Ask Ignacio: The Strings that Bind

June 2013

Are natural fibers like cotton actually more sustainable than synthetic fibers like polyester?

Dr. (V)(;,;)(V)

So, a different website/blog might say, "would you rather wear a plant or petroleum?" But that would be an appeal to nature, which doesn't fly here.

Let us delve, my friends, like the great communicators of old!

The Origin Story

Cotton is a plant, and we in the sustainability world tend to like plants. Do you like breathing? Do you like food? Eat a honeycrisp apple, it's delicious.

Polyester is a plastic, meaning made of oil. You can imagine how environmentalists feel about that, but it's alright. Plastics are very useful materials, I just wouldn't make something that is supposed to last 20 minutes out of something that lasts forever.

Cotton seems to be pulling ahead, but lets add the farming practices into the mix.

Cotton is the dirtiest crop in the world! Cotton crops cover 2% of all agricultural land and uses 16% of all pesticides.

Three of the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health as determined by the World Health Organization are among the top 10 most commonly used in cotton production. All but one of the remaining seven are classified as moderately to highly hazardous.

One of these chemicals, Aldicarb,the second best-selling insecticide for cotton crops and most acutely poisonous to humans, which can kill someone with just one drop absorbed through the skin, is nonetheless still used in 25 countries and the US, where 16 states have reported it in their groundwater. Fun!!!

One pound of raw cotton (enough for a t-shirt) requires 1/3 pound of fertilizer, which means more greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. All in all, lots of bad stuff are required just to grow cotton.


Back to the synthetic fibers. Polyester refers to a range of polymers, and includes the plastic PET (same as plastic bottles). This means polyester is not compostable, but easily recyclable. Also it uses significantly less water to process than cotton.

OK, you don't have all day to read this, so I'm just going to tell you what you want to know. You have to wear something. Regardless of how you feel about nudity, Chicago gets mighty cold.

What to Wear

Due to the many differences between cotton and polyester production, I have to say they are sustainable in very different ways. However, hope is not lost!

Organic cotton eliminates both the pesticide and the synthetic fertilizer part of the equation. It will also feel nice, not wearing death on your skin.

Recycled polyester is durable and doesn't require drilling for more oil. You like wearing recycling, everyone loves recycling. Recycle everywhere you go.

There you go, two good options!

I hope that answers your questions.

Woop woop woop,