Simplifying Sustainability – A Quick Lesson on Natural and Synthetic fibres

I wanted to create an easily digestible guide to shopping ethically and consciously. This is Part 1. “A quick lesson on natural and synthetic fibres”. Ive decided to break it up into a few posts to spread the info out and keep the article quick to get through

I’ve been constructing this article for quite some time both in my head and literally typing and retyping and researching and typing some more! Fibres form the basis of ethical manufacturing and is honestly such a deep, complex hole to dive into. If you’ve ever thought that shopping ethically seems very confusing and even a bit to hard at times you’re not alone, even having worked in this industry for 12 years I still find it overwhelming!

Looking at the big picture of responsible purchasing I think it helps to keep the end goal in mind.

Ultimately I try to avoid purchasing any new item that would have caused environmental damage in its production, along with anything that will not cause unnecessary waste at the end of its life cycle. It’s not easy and I can’t say that I’m always successful, but having this in mind often helps me to make better decisions more often than not.

Natural fibres; what are they and why should we choose them? 

Natural fibres break down. Once we are finished with something that is made from cotton, wool or silk for example, that item can go back into the environment where it will decompose, and in the right environment, enrich the soil and support new life. Synthetic fibres on the other hand will stay with us much longer, they disintegrate, but do not bio-degrade. They break down into smaller and smaller pieces known as micro plastics, more on those in the next section.


These fibres are collected from plants and animals. If when you buy clothes made with natural fabrics, especially cotton, you have the option to purchase organic, please do that. This means that fewer (or no) pesticides have been used in the cotton crops. This ensures that the farmland where the crop is grown stays in a healthy, usable condition for future seasons and for people that live within the community their environment remains clean. Hemp fabric is very similar to cotton in its use but uses far less water to grow, and does not need pesticides, so this is an excellent alternative to cotton and something I predict will gain popularity in the coming years.

What are man-made fibres and why do they have a bad name?

There are two types of man-made fibres. Semi-synthetic (also known as regenerated fibres) and synthetic fibres.

Regenerated fibres are created with natural materials that are too small to be formed into yarn on their own such as wood pulp. They go through a chemical process that essentially dissolves them and turns them into fibres that are then able to be woven or knitted into fabric.

Extracting, refining and processing petroleum has widespread negative effects, from destruction of land, increased greenhouse gas emissions, to air pollution.

Synthetic fibres are created using petroleum based chemicals or petrochemicals. Extracting, refining and processing petroleum has widespread negative effects, from destruction of land, increased greenhouse gas emissions, to air pollution.

Micro plastics are now being discovered in fish, the water we drink, and the air. According to a recent study on plastics and tap water, 83% of tested water samples from major metropolitan areas around the world were contaminated with plastic fibres. A huge contributor to this is washing synthetic garments. Each wash tiny particles of fibre get brushed off and enter the water system.

The water-intensity of production is much lower than for natural fibres. However, fabrics such as polyester cannot be dyed using low impact and natural dyes. This means that the detrimental impact on water supplies is potentially far greater.

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