Manmade Fabrics vs Natural Fibers: The Environmental Impact of Our Clothes

Is Natural or Manmade Fabric Better for the Environment?

Manmade Fabrics Organic Cotton

Our clothes are one of the biggest everyday contributors to our carbon footprints. The most efficient way we can reduce the environmental impact of our clothes is by buying less, as the most sustainable outfit is the one already in your closet. But when new clothes are a necessity, we can still shop sustainably.

The materials that make up our clothing are the best indicator of their environmental impact. Synthetic, manmade fabrics are among the most detrimental, but even natural materials have adverse impacts on our environment. Certified organic cotton is one of the most sustainable materials available, but how do we make sure our clothes are made sustainably, and do our shopping choices really make a difference?

Natural Material vs Manmade Fabric

The fashion industry produces a growing average of 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, largely as a result of manmade materials like spandex and polyester that are made from plastics. These fabrics don’t biodegrade and break down into microplastics that fill our oceans and waterways with irreversible plastic pollution. Even when recycled or donated, our synthetic clothing breaks down into microplastics with every wash. These microplastics not only enter our food and drinking water, but further contribute to climate change.

Studies suggest that nearly half of all fast-fashion is made with some amount of synthetic material. Since these fabrics don’t break down, they fill landfills with permanent waste when the clothes are no longer usable. As of 2018, 17 million tons of fabric waste end up in landfills each year.

Manmade Fabrics Natural Fibers

By shopping for clothes made from natural materials, we can significantly reduce our contributions to plastic pollution. However, even natural materials can have severe impacts on our environment. Materials like non-organic cotton and linen require massive amounts of water. The garment industry is one of the leading causes of water consumption in the world, second only to agricultural uses, and consumes an average of 259 billion cubic feet of water per year.

Additionally, these materials are cultivated in monocultures that degrade soil quality and contribute to erosion. This leads to heavy fertilization and eventual soil degradation. When fields are exhausted of nutrients and can no longer produce materials, farmers are forced to expand their agricultural fields through deforestation.

If both natural and synthetic materials are environmentally detrimental, how do we shop sustainably?

Organic Cotton vs Conventional Cotton

Conventionally-grown cotton is one of the most widely used fabrics in the world, with approximately half of all textiles containing cotton. However, despite being a natural material, cotton has a massive impact on the environment.

Not only does conventionally-grown cotton result in enormous amounts of water consumption, but it also requires heavy fertilization and pesticides. These chemicals create harmful runoff in the soil and water that contaminate local water sources, resulting in eutrophication that further exacerbates environmental degradation and water scarcity.

On the flip side, organic farming bans the use of artificial fertilizers and toxic pesticides. As a result, organically-grown cotton results in significantly less pollutant runoff. This also lowers its contribution to climate change by 46%, as pesticides contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions.

Due to the lack of chemical fertilizers, organic cotton uses an average of 91% less water than traditionally grown cotton. The majority of organically grown cotton is rainfed, which allows farmers to preserve local water sources. Not only does this help preserve water, but it leads to healthier soils with higher water retention, aiding in long-term soil health and lower water consumption.

Finding Sustainable Clothes

As the fashion industry moves towards more sustainable products, it can be difficult to distinguish between genuinely sustainable clothing and brands that greenwash through appearing to be environmentally conscious without meaningfully reducing their impact. As consumers, it’s important to not only make environmentally conscious decisions, but also support companies pushing us towards a greener future.

Look out for brands that use certified organic cotton, as well as other natural materials cultivated through sustainable practices. Sustainably made clothing will be certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and will be labeled as such.

Additionally, look for brands that are verified by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index. This measurement tool helps companies evaluate their environmental impact and ensure sustainable and ethical practices throughout their supply chain.

Our personal clothing choices won’t single handedly change environmental sustainability, but by making small eco-conscious choices with our wardrobe we can help move the garment industry into a more sustainable future.