A Closer Look at Your Clothing: The Sustainability of Synthetic vs. Natural Fibers

The clothes we wear help us express ourselves to the world. But have you ever taken a closer look at what your clothes are actually made of?

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers have become popular in clothes from everyday wear like casual t-shirts, stretchy jeans, and leggings, to quick-drying and technical sportswear.

The majority of synthetic fibers are made of petroleum, and often undergo refinement processes requiring significant energy, water, and chemicals. Even recycled synthetic fibers like those made from rPET can be problematic, as with every wash, they release harmful microplastics that pollute our waterways.

Unlike natural fibers, synthetic fibers can take hundreds of years to decompose— and considering around 17 million tons of textiles end up in U.S. landfills per year, that’s a problem.

Common synthetic fabrics include:

  • polyester
  • nylon
  • elastane (spandex)
  • acrylic

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers are made from plants and animals, and although more environmentally friendly than synthetic fibers in various ways, they can still carry drawbacks. Clothing made from natural fibers like cotton can use a lot of water to produce, be subject to toxic dye treatments that pollute waterways, and be grown with the use of harmful pesticides. Because synthetic fibers have become so cheap to produce, clothes made of natural fibers are generally more expensive than synthetic fibers. However, clothing made of natural fibers does decompose— and can even be composted, as long as it does not contain toxic dyes or is not blended with synthetic fibers.

Common natural fibers include:

  • cotton
  • linen
  • wool
  • hemp

Whether you’re choosing synthetic or natural fibers, seek clothing that is free from toxic dyes or chemicals, and try to consider its quality, how long you will be able to care for it, and ultimately, what will happen to it after its use.