Natural vs man-made

Why natural should get your vote every time



Key points:

  • Mass-production of synthetic garments is having a significant impact on the environment
  • While natural materials can be harder to source, they are far more sustainable and can be higher quality
  • Honesty is the best policy when choosing brands to shop with

 

When it comes to making conscious fashion choices, consumers can often find themselves faced with an overwhelming task. It’s not always possible to see a list of materials in every item we buy, and even when we do, we can’t always tell which fabrics are naturally biodegradable and which are not. Added to this, not everyone in the fashion world agrees that natural materials are a better choice.

As the demand for fast fashion continues to grow, manufacturers generally turn to man-made materials as they’re cheaper and more readily available. But the world’s landfills are overflowing with non-recyclable apparel, so there’s an urgent need for us to increase our awareness of what’s in our clothes and accessories, and to make more informed choices when we buy. In this post, we’ll help you learn a bit more about synthetic and natural materials, and how you can make the most informed choices when you shop.

 

Man-made (synthetic fibres)

In the last few years, our knowledge of the environmental impact of synthetic fibres has grown significantly. We now know that man-made materials like polyester, nylon, acrylic and spandex take a huge amount of water and energy to produce and they take many, many years to break down. Even once these fibres have visibly broken down, they leave their chemical make-up in the environment, polluting the ocean and ecosystem with microplastics.

When man-made synthetics were first used around 100 years ago, the idea was that these were actually a better alternative for the environment. Sir Joseph Swan and Charles Frederick Cross developed the first versions of viscose rayon and acetate believing these would be better as they didn’t use agricultural resources. These were also more cost efficient, tended to last longer and didn’t attract moths. In the 1940s, nylon rose to popularity as it revolutionised the design of women’s stockings and bras, due to its ability to stretch. So, in some ways, these fabrics have been used with good intentions, to make our lives easier.

Nowadays, however, the reliance on synthetic fibres has had a major impact on the environment. These are not renewable, and they don’t break down, so their over-production and mass consumption is causing irreparable environmental damage.

 

Natural fibres

Materials like cotton and linen are naturally occurring, and are often slightly harder to find than synthetics, but we think they’re worth seeking out. While natural materials also require a lot of energy and water to produce, this is offset by the fact that they are renewable and biodegradable. This is because 100% natural fibres decay as they absorb water, plus these materials can be reused to make new items, so they’re worth the higher cost.

Traditional natural fibres like linen are also more breathable, while naturally insulating to help regulate the body temperature. They are also ‘self-cleaning’, which means reduced garment care. However, they do take a bit more looking after than synthetic fibres, as they tend to absorb stains more easily, and wrinkle quicker.

Many businesses are turning to natural materials to make products, with leather alternatives like acorn, mango, pineapple and cactus becoming more mainstream. Hemp is also a great alternative to synthetics as it grows naturally anywhere without pesticides, and it requires a fifth of the water that cotton requires. Bamboo and cork are also highly sustainable, as they’re made from plants that are non-destructive for the environment.

Often, consumers who are striving to make conscious choices will choose vegan alternatives to leather, but it’s important to check the ingredients, as some of these alternatives are actually made from plastics that are highly toxic for the environment.

 

Generally, while it’s worth seeking out natural fibres where possible, when choosing synthetic fibres, it’s best to go for the ‘100% rule’ – where that material is 100% one kind of fibre, it’s easier to recycle than a blend.

We’d also recommend shopping with a reputable brand, who are open and upfront about their supply chain and are demonstrably working towards sustainability. The more honest the company, the easier for customers to make genuinely conscious, considered purchase choices.