Natural fibres vs. Synthetic fibres. Which one is better for the planet?
As the name suggests, natural fibres originate from the animal or plant world.
Plant materials are obtained from plants, leaves, seeds or flowers and include materials such as cotton, hemp, linen, jute, raffia, coir and natural rubber.
Animal materials are derived from animal hair or its production such as wool, mohair, cashmere, alpaca, silk.
Fabrics made from natural plant or animal fibres follow the same manufacturing process.
1- The fibre (cotton, linen, wool…) will be cultivated in a field or on the animal. Depending on the type of crop, this production will involve the use of fertilisers, pesticides, and large quantities of water.
2- The fibre is then spun into yarn.
3- Once this yarn has been obtained, it is woven or knitted to make a fabric or a stitch.
The transformation of the fibre into yarn and then into fabric does not require any chemical additives.
Synthetic fibres are usually made from petroleum. These include nylon, polyester, acrylic, elastane, polypropylene, microfibres (mostly polyester).
In the case of synthetic materials such as polyester, the fibres are obtained by a chemical process. Before being a yarn, polyester is a kind of gel obtained by the condensation of terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol which are components of petroleum. The chemicals used are removed from the polyester during the washing of the fibre.
Polyester is the most common material used in the manufacture of clothing. It is chosen for its strong, elastic, low-absorbency properties.
So are natural fibres always better for the planet? Not necessarily…
Natural fibres come from plants, animals or insects. They are biodegradable. However, like cotton, they can have other environmental issues. They can need a huge amounts of water of pesticides to grow.
Synthetic fibres are made mainly from coal and oil. They do not degrade. Many of them like Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic or Spandex release microplastics when washed. However, they are not all that bad. They are generally more durable, and synthetic fabrics can be made from recycled plastic.
There is no easy answer as to which fabrics are the best for the planet, but we do recommend looking for sustainable natural alternatives like Hemp. Hemp does not require a lot of water or pesticides to grow so will be more sustainable without releasing microplastics!
How to be the most sustainable?
Before you even think about buying new clothes, try to reuse and wear second hand clothes, go to thrift shops and the like… You’ll be surprised what you can find if you look hard enough!
If you really need to buy something new, it’s a good idea to use organic materials.
This is especially true for organic cotton. Conventional cotton needs a lot of water to grow. Organic cotton crops use less water (91% water saving) and no pesticides, chemical fertilisers or insecticides.
Wool can also be produced organically. Organic wool meets high standards of responsible land management and animal welfare.
The need for organic criteria is less true for fibres such as flax or hemp. Both materials grow more easily, need little water, little or no fertiliser or insecticides.
Thus flax and hemp, even if not organic, are more environmentally friendly textile materials.
This is also the case for alpaca wool. Alpacas naturally produce a lot of wool and require little water and food.
If you want to read more about these sustainable materials we have written an article comparing cotton and hemp clothing, click here!
Source: The Guardian.