We’ve all stood in the aisle of a grocery store staring at the ingredients list of a food package. Whether we’re looking for high amounts of sugar, trans fats, or genetically modified ingredients, the bottom line is we want to know that what we put into our bodies is good for us, and ideally hasn’t harmed the environment. This same approach can and needs to be taken when shopping for clothing. Much like our food choices, what our clothing is made of matters.
Generally, fabrics are lumped into three categories: synthetic (human-made), plant-based synthetics (natural material that is processed chemically), and natural (derived from nature). Why should we have to choose between them? The reason has little to do with drape, feel, performance, or any other aesthetic property. The reasons that matter most in choosing between synthetic and natural materials are their production, washing of the garment, and its eventual disposal. See the table below.
As can be seen, there are some significant differences between the impact of a synthetic fibre versus a natural one. So, when shopping, what should you be looking for? Aiming for a garment made of a minimum of 80% natural fibres is a worthy goal. It’s true; there is a dizzyingly long list of materials that one might see on a clothing tag these days. And with many names that sound more like comic book villains than fabrics, how are we supposed to know what it all means? Many companies would probably prefer we didn’t know—our ignorance, is their bliss. Let’s change that. Much like with food labels, it has fallen to the consumers to do their research, find the facts, and decide what is right for them. And since you first need to be informed to make an informed decision, you’ll find your materials cheat sheet below.
As you can see, not all materials are created equally, and while the negative effects of synthetic materials are quite obvious, natural fibres are not free from scrutiny either. That said, each of the natural fibres is biodegradable, and not one of them contributes to microplastic pollution. Most importantly, natural fibres can be recycled multiple times. This means that should we choose to recycle them, it creates an opportunity to avoid the use of the land, water, and energy needed to manufacture the same fabrics.
Ultimately, just like reading food labels leads to making a personal choice, as will reading your clothing labels. Let’s face it—the goal to make perfect choices is largely unrealistic; however, the goal to make better choices is well within reach.
What we don’t know can hurt us.