My father had this thing where he would only wear 100% cotton clothing. No poly-blend was allowed to touch him. At the time, as a 12-year-old, I rolled my eyes in his general direction. I was way more concerned with how fashionable an item appeared to be than what it was made out of. Somewhat ironic, really, as my definition of ‘fashionable’ included copious amounts of green mascara. Green was my signature colour, don’t you know.
Now, as an adult, I prefer to wear natural fibres myself – cotton and wool, mostly, with the occasional bit of linen thrown in. I bought some bamboo for my kids, as well, before I became convinced that bamboo is not as green as it claims to be. I like the feel of these fibres – the way that cotton breathes, the smell and warmth of wool, the crisp cool-ness of linen. And I have an idea that they are more sustainable than their synthetic cousins. But is that really true? I decided to do some digging to see what I could find.
Cotton, which is probably the most common fiber found in clothing, has a lot going for it. It’s easy to care for, it’s breathable, and because it’s a plant product it’s renewable and biodegradable. But it does have some environmental downsides. For one thing, it takes a lot of water to grow cotton. For another, according to Wikipedia cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Conventionally-grown cotton may also use genetically-modified seed. However, it is possible to avoid pesticides and genetically-modified crops by buying organic cotton, which is becoming more widely available.
Wool production has a significant environmental impact as well – from the medications and chemicals used on the sheep (sheep dip, anyone?) to the land cleared for grazing to the waste that sheep produce. Again, you can reduce some of the impact by opting for organic wool, but it will never be eliminated. Whenever we’re talking about harvesting a product for human use, it will affect the world in some way.
This all sounds rather gloomy. So let’s pick on two synthetic fibres now to compare – polyester and acrylic.
Originally, polyester fibre was made from coal, air, water, and petroleum. However, in recent years advancements have been made and increasing volumes of polyester are made from downcycled plastic bags. Either way, polyester is made from petroleum products, which are not renewable or biodegradable. This means that, somehow or another, that fleece blanket that I love so much is going to be around for a long, long time. And it takes a lot of energy to manufacture – about twice as much as cotton for virgin polyester, and 65% more for downcycled polyester.
Nylon is similarly problematic. It is also made from coal, and uses a variety of toxic chemicals in its manufacture. It is not bio-degradable, and there is no infrastructure for recycling (or, more likely, downcycling) it.
Environmental impacts of manufacture aside, there are other issues with synthetic fibres. They don’t breathe well, which is why women are told to wear cotton undergarments. Some people are also allergic to synthetic fibres like acrylic and nylon. Cotton, on the other hand, is hypoallergenic, although some people do find wool irritating. And some synthetic fibres, like PVC, are known to release suspected carcinogens. Plus, frankly, most synthetic fibres just don’t feel as good.
In the end, I think the most environmentally friendly choice is to buy second-hand when possible, and take care of your clothes so that they last you as long as possible. Reducing consumption pretty much always comes out ahead when we’re talking about the environment. Beyond that, I personally will choose natural fibres over synthetic fibres when I can, and opt for cotton and wool that have been produced sustainably. And when I’m done with my clothes, I’ll pass any items that still have some life in them on to my local thrift store to keep them out of the landfill.
What kind of fabrics do you prefer in your clothes? Are you more concerned with fashion, or comfort, or ease of care? And do you consider the environmental impact of your clothing choices? Please share!
I was inspired to write this post for the Green Moms Carnival, which is being hosted by the amazing Diane of Big Green Purse on the 27th. Drop by her blog then for some more thoughts on sustainable clothing choices.