Some companies use the term “natural fabric” for apparel or linens as a means of green-washing products that may be laden with pesticides, chemicals or other yucky stuff that is by no means sustainable or eco-friendly. There’s no legal definition of a natural fabric, the way there is of a certified organic fabric, so it’s important to understand what the term implies. People also toss out phrases such as “man-made fabrics” or “synthetic fabrics.” Does that make them bad? And what’s the difference?
Since there’s no legal definition, the following are the most common interpretations of the terms. More importantly, though, understanding what goes into each fabric will help you make a more informed decision about what you choose to put on your body regardless of what it’s called.
It is important to note here that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean eco-friendly; nor does it imply vegan or even chemical-free. It’s simply that the input material is found in nature (as a plant or animal) and can be directly turned into fabric.
Man-made fabrics derived from natural materials include rayon, tencel, modal and pine tree fabrics, all of which are derived from various wood pulps, as well as bamboo, biophyl (derived from corn) and rubber (derived from the Hevea brasiliensis tree).
One caveat is that there are a few cross-over materials. Unprocessed hemp makes a somewhat coarse fabric that stands up extremely well to washing and wear. That makes it fantastic for khakis and jeans. However, it’s a little rough when it comes to shirts. While hemp blended with other materials like cotton or tencel mostly resolves the softness issue, there is also a class of hemp textiles that are processed as a viscose to provide a truly silky finished fabric. Therefore, while natural hemp fabric is more common, there is a hemp viscose fabric which is actually man-made.
There’s also a bamboo linen, which is a linen-like material woven from the leaves of the bamboo tree, which is a natural fabric. It’s much less common than man-made bamboo viscose, though.
There are some completely synthetic fabrics that are eco-friendly. For example, recycled PET is a polyester fleece made from recycled plastic bottles which minimizes land-fill waste and avoids the use of virgin petroleum.
This leads to the next logical question; “Which fabrics are the most eco-friendly?” This is our next topic in the series.