The Case For Natural Fibres vs Synthetic Fibres
The natural fibres vs synthetic fibres debate has been upheld by fashion designers, textile producers and sustainability advocates for decades. The fabrics we wear all fit into two categories: natural or man made. Although blends of both have become increasingly popular in recent years with wool and acrylic-blend knitwear dominating the high street throughout the colder seasons.
Natural fibres are derived from plants and animals, while synthetic fibres are made from chemical compounds. Each has its benefits and drawbacks as far as clothing companies are concerned. Many fabrics have been developed and adapted to meet rising demand amid a market of increasingly shrinking costs and margins. But which material is best for the people making the clothes, those wearing them and for the planet?
What is a natural fibre?
There are two types of natural fibres: animal-based or plant-based. Animal-based fibres include silk and wool, while plant-based natural fibres include cotton, linen, jute and bamboo. Recently developed materials also include pinatex and tencel – made from eucalyptus pulp.
Natural fibres are popular for many reasons and are generally more environmentally friendly than synthetic materials. Natural fibres are also considered to be carbon neutral, but what are the other benefits of choosing natural over man made?
What are the benefits of natural fibres?
Eco-friendly: natural fibres usually have a smaller environmental impact than synthetic fibres – with some exceptions. Natural materials require far fewer chemical additions during the production process.
Durable: you’ve heard the saying ‘but well, make it last’ right? Due to the structure of cellulose, which makes up natural materials, most plant-based natural fibres are incredibly strong.
Absorbent: natural fibres have a high absorbency rate making them a great option for bed linen, cloths, reusable nappies, cosmetics and towels.
Insulated: natural fibres make great insulators. The cellulose structure traps heat effectively. However, non-synthetic fibres also make for far more breathable materials than synthetic fibres, making them an obvious choice for warm weather as well as cooler temperatures.
Hypoallergenic: fabrics such as linen, cotton and silk are naturally hypoallergenic. They also have unique anti-bacterial qualities, making them ideal for sensitive skin.
What is a synthetic fibre?
Synthetic fibres are formed using chemical processes in which a polymer is extracted using a spinneret and turned into a usable fibre. Easy to mass produce in factories, synthetic fibres became popular in the last few decades in response to a booming demand for affordable fast fashion.
Cheaper: natural fibres, especially in their pure form, can be costly. For example, a faux silk garment made from synthetic materials will often be a preferable choice for consumers on the high street.
Stain resistant: synthetic fabrics tend to be more stain resistant and able to withstand damage. Natural or organic fibres will absorb liquids rapidly while in some cases, synthetic fibres are created to repel liquids entirely.
Waterproof: it’s likely you have a plastic rain jacket in your line up as opposed to an old fashioned waxed cotton jacket. Synthetic fibres have become increasingly popular for workwear in industries like construction and fishing and for outdoor gear for hiking and skiing.
Synthetic fibres are essentially plastic so an obvious drawback of using them is that garments made from non-natural fibres won’t biodegrade once they’re thrown away. So with 11 million items of clothing being sent to landfill every week, this is a problem.
Natural fibres vs synthetic fibres
Fibres made from plastics are derived from hydrocarbons that are found in natural gas, oil and coal, but these are not renewable resources, meaning our ability to produce synthetic fibres for the fashion industry is essentially limited.
Rather than being recycled or repurposes, synthetic fibres slowly break down into smaller pieces called micro plastics. These tiny pieces of plastic make their way into the oceans, into wildlife, food chains and into our own food and water supplies. It’s unclear just how much microplastic we ingest on a daily basis but we do know that these tiny particles are not good for the body and are responsible for the decline of our wildlife and our oceans.
Plastic in the ocean will also soak up other toxins and chemical pollutants, such as PCBs, PAHs and heavy metals. Consequently, the ocean-dwellers ingesting these pollutants experience a range of health issues.
Are all natural fibres ethical?
It’s clear that as a renewable resource with few negative impacts on global bio-diversity, natural fibres present a more sustainable option in many cases. The natural fibre industries employ millions of people all over the world, particularly in developing countries.
However, despite being a natural resource, cotton is not a very sustainable crop. Massive amounts of water are needed to effectively farm and produce cotton. It takes 2,700 litres of water to make a regular cotton T-shirt. This is staggering, though it’s not the only option. Organic, fairly traded cotton production is a step in the right direction, however organic cotton still only makes up around 1 percent of global cotton.
There is no one strategy to ensure all materials used in garment production are sustainable and ethical. Each fibre presents its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of cost, impact and quality. However, we can push for transparency about these factors in order to make informed decisions that benefit people and planet over profit.
As it stands, performance and cost are still the driving factors in garment production across the majority of the world. In order to change this, we should not only call for transparency but also for legislation on fibre production and disposal. Finally, we need to see ethical and sustainable verification for the final product. Consumers deserve to know what brands are selling them and what the implications of this are.