Synthetic Clothing – Friend or Foe?

My father had this thing where he would only wear 100% cotton clothing. No poly-blend was allowed to touch him. At the time, as a 12-year-old, I rolled my eyes in his general direction. I was way more concerned with how fashionable an item appeared to be than what it was made out of. Somewhat ironic, really, as my definition of ‘fashionable’ included copious amounts of green mascara. Green was my signature colour, don’t you know.

Now, as an adult, I prefer to wear natural fibres myself – cotton and wool, mostly, with the occasional bit of linen thrown in. I bought some bamboo for my kids, as well, before I became convinced that bamboo is not as green as it claims to be. I like the feel of these fibres – the way that cotton breathes, the smell and warmth of wool, the crisp cool-ness of linen. And I have an idea that they are more sustainable than their synthetic cousins. But is that really true? I decided to do some digging to see what I could find.

Cotton, which is probably the most common fiber found in clothing, has a lot going for it. It’s easy to care for, it’s breathable, and because it’s a plant product it’s renewable and biodegradable. But it does have some environmental downsides. For one thing, it takes a lot of water to grow cotton. For another, according to Wikipedia cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop. Conventionally-grown cotton may also use genetically-modified seed. However, it is possible to avoid pesticides and genetically-modified crops by buying organic cotton, which is becoming more widely available.

Wool production has a significant environmental impact as well – from the medications and chemicals used on the sheep (sheep dip, anyone?) to the land cleared for grazing to the waste that sheep produce. Again, you can reduce some of the impact by opting for organic wool, but it will never be eliminated. Whenever we’re talking about harvesting a product for human use, it will affect the world in some way.

This all sounds rather gloomy. So let’s pick on two synthetic fibres now to compare – polyester and acrylic.

Originally, polyester fibre was made from coal, air, water, and petroleum. However, in recent years advancements have been made and increasing volumes of polyester are made from downcycled plastic bags. Either way, polyester is made from petroleum products, which are not renewable or biodegradable. This means that, somehow or another, that fleece blanket that I love so much is going to be around for a long, long time. And it takes a lot of energy to manufacture – about twice as much as cotton for virgin polyester, and 65% more for downcycled polyester.

Nylon is similarly problematic. It is also made from coal, and uses a variety of toxic chemicals in its manufacture. It is not bio-degradable, and there is no infrastructure for recycling (or, more likely, downcycling) it.

Environmental impacts of manufacture aside, there are other issues with synthetic fibres. They don’t breathe well, which is why women are told to wear cotton undergarments. Some people are also allergic to synthetic fibres like acrylic and nylon. Cotton, on the other hand, is hypoallergenic, although some people do find wool irritating. And some synthetic fibres, like PVC, are known to release suspected carcinogens. Plus, frankly, most synthetic fibres just don’t feel as good.

In the end, I think the most environmentally friendly choice is to buy second-hand when possible, and take care of your clothes so that they last you as long as possible. Reducing consumption pretty much always comes out ahead when we’re talking about the environment. Beyond that, I personally will choose natural fibres over synthetic fibres when I can, and opt for cotton and wool that have been produced sustainably. And when I’m done with my clothes, I’ll pass any items that still have some life in them on to my local thrift store to keep them out of the landfill.

What kind of fabrics do you prefer in your clothes? Are you more concerned with fashion, or comfort, or ease of care? And do you consider the environmental impact of your clothing choices? Please share!

I was inspired to write this post for the Green Moms Carnival, which is being hosted by the amazing Diane of Big Green Purse on the 27th. Drop by her blog then for some more thoughts on sustainable clothing choices.

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    Comments

    1. Thank you for all this info. It’s only been recently that I’ve considered the fabrics that I’m wearing as some are just more comfortable than others which has become a lot more important in my old age. The breathability of cotton is especially important to me right now. Linen is always in style but I find it scratchy and not easy to care for (anything that requires ironing would be what I consider not easy to care for :) I just recently purchased three beautiful blouses that are made of polyester which I rip off as soon as I get home and have to wrangle children because they are simply too hot despite being very sheer. However, I love these blouses because of the variety of patterns available, the ease of care and the sheer weighlessness of them. But if we are talking comfort, it’s cotton all the way!
      Tanya’s last post … An incredible journeyMy Profile

    2. I enjoy wearing silk. ( At least, I used to enjoy wearing it – life with small children is messy, after all.) I enjoy my clothes, these days. I determine what I wear based on how I feel in it (fashion & comfort both considered), combined with ease of care. I am not that conscious of the environmental impact of my clothing, but I do prefer to buy “Made in Canada”, I do prefer to wear natural fibres, and I have to be able to launder it at home.

    3. Most of my clothing is cotton. I cannot wear wool next to my skin so I have never owned very much of it. I also find wool far too warm. I like linen but have never owned large amounts of it.

      I do find that in certain items a little bit of polyester goes a long way. I find it keeps certain articles of clothing from loosing its shape. That being said I still prefer 100% cotton and would never buy a polyester shirt for me or my kids. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that as a teenager I worked at a few fast food joints and the shirts they had you wear were made of polyester. I would always end up with exema on my neck. If I had a few days off of work the exema would clear up and then come right back when I had to put the shirt on. My daughter has always had very dry skin and often developed exema so I just never let her wear polyester.

    4. Ack, I’m afraid to click on the bamboo link. Can’t I just stay in denial. Too bad we live in Canada and can’t just go naked (actually in my case it’s by far the kindest thing for everyone that i can’t go naked). I’m always too warm, so wool is out, and I think I wear less clothes than everyone else — can that count as environmentally friendly? I think the bottom line is most of us just have too many clothes. And at this point I won’t wear anything uncomfortable no matter how fabulous it looks.
      allison’s last post … Tarred With the Same BrushMy Profile

    5. Yay thrifting! My fave clothing shops are all thrift – i think the items there have much more character.
      mental note to self: get organised for that week of thrift wardrobe challenge

      As for fabric choices, natural fibres are a must for airline travel (burns less easily in a crash). A small amount of lycra helps with drape and shape. There are some amazing synthetics for warm weather wear.

      re: wool
      Remember, some land best used for sheep grazing. In Scotland land was stratified for agricultural use and sheep found to be excellent for grazing marginal conditions. Although there is a lot of history around that decision (The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil) highland land was actually very poor for growing most crops. There are definitely a lot of issues surrounding commercial farming but, in my opinion, a lot of them are driven by consumer issues and demand for cheaper product in bountiful amounts. Consumer demand has to change, clobbering beleaguered farmers is not useful.

      As my mother would say, you don’t get something for nothing.
      I think recycling, thrifting and ‘consuming’ less are the ways forward (though that’s going to be hard for me with shoes – owch).
      pomomama’s last post … friday forte- the haltMy Profile

    6. Thank you for looking into that. I LOVE wearing cotton and linen. I love how it feels, I love how it smells, I love how after I have worn it out, it still makes great rags! And I love it second hand the best. New cotton feels icky and, until it’s washed a few times, gives my youngest boy a rash. I was aware that it was environmentally terrible to grow, and that helps my preference for second hand as well. You know what you have with second hand. It’s already been through a few wash cycles, so you know how it’s going to hold up. And it’s cheaper, don’t forget about that very important fact, I get very good name brands made of the good quality fabrics for excellent prices at my favourite thrift stores. Of course you have to be willing to be patient, look in the whole rack (mis-shelved sizing happens often) and go regularly. I can’t go looking for something specific. I have to be a hunter-gatherer for my clothing…. waiting for it to be “in season” .

      I have a primarily cotton wardrobe. BUT I have a couple of special occassion outfits that are decidedly synthetic. They hold their colour better, and are the fabrics of choice for travelling as they wrinkle less and dry quickly when sink-washed. Really I do avoid the synthetics though… honestly they make me stink. Something about my body chemistry and acrylic makes the B.O. hit hard. So that pretty much clinches the deal for me. Sometimes I will see something that makes me say “hey yes!” and then read that it’s acrylic and put it back. Life’s too short to be fighting with my own chemistry. It’s cotton all the way for me baby!
      *pol’s last post … bummerMy Profile

      • your skin doesnt breathe in polyester and synthetics its weling up in there breeding bacteria, no wonder it makes you sttink…maybe smell a person sweted in cotton vs polyester see which one stnnks the fastest
        polyester wont absrrb it notice how they make crap rags? lol, it just bounces along inside there breeding bacteria
        hah yes im with you on the cotton onnly and lol see the look of dissapoint,ent when i see something nice and its..argh synthtetic

    7. I don’t really pay that much attention to the fabrics in my clothes… most of it is cotton, though I imagine also most of my pants have some polyester blended into them. A LOT of my son’s clothes are used, which I feel good about (both from the aspect of re-using and saving money).

      I imagine the synthetic fabrics used for everyday clothes are different from this, but whenever people talk about cotton vs synthetics I am reminded of how wonderful some synthetics are for athletic clothes. I used to go hiking a lot with my husband, went backpacking a few times, walked a marathon for breast cancer once. For all those activities high-quality synthetics worked WAY better than cotton– they breathed well, wicked moisture away, dried quickly. Cotton gets wet… and stays wet, can promote blisters, etc.

      So, I guess that’s my piece– for everyday wear cotton and natural fabrics probably are best, but for working out or anything that will involve sweating it’s perhaps not the best choice…
      Marcy’s last post … Wordless Wednesday- a boy and his truckMy Profile

    8. I grew up on cotton and itchy itchy wool. I’ve always had sensitive skin so cotton was always the default. That is UNTIL, I discovered fleece and almost had to be put away for my addiction. I also started playing a lot of sports and cotton simply does not work – gets all soggy and wet. I still like the feel of natural fibres over everything else. And bamboo is sooooooo soft.
      harriet Fancott’s last post … Adopt-A-Better SloganMy Profile

    9. I wear a lot of wool and a lot of denim. My wardrobe seems to be jeans and sweaters. I do wear synthetic materials though, especially yoga wear. I am vegetarian so I try not to buy leather but I have leather bags and shoes from when I was a non-vegetarian. Mostly I go for comfort in dress, but then I am a stay-at-home mom. My idea of dressing up is wearing my nice jeans.
      Nicole’s last post … Back to the germ factoryMy Profile

    10. I wear natural fibers because they feel better, and although I love my woolens in winter, they take forever to dry, and so I have a couple of (polar) fleece sweaters that are very handy in winter for messy jobs like filling the woodshed or gardening etc. Also, I had to replace all my kids’ duvets with synthetic ones which, in the case of bedding, are hypoallergenic (they don’t attract dust mites)
      Francesca’s last post … early this morningMy Profile

    11. most of what we have is cotton..mainly because that is what the family prefers..and so we do avoid shopping for kids stuff at places like zellers and walmart where the stuff just FEELS fake.

      we also have cotton and feather duvets and pillows…the ‘real’ feels better….I am just not sure how environmentally friendly producing it all is.

      We did however re use old pillows and duvets by having them cleaned and recovered….

    12. gosh I feel like a failure when it comes to being environmentally friendly and fashionable. For a long while, I only shopped at second hand stores . . . nowadays I shop at places like Target and TJ Maxx for items that I really really like and hope to hold onto. I’ve assembled my “mom” wardrobe with the hope that items I purchase and invest in will last a while. Though I have considered purchasing organic and envirionmentally friendly clothing, it is discouraging when I see how much these items cost. It is as though being “green” is more of a status symbol that something that everyday people can afford to do.

      I did however love it when relatives picked up the organic line of baby clothes sold at Walmart. Walmart, believe it or not.

    13. Wouldn’t it be nice if there really were clear good and bad choices? Sometimes I feel like I’m going mad trying to make the best decisions. This reminds me of a similar conundrum… leather vs. nylon for shoes/bags etc. It always feel like I’m trying to choose the lesser of the evils when what I really want to do is make a “good” choice, not a “less bad” one. Guess there’s no way to be impact free. For the moment I’ll keep buying used (well, except for underwear) it seems like the “least bad” option out there!

    14. Very informative post, thanks! I tend towards natural stuff unless it is thrifted and then anything goes. How about hemp? Hard to find, but I bought a bunch of hemp fabric (and then dyed it colors myself) and have made a ton of clothes for me and the littles. I understand it is way more green than cotton but I haven’t researched it so could be just hippie hype.

    15. Very interesting post.

      We’re big into thrift store stopping and hand-me-down clothing for the kids. Rarely do we buy new. There are so many benefits to this. And then when we’re done, we pass the clothes along.

      When I think of natural versus synthetic fabrics, one thing I do think of are the diapers I use on my baby. Most are polyester. I have inquired of one of the major manufacturers about this since cloth diapers are supposed to be the greener option thus why are so many not made with sustainable materials? And the answer was polyester takes less energy and water to produce than cotton and lasts longer. So I can see where it would make an excellent option for reusable diapers. We do have some bamboo ones, too, but they hold the moisture against baby’s skin so I prefer not to use those exclusively.

      We do the same thing with our diapers that we do with our cloths. We try to buy used or acquire hand-me-downs. And then we pass along to others when we are done.

      I guess it’s just nice to have options. And honestly, I think best to save the synthetic fabric for those items where it would be most beneficial and not just for fashion purposes.
      T Rex Mom’s last post … Ruminations – What is happening to timeMy Profile

    16. Thanks for the link on bamboo – very interesting.

      What I’m most worried about right now is kids’ pajamas. It’s getting really hard to find pajamas that are treated with flame retardant chemicals.
      Lady M’s last post … Viking ConstructionMy Profile

    17. It would be so useful if we had sustainable standards that actually compared all these fabrics to each other! I’d love to see a comparison of everything: water used to grow vs. to manufacture cotton vs. polyester; energy savings from using polyester made from recycled plastic bags as opposed to making the fabric from scratch; the environmental impact of dousing cotton with pesticides vs. creating nylon from fossil fuels. In the absence of this information, you’re right – buy less, buy used, hold on to what you buy, and buy organic when possible.
      Diane MacEachern’s last post … Bamboo Clothing- Green- or GreenwashedMy Profile

    18. Thank you for this interesting post.. Just writing polyester and acrylic makes me itch. I am right there with your father-cotton all the way, especially when it comes to undergarments-was that too much sharing? Any sort of poly-blend brings back bad memories of middle school and the possibility of being tortured by peers for wearing some sort of polyester pants.

      I cannot tell a lie-I do like fashion. So for me the answer lies in making good, quality purchases -less is more. This doesn’t come easily, so I will continue to practice what I preach. Thanks for all the info.
      Lori Alper’s last post … Twist onto a New Yoga MatMy Profile

    19. I have always been picking about fabric. I’m very sensitive to feel so the softer the better. I like cotton the best and some good quality wool.

      While I don’t buy second hand (not the easiest thing in my small town and I feel guilty since there is so little and I can afford new) but I do buy high quality and take good care of it and donate it things I’m done with which doesn’t happen much. I make rags and other things out of the clothes if they can’t be worn anymore.

      I do buy organic, more sustainable clothing. Yes it costs a lot but since I’m not growing (we hope lol) I don’t NEED clothes often so I can wait for good sales and such. I swear organic cotton is softer!
      Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green’s last post … Product Review- Green IreneMy Profile

    20. I try to be as socially & ecologically sensitive as I can and therefore I rely primarily on local, organic, and second-hand products and I attempt to maximize their longevity. However, I wonder about clothing. Being very active and spending much of my time outdoors, I find my natural fiber clothing to wear out much more quickly than synthetic clothing, fraying and abrading within a couple years while my synthetic clothing continues to live on in good repair. A great example is the Patagonia fleece that I bought in 1997. It has been and continues to be my primary garment each winter since, having survived many days of harsh activities, including routine hiking, skiing, and outdoor working. My nylon shorts have performed likewise. I wonder how these materials compare if longevity is considered. Of course, most probably dispose of their clothing for reasons other than condition, but perhaps synthetic clothing can be a better choice for certain people and/or for certain activities.

    21. what do you do if your company switched from cotton to synthetic cool wick polyester uniform and , wont allow for you to have an alternative choice of a cotton uniform to a synthetic even if you offer to shell out for it. I told them it doesnt breathe ive been caught not wearing my hniform but its been unbearably hot in the, after four hot sunnay days wearing a sweaty plastic bag what do I do meanwhile im surering i have to wear two layers.in this heat and the other hold in the sweat ,ike o nothing else i dont get dry unless i fan furiously im not even allwed to take it off when i stop as it so hot in that thin i cant cool down.
      its as simole as them hiring somone to sew a uniform to thier standards out of cotton instead of polyester(the hakf bamboo.polyester mix isnt any better) and charge me for it i say many times ill glady pay fir it.

      • ..as opposed to when im wearing a cotton ti shirt the sweat just dres up fast and youre cool as soon as you stp instead of the other way roiund i hate it i just want to get out

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