Guest blog: Why “natural” isn’t always sustainable

Aug. 26, 2020, 6 a.m. • Gittemary Johansen

Guest blog: Why “natural” isn’t always sustainable

This is a Guest Blog by Gittemary Johansen a full-time sustainability advocate, writer, and online course creator. Her online course is the perfect starting point for your sustainable journey. With this guest blog, you'll get a taste of what Gittemary has to offer. Her course is now available for only 19€. Read more about Gittemary and her course below the blog.

Why “natural” isn’t always sustainable

Living sustainably always means living naturally. Right? I think there is more to that than natural = good and unnatural = bad, because like with every complex issue, it’s never that simple and we never get a cheat sheet for living life. I want to talk about some of the main issues with natural fibres and how an argument for their sustainability factor comes from the sole fact that they are naturally derived. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of things that are natural are also sustainable, like growing organic vegetables in your backyard rather than buying imported goods from halfway around that world. That’s definitely more sustainable. But in many other instances, it’s not as easy to point towards the most sustainable choice and that’s why I’ll be giving it a go (or at least I’ll try) to shed some light on some of the issues with natural fibres. 

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When a company who makes cotton t-shirts has to advertise their products, it is very likely that they’ll brand them as “natural”, because cotton is a material naturally derived from plants. And although there are a lot of benefits to cotton such as the ability to compost, or not release microplastic the way synthetic fabrics like polyester will when washed or worn. But that does not mean that everything about cotton is a-okay. The cotton industry is the biggest consumer of pesticides and insecticides in the world. When cotton is processed into different clothes a lot of chemicals are used to either dye, stress, and wash the material into the desired look. Especially in fast fashion, all of these practices lead to water pollution, hazardous working environments, loss of biodiversity and much more. So, if the production of a cotton shirt is causing harm in the supply chain, is it really sustainable? Better yet, can we even still call it natural? And is there a better way to make clothes?

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I think we have to start with looking at how we produce clothes before even diving into whether or not it is natural (and what that even means today), especially before we prescribe any sustainable value to it. In my opinion, whether or not a material is natural becomes completely obsolete if the garment is produced in a sweatshop. In that sense “natural” can be used as a marketing tool, and a cheap one at that, to refocus the attention of the consumers from complex questions like “which chemicals were used to make this colour” and “how does your factory manage toxins and waste water?” “Are you paying your workers fair wages”, and “How many clothes do you throw away?” to “natural means sustainable, please don’t ask any more questions.” 

On the other hand, let’s talk about polyester. Polyester is a synthetic material derived from petroleum, aka plastic. Producing polyester releases both massive amounts of CO2 and methane (a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2). Polyester is as unnatural as it comes, and what a coincidence, it is also super unsustainable. When we wear and wash our polyester clothes, they release microplastics. In fact, one laundry load of polyester clothes can release over 20,000 individual pieces of microplastic. These pieces are so small that most filters won’t pick them up, so they will automatically end up in oceans and river, affecting both animals and humans. Polyester is one of the most utilised materials in the clothing industry, along with cotton, and it is used especially in fast fashion because it’s cheap to make. But for the consumer it’s a hassle. Polyester is impossible to recycle, hard to repair and, as a result, most discarded clothes simply end up in landfills where they won’t ever biodegrade. 

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So is that all there is, synthetic and natural fabrics? Well not quite. 

Tencel® is probably a name you’ve heard if you’re interested in the latest 411 of eco fashion materials. There are several interesting things about this material. First of all, it is not a material at all. It’s a brand. The material is a type of lyocell and the kind we refer to as Tencel® is owned by Lenzing Fibers in Austria. Where we have clear natural fibres like cotton, hemp, wool etc. and clear synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon, Tencel® falls somewhere in between those two categories. It is made from processed wood pulp and it comes with several environmental benefits. For instance, lyocell requires less resources and water to produce in contrast to cotton, and it can actually be composted, in contrast to petrochemical fibres like polyester. 

In reality, a “natural” product does not necessarily translate to a sustainable product, and while there are new technologies optimizing the clothing industry, third-party certifications that ensure ethical production of organic cotton, and microplastic filtration bags, the best thing consumers can do to make sure that their clothes are sustainable, no matter the material, is by not overconsuming and only buying what they need. The main reason why the fashion and clothing industry is in the top five most polluting industries in the world is because fast fashion cooperations thrive on the overconsumption of clothes. If we simply use what we have, repair it or upcycle it when it’s broken, buy second hand, simply buy what we need and repurpose outfits over and over, supporting truly sustainable brands and investing in fair labour and quality, then our entire wardrobe will qualify as sustainable, no matter the material. 

 

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Gittemary Johansen is a full-time sustainability advocate, writer, and online course creator. She has a degree in English and Culture, but has been working in sustainability and activism for over five years. Gittemary uses her social media platforms to show how she lives her daily life as a zero waster and creates easy-to-follow content that makes it easy for you to do the same. She also works closely with many organizations and NGOs to advocate for social issues and to push the sustainable agenda in the political discourse. In her online Sustainable Living course with the International Open Academy, Gittemary dismantles myths about plastic and pollution, provides resources for finding the facts on companies claiming to be sustainable, and deconstructs sustainability in a manner that makes it simpler for the everyday consumer to make green transitions.

 

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