Updated: May 20
The fashion industry is one of the biggest producers of waste and one of the biggest polluters of our planet. This makes sustainability a very important topic. Not only in terms of how to deal with the damage caused (reusing, recycling) but also how not to cause damage in the first place. The materials we use play a role here and knowledge of fibres makes our choices more conscious.
There are three types of fibre that clothes are made from.
Natural fibres are mostly produced by plants and animals. Cotton, linen, silk, wool (incl. Cashmere, Mohair, Angora, Alpaca) are all natural fibres.
The advantages of natural fibres are that they feel comfortable, absorb sweat and are easier to clean and repair.
Cotton is hypoallergenic and thus suitable also for people with sensitive skin.
Linen is highly absorbent and provides coolness in hot days.
Cashmere is light and soft, while at the same time provides high insulation and gives the feeling of being warm but not hot.
Silk feels light, looks luxurious and has temperature regulating properties.
Alpaca provides warmth in winter, not letting wind and rain go through.
Natural fibres are much higher quality than synthetic ones and the clothes can be worn for many years. However, they may require special washing. Once a woolen piece of cloth shrinks because it was washed on high temperature, nothing can save it!
When it comes to sustainability, clothes from natural fibres are causing less pollution. On one hand, there is less industrial processing involved; on the other hand, the fibres can be recycled or, when thrown away, are biodegradable and do not pollute the environment.
However, there might be other issues. Forests may get cleared to make space for production fields; commercial producers may use chemical fertilisers or mistreat animals in farms to increase their production; wild and rare species may get illegally hunted for their skin and ivory. These practices are all driven by demand and can be stopped by not buying from producers who are not "nice" or buying less clothes in general.
Semi-synthetic fibres have their structure and properties modified during manufacturing. Such fibres are rayon (Lyocell, viscose), bamboo and modal. As a result of the chemical processes they undergo, those fibres may perform better on some indicators but overall degrade in quality.
Synthetic fibres are completely chemically produced and include polyester, nylon (polyamide), acrylic, spandex.
The advantages of synthetic fibres are that they are cheap and some do not wrinkle easily. However, they do not absorb sweat and the skin cannot breath through them. In general the quality is low, clothes may loose their original shape with washing, stain cleaning and repairs may be difficult, and ironing needs to be very careful because synthetic fibres burn easily.
What about sustainability and ethics? The cheap price of synthetic fibres makes them attractive to produce in high volumes, which results in overproduction: tons of clothes which cannot be sold and eventually get thrown away without being used.
This makes the next problem even worse: synthetic fibres are not biodegradable and cause a lot of pollution!!!
Moreover, the production of synthetic fibres requires intensive chemical processes, which pollute waters and air and endanger the lives of animals and the health of people living in the neighbourhood of factories.
And this is not all; the toxic chemicals used during production go straight into our skin! This is one of the reasons it is recommended to wash clothes before wearing them.
However, washing synthetic clothes also causes pollution because small plastic particles get released in the water.
We, consumers, choose what to buy and from whom. And, just as important, we choose how much to buy and how long to wear it.
Every purchase is a choice.
Read this article from Business Insider for more information on how the fashion industry and synthetic fibre pollute the environment.