Environmental showdown: Natural vs. Synthetic

Line up of mens shoes in a shoe shop.
Who will win…

We all want to do our best for the environment, but when it comes to choosing new shoes and clothes, should you go for leather or faux leather, cotton or polyester, wool or acrylic?

The environmental choice is not always obvious. Natural materials sometimes require large quantities of chemical fertiliser, place huge demands on water resources, and their processing can cause pollution. But synthetics don’t necessarily biodegrade, and can use a lot of energy during production. And then there’s the shipping…

We don’t pretend we can speak for all fibres produced in all countries, but here is a guide that will at least explore some of the things to think about when buying new clobber.

Leather vs. Faux leather

Different shades of leather.
Image source: LuxeMag
Would you wear pleather?

There’s no way around it, modern industrial tanning is bad for the environment. The millions of head of cattle required to satisfy the demand for meat and shoes consume vast quantities of water and feed, and the tanning process itself is poisonous to say the least. Making leather involves a host of heavy metals and highly toxic chemical compounds: chromium, formaldehyde and cyanide to name but three. But are synthetic rubbers and faux leathers really any better?

The answer: yes and no. Some products that recycle fibres from landfill, are almost certainly less polluting than the production of new leather, but what sets real leather apart from substitutes, even biodegradable ones, is longevity. The best mens leather slippers and shoes will last for years, and can be resoled time after time. Our advice – shop around for the best quality product within your budget. The longer your shoes last, the better for the planet.

Cotton vs. Polyester

Different types of material in rolls.
Image source: Avenue Fabrics
Go for quality that lasts.

Cotton is water and fertiliser intensive, requires the use of environmentally damaging herbicides and pesticides, and the various stages of processing mean shipping unfinished materials literally across the globe. It’s not the most environmentally sustainable choice. But then neither is polyester or nylon. Nylon production releases the highly toxic, greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, and both synthetic products are non-biodegradable.

One good thing you can say about synthetics is that production processes are highly efficient, and the recycling of polyester fibres produces a fabric that’s every bit as good as virgin polyester. The same can’t be said of cotton which breaks down as it ages. Again the advice must be to look for the best quality clothing you can afford, because you get what you pay for, and quality lasts, reducing your environmental footprint.

Acrylic vs. Wool

Bundles of different coloured wool.
Image source: Lucy Hearn
The perfect winter material.

Wool is the natural choice for many and with good reason. It has natural antibacterial qualities, and because its composition is very similar to human hair and nails, few people are allergic to it. But just like with leather, the production of wool is not always good for the environment. Sheep need water and food, and produce greenhouse gasses. Washing the wool requires an enormous amount of water, and the chemicals used to bleach and dye it are hazardous.

If you go for acrylic, you’re opting for a fibre that’s oil derived, and though it can be recycled, is otherwise pretty hard to get rid of. It can be buried in landfill but it takes a very long time to decompose. Burn it and cyanide is just one of an array of noxious chemicals released into the environment.

As you can see – whatever your choice of material, natural or synthetic, there’s no easy answer to the question of sustainability. The best advice we can give is to go for quality. That way your clothes, slippers and shoes will last longer, helping you to reduce your impact on the planet.

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