Cotton vs Polyester / Wool vs Acrylic - The war of fibres and why there is no good guy in this matter

When we choose a piece of clothing we look at its label to determine whether it’s made of a “good” or a “bad” fibre. Rumour has it, that natural fibres are the good guys and synthetic ones are bad. Let’s have a closer look:

  1. Natural fabrics come from plants and/or animals - that means it needs land to grow on or to feed on. They require other resources like water: i.e. a cotton T-shirt requires 2700 litres of water, but a linen shirt needs only 6,4 litres. These fabrics can biodegrade completely if they haven’t been dyed, however, most fabric undergoes a chemical treatment in the process of colouration.

  2. Blending natural fibres with synthetic ones makes the fabric much stronger on the one hand, but prevents it from being recycled on the other hand.

  3. Synthetic fibres like polyester could be described as plastic produced from coal and petroleum, the extraction of which we want to minimise for the sake of the environment. Polyester is non-biodegradable, but per se can be recycled, which is only being done in one factory in Japan, throughout the whole world. There is more recycling of PET plastic into the fabric, however, this option is still more expensive than the extraction of new fossil fuels for new production.

  4. The impact of polyester in terms of acidification of the oceans is lower than the one of conventional and organic cotton. However, the CO2 release is higher for polyester.

  5. Synthetic materials are very durable and therefore can’t be easily replaced by natural ones. Specifically in regards to sportswear and/or outerwear. While a cotton t-shirt has a life span of approximately 2 years, a synthetic parka could last for more than 10 years.

This is where the biggest problem of measuring natural and synthetic fabrics emerges:

“We have to take into consideration garment usability. Talking about environmental issues, we have to consider the entire product cycle, and not only the raw materials, since the material’s impact is a twenty-five percent over the total, while the remaining part is related to the lifecycle”, (Lapoonmagazine).

This is hat we learn: 
Comparing the materials only, to determine the environmental impact turns out to be a simplification.

If we want to know what to choose to be more environmentally friendly, we can’t start with the question of which material is “better”. Firstly because we simply can’t answer the question generically and secondly because the choice of the material is only a small part of the life cycle of an item.

The one thing we can say with certainty is that reusing and recycling fashion has the lowest environmental impact. Taking advantage of what is already out there is the most sustainable way to consume. We also have to learn how to look after our clothes in order to prolong their lives. So let’s shift our focus away from searching for the right fabric towards the right way of caring for what we have.