Are Natural Fibers the Most Sustainable Choices for Fashion?

Much talk in recent years within the fashion industry revolved around sustainability. One hot topic is creating fabrics that pose as little impact to the environment as possible. Many believe the best way to do this is to use only natural and organic fibers in textile manufacturing. In reality, is going natural feasible for the fashion industry and the environment?

What are Natural and Synthetic Fibers? 

A fiber is the raw material used to make a yarn, which is woven together with other yarns to create fabric. Natural fibers are those that occur naturally in nature and are either plant-based or animal-based. Plant-based fibers include cotton, flax (fiber that makes linen) and hemp. Animal-based fibers include animal hair (wool, alpaca, mohair, etc) and silk.

Synthetic fibers are man-made fibers. These fibers can be made from entirely chemical processing such as with polyester or nylon. Synthetic fibers also can be made from natural resources that are chemically altered to produce a fiber. Such fibers include viscose rayon, Tencel and bamboo.

Which is Better: Natural or Synthetic?

Many people believe natural fibers are best for the environment. However, this is not entirely true. Plant fibers such as cotton - while they can be organically grown often times are not - use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Also, a huge quantity of water is needed to properly maintain a crop such as cotton. Most fabrics are dyed in the latest fashionable color palette of the season. The best color happens on white or bleached fabric. Natural fibers are not clean nor are they white. Before being twisted into yarn, natural fibers are cleaned and bleached with chemical solutions. The cultivating, cleaning and dyeing of fabrics made from natural fibers do pollute the soil, ground water and nearby streams and lakes.

Synthetic fiber production uses far less water than plant-based and even animal-based natural fibers and does not require fertilizer or pesticides. However, synthetic fibers do use a great amount of energy, according to Gail Baugh Lecturer at San Francisco State University, virgin polyester fiber uses 18.3 Kwh of energy per pound of fiber and recycled polyester uses 13.8 Kwh per pound of fiber. In addition, the chemicals used during the production of some synthetics like polyester are recycled to be used in future manufacturing of the fiber.

Recycled Fibers are a Viable Option

Still using cotton and polyester as an example, there is a difference in the quality of yarn and fabric when fabrics made from these two fibers are recycled. Recycled cotton's quality and stability are very low, due to the fact that when cotton fabric is recycled the breaking down of the fabric breaks the yarns as well, creating shorter fibers. For fabric, the longer the fiber, the more stable the yarn, which yields a more stable fabric. Since recycled cotton fibers are far shorter, the yarn is of a much lower quality, which results in low-grade fabric that does not have much give or strength to it. Recycled polyester on the other hand does not lose quality. Some suggest that recycled polyester may even be of higher quality than virgin polyester.

Increased Use of Blended Fabric Can Help

Very rarely do we see a garment that is 100 percent of any one single fiber. Such garments tend to be expensive. However, many clothing items will be a cotton/poly blend, Viscose/polyester, wool/polyester and so on. Blended fabrics bring the best qualities of two different fibers to a garment. For example, cotton/poly blends incorporate the colorfast and tensile strength of polyester, while cotton fibers make the fabric comfortable wear and helps wick moisture away from the body. With less reliance being on any one particular fiber, the need to produce new natural and synthetic fibers will be reduced.

In achieving sustainability within the fashion industry, concerning textile production, there is no one right answer as designer needs differ. Perhaps allocating the use of virgin fibers and recycled fibers appropriately may be the way to go. Adapting Gail Baugh's suggestion for how to use cotton, virgin fibers should be reserved for high-end fabrics and blended fabrics while recycled fibers can be used for mid-range to low-end fabrics and lower-grade blended fabrics. This model may be needed if there are crop shortages for cotton and the raw materials needed for synthetic production continue to be depleted.

Main Image: UgoCamera/IFEMA for Esther Noriega S/S 2016 show at Madrid Fashion Week


More Fashion Sense 

Fashion Myth: Polyester and Other Synthetic Fibers Are Cheap and Tacky
When a fashion designer does not own their name
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