What's the difference between natural fibres and synthetics? Are some natural materials better than others? What are semi-synthetics? What about recycled? I’m here to answer all of these questions. Consider this your 101 crash course into the world of fibres.
What's the difference between natural and synthetic fabrics?
Natural fabrics like merino wool, cotton, linen, hemp, silk and cashmere are made of fibres that are produced by animals and plants. Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, nylon and PVC are made from plastic, created in laboratories, often from petroleum (Reeves, 2016).
Are some natural materials better for the environment?
Yes, although there is a lot of difference between natural fibres, depending many factors like how they were farmed, how they are produced and how they were dyed. When shopping for sustainable fashion, look for natural materials like and linen, hemp, silk and merino wool. these fibres are recyclable, renewable and will biodegrade once no longer useful. Organic cotton is a lot kinder to the environment that regular cotton, but is still a very thirsty crop that requires a lot of water to produce. Generally speaking, clothing made from natural materials are kinder to the environment, produce far less toxic by-products than synthetics and can be safely returned to the earth (Lodhi, 2016).
What about animal products?
Wool, leather, possum fibre, cashmere and silk are all animal products. How and where the animals live and how these materials are claimed makes a big difference to its sustainability. For example, traditionally sourced leather comes from cowhide. Cows need a lot of land, food and water, and then killing, skinning them, tanning and dyeing their skin takes even more energy and resources (Lodhi, 2016). Whereas possums are an introduced species in New Zealand with no natural predators and have overtaken and destroyed many rainforests and the habitat for rare and endangered species. If they are not eradicated, possums will continue to destroy the environment (read all about ecopossum in a previous post) and many would argue that by producing possum fibre we are helping to protect the environment.
There is also the ethical debate when talking about using animals for clothing. Some animals live in a social herd and get a hair cut once in a while, others are killed for their skin and silk. Everyone has their own moral compass and I'm not going to go into my personal ethics, only to say that it is a topic to consider when buying animal products.
What are semi-synthetics?
Here's where I put my chemistry professor hat on. Semi-synthetic fibres are made from raw materials, usually from wood or bamboo pulp cellulose and require chemical processes to partially break down their naturally long-chain polymer structures so that they can be spun into fabrics. Most semi-synthetic fibers are cellulose regenerated fibers. Semi-synthetic fibres include viscose rayon, Tencel, cupro, bamboo and modal and vary greatly in terms of sustainability (Mass, 2009).
Tencel lyocell is a great sustainable option because the chemicals used to produce Tencel are nontoxic and the cellulose (ground pulp sourced from renewable and untreated eucalyptus trees) used for Tencel is treated in a closed loop process in which solvents are recycled with a 99.5% recovery rate. The processing of Tencel never uses bleach (see our previous post to find out more). Modal - a more sustainable variety of rayon - does require bleaching and not all modal is made from sustainably farmed trees, so look for the Lenzing brand of modal which is made from sustainably harvested beech trees using an environmentally friendly bleaching method for pulp (Brogan, 2017). Bamboo can be a tricky one because depending on how it was farmed and how it was manufactured makes a big difference to how sustainable the fibre is and although the technology for rayon to be a sustainable fibre is there, sadly most manufacturing processes of rayon are not considered environmentally friendly (Mass, 2009).
Even though the manufacturing processes of semi-synthetics may not be perfect, generally they're a lot better for the environment and are biodegradable, unlike petroleum-based fabrics like polyester (Lodhi, 2016).
And synthetic fibres?
Synthetic fibres are made by joining monomers into polymers, through a process called polymerization. You don't have to know what that means, the important thing to note is that synthetic fibres are made using chemicals like sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, which are derived from coal, oil (petroleum, therefore plastic), or natural gas. The production of synthetic fibres is cheap to produce but costly to the planet and does not biodegrade. Synthetic fibres include polyester, nylon (fun fact, I remember making nylon back in chemistry class - that's how easy it is to make), PVC, PU (aka vegan leather or faux leather) and spandex.
There's also the whole micro plastics debacle when it comes to synthetic materials, which continue to break down and shed into tiny plastic particles which can cause damage to marine life, the marine environment and the environment at large. I'll leave the topic of micro plastics for a future blog post, just know that synthetic fibres are the most damaging to the environment both in their construction and degradation.
Purchasing recycled, up cycled and vintage clothing, as well as clothing made from waste and recycled fabrics is a sustainable choice as it takes a hell of lot less energy to manufacture and helps keep clothes and fabrics out of landfill. A good thing about synthetic fibres is that they are durable and can be recycled, although I'm also excited about a new wave of sustainable fashion made from natural materials like recycled cotton and reclaimed wool. Watch this space.
Our Untouched World Pure Skinny Jeans are made from eco-friendly organic cotton and post-consumer recycled polyester from PET bottles
As you can gather, there's a lot of difference between natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic fibres and many grey areas when it comes to choosing environmentally sustainable fibres. My advice is to be curious, look at the label and when you don't know, ask. Ask the retail assistant and ask the fashion label. Things change when people ask questions.
- Mass, E (2009). Eco-Fiber or Fraud? Are Rayon, Modal, and Tencel Environmental Friends or Foes? [online] Natural Life Magazine.
Available at: https://www.life.ca/naturallife/0908/ecofiber_or_fraud.htm [Accessed 27.6.2018].
- Brogan, N (2017). Material Guide: How ethical is modal? [online] Good On You.
Available at: https://goodonyou.eco/material-guide-ethical-modal/ [Accessed 27.6.2018].
- Reeves, E. (2016). What's the difference between natural and synthetic fibers? [online] Sierra Trading Post.
Available at: https://www.sierratradingpost.com/blog/lifestyle/difference-between-natural-synthetic-fibers/ [Accessed 27.6.2018].
- Greenhouse Fabrics (2016). PU vs PVC. [online]
Available at: https://www.greenhousefabrics.com/blog/pu-vs-pvc [Accessed 27.6.2018].
- Lodhi, A (2016). How to tell if a fashion brand is sustainable. [online] Eluxe Magazine.
Available at https://eluxemagazine.com/magazine/how-to-tell-if-a-fashion-brand-is-sustainable/ [Accessed 27.6.2018].