax plant, which is a low-impact crop and can be grown organically
- Versatile, strong, breathable, and comfortable fabric
- Biodegradable and recyclable
Organic linen is a sustainable material with a very low environmental impact. It makes a very good alternative to many synthetic materials and can be used in many applications, from home furnishings to clothing to bags and shoes.
Lyocell is an eco-friendly version of the silk-like fabric called viscose (also known as rayon). Viscose is made from cellulose, which is found in wood pulp and other plant-based sources.
While it is a natural fiber, the chemical-laden process used to turn wood pulp into yarn and fabric is far from eco-friendly. The chemicals used included highly toxic carbon disulfide.
Lyocell, on the other hand, is made with N-methylmorpholine N-oxide instead of carbon disulfide and is a much greener alternative. Modern Lyocell manufacturing by responsible brands uses a closed-loop system that contains and recycles the chemicals used to make the fabric.
Lyocell’s top attributes
- Fine, smooth, soft and silky fabric that drapes well and is very strong
- Made from wood-pulp cellulose and is completely biodegradable
- Manufactured without the use of highly toxic carbon disulfide
Lyocell is a safer, more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional rayon or viscose, with all the same benefits.
5. Enconyl Regenerated Nylon
Econyl makes nylon using waste from the ocean and post-consumer carpeting. Their partners dive and recover abandoned fishing nets from the ocean. Abandoned fishing nets or ‘ghost nets’ trap and kill marine animals and do not weaken or break down for hundreds of years.
Post-consumer waste from carpeting usually goes to landfills but Econyl reconstitutes the fibers into nylon that can be used again and recycled. Recycled nylon is as strong as virgin-use nylon and can be used in all the same applications.
Econyl’s top attributes
- Nylon is a very strong, waterproof, and versatile material
- Econyl is made entirely from waste that is diverted from landfills or recovered from the ocean
- Nylon is recyclable
Econyl is as robust and versatile as virgin-use nylon, without the environmental impact of nylon manufacturing using fossil fuels. It also reduces waste and promotes ocean conservation.
Cork is certainly a lot less common than Bamboo and Hemp but it’s a very sustainable material nonetheless.
It is now starting to see usage in making a bunch of consumer products like wallets, footwear, bags and more. This informative video takes a deeper dive into the green attributes of Cork and some of it’s common uses:
Cork’s top attributes
- Cork is gathered from the bark of a tree and regenerates after harvesting
- Cork oak forests are biodiversity hotspots
- It is biodegradable
Cork is becoming popular thanks to its strength and durability, as well as it’s sustainable characteristics, so it’s worth trying if you get the chance.
As veganism grows in popularity, more consumers are looking for plant-based alternatives to animal products. This has lead to a rise in interesting materials like Pinatex.
Pinatex is a plant based leather made from, you guessed it, Pineapple. To see just how pineapple leaves are turned into soft and supple leather take a look at this video below:
Pinatex’s top attributes
- It uses a raw material that would otherwise go to waste
- Its vegan-friendly
- It is softer and versatile like traditional leather.
Pinatex is made from a waste agricultural byproduct (Pineapple leaves) and a few other choice ingredients, making it a sustainable and low waste alternative to animal and petroleum based leather.
If you’re wanting to live more sustainably but you’re confused by all the choices available when it comes to sustainable materials, hopefully this post has provided a bit of clarity on what to choose and why.
If you have another material you think we should have added to the list, comment down below and let us know what your favorite sustainable materials are!
About the Author: Josh is the founder of Soseas, a zero waste product business based in the UK. By day, he’s a scientist working in the pharmaceutical industry but his passion is the environment and outdoors.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What makes a material sustainable?
There're many components that go into how sustainable a material is. In a nutshell, a material is sustainable if it can be produced with minimal impact on the planet and disposed of with minimal impact too
Which sustainable material should I choose?
This depends on what your product would be used for. If you’re opting for a product that will need to be disposed of soon, you’ll want to look at materials that are compostable and biodegradable. If you’re looking for a product that you’ll need for years, you’ll want to look at sturdier materials like stainless steel.
Where do I find products made with sustainable materials?
Luckily products made with sustainable materials have never been more accessible! You can often find substitutes for less sustainable materials by searching for “sustainable alternative to” and inserting the product you’re looking for in google. Just make sure to do a bit of research on the material and company before purchasing.