The push towards natural fibres gets ever louder by the day. Like many things you hear in the media, the more something is repeated the easier it seems to believe over time that it is true. Especially when the current trend is to hate plastics and be anti straws, anti plastic bottles… and when it comes to clothes, anti polyester. But its not just polyester of course, there are other synthetics like nylon, elastane … which are often blended together! Cotton jersey with 5% elastane, polycotton just to name a couple.
In this article I want to put some substance behind the natural = good / synthetic=bad sentiment. To keep this focussed on a sustainability perspective, I’m going to ignore the stuff about what fabrics are good for and why we like using them. As usual, you can expect that not everything you hear about natural fibres is true – greenwashing exists all over the place!
The headline reasons
Natural fibres are biodegradable
This means that they can degraded by living organisms – in particular microorganisms – into water, CO2, methane (CH4) and possibly non-toxic residues (i.e. biomass). This is opposed to synthetic fibres which photo degrade. That is, they break up into particles that get ever smaller, but they never fully go away. This leads to the micro plastic problem which I will come to shortly.
Is the lack of biodegradability of synthetics a big problem? Well, yes. One of the more horrifying examples where this applies would be nylon fishing nets. When these get lost in the ocean and become “ghost nets”, marine life inevitably gets trapped in them. And the nets hang around for what seems like forever. That feels like a pretty good reason to hate nylon (again I’m ignoring all the useful things that can be made with nylon). For more on this you can check out Parley for the Oceans.
But when it comes to clothes, the ability of natural fibres to biodegrade doesn’t work as well as we want it to. A BBC documentary on landfills showed dug up natural fibre clothing from the 1980s that got chucked into landfill, and it is still intact! So much for biodegradability… 30 years is not enough to breakdown natural fibres. For comparison, the documentary also stated that if cotton is exposed to the elements, it can biodegrade in a matter of months. Also – what is breaking down is not just pure unprocessed cotton. In fabric there’s dyes, residual stuff from your washing powder etc which contain chemical compounds (no different from most “general waste” things that go into landfill.
Synthetics give rise to the microplastic problem
In the wash, friction causes synthetic clothing to shed fibres. These can be less than 1mm in length and are known as microplastics. Our water treatment plants don’t capture them, so they end up eventually in the ocean. They are then ingested by fish and it goes into their bloodstream, and into humans when we eat fish. Intuitively, this can’t be good for anyone. There are toxic chemicals in plastics and according to this article in the Guardian, these have been shown to be absorbed into the bodies of wild animals… so it may not be a bad assumption that it affects humans as well.
But is it as bad as it seems? Because this is a new-ish issue, not enough time has passed in order for the effects of microplastics to be studied in humans. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN stated as recently as September 2017 that:
- There’s not enough information on micro plastics at this moment to understand the effect on human health
- Microplastics do not present a significant food safety threat, i.e. we should continue eating fish as the health benefits outweigh the risk of microplastics.
It is very difficult to get away from micro plastics even if you want to. A recent round of sampling showed that microplastics were found in 90% of bottled water. This was concerning enough for the World Health Organisation to launch a health review on the back of it. I couldn’t find any outputs though so maybe the results haven’t been released or they aren’t public. Microplastics are in tap water too, as reported by the Guardian. And apparently we’re eating them in our salt as well!
Want to know more? The BBC environmental podcast is a good one to listen to and they have an episode on this topic here.
I’ve come across a lot of misinformation in blogs and marketing material. The ones that get me most annoyed are those which talk about natural fibres like they are the answer to all our problems – e.g. less toxic due to chemicals being used, and less energy intensive. But really, I just fail to see how they can be true. Here are just a few examples why.
1. They ignore that there are problems associated with growing natural fibres
A quick look at cotton, probably one of the most commonly produced fibres in the world. As well as being a very thirsty crop which nearly dried up the Aral Sea, academic Kate Fletcher in her book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles estimates that cotton farming is responsible for 11% of global pesticide use, and 25% of the global insecticide use. Intuitively that feels like a lot for the sake of textiles! If you want to know more, I’d suggesting watch the True Cost documentary (free on Netflix). This talks a lot about the impact on the health of cotton farmers in India due to the chemical use and it paints quite an ugly picture.
2. Conventional fabric production requires chemicals, regardless of fibre type
Previously I wrote about viscose production (rayon for US readers) – you can read that here. Its sort of natural as the material comes from trees but the extensive processing introduces an element of man made and requires heavy chemical use. As such, viscose and is generally considered by the sustainable fashion community to be unfriendly to the planet.
Bamboo is often touted as an sustainable fibre as the growing is much easier than a crop like cotton. Alas, in most cases bamboo is processed in the same way as viscose. Which means its really not the wonder product that it is often marketed to be.
3. Fabric dyes use chemicals
When fabric is first woven, the colour is “greige” (grey/beige) and needs to be bleached or dyed – using chemicals. My fabric production course tutor told me that a reason that synthetic dyes have tended to be preferred in industry over natural sources is because of quantity, and the ability to control it better.
Some dyes these days are non toxic. I know that the GOTS organic certification includes rules around prohibiting certain dyes. But the cynic in me says that factories are more likely to be complying with minimum legislation rather than gold standard GOTS rules, unless its part of their business model. If you watch Stacey Dooley’s fast fashion programme you’ll see that some factories in Indonesia don’t even follow minimum regulation. This is impacting for example people that live near a river and use the water where effluent from dyes is being run off. I’m sure its not just Indonesia and not just that river where this kind of thing is happening.
So does natural or synthetic win in sustainability terms?
Natural fibres have an inherent advantage by being biodegradable. But the way we have historically managed our waste, together with all the processes that go into the production and growing of the fibres, means that they aren’t without problems. There’s no globally accepted standard for assessing the sustainability of fibres. It all involves value judgments, so different indexes will rate fibres differently. What I have written above is just a few highlights, there’s a lot more to it than what I can put in a blog post. What I do still maintain though is that it is worth knowing a bit about what you are choosing so you can decide what is important to you.
To be perfectly honest, in my own life I’m not overly concerned about synthetics in my wardrobe. If they there already, so be it. If its vintage, so be it. Having the right fibre to match the garment I’m making or wearing is way more important me in terms of making the garment a success. I’d rather have a synthetic than choose a less nice but perhaps a more sustainably produced fibre. And as for microplastics? Well, until there is a way to manage them further down the line, I guess there is always the Guppy friend washing bag.
Do you have other considerations you think should be added to the list? Do natural fibres win for you when it comes to sustainability?
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I always appreciate your common sense information. The fact that there is no easy answer is clear. Thank you for the discussion.
Hi Ellen, thanks for your comment. There are so many facets and considerations and ways of looking at things, the more you read the more confusing it can get that’s for sure!
I’ve somehow missed this post when it first got published! But your posts are timeless and are always informative at any time. Biodegradability is so great in theory but really heavily dependent on every step of the process done right, from people properly sorting and recycling the textiles, the removal of many non-degradable elements attached, to the way the landfill is constructed and conducted. Regarding micro-plastics, I may not buy as much polyester (or as much anything overall), but I still gotta wash what I have and wear already, it’s an ongoing problem but I’ve stopped using products with microbeads like some types exfoliants and toothpastes.
Thanks for sharing. I’ve been curious about this. I know that I have synthetic garments that have lasted a decade or more of nearly weekly wear, whereas my organic cotton is broken down and shabby after a couple of years of irregular wear. Also, the amount of water and fertilizer that goes into the cotton is pretty scary. In terms of sustainability, I think it’s critical to choose new clothes carefully, making sure that they’ll get regular use and last a long time.
Hi Ellen, thanks for your comment and I’m not surprised to hear about your synthetic vs cotton garments! Have you tried dyeing your cotton ones? I have had success with dark blue and black in terms of getting things to look a bit less faded. But ultimately the answer is choosing well as you say – and probably less clothes and less washing!
I find that the cotton just shreds away to nothing in a couple of years. I try to only keep clothes that I wear every couple of weeks. No point in buying or keeping ones that get infrequent use.
Hi Kate, a very grounded post about a topic that is often discussed in very black and white terms! But like you mentioned, natural fibres often have their flaws too. Hopefully as time goes on, we home sewists can have greater access to more environmentally friendly fabrics.
Hi Chrissa, glad you enjoyed reading. The access bit frustrates me no end. Not surprising seeing as fashion brands are not all using these fabrics, but as an individual the lack of choice is still depressing!
Hello Kate, I hope you are doing well. Have you learned more facts, details experience in the past two years since you published this? For example, products made from natural fibers other than cotton or viscose, such as from hemp or jute, or cellulose fibers made from switch grass (not bamboo) with a chemical (biochemical) process?
We still have a long way to go with products made from natural fibers (or more generally biobased. biodegradable fibers): many products advertise (explain their properties and origins and production) in very general terms. It’s almost like shouting at a busy bazaar of “this product is from organic farming” and “experts verified that no chemicals are used/.. that this product has very low environmental impact.” In fact even the “Guppyfriend washing bag” to catch micro9fibers answers a customer’s question about how many washes the bag will remain functional: “many, many washes; be sure to follow our instructions.” Also they claim that the product benefit is scientifically proven but give no details or references. Literally “greenwashing.” If somebody or a company offer a product with environmental benefits and no major other disadvantages, then they really should follow a scientific evaluation like hiring a company doin a lifecycle analysis – and there are standards and norms established for those.
Another problem to address and pursue is that through cross-breeding and GM methods cotton varieties now exist that use much less water and les pesticides than just 3-5 years ago.
Since you are a respected expert and opinion leader in this topic of natural and synthetic fibers (and fabrics and clothing), an update from you would be very valuable.