Natural vs Synthetic Fashion Materials: Sustainability Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


Have you ever wondered about the differences between fashion pieces made from natural materials as opposed to those made from synthetic ones? If you pick up a piece of clothing, you'll usually find a tag tucked away somewhere that tells you what the item is made from. Whether it's 100% cotton or a blend of polyester and nylon, the materials used play a significant role in the strengths and weaknesses of natural vs synthetic fashion materials. So, let's get into it and learn more!

What are natural materials?

Natural materials, as the name suggests, come from nature. They're derived from plants and animals, and they've been used to make clothes for thousands of years. Some examples of natural materials include:

  • Cotton: This is a soft, fluffy fiber that grows in a boll (or protective case) around the seeds of cotton plants. It's one of the oldest and most commonly used natural materials.
  • Wool: Wool comes from sheep. It's warm, resilient, and excellent for winter clothing.
  • Silk: This luxurious material comes from the cocoons of silkworms. It's lightweight, strong, and has a beautiful sheen.
  • Linen: Made from the fibers of the flax plant, linen is a light and breathable material.

Each of these materials has its own unique properties, contributing to the strengths and weaknesses of natural vs synthetic fashion materials. For instance, cotton is breathable and comfortable but can shrink in the wash. Similarly, wool is warm and durable, but it can be itchy and requires careful washing. But aside from the practical aspects, there's another important factor to consider—the sustainability of these materials. But we'll get into that a bit later. For now, let's switch gears and talk about synthetic materials.

What are synthetic materials?

Unlike their natural counterparts, synthetic materials don't come directly from nature. Instead, they're man-made, often through complex chemical processes. They're designed to mimic the properties of natural materials, but they also have their own unique qualities. Here are some common examples:

  • Polyester: This is a type of plastic that's often used to make clothes. It's durable, wrinkle-resistant, and holds its color well.
  • Nylon: Nylon is another type of plastic. It's strong, elastic, and resistant to wear and tear. You'll often find it in sportswear and outdoor gear.
  • Acrylic: This is a lightweight, soft material that's often used as a cheaper alternative to wool.
  • Spandex: Known for its exceptional elasticity, spandex is often used in athletic wear and form-fitting clothes.

When considering the strengths and weaknesses of natural vs synthetic fashion materials, synthetic materials offer some advantages. For instance, polyester and nylon are highly durable and easy to care for. Acrylic can give you the warmth of wool without the itchiness or high price tag. And spandex can stretch to fit your body perfectly, then bounce back to its original shape. However, synthetic materials also have their downsides, including environmental concerns that we'll discuss in a later section. But first, let's compare natural and synthetic materials side by side.

Comparison of natural and synthetic materials

Now that we've talked about what natural and synthetic materials are, let's get into the nitty-gritty: the strengths and weaknesses of natural vs synthetic fashion materials. While both kinds of materials have their pros and cons, it's the specific context that often determines which one comes out on top.

Durability: Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon tend to be more durable than natural materials. They resist wear and tear, making them great for items that need to withstand a lot of use. But if you're looking for a soft, luxurious feel, natural materials like silk and cashmere are hard to beat.

Care: Synthetic materials often win in the easy-care category. You can usually machine-wash them without worrying about shrinkage or damage. On the other hand, many natural materials require special care to keep them looking their best.

Comfort: Natural materials like cotton and wool tend to be more breathable than synthetic materials, making them a good choice for hot weather or for people with sensitive skin. But synthetic materials can be engineered for specific properties, such as moisture-wicking for athletic wear.

Environmental Impact: This one is a bit complicated. Natural materials come from renewable resources, but they can have a high environmental impact in terms of water use and pollution. Synthetic materials can be more environmentally friendly to produce, but they're made from non-renewable resources and can be difficult to recycle.

So, as you can see, there's no clear winner in the battle of natural vs synthetic. It depends on what you value most in your clothes. In the next sections, we will be delving deeper into the pros and cons of each material type.

Pros and cons of natural materials

Let's take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of natural fashion materials. You might find that these characteristics tip the scales one way or another for you.


  • Comfort: Natural materials like cotton and wool are breathable and soft to the touch. They can keep you cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather—just like they do for the plants and animals they come from.
  • Renewability: Natural materials come from resources that can regrow or reproduce. This means that, in theory, we will never run out of these materials as long as we manage the resources responsibly.
  • Biodegradability: At the end of their life, natural materials can decompose and return to nature. This reduces waste and pollution in our landfills and oceans.


  • Durability: Natural materials can wear out faster than synthetic ones. For example, cotton can tear easily, and wool can shrink or felt if not cared for properly.
  • Care: Many natural materials require special care like hand-washing or dry-cleaning. This can be a hassle and also use more water and energy than machine-washing.
  • Environmental Impact: While natural materials are renewable, they can be resource-intensive to produce. For example, cotton requires a lot of water to grow, and wool production can contribute to overgrazing and land degradation.

As you can see, natural materials have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. In the end, it's about choosing the right material for the right situation—and, of course, your personal preference plays a big role too.

Pros and cons of synthetic materials

Now that we've explored the strengths and weaknesses of natural materials, let's shift our focus to synthetic ones. Here's what you should know.


  • Durability: Synthetic materials, like polyester or nylon, tend to be more durable than natural ones. They resist wear and tear, making them ideal for items like sportswear and outdoor clothing.
  • Care: Synthetic materials are generally easier to care for than natural ones. Most can be machine-washed and dried without worrying about shrinking or felting.
  • Consistency: Unlike natural materials, which can vary in quality, synthetic materials are consistent. This means you know exactly what you're getting every time.


  • Comfort: Synthetic materials may not be as comfortable as natural ones. They can feel less breathable and may cause skin irritation for some people.
  • Environmental Impact: Synthetic materials are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Plus, they take hundreds of years to break down in the environment, contributing to pollution.
  • Energy Consumption: The production of synthetic materials requires a lot of energy. This contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of synthetic fashion materials can help you make more informed decisions about your clothing purchases. Remember, the best choice depends on your specific needs and values.

Sustainability of natural materials

Let's now turn our attention to the sustainability of natural materials. Sustainability is all about reducing our impact on the planet, and the materials we choose to wear can play a big part in that.

Cotton: This is one of the most used natural materials in fashion. But did you know that it can take up to 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton needed for just one t-shirt? That's a lot of water! Plus, cotton farming often uses harmful pesticides that can damage the environment and harm wildlife.

Wool: Wool is renewable, biodegradable, and requires less energy to produce than synthetic materials. But, the process of raising sheep for wool can also contribute to soil degradation and water pollution.

Silk: While silk is a natural, biodegradable material, the process of making it is not so eco-friendly. Silk production involves boiling silkworm cocoons, which is not only cruel to the silkworms but also consumes a significant amount of energy.

So, while natural materials may seem like the greener choice at first glance, the reality is more complex. It's important to consider not just the material itself, but also how it's produced and the impact that has on our planet. Remember, every choice we make can help or harm the environment. So, next time you're shopping for a new outfit, take a moment to think about the materials you're choosing.

Sustainability of synthetic materials

Moving on from natural materials, let's have a chat about synthetic materials. Are they a sustainable option? Well, it's not a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer.

Polyester: As the most widely used synthetic fiber, polyester is appreciated for its durability and low cost. But it's made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and its production process releases harmful emissions. Not to mention, washing polyester clothes can lead to microplastics entering our waterways.

Nylon: Similar to polyester, nylon is strong and resistant, which makes it popular for sportswear. However, its production is energy-intensive and releases a potent greenhouse gas — nitrous oxide. So, nylon's environmental footprint is rather large.

Acrylic: Often used as a wool substitute, acrylic is soft and warm. But it's also made from fossil fuels and requires a great deal of energy to produce. And, like polyester, it can shed microplastics when washed.

So, what's the takeaway here? While synthetic materials have their strengths and weaknesses, their production processes often have significant environmental impacts. But remember, it's not just about the materials themselves, but also about how we use and care for them. For example, washing clothes less frequently and at lower temperatures can reduce the release of microplastics. Sustainability isn't just a matter of choosing the "right" materials — it's about making mindful decisions at every step.

How to choose sustainable fashion materials

So, you're on board with making more sustainable fashion choices? That's fantastic! But it can be tough to know where to start, right? After all, we've seen that both natural and synthetic materials have their strengths and weaknesses. Well, here are a few pointers to help you navigate the world of sustainable fashion materials.

1. Do Your Homework: Research brands and materials before you buy. Some brands are more transparent about their sustainability practices than others. Look for information about the materials they use, their manufacturing processes, and their stance on issues like fair trade and workers' rights.

2. Quality Over Quantity: It's easy to get sucked into the cycle of fast fashion, where clothes are cheap and disposable. But buying high-quality items that will last longer can be a more sustainable choice in the long run. Plus, it can reduce the demand for new materials and the energy needed to produce them.

3. Care for Your Clothes: Did you know that a lot of a garment's environmental impact comes from how you care for it? Washing clothes less often, using cold water, and air-drying can all help to reduce this impact. And, as we mentioned earlier, it can help to limit the release of microplastics from synthetic materials.

Remember, there's no such thing as a perfect sustainable material. But by being informed and mindful, you can make fashion choices that are better for the planet. So, next time you're shopping, don't just consider the strengths and weaknesses of natural vs synthetic fashion materials, but also how you plan to use and care for them. It's a small change that can make a big difference!

If you're passionate about sustainability in fashion and want to explore more about the topic, we recommend checking out Aaron J Hurley's workshop, 'Intro To The Fashion Industry: The Untraditional Route.' This workshop not only discusses the importance of sustainable materials in the fashion industry but also offers insights on how to take an unconventional approach to finding success in the world of fashion.