Consumers have become more aware of the environmental impact of our clothing choices. The fashion industry has seen a rise in “green,” “eco” and “sustainable” clothing. This includes an increase in the use of natural fibers, such as wool, hemp, and cotton, as synthetic fabrics, like polyester, acrylic and nylon, have been vilified by some. However, the push to go “natural” obscures a more complex picture. 

Natural fibers in fashion garments are products of multiple transformation processes, most of which are reliant on intensive manufacturing as well as advanced chemical manipulation. While they are presumed to biodegrade, the extent to which they do has been contested by a handful of studies. They can be preserved over centuries and even millennia in certain environments, and where fibers are found to degrade, they may release chemicals, for example from dyes, into the environment.

When they have been found in environmental samples, natural textile fibers are often present in comparable concentrations than their plastic alternatives. Yet, very little is known of their environmental impact. Therefore, until they do biodegrade, natural fibers will present the same physical threat as plastic fibers. And, unlike plastic fibers, the interactions between natural fibers and common chemical pollutants and pathogens are not fully understood.

Fashion’s environmental footprint

It is within this scientific context that fashion’s marketing of alternative fiber use is problematic. However well-intentioned, moves to find alternatives to plastic fibers pose real risks of exacerbating the unknown environmental impacts of non-plastic particles. To assert that all these problems can be resolved by buying “natural” simplifies the environmental crisis we face. To promote different fiber use without fully understanding its environmental ramifications suggests a disingenuous engagement with environmental action. 

It incites “superficial green” purchasing that exploits a culture of plastic anxiety. Their message is clear: buy differently, buy “better,” but do not stop buying. Yet, the “better” and “alternative” fashion products are not without complex social and environmental injustices. Cotton, for example, is widely grown in countries with little legislation protecting the environment and human health.

The drying up of the Aral Sea in central Asia, formally the fourth largest lake in the world, is associated with the irrigation of cotton fields that dry up the rivers that feed it. This has decimated biodiversity and devastated the region’s fishing industry. The processing of natural fibers into garments is also a major source of chemical pollution, where factory wastewaters are discharged into freshwater systems, often with little or no treatment.

Organic cotton and Woolmark wool are perhaps the most well-known natural fabrics being used. Their certified fibers represent a welcomed material change, introducing to the marketplace new fibers that have codified, improved production standards. However, they still contribute fibrous particles into the environment over their lifetime.

More generally, fashion’s systemic low pay, deadly working conditions, and extreme environmental degradation demonstrate that too often our affordable fashion purchases come at a higher price to somebody and somewhere. 

Slow down fast fashion

It is clear then that a radical change to our purchasing habits is required to address fashion’s environmental crisis. A crisis that is not defined by plastic pollution, alone. We must reassess and change our attitudes towards our clothing and reform the whole lifecycle of our garments. This means making differently, buying less and buying secondhand. It also means owning for longer, repurposing, remaking and mending.

Fashion’s role in the plastic pollution problem has contributed to emotive headlines, in which purchasing plastic-fibred clothing has become highly moralized. In buying plastic-fibred garments, consumers are framed complicit in poisoning the oceans and food supply. These limited discourses shift accountability onto the consumer to “buy natural”. However, they do little to equally challenge the environmental and social ills of these natural fibers and the retailers’ responsibilities to them.

The increased availability of these “natural” fashion products therefore fails to fundamentally challenge the industry’s most polluting logic – fast, continual consumption and speedy routine discard. This only entrenches a purchasable, commodified form of environmental action – “buying natural.” It stops the more fundamental reassessment of fast fashion’s “business as usual,” that we must slow.

Thomas Stanton is a PhD researcher in the Geography and Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nottingham. Kieran Phelan is a PhD Researcher in Economic Geography at the University of Nottingham.