The ‘plastic-free’ trend is not quite as green or clean as it appears

Fashion garments made from natural fibers undergo multiple transformations, with the majority of them relying on advanced chemical manipulation and intensive manufacturing.

While it is assumed that they biodegrade, a few studies have disputed the extent of their decomposition. In certain environments, natural fibers may be preserved for centuries or even millennia. When fibers degrade , they can release chemicals into the environment, such as dyes.

Natural textile fibers have often been found in similar concentrations to their plastic counterparts in environmental samples. But, their environmental impact is not well understood.

Natural fibers, therefore, will pose the same threat to human health as plastic fibers until they biodegrade. And unlike plastic fibers, the interaction between natural fibers with common chemicals, pollutants, and pathogens is not fully understood.

The structure of natural and plastic fibers is similar. These fibers, from left to right, are polyester, wool, and cotton. The author provided

Fashion’s environmental impact

Fashion’s marketing of the use of alternative fibers is problematic within this scientific context. Despite their good intentions, efforts to find alternatives for plastic fibers can have a real impact on the environment.

Asserting that “natural” products can solve all of these problems simplifies our current environmental crisis. Promoting different fibres without understanding their environmental implications suggests a dishonest engagement with environmental action. This encourages “superficial” green purchasing, which exploits the culture of plastic anxiety. The message is simple: Buy differently, but also buy “better”. But don’t stop purchasing.

But the “better,” “alternative”, and “alternative fashion” products are not free of complex social and environment injustices. Cotton is grown in many countries that have little legislation to protect the environment or human health.

The Aral Sea is at a record low level because of intensive irrigation in the deserts of the western Soviet Union. Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

This is due to the irrigation that has been done on cotton fields, which have dried up the rivers feeding the Aral Sea. The region’s fishing industry has been devastated by this, which has decimated biodiversity. In addition, the processing of natural fibers into clothing is a major cause of chemical pollution. Factory wastewater is often discharged directly into freshwater systems without any treatment.

Organic Cotton and Woolmark are the two most popular natural fabric types. The certified fibres are a welcome material change. They introduce to the market new fibres with codified and improved production standards. They still emit fibrous particles to the environment during their lifetime.

More generally, the low wages, dangerous working conditions and environmental degradation that are a part of fashion show us how our fashion purchases can be affordable, but they come at a price.

This increased availability of “natural” fashion items does not fundamentally challenge industry’s most damaging logic – rapid, continuous consumption and quick routine discard. It entrenches the commodified, purchaseable form of environmental action: “buying organic”. This stops us from reassessing the “business as usual” of fast fashion.

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