Know your fabrics: Synthetics vs Natural
While shopping for clothes, most consumers like you and I consider points like - colour, style, fit, fall and of course, the price of a garment. We’re happy to find things that fit this bill. A very few of us look at the fabric composition of a garment before buying it. Fabrics are an object of intimacy to all of us. We all know they are the closest to our skin all the time. Clothes are in fact, like our second skin.
Today, I urge you to go through your wardrobe and look at the fabric labels of all the clothes you have.
As you do that, I am sure you’ll find that a large portion of your wardrobe consists of synthetic fabrics like: polyester, acrylic, rayon, viscose, spandex, nylon, polyamide etc. Whether it’s your favourite party-wear pieces, your most comfortable workout gear, your favourite fluffy fleece sweater, the towels you use, or even your undergarments - Synthetics are everywhere. After all, they account for 65% of all the clothes produced today.
I’ll start with a simple fact about these fabrics
SYNTHETIC = PLASTIC
Everybody should know this! Plastics have infiltrated our wardrobes as well and even though it’s not really right on your face but we’ve been wearing, breathing and living in these plastic clothes for a long time. Let’s learn some more facts about these fibres.
Synthetics are ruling the fashion world and they seem to be the favourite material of all the fast fashion brands. The question arises - what accounts for the popularity of these fabrics?
Synthetics gained popularity during and shortly after the Second World War as natural fibres - especially silk - were in short supply and - therefore - very expensive.
Then industrialisation processes exploded, and along with it came this twisted assumption that artificial was somehow better, causing countries around the world to adopt clothing and even food that had - in some way - an artificial element to it.
Polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex , polyamide, viscose, neoprene etc. are all part of commonly used synthetic fabrics. Fabrics like polyester (which now makes up approx. 70% of all the synthetic fabrics) and nylon are made by melting the raw material (plastic or nylon chips) and forcing them through a spinneret under pressure. While others like viscose and rayon - so-called semi-synthetic fabrics both rely on the very toxic chemical - carbon disulphide as their key manufacturing constituent.
The tiny threads are then cooled and woven into fabrics.
Some qualities of synthetics are:
- They are strong
- Technology can modify them to surpass anything in nature in terms of insulation.
- they don’t wrinkle easily, can be chemically treated to become water and stain resistant
- Being very cheap, and because of the ability to be mass-produced in a way natural materials can’t be - at least not without some extreme measures - anyone needing textiles can buy synthetic on a colossal scale.
However, what the manufacturer and the consumer save due to low-cost production, they pay for in other ways.
HOW SYNTHETICS ARE AFFECTING OUR SKIN, OUR WATER AND THE EARTH
Skin is the largest organ of our body. Two of the major functions of skin are - elimination and absorption. We often forget to think about the fact that what goes on the skin also goes in the body and as you put on polyesters, you’re absorbing all the toxic chemicals these fabrics go through during production.
Polyester is a plastic and a by-product of petroleum, and is also strongly linked to hormonal disruption and the formation of breast cancer cells. Acrylic contains polyacrylonitrile which is linked to cancer. The health risks associated with synthetics are not only suffered by the consumers, factory workers are exposed to the most extreme health hazards from the production and dyeing of synthetic fabrics. The process of changing petroleum into polyester is extremely long and toxic, causing these workers, (many of whom are children) to face an array of debilitating health risks.
Apart from that, synthetic fabrics simply don't breathe. Anyone who's worn polyester on a hot summer day is well aware of that. The fabric also traps odours. They are the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria.
It is reported that the clothing industry is accountable for over 20% of industrial water pollution in the world. Many of the chemicals used in the production processes of synthetic fabrics are impossible to break down, meaning the water is forever polluted.
The water pollution is not limited to the production process. Plastic particles called microfibres washed off from products such as synthetic clothes contribute up to 35% of the primary plastic that is polluting our oceans. Every time we do our laundry an average of 9 million microfibres are released into wastewater treatment plants that cannot filter them. Ending up in the water bodies they are consumed by fishes, which are often eventually purchased at grocery stores and eaten by us. Not just this, plastic fibres are constantly being released in the air by synthetic materials present around us . We breathe in plastic microfibers from our clothing, carpets, curtains & other textiles.
Each year almost 70 million barrels of oil are used in the manufacturing of polyester alone. The crude oil is used in both as a raw material and as fuel to generate the necessary energy used in the process. Extraction of crude oil and gasses is one of the biggest environmental pollutants in our modern world due to both the everyday pollution to our air and land they cause as well as the tens of thousands of litres of oil spillages per year.
Along with the damage that these fabrics cause to our planet and waterways, there are also many long term effects caused by their inability to decompose and therefore huge impact on growing landfill.
Two-thirds of the discards are man made synthetic/plastic fibres, most of which stay in landfills for over 300 years before they break down.
At basiclly, we have always advocated for natural and organic fibres and we condemn the use of synthetic fabric and materials. And believe us, it is not some greenwashing trope. Here’s all you need to know about natural fibres :
Nature has provided us with perfectly good materials and we had been using them for thousands of years for clothing. They are made out of natural materials derived from plants, animals, or minerals that are spun into threads and yarns. These yarns are then woven or knit into fabrics. Natural fibres include cotton, Linen (made from flax), Silk, Jute, wool, cashmere, hemp, etc.
Many characteristics of natural fabrics are unique and cannot be replicated with synthetics. Most notably, natural fabrics are breathable, yet also insulate, which helps in regulating the body temperature during all seasons. They are hypoallergenic, excellent at wicking sweat. Unlike synthetics, they adapt to whatever environment you’re in. And some organics - like Wool - can easily outlast synthetic clothing from a usefulness perspective if nothing else.
Materials like cotton and wool are sustainable and can - through careful cross-breeding - be improved. While synthetic materials have become a threat after only a bit more than a century, natural fibres continue to be reliable, and now, an environmentally conscious resource.
Although there are some ethical questions about natural materials as well - The water consumption required for cotton farming, use of synthetic dyes in natural materials and of course, animal cruelty. The solution to these issues, however, is to find better ways of farming cotton, (the most water-efficient option is rain-fed cotton). And to practice ethical and organic animal farming; not to turn to an unsustainable alternative that looks and feels as cheap as it was to make.
There is a huge compensation in the fact that natural fabrics biodegrade, and can be renewed. Because when the oil runs out - and it will - all the polyesters and acrylics that are popular because of their cheap prices and huge profits - are going to run out too.
As you look through your wardrobe now, make sure you segregate natural and synthetic clothes and see for yourself which type of clothing material you feel better about. With this information in your head, it’ll be easier for you to make a better choice while purchasing your next outfit.
My wardrobe looks somewhat like 90% natural and 10% synthetics. To me, choosing natural fabrics over synthetics have become almost instinctive over time. I’m naturally drawn towards more sustainable clothes while shopping. I love the texture and feel of organic and natural clothes. Apart from factors like biodegradability and renewal, I feel like I simply vibe with natural materials more. With so many brands offering great quality, and great looking styles in natural fabrics, it’s been easy to make this shift.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
It is true that committing to use only natural and organic materials seem like a difficult and unrealistic task in today’s time when the markets are flooded with synthetics. What’s important is for us to become a more informed consumer and know what’s being offered to us before buying something and how we can make the most out of it.
How do we do that?
The best bet is sticking to the simple ethos:
- Buy natural and organic clothes whenever possible even when they’re slightly more expensive.
- Buy less, but better.
- Take care of the clothes you already have so they don’t wear off soon.
- Try not to wash your clothes until needed.
- There’s no more certain way to reduce our impact than to reduce the amount of clothes we consume and to keep those clothes for a long time.
And if you’re buying synthetic clothing, the following points are to be kept in mind :
- Buy clothes where the fibre makes up is 100% - as it’s easier to recycle them as compared to blends.
- Buy from reputable and ethical brands.
- Use washing bags that capture microfibres while doing the laundry.
- Buy vintage and second hand.
A little bit of awareness and slight changes in our habits can make a significant shift in the market and the system as well as in our lives. Always remember, all the brands cater to the demands made by us - the consumers. Make sure what you demand and promote is clean, green and good fashion. Start saying no to plastics in our food, our skin and our bodies!
Image source: Unsplash
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