Updated September 12, 2023.
Are synthetic or natural fabrics better for the environment? Natural fabrics fare better, but the overproduction of both types of fabrics is the problem. The way we carelessly disregard and dispose of our clothing is a problem too, as was emphasized in Part 2 of this article series. Elizabeth L. Cline, an expert on fast fashion and sustainability in the apparel industry, says that asking which fabric is greenest is actually the wrong question. “We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.”1
Though we all need to reduce everything we consume, understanding the differences between synthetics and natural fabrics will benefit us as consumers. If we know where something came from, how it was sourced, and how it was created and turned into fashion, we can make better choices and value our clothing more.
Natural fabrics refer to those made from natural fibers sourced from plants or animals. Let’s start by taking a look at the natural fabrics that come from plant-based sources.
“We need to improve the sustainability of all the materials we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline
Cotton is grown all over the world, and its production provides income for more than 250 million people. There are about 35 million hectares of cotton under cultivation in the world. But it requires a lot of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.
“As much as 2,168 gallons of water is required to grow the cotton in a single T-shirt…While water is plentiful in some cotton-growing areas, almost 60 percent of all cotton is grown in regions affected by water scarcity…And while cotton could be a major source of poverty alleviation in rural and poor areas, in many places it is exploitive instead.”4
In some areas, surface and ground waters are diverted to irrigate cotton fields. This leads to freshwater depletion for entire regions, including Pakistan’s Indus River Delta and Central Asia’s Aral Sea. About 97% of the water from the Indus River goes to crop production, including cotton.5 Worse, the Indus River, upon which millions of people rely, is badly polluted with chemicals and plastic.
The depletion of the Aral Sea is one major loss. A Soviet Union project that began in the 1960s diverted the feeding rivers away from the Aral Sea in an attempt to grow cotton and other crops in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This has almost drained the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world. That has caused the soil to become drier and saltier, and the dry soil creates dust storms. That dust is full of leftover pesticides and fertilizers, and people in those areas have significant reproductive issues, including miscarriages and malformations at birth. In addition, “Livelihoods, wildlife habitats, and fish populations have been decimated.”6
“Conventionally grown cotton requires the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers.”7
Cotton production requires about 220,000 tons of pesticides and 8.8 million tons of fertilizer yearly. “One-fifth of insecticides – and more than 10 percent of all pesticides – are devoted to the protection of conventional cotton.”8 Those pesticides are highly toxic to human workers and animals, and they pollute the environment. Industrial and agricultural chemical poisoning are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide.9 The World Health Organization classified 8 out of 10 of the US’s cotton pesticides as ‘hazardous.’10
Fertilizers that end up in waterways create nutrient pollution, meaning those excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) allow toxic algal blooms. Those deplete entire zones of oxygen, creating dead zones, which harm aquatic species and disrupt entire ecosystems. Fertilizers also contribute to greenhouse gases.11
Approximately 16% of all pesticides are used on cotton.12 Additionally, genetically modified crops, including cotton, have made crops toxic to common pests. This has reduced the use of pesticides but has not eliminated the need for them. “A large number of farmers have adopted genetically modified cotton seeds that include a gene protecting it from the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). That way, the fields can be sprayed with the herbicide when the plant is young, easily eliminating competition from weeds.”13 However, this has made farmers dependent on those specific seeds, which are made by the same company that makes the pesticides and herbicides.
Uzbekistan, once one of the largest producers of cotton, used forced labor for cotton production until 2021.14 Today, China and India are the largest producers of cotton. Parts of China use forced labor and parts of India use child labor for cotton production. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the following countries also use child labor, forced labor, or both:15
- Burkina Faso
- Kyrgyz Republic
Cotton production severely degrades soil quality,16 because of the overuse of nitrogen-based mineral fertilizers. Cotton also causes soil erosion because of the large amounts of water it requires to grow.
Organic Cotton & Other Options
We can produce cotton organically, that is without pesticides and fertilizers, and therefore more sustainably. There are two leading organic certifications: Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS) and Organic Cotton Standard (OCS). Organic cotton only comprises around 0.33% of all cotton grown. Those chemicals never end up in runoff or the environment. However, organic cotton still requires large amounts of water. And, unfortunately, organic often means more expensive.
Initiatives such as “Better Cotton and Fairtrade Cotton focus on better land use, water practices, and labor standards but don’t have any proven environmental benefits.”17 Better Cotton is difficult to enforce and farmers who adopt it are not subsidized. Also, it allows for genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds.18 So this is not the best initiative out there.
Cotton Made in Africa has more than 30 brand members, which supports small growers and environmentally friendly growing practices in sub-Saharan Africa.19
Recycled or reclaimed cotton sounds promising as well, but it does have drawbacks. According to cottonworks.com, “the majority of recycled cotton is claimed through mechanical recycling. First, fabrics and materials are sorted by color. After sorting, the fabrics are run through a machine that shreds the fabric into yarn and further into raw fiber. This process is harsh and puts a great deal of strain on the fiber. It is not uncommon for fibers to break and entangle during shredding. The raw fiber is then spun back into yarns for reuse in other products. The quality of recycled fiber will never have quality values equal to the original fiber. Specifically, fiber length and length uniformity will be impacted, which will limit the end-use application.”20
“Current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable.” -World Wildlife Fund21
Denim is mainly made from cotton. It takes between 2,000 and 2,900 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans, mainly because of dying and finishing treatments. “In the 1970s and 1980s, hip fashion people decided that denim shouldn’t look like denim anymore, and they came up with stone washing and acid washing.” These processes use pumice (stones) and sometimes bleach or other acidic chemicals. The water used for dying and finishing is not reused or recycled, which means it ends up in the environment.22
“To achieve a faux-worn effect, jeans are sandblasted, hand-sanded, or sprayed with chemicals by individuals who inhale the fumes each day.”23
We must also consider the cost of transport for something such as a pair of jeans. There is “a big cost in getting the cotton from (for example) Texas, where it’s grown, to Indonesia to be spun into fibers, to Bangladesh to be made into denim, and sent back to the U.S. to be sold.”24
There are programs that aim to reduce water in production, such as Levi’s Water<Less campaign. Their process reduces up to 96% of the water normally used in denim finishing, which is the final stage in making a pair of jeans. Levi’s claims to have saved more than 3 billion liters of water and recycled more than 1.5 billion liters of water.25 Always look at these programs with a critical eye, but if they are legit, try to buy clothing that uses sustainable methods.
Last, there is a recycling program for denim. The Blue Jeans Go Green program collects cotton-based denim and recycles it back to its original fiber state and transforms it into something new. The program claims to have kept more than 4.5 million pieces of old denim out of landfills.26 Denim is also a sustainable type of home and building insulation.
Bast-plant fibers include fabrics like linen, jute, hemp, and ramie. Linen is a textured fiber made from the flax plant. It is naturally hypoallergenic and is very breathable, making it a great textile for warm-weather clothes. Jute is a coarse natural plant fiber from the jute plant that is used to weave fabrics like burlap cloth. It is a popular textile to make rugs and burlap sacks. Hemp is durable, versatile, and moisture-resistant. Ramie creates strong fabrics that look similar to linen.
These fibers are biodegradable, renewable, and sustainable. Bast fibers are collected from the outer third of the stem of a plant between the woody core and the thin outer layer. These make strong, durable, and breathable cloth.
These plants support regenerative farming, which improves the environment. “Plants used in bast fibre production are often great cover crops working in rotation with other crops, keeping the soil covered to minimize erosion and incorporating organic matter to improve soil fertility. A greater diversity of crops within a farming system not only improves soil quality, but minimizes plant diseases, further reducing the need for chemical applications.”27 They use less water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy.
You can also buy these fabrics recycled or organic certified (see Additional Resources below). Organic means that chemical pesticides and fertilizers weren’t used in the production of the plant or fabric.28
While bamboo is a plant, marketers often tout it as “eco-friendly,” but manufacturers make bamboo fabric by chemically pulverizing plants and trees. This makes it unnatural. Since this fabric is full of harsh chemicals, I have chosen to include it in the synthetics part of this series (Part 5).
Read the Labels
Now that you know more about natural fabrics, you may find that reading labels will at least give you the basic information you’re looking for. Is the item you want to purchase made with 100% organic cotton, or a cotton blend? If it’s the latter, what does the blend consist of? Also, where was the item made? Was it made in a country with decent labor laws?
If there’s a fabric you’re not familiar with listed on the tag, look it up. Most people carry a smartphone with them, which offers the opportunity to look it up before making a purchase.
While plant-based fabrics come from the Earth, they are not always the best option because of the pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals that most producers use to grow them. But they are still better than plastic-based synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels.
Remember, the overproduction of all fabrics is the problem. Buy fewer but higher-quality articles when you can. Take good care of the clothing you do have, mend your clothing if you are able, and buy second-hand when you need to replace something.
In my next article, I’ll review types of animal-based fabrics. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!
Website, Better Cotton. Their mission is “to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment.”
Website, Global Textile Standard (GOTS). “GOTS is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, including ecological and social criteria, backed up by independent certification of the entire textile supply chain. GOTS-certified final products may include fibre products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, as well as food contact textiles and more.” According to Elizabeth L. Cline, “GOTS is the most rigorous organic standard, as it covers not just the cultivation of the raw materials but the processing of the textiles as well.”29
Website, Organic Content Standard (OCS). They are “a voluntary global standard that sets the criteria for third-party certification of organic materials and chain of custody.”
Website, Oeko-Tex, “certifies that every component of the product, from the fabric to the thread and accessories, has been rigorously tested against a list of up to 350 toxic chemicals.”