Today we are going to take a close look at the benefits and disadvantages of common fibres – both natural and synthetic – in order to determine what the best choices are when it comes to the health of our planet.
Fibres are used to create fabrics through a three-step process of spinning, weaving, finishing, and are the basis for all textiles! Natural fibres are those that come from animals, plants or minerals, whereas synthetic fibres are those that are man-made. There are many differences between the two in relation to origin, production and the impact that their existence has on our environment.
Cotton, linen and wool are arguably the most popular natural fibres in the present day. Cotton and linen are both taken from plants, whereas wool comes from sheep.
Cotton is most commonly used to make shirts, jeans and towels. It is breathable, durable and quite absorbent. It can be both washed and ironed, but it does crease easily.
As we explored in a previous article, cotton production is not considered to be sustainable as cultivating cotton is damaging to the environment. Click here to read more about this.
Linen is made from the fibres that grow inside the stalk of the flax plant. Similarly to cotton, linen is most often used to make clothes and towels, and is also breathable, durable and absorbent.
The environmental impact of manufacturing linen is heavy as pesticides are generally used on regular flax plants. In order to alleviate this impact you may consider only buying organic linen.
Wool is acquired from sheering sheep. It is useful for making clothes because it is great for regulating the body temperature when worn. Lighter wool garments are a good choice in the summer for staying cool, and heavier items can be worn to stay warm in the winter months.
There is much debate as to whether sheering sheep is cruel or not, and certain groups of people (such as vegans) will avoid wearing wool garments. In addition to the cruelty concerns, the environmental implications of raising livestock should also be considered. Insecticides are often used on the animals themselves to keep pests at bay, and sheep may overgraze, leading to a disruption of the natural eco-system.
Man-made synthetic fibres are usually manufactured through chemical processing and this can be quite taxing on the environment. Nylon and polyester are among the most widely used synthetic fibres today.
Nylon has been around since the 1930’s and is often hailed as the world’s most useful synthetic material. As a plastic it is used in many of the products that we use every day, and as a fabric it is used in rugs, swimming shorts and umbrellas – among other quick drying items!
It is important to be aware of the fact that nylon is not biodegradable, and will therefore exist indefinitely. Nylon also requires a great deal of energy to be manufactured*, and nitrous oxide is released into the air during production, contributing massively to global warming.
This synthetic fibre is derived from water, petroleum, coal and air*. It has been in existence since the late 1930’s but wasn’t available until several years later. It is used for clothes, home furnishings and also for making everyday objects, such as bottles. It is s good choice for clothes because it is generally wrinkle free.
Polyester has a significant environmental impact and production of this synthetic fibre calls for approximately 70 billion barrels of oil each year. This is both carbon-intensive and non-renewable! Polyester is not biodegradable and is a huge pollutant in our oceans.
As you can see, there are consequences for the environment when it comes to both natural and synthetic fibres, although the impact of natural fibres is less drastic. It is important that we as a society continue to make moves towards sustainability with the fabrics that we choose – a concept that we are especially interested in at PAMA London. Check back soon to find out more!