172 Would We Be Naked Without Synthetic Fabrics?

Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast

Episode 172

Would We Be Naked Without Synthetic Fabrics?


What exactly is a Spinning Jennie? Have you even heard of it? Few people these days own a sewing machine but surely we all have a concept of what it is and what it does. And even though not all of us have taken a chemistry class, we have some concept of a chemical concoction? But do you know what all of these things have in common? 

Certainly there can be no argument that advances in technology have dramatically changed our lives. New technology affects every single aspect of what we do, how we do it, and even right down to the clothes that we wear. But have you ever given any thought to what your clothes are actually made of. Are they natural, artificial, or synthetic? Do you even know the difference? 

So stay tuned for E Would We Be Naked Without Synthetic Fabrics?

Welcome back everyone to the Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast. This is your host Patrick and this is E172 which is called Would We Be Naked Without Synthetic Fabrics? 

Good News Story of the Week

Conservationists in the United States just won a great victory in the state of Alabama. Most everyone has heard of the Everglades and perhaps the Great Dismal Swamp, but few people have heard of “America’s Amazon.” It is an area of land also known as the Land Between the Rivers because it lies where the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers meet.  It is 8,000 acres of pristine wetlands and was just sold for $15 million USD for the purpose of conservation. 

The area is filled with lakes, creeks, and swamps and is home to so many species that is ranks as one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, ranking right up there with the Amazon. 

The former owners were made an offer from a timber and logging company and decided to sell it for conservation instead. 

Sustainability Question of the Week

What is the difference between a circular economy and a green economy?


While most of us may have never heard of a spinning Jennie, I think most of us have heard about the Industrial Revolution. This was a period of time where expanding technology and the invention of new machines forever changed our lives. Just about every aspect of manufacturing and industry was affected by advances in technology. The textile industry was no acceptation. 

The invention of the flying shuttle, the spinning frame and the cotton gin all began to change how textiles were manufactured.  However, it was the invention of the Spinning Jennie by James Hargreaves that is credited for advancing the textile industry to factory production. 

Prior to this the production of cloth from raw materials was a cottage based industry. All of this work was done within people’s homes and often the entire family was involved. The children would clean the raw materials, the woman would spin the materials into thread and yarn and the men would do the weaving. 

The challenge at the time was that this whole process was time consuming. There was often a huge gap between supply and demand. Raw materials had to be dropped off at numerous locations where the textiles were then made by hand. The finished goods then had to be picked up and transported to the merchant. 

The invention of the flying shuttle and the power loom made it possible to weave materials faster. But the spinning of the raw materials into threads and yarn was still done by hand one thread at a time and the spinners were unable to keep up with the increased demand for threads. 

James Hargreaves was eventually inspired to invent the Spinning Jennie, which used eight different spindles powered by a single wheel. This enabled one spinster to simultaneously produce eight threads in the same amount of time it took to produce one. Thus, the textile industry was moved from the cottage to the factory floor thanks to the Industrial Revolution. 

Literally for centuries natural and plant-based fibers were used to make textiles. Things such as cotton, flax, jute, hemp, wool, and silk were common. Eventually artificial fibers were made from natural products.  In 1891 the first man-made fabric, which was an artificial silk, was made from a natural cellulose derived from wood pulp or cotton rags. By 1910 artificial silk was being produced commercially in the United States. 

In 1924 and artificial silk called rayon was used for clothing, home furnishings as well as in industry. In the 1930s yarn was actually made from glass fibers. In 1935 Dupont created the first synthetic fiber, which was nylon. Initially nylon was used in hosiery. But during World War II it was used exclusively for parachutes and airplane tires. 

In 1941 the first polyester fiber was produced and Dupont invents Orlon, with was the first acrylic fiber. By 1948 textiles were the second largest industry in the United States. By 1950 acrylic fibers and Dacron  polyester became the first wash and wear clothing. In 1959 Dupont invents spandex.  By 1968 the consumption of synthetic fibers surpassed natural fibers for the first time. 

So you see what Spinning Jennies, sewing machines, and chemical concoctions all have in common is the clothes that you wear.  We started with natural fibers. We then moved to artificial fibers which are produced from natural products. Then we finally advanced to synthetic fibers which are made by forcing crude-oil-based plastic polymers through tiny holes to create thread which is then twisted into yarn that is used to make clothing. Synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex, and lycra now make up 60% of the global production of fiber for clothing.

So we have moved from Spinning Jennies to sewing machines to chemical concoctions. 

Now to be fair, synthetic fibers do have a lot of offer. They are often easier to produce, less expensive and function better compared to natural products. They are strong, durable, absorb less water, quick drying, moth and insect resistant, and do not shrink. All of these advantages make these products very consumer friendly so what is there to complain about. 

Well, as with most things we do, there are advantages and disadvantages. And while reviewing some articles on this topic, I actually came across one source that stated one of the advantages to synthetics is that it actually saved our trees and animals because they are made up of chemicals. Well, in a few more minutes you will see just how laughable that really is because there is a dark side to this type of fashion industry. 

Environmental Impact


Of all the industries that use water for manufacturing, the fashion industry is the second largest consumer of fresh water. Textile dyeing is also the world’s second largest polluter of fresh water. The water that is left over from the dying process of often dumped into streams and rivers. The end result of harm to wildlife, loss of biodiversity, land degradation and pollution. 


The production of plastic fibers into textiles is energy intensive, requires large amounts of petroleum, and releases volatile particulate matter and acids such as hydrogen chloride. 

Carbon Emissions

The fashion industry is also a major contributor toward the climate crisis. It is responsible for as much as 10% of global carbon emissions.

Micro-plastics pollution

Clothing that uses fibers such as polyester, nylon and acrylic takes hundreds of years to degrade. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that nearly 35% of the micro plastics in the ocean comes from the laundering of synthetic textiles. It is estimated that there are 500,000 tons of micro fibers released into the oceans every year which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. 

Social Impact

Nearly 80% of all apparel is made my young women between the ages of 18 and 24. Countries that common produce large amounts of our textiles, such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Vietnam, and Bangladesh often use forced child labor in their factories. Often times the rapid production needed to maximize profits supersedes human welfare. 

Where are We Going?

That leaves the question of where are we actually going? The consumption of synthetic textiles has increased by 400% over the last 20 years. Synthetic fibers have do doubt revolutionized the fashion industry. But we are paying for it by creating a significant amount of waste and pollution, reduced air quality, water contamination with devastating environmental effects. Besides the environmental exploitation that results in cheap prices, we also have to consider the human exploitation in low-income countries where factories are often based. 

So the question becomes how do we change this narrative from overconsumption to something that embraces sustainability and social justice? What if we no longer produced synthetic fabrics? Do we have acceptable alternatives? Would we be naked without synthetic fabrics? 

Sustainable and Natural Alternatives to Synthetic Fabrics

As it turns out, there are several sustainable and natural alternatives to synthetic fabrics. 

Organic Cotton

While conventional cotton is not necessarily sustainable, organic cotton is an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic fabrics. It is cultivated without chemicals or pesticides. Production actually helps to maintain soil fertility. It is lightweight, anti-allergenic, and has natural moisture wicking properties. It is also affordable and biodegradable. 

Also, recycled cotton is just about as ethical as you can get. 


Hemp is also another environmentally friendly option. It has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. It is a great sustainable option because of how little water it uses during cultivation and harvest. 

It is stronger than cotton, warm, breathable, UV resistant, antibacterial, and wicks moisture. It actually gets softer when you wash it. 


Linen happens to be one of the biggest developments in the sustainable fabric world. It is made from the hairs of the flax plant. It requires very little water for cultivation which makes it a great alternative to cotton. Linen is highly breathable and absorbable. It is also thicker than cotton and consequently it is stronger and more durable. It is a great option for sportswear. 


Bamboo fabric is also another sustainable option. It is one of the most environmentally friendly, fasting growing plants in the world. It maintains soil healthy, reduces erosion, and pesticides are not necessary for cultivation. Bamboo fabric is durable, breathable, moisture wicking and biodegradable. 

Banana Fabric

Banana fabric is also another up and coming sustainable option. Banana fiber was previously considered waste material. But in recent years the commercial values has increased and it is now used for multiple applications including tea bags, car tires, currency notes and clothing. The recent popularity has to do with the fact that this fiber if extremely durable. 




Tencel is also another up and coming fiber which you have likely never heard of. It is also known as Eucalyptus fabric and is very similar to Rayon.  It is made from cellulose wood pulp. It has moisture wicking properties, is extremely soft, light weight and versatile. It is also 50% more absorbent than cotton. Due to the fact that it is extremely soft it works great for active wear. 

So obviously we have alternatives to synthetic fabrics. But, when you are shopping for clothing, how do you actually tell if that clothing is environmentally friendly? 

Materials make a difference: Look for clothing made from the sustainable options mentioned above. These clothing options have relatively little carbon footprint relative to synthetics. 

Certifications: Look for certification labels such as Global Organic Textile Standard and Fair Trade

Sustainable Manufacturing: Do some research into a brand before you buy. Transparency is key to a company’s sustainable practices as they are willing to give you insights into their manufacturing practices. 

Durability and Quality: Any clothing that is truly sustainable should be designed to withstand some wear and tear. You may pay more for it up front but you will end up buying less clothing. 

Locally produced: Brands that are committed to sustainability is also committed to reduce their environment footprint. 

But besides all of this there are other ways to reduce your environmental impact associated with your wardrobe. You can do things such as:

-Repair as much as you can before you buy something new.

-Instead of throwing something away, donate, sell, recycle, or up-cycle anything that you don’t wear. 

-Buy from second hand shops. 

-Buy better quality clothing so that you buy less clothing. 

-Simplify your wardrobe and buy fewer clothes overall. 

-Instead of following the latest trend, buy clothing that fits your lifestyle. 



To kind of start wrapping things up here,  occasionally someone will come up to the cabin and cannot understand how I do certain things. For example, some people cannot understand how I live without a microwave, how I cook on top of the wood stove, how I survive solely on renewable energy. It always makes me laugh because we get so stuck in our ways that we forget there might actually be a different or even better way to do things. 

The same is true with our clothing. We have become so accustomed to inexpensive synthetic fabrics that we never think that there just might be a better choice, a more sustainable choice. If you were told that you could no longer purchase such fabrics your first thought might me, “Well am I supposed to just run around naked?”  

Furthermore, we never stop to think that our choice of clothing has a significant social and environmental impact. Every decision we make influences the live of people, animals and the health of our planet. The fashion industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet not to mention the chemicals that are retained in the clothing can actually be absorbed through your skin. 

Choosing eco-friendly clothing is a responsible choice that is just one more thing we can do to safe guard the health of our planet. By going eco-friendly you are supporting brands and practices that prioritize sustainability. Our choices do make changes and sustainable textiles are easily available. 

In closing I want to take a minute and answer the sustainability question of the week. 

What is the difference between a circular economy and a green economy? 


A circular economy focuses on the principles of producing durable recyclable products and last much longer. In that respect, the circular economy tackles climate change, and other global challenges such as biodiversity loss, waste production and pollution by decoupling economic growth from the consumption of finite resources. 


The green economy is an economic model  

that prioritizes sustainability and focuses on reducing environmental impact while supporting economic growth and social well-being. This model also reduces environmental degradation and pollution. But it also create new jobs, promotes sustainable consumption and increases social equity and well-being.


So the combination of these two models gives up a vision for a sustainable future. 


I want to wrap up this episode with a just one statement. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So, don’t you think it’s time to make some different choices. Just something to think about until next week.  


I hope you will join me again next week. Until then, always remember to live sustainably because this is how we build a better future. 





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The Ethical Alternatives to Polyester Fast Fashion

Sustainable Synthetic Fabrics


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