Natural Vs. Synthetic Fibers: What's The Difference?
As humanity wakes up to the environmental and economic realities of the global clothing industry, we’ve got some tough questions to ask and answer.
What is ethical clothing? Why is sustainability important? How are workers being treated to produce millions of garments annually at such a rapid rate? These are the kinds of subjects coming to the forefront in recent years.
But rather than tackling all the problems of the world at once, let’s zoom in on a topic that can help us better understand our own purchasing habits when it comes to clothes: natural vs. synthetic fibers.
By learning the pros and cons of each, we can make smarter decisions when buying and wearing clothes and do our small part to help the world move in a better direction. Let’s go!
A Closer Look At Synthetic Fibers
There’s no denying the widespread popularity of plastic-based clothing, which is made from materials known as synthetic fibers. There are a few advantages to synthetic fibers for both the manufacturer and consumer.
Since these products are 100% human-made, they are easier to produce at scale and can be manipulated into various forms. Designers can more easily create interesting patterns, textures, and properties in their clothing without spending a ton of money or time.
This gives you, the customer, a wide variety of styles to choose from that may not otherwise be accessible in terms of price or availability. You can fill your shopping cart with dozens of synthetic-based clothing items for a low cost and stay up on the latest trends without breaking the bank. This is the fast-fashion philosophy we hear so much about in the industry.
There’s also the benefit of durability when working with synthetic fibers, which means your purchases tend to last longer and allow you to get more out of your investments. These clothes are also known for resilient properties like stain resistance and waterproofing.
But with all that said, it’s important to recognize the shortcomings of synthetic fibers and face the truth that the drawbacks of plastic-based clothing outweigh the advantages. Here is a brief list of some common concerns about these clothes:
- Lots of us are allergic to synthetic materials and end up with adverse medical reactions when wearing them. Contact dermatitis and other rashes are uncomfortable and unsightly, and allergens can even cause breathing issues or watery eyes.
- Synthetic fibers are extremely sensitive to heat and have the tendency to melt, burn, or distort if not properly cared for. Not good for very warm weather.
- On the production side, the byproducts of synthetic materials are very unhealthy for workers making these clothes. Toxic, carcinogenic chemicals are common, and overseas working conditions are far from optimal or ethical.
- Air, oceans, and water systems may be harmed in the long term by synthetic material production, which is a major cause of pollution and excessive waste around the world.
- Most synthetic materials are produced with petroleum, a fossil fuel available in limited quantities, and tied to ethical, environmental, and geopolitical issues.
This is not to say that all synthetic materials are dangerous or destructive. They help to keep clothes on the backs of millions of disadvantaged people each year and provide an economic opportunity as well.
Just be aware of these concerns surrounding synthetic-based clothing and take the time to educate yourself on the full range of implications.
Common Plastics You Should Avoid
Not all synthetic materials are the same, and in fact, they have precise chemical profiles that are meant to be replicated and produced for the exact same outcome each time according to Tanya from Nimble Made.
Here are a few of the most common plastics found in clothes you need to know about may want to keep out of your wardrobe.
It takes a ton of resources to produce nylon, which is considered the first 100% synthetic material. We may enjoy the water wicking and quick-drying abilities of nylon, but many companies are moving away from it and towards sustainable alternatives.
Lycra is a fiber made from polyurethane and is said to be stronger than natural rubber. The material is found in stretchy, comfy activewear, but that durability comes at a cost. It doesn’t last long on the shelf, but it’s non-biodegradable at the same time.
You may not wear aramid fibers daily, but they’re probably found in your winter coats and some sporting equipment. Commonly known as Kevlar, aramids are super-strong and regulate temperatures. However, these materials require lots of petroleum, water, and energy to create.
There’s probably quite a bit of polyester in your closet right now, and although it’s not the worst offender, this material is quite demanding on the environment. It is a non-biodegradable material and demands heavy use of fossil fuels.
You’re probably inclined to reach for clothes made from recycled materials, but be careful about marketing tactics and misleading information. It still takes energy to recycle plastics into new forms, and you should look at where exactly these plastics come from.
Natural Fibers To Look For
Now that you know which synthetic materials to avoid, let’s talk about natural fiber alternatives. Here are a few of the most famous materials, and some lesser-known ones as well.
Derived from the soft bast fiber from the stem of the flax plant, linen has been considered a key natural clothing material long before the modern world. From ancient Greece and Egypt to the high-end boutiques of today, everyone loves lightweight and soft linen. It’s a pricey pick, but you can’t argue with that luxurious feel.
A dense and fibrous textile typically derived from the hair of sheep and goats, it can also be taken from alpacas, llamas, and other funny-looking mammals. With high durability, these garments last for ages; just don’t leave them in the drying machine! Since wool is so warm and water-resistant, we usually limit wearing those sweaters and socks to the winter months.
This plant fiber material is composed of an insoluble organic compound known as cellulose. The best cotton in the world is soft, fluffy, and feels great, although it doesn’t fare very well in tough conditions like cold, wind, or rain. Everyone has a favorite t-shirt or pair of jeans, and we have cotton to thank for those classics.
Historically overlooked as a clothing material, bamboo fabric has made waves on the scene in recent years thanks to advanced harvesting and manufacturing methods. Bamboo fabric is not only soft and smooth, but it also mimics the stretchiness and moisture-wicking effects of common synthetic fibers, making it a great pick for athleisure and sportswear.
You Manufacturer Matters
With so many amazing natural fibers to choose from, you may be eager to go on a shopping spree and load your cart with the good stuff! However, it’s important that you select brands that have sustainable practices to back up their materials.
Since many fast fashion companies also use some natural fabrics in their clothes, you can’t expect to make much of an impact on the ethical clothing movement if you keep shopping at the same places. Keep in mind that massive amounts of fuel and water are still used in these facilities, and synthetic materials are often accidentally mixed in with the natural ones.
In other words, you should make a point to shop with brands that don’t just dabble in natural fabrics but that is 100% committed to sustainability, environmental consciousness, and ethical practices that treat workers well at every stage of the supply chain.
When shopping in-stores, don’t hesitate to break out your phone and do some on-the-spot research to determine whether a brand meets your standards of sustainability. The best brands will have boutique stores with educated staff that will be more than happy to tell you all about how the company works.
Also, be sure to browse the brand’s other offerings and ensure that they maintain those high standards across the board. Some of the best current companies are dedicated to one type of material for all their items, such as bamboo, hemp, or organic silk.
The more consistent and transparent the brand is about their fabrics and practices, the better. Oftentimes you’ll find that these companies also treat you better as a customer and give you rewards for loyalty over time. That’s the experience you deserve.
There are certainly advantages to synthetic fibers in the short term, but we need to think on a longer time horizon and make the best choices for our health and the environment. Natural fabrics are undoubtedly the best way to achieve lasting change for the better.
Make the commitment today to move away from synthetic fibers, or at least reduce the number of clothes you buy that contain these materials. You’ll be supporting brands that not only have your best interests in mind but also care about the future of humanity and the planet!