person in wheat field natural materials

Are Natural Fabrics The Most Sustainable Choice?


Theoretically, natural fabrics are better for the planet and more sustainable than synthetic alternatives. However, specialized interpretations of fabrics result in variety.

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Consumers tend to believe that naturally-produced or biodegradable materials tend to be better for the planet and will be more sustainable to use. Though this is not an incorrect way of thinking, the case can differ in certain areas: A very important example shows up as the fabric selection in the fashion industry. Since each type of natural and synthetic fabric has positive and negative aspects in terms of sustainability by itself, the more conscious method to interpret your consumption might be evaluating the fabrics single-handedly.



Led by cotton, wool, and silk; natural fabrics include fur, cashmere, and leather, too. The key feature of these is being biodegradable but one of the common practices that are observed especially in the fast fashion brands is blending those materials with synthetic fabrics. While this blending process eliminates the chance of decomposability to the nature of the natural fabrics, it also destroys the possibility of recycling the synthetic materials, too. There, the biggest strength of natural fabrics draws an important line to protect their advantage to the planet. Natural fabrics are thought to be good for health and more comfortable to wear, due to being breathable and hypoallergenic.


Giving those materials back to the environment does contribute to sustainability practices. However, questions often arise about farming and producing these natural fabrics. A sustainable fashion consultant, Alice Wilby for Independent highlights the cotton’s meteoric use of water – a single pair of jeans requiring between 10,000 to 20,000 gallons of water comes up as the example. The article continues with the chemical use in cotton production, which harms the environment and water resources specifically. In this case, organically grown cotton that is farmed with less use of water shows up in the industry – however, they are not the easiest to reach and not always affordable by huge groups of society. On the other hand, wool and leather sound better to consume since they are easier to biodegrade but the huge methane outputs of their production rise the question of “being better for the environment” again; considering methane is over twenty times stronger than greenhouse gas emissions. According to Balmond for Independent, these fabrics are often produced with the use of toxic chemicals to be preserved.


At the point where natural fabrics are discussed whether they are bad for the environment, cashmere and silk come up with a lot more opponents for their use. Cashmere, as one of the most luxurious fabrics in the industry, is preferred for being comfortable, lightweight, and high-quality in general. Though it is biodegradable like the other natural alternatives, the story behind the production attracts huge displeasure. Cashmere originated from the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, based on harvesting the hair of local goats. While this already fails to suit vegan lifestyles, it has more to do with cruelty. Though goats are not killed to harvest their hair, PETA states that they are pushed to unnatural positions when getting their hair torn out. The sharp combs cause several cuts and health issues, including anxiety in the goats and they are not nurtured by veterinary care. Cashmere goats who are killed with hammers when they are not profiting from the producers anymore also have an important impact on the flora: According to PETA, they have to consume 10% of their body weight in food daily, and that food is the roots of grasses. Considering that a plant will not be able to grow back after its root is eaten by the goats; the desertification of Mongolia at rates of 90% proves that the cashmere production is not only cruel for animals, but also for the flora. Even though ethical cashmere comes up as an option recently, focusing on the goats naturally shedding their wool during the temperature changes; combing the goats during that season is more time-consuming and labor wages are seemingly unfair in the most-cashmere producing regions: China and Mongolia.

© Taisiia Shestopal via Unsplash

Another controversial natural fabric is silk. Similar to cashmere, the story of it has a lot to do with cruelty and labor exploitation in addition to the environmental costs. While the Higg Index puts polyester as the least-climate-impactful between the silk alternatives; EcoCult states that silk farms are evaluated as problematic due to their need to maintain a certain humidity and temperature of 65 degrees. This maintenance costs a lot of energy and affects the climate negatively. The problem with cruelty is based on the mulberry silkworms, which build cocoons during their metamorphosis. Before breaking out of the cocoon, the silkworms inside are killed through ‘stifling’ – which is mostly boiling or steaming them. This process requires approximately 2,500 silkworms to have one pound of silk produced. PETA has been doing several campaigns to fight the silk, however, the opponent voices do rise, too – claiming that there is no clear evidence if the silkworms feel pain and the process of silk production is environment-friendly because the byproducts like mulberry fruit and wood are used and they can be biodegraded to the ecosystem. The problem with labor comes up in two terms: As India and Uzbekistan are the biggest silk producers, child labor is a serious problem in the silk industry in these countries. The second term is gender inequality in the industry. With the scope on India, “A Situational Analysis of Women Workers in Sericulture of West Bengal” published in Munich Personal RePEc Archive proves that women are hired less than men due to prejudicial approaches. For the silk industry, different type of payments for women is observed: Women are often paid in kind or cash and kind wages; when men get fully cash wages. There, the natural fabrics being good for the planet and the society loses its status of being a ‘fact’ but turns into a question through the socio-economic and environmentally-responsible catalyzers.

There the question of “Are synthetic fabrics better for our planet and society?” gains a voice but it has a lot of consequences either. The most popular synthetic fabric, polyester occupies 55 percent of the fashion industry followed by nylon and acrylic. Since these are all petrochemical materials, the dependence of the fashion industry on fossil fuel extraction is highlighted as a concern by various experts. However, synthetic fabrics are recyclable, affordable, and more resistant to water and stain. Considering that the chemicals used in their products cause serious harm to the planet, it is being demonized but it still can offer better solutions occasionally. In general, using recycled synthetics (which are sometimes less impactful on climate) is advised but it is vital to remember that recycling is still not a big case for a lot of brands.


Highlight Image:
© Vitalii Khodzinskyi via Unsplash

+ Words:

Tolga Rahmalaroglu
Luxiders Magazine Contributor



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