Synthetic Materials the Future? Think Again!

In this guest post Amanda Douglas-McCaig takes a look at the problems of synthetic products. There’s more life in traditional organic fabrics than we might think.

Me drutt and cannon Blaye 2














Amanda, Targets Her Gun on the Gear Industry

The late Alfred Wainwright, arguably our greatest ever walker of the northern fells, did his walking dressed in the same gear for almost his entire life: stout leather boots and wool socks, tweed trousers and jacket, woolly pully, and a mackintosh. He saw no need to constantly change the clothing from year to year and it served him admirably.

The current demand for ever-changing, ever lighter gear is not only emptying our pockets, it is irreversibly damaging our planet. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of the “Save the Planet” brigade. The planet will survive fine. It’s our lives that will be damaged if we do not control our urge to demand innovation at all costs.

Take gear. It’s pretty simple. If the clothing is made from a synthetic, for starters it is unlikely to be biodegradable so must either go in to landfill or be incinerated. How many of you want to live next door to a commercial waste incinerator? Well it’s either that or dig ever more holes in our countryside to accommodate your waste.

It’s not as if synthetic gear is, for the most part, better than traditional clothing. The Vikings sailed to America in open boats wearing wool and leather. Two fellers dressed in Shetland jumpers strode to the top of Everest in 1953. Farmers and countryside workers, and others working outside in all weathers still tend to wear wool and leather (apart from wellies!).

Let’s compare.

Wool. It’s natural, renewable, biodegradable, recyclable. It insulates against both heat and cold. It keeps you warm even when wet. It’s naturally anti-microbial. It doesn’t develop the stink you get with synthetics. It’s fire resistant. It has a very high UV protection factor. It allows rapid moisture vapour transport – i.e. it “breathes”.

Synthetics. Non renewable, unsustainable, nonbiodegadable, non-recyclable for the most part. Smelly in a very short time as the solid fibres provide an ideal breeding ground for the microbes that cause the stink and cannot be washed in hote enough water to kill them. Comparatively low UV protection factor. Flammable. Cold when wet.

I work to a simple rule of thumb. I don’t wear synthetic unless it’s absolutely necessary, so for instance my field pants are synthetic because I want something tough that dries very quickly. However if I could find a pair of closely woven tweed pants I’d wear those in preference. Other than pants, almost everything I wear comes from a renewable, biodegradable resource. I also expect to wear my gear for years, just like the great AW.

“Recycling” I hear you cry! Get real. Unless you’re talking about the sort of recycling that involves one user passing on to another user, commercial recycling is an expensive, energy-hungry, chemically-polluting process. It involves collecting, shipping to China or another under-regulated developing country, processing and re-manufacturing.

“There’s new “natural” fabrics that are eco-friendly now on the market” . Really? Are there? Hope you don’t mean “Bamboo”. This is not a fibre in its own right and it is now illegal to use the term “Bamboo” as if it was. Bambooo is a heavily processed cellulose that is used to make rayon and viscose. The process is anything but eco-friendly, as has been highlighted by the US Federal Trade Commission and in the US it is illegal to describe it as such. By the way, there’s no evidence that it is “anti-microbial” either.

Then there’s this, to quote a friend, “carbon activated coconut bollocks”! Since when was adding even more processing to a synthetic any way environmentally friendly? The carbon element coating the synthetic supposedly traps odours and adds an element of UV protection to the ensuing fabric. What the gear manufacturer doesn’t tell you is that clothing made using this needs drying with a heat source such as a tumble dryer to remove the odour trapped in the carbon. Otherwise the odour stays and builds up. This is not environmentally-friendly in my book.

Plus, the carbon is sourced from coconut husks and the bulk of it is still produced by burning the husks in open pits. This process releases methane and wide range of organic vapours and gases. Approximately 185,000 tonnne per annum (TPA) of coconut shell is converted to 55,000 TPA charcoal by pit charcoal manufacturers in open pits in Sri Lanka alone. No independent evaluation of the environmental impact of the processing from coconut shell to fibre been carried out.

Manufacturers claim that “activated carbon from coconut shells exhibits a greater exothermic reaction than any other known substance, and garments containing Cocona activated carbon show a 45% greater wick ability and significantly higher drying rates than garments offering conventional moisture management technologies”. None of this has been independently substantiated, and empirical evidence from testers suggest that this not in fact the case. In addition, by adding a non-biodegradable oil-based synthetic to merino, this effectively stops the garment being biodegeradable unlike pure merino.

Smelly Stuff

Synthetics companies have been trying for donkey’s years to do something about the stink problem, with little if any success. They try and stop the stink using chemicals such as Triclosan (possibly carcinogenic, and washes off), or impregnated with silver particles (a damaging environmental heavy metal). This process is neither very effective or environmentally friendly. Whilst the argument for and against use of nan0-silver particles rumbles on, the fact is that nano particles can enter the human body – that’s what “nano” implies, and the anti-stink effect of nano-silver treatment of textiles is short-lived anyway

Lighter and Lighter

But I want ultra-lighweight! Wool is so heavy! As one of my squaddy mates says:

” So should you be out there anyway if you’re so weak and feeble? Get a life! Get fit! Why do you think soldiers train with heavy packs? it’s to build stamina to keep them going in heavy terrain for as long as possible.”

For walking in our mountains and fells stamina is essential. And your demand for evermore lightweight gear is simply adding to the environmental burden. The lighter the weight, the less durable it will be and/or the poorer it will perform. so the more you will discard and replace it. Could it be the synthetics manufacturers are feeding this ultralightweight fad as it in their interests for fabrics to be less durable so that you buy more?

Environmental Impact

New Zealand Merino is one of the purest, most ecological fibres. Only environmentally responsible, energy-efficient and safe production methods are used in its manufacture. New Zealand farmers use scientific land management techniques, and pay careful attention to flock rotation, animal welfare and the environment. Sheep are raised in a clean, green, unpolluted climate – natural advantages that enable them to consistently grow superior wool. No internationally banned pesticides are used on New Zealand sheep farms; and since 1993, New Zealand’s already very low pesticide levels have been cut in half, making New Zealand’s sheep one of the world’s greenest animal husbandry systems.

Whilst there has been little research on greenhouse gas emission and carbon footprinting specific to Merino farming and there is no calculator by which farmers can work out their carbon footprint, logically, large-scale extensive farming compares favourably with oil-based synthetics and other more intensive natural fibre productions, such as cotton. What is certain is that wool is more energy-efficient than synthetics.

A Life Cycle Assessment showed that Merino farms use much less energy to produce a kilogram of fibre than synthetic manufacturers, and this includes exporting to the other side of the world. Merino is therefore ahead of synthetics in being environmentally sustainable.

So why should you choose merino gear rather than synthetic?

Apart from merino gives you more comfort, with synthetics it’s hard to know what you are really getting. The EU has now issued a new directive, COMMISSION DELEGATED REGULATION (EU) No 286/2012. It is now mandatory for all labelling or marking of products show their textile fibre content, in order to ensure that consumer interests are protected. Textile products may be made available on the market within the Union only if they comply with the provisions of that Regulation.

 Regulation (EU) No 1007/2011 requires labelling to indicate the fibre composition of textile products, with checks being carried out by analysis on the conformity of those products with indications given on the label. The regulations are primarily concerned with textiles using natural fibre/synthetic mixes, synthetic and cellulose-based textiles and components. So if you want to see what chemicals are being used to produce your synthetic or composite fabric clothing, here’s the list:

I’m not alone in my dislike of – not just synthetics and what they do to the environment – but also of the false or unproven claims made by the synthetics and clothing manufacturers. Andy Kirkpatrick for one is well known for is views on the superior performance of merino wool.

Professor Raechel Laing of the Department of Clothing and Textile Sciences at the University of Otago has been at the forefront of studying how textiles work in the real world, focusing on the physical and physiological interactions between the human body and clothing. She says:

“Performance clothing” is an ill-defined marketing term, and demand for it, especially in competitive sport, is driven largely by the marketers. Not enough is really known about the properties and performance of the various fibres and materials on the market and the subject has suffered from a long history of insufficient research and optimistic marketing. Many quite basic issues have never been addressed from a human physiological perspective”.

So what’s the lesson in all this? Simple. If you care about the environment, minimise your use of synthetics and don’t believe the hype put out by manufacturers. The big boys are simply out to grab as much money as they can from you at the minimum of cost to themselves. That “new version” they’ve just brought out is not because it’s better than the old one, it’s just to make you think it is and encourage you to spend more money.

We here at Choccy Fish work on the principle that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We don’t do gimmicks, we don’t do activity-specific, we don’t do fashion. We just do pure New Zealand merino in multi-purpose, multi-functional styles that we hope folk can wear for years for whatever they want. It can be mended if necessary, and at the end of its useful life , it can be cut up and put on the compost heap to return to the nature it came from.


  1. romney says:

    ” If you care about the environment, minimise your”…purchasing.

    I wish wool didn’t make me itch, because I do agree with you on so much. So much lightweight gear seems not built to last but designed to appeal to people constantly looking for an upgrade. To me, lightweight means minimal. And minimal means not buying things I don’t need. Go lightweight by carrying less and buying less.

  2. I love a well written and researched article full of facts and interesting info. Nice one, Amanda, and thank’s Andy for posting this.

    I turn more and more to merino (for base layers, especially) these days, all year round. Synthetics tend to be so unpredictable. I have one cocona item, and I’ve found it to be not very warm, not particularly breathable, and it holds moisture rather than passing it through.

  3. It’s an interesting debate, and one that will rumble on and on, no doubt. Personally, I think there are plusses and minuses for both natural fibres and synthetic products, and as individuals we need to find out what suits our needs best.

    The main way to minimise our environmental impact, of course, is to buy less and make it last longer, repairing if necessary. And, as has been pointed out, that is against the tide of the ever-agressive marketing employed by all suppliers (and not just in the outdoor gear market) even – dare I say it – during the article! We just take such methods so much for granted these days it is almost impossible to get away from it!

    Basically, we all just need to consume less, and with all due deference to the contributor, we also need to look to more locally-sourced production too. Carting stuff half way round the world cannot be the answer to this ethical dilemma, either. I take the contributor’s point about the environmental impact of wool from NZ vs synthetics, but how does it compare with wool from, say, Wales? And – if I let my vanity take over for a moment – why should an item not be fashionable just because it is environmentally friendly?

    Of course being renewable, biodegradable, recycled and recyclable are all great ambitions and worthy considerations in any situation. But it is tough to pitch a £60 – £80 garment against a £10 polyester top – for many people the economics of that are just too compelling. And the synthetic will last too.

  4. Eddie says:

    Yep, synthetics may stink, but let the consumer decide. That’s what it is all about really, isn’t it.
    That’s what Chocolate Fishy are all about too. If the punters don’t consume, they won’t make any money.
    Those that want to pay the price differential do so, others don’t want to.
    And who gives a toss what an old guy was wearing half a century ago.
    Who wants to trade in their Inov-8s, dyneema or silnylon for stout leather boots, canvas sacks or cotton tents?
    Throw a lambswool rug into the canvas rucksack and leave the Klymit at home? Not on your nelly!

  5. The problem with “merino” is that most of what is now on the market falls well short of the quality needed to produce an itch-free garment. The word “merino” can be applied to any grade of wool but only the fine and superfine grades, i.e. under 22 microns will be itch-free for the majority of people. This is what we use, it is rarer than cashmere, and is not cheap.

    As to cost, a £50 merino t-shirt can be worn far longer without needing a wash and could last you several years, whereas that £10 synthetic top produced in China in all probability will need to be washed every time it’s worn, and then chucked after a single season. Most garments now made in China have a built in obsolescence factor – the average garment only has a three-month shelf life.

    As to using Welsh, English or Scottish wool – no breed that thrives here in the UK produces a fine enough micron count to be worn next to the skin. We could bring in the “tops”, but we know of no company here in the UK capable of producing the right type of yarn, or turn the yarn into a high quality double jersey merino fabric. We couldn’t even find a company with the right equipment and expertise to make the fabric into garments of a high enough quality.

    The consumer is welcome to decide, but should at least have enough information as to what that decision entails.

  6. That response about synthetic tops not lasting is utter tosh.
    The old “smelly Helly” and their ilk be it nearly as old Berghaus ACL, etc. last for years.
    Also the idea that you need to buy less on an expensive item to save te world is a generalisation. You do need to do a thorough LCA and look at the CSR issues of manufacture. Is it really better? Energy use, ethical animal husbandry, production, etc. I like Kiwi’s and I like their country but I know for a fact that a Kiwi farmer will not think twice about shooting a sick animal that would be nursed in the UK (Devon dairy farmer acquaintance, daughter married to a kiwi farmer). I don’t doubt your sincerity but ultimately you are increasing consumerism, not saving the planet.

  7. A quick search about NZ Merino found this interesting article.
    Now does that imply that merino farming damages ecosystems? or perhaps that demand now outstrips supply?
    Another quick search means I concur with your assertion about LCA energy use, though not necessarily the wider aspects of animal husbandry and material production with regards to CSR.

    • Wurz,

      It is true that there is something indestrictible about Helly Hansen but — although I don’t know about AManda’s timescales — I think she is basically right. This May I walked for a couple of weeks across the Scottish Highlands in a ten year old Smartwool baselayer that has a few moth holes in it but basically is as superb now as it was when I bought it. I don’t think my synthetics woudl have been as good as this, indeed three weeks with the sun and sweat of the Pyrenees almost sees them off!

  8. Actually one further thought with regards the energy uses. Much of the LCA that I read’s energy usage was based on relatively old reports from the 80’s & 90’s. Whilst that does not invalidate their information many process industries have made massive reductions in energy use in the last 10 years as environmental management systems have highlighted potentially huge savings in energy and chemical use. Wool production is probably still better but quite probably not by the scales previously quoted.

  9. Eddie says:

    You are wrong there Andy.
    I do all my hill walking up here, sunny Scotland, and my normal first choice for non-baltic weather are Odlo tee shirts and a Tiso fleece. The Odlo tee shirts were fairly expensive at £20 (I think, but I am not sure) and the Tiso special was a whopping £15. This winter they will be going into their 11th or 12th season. I don’t think for a moment that this is exceptional wear. I rather suspect that synthetics have been tagged with a general cheap and cheerful Made in China reputation.
    Pile and Pertex synthetics (Buffalo, Montane, Mardale, Trax, etc) have a great reputation for durability as well.
    Not that I like to use other well known outdoor figures to illustrate a point, but I seem to remember reading fairly regularly that a certain Chris Townsend has a Jack Wolfskin Gecko fleece that seems to have been a regular in his backpack since 2000.
    So it is just not me that gets a lot of life out of synthetics.
    I have a couple of thin merino tee shirts as well, so I am not a complete merino hater.

    • Eddie, i was just talking about the base layers that I have owned. I can’t imagine using any of them over 10 years.

  10. chris yapp says:

    i know this will probably sound like the dummest question on earth but what does it matter where in the world the merino wool comes from . as far i can recall that breed of sheep was around inthe time of the prince regent (later tobecome king george iv ) as the was a flock at llanthony priory owned by the writer walter savage landor and they were stolen by agents of the prince of wales for which he could find no redress

    • Chris, don’t know the answer to that. There is somebody rearing merino somewhere in the UK but the quality of the wool s not good enough, I think this. Amanda’s point about fine quality and itchiness!

  11. Chris,
    I think it matters in that NZ merino is meant to be the best, both with regards quality and provenance if taking the ethical, moral high ground. So whilst others may be as good – I don’t know, I’m not a wool connoisseur, it matters in that a premium is charged market a product that salves an ethical conscience.

  12. Andy,
    The Odlo’s are base layers!
    Remember the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 when large swathes of countryside were closed to the public? Why is that important? Because the shop that I bought the Odlo’s from went bust during that incident (like many other outdoor shops) so that dates them very precisely.
    If people treat their gear properly, then they can expect excellent durability.

  13. Steve F says:

    Interesting debat. Perhaps there is space for some middle ground. At Bridgedale we combine MerinoWool with technical synthetic fibres – the result is a wool fibre for temperature regulation and mositure absorption thereby acting like resovoir during high levels of activity and perspiration; this is wrapped with a high wicking fibre to help speed up drying and moisture management helping ensure day long comfort – ultimatley what everyone who ventures into the hills is hoping to have. There is more to it than that! Re-useability and durability are key issues in helping with environmental issues and at Bridgedale we deliver performance with a 3 year satisfaction guarantee – yes our socks will last much longer than this but lets be honest a lifetime guarantee is a definate over statement. Lastly we make most of our socks in the UK at our plant in Newtownards – if you would like to learn more check out Bridgedale Process on YouTube.
    My personal view it is unlikely that one person made this planet and it is unlikely that one person will fix this planet. Natural earth cycles were here long before man but we must now adapt to ensure we help protect what we have. We all see the outdoor industry as a potential leader within green issues and rightly so but also remember the general consumer inflicts much much more harm on the world so lets work on a broad spectrum rather than a small horizon.

    • Steve — sorry your post got caught in a Spam Filter and I’ve only just retreived it!

      There are plenty of people around who swear by Bridgedale so you must be doing something right!

  14. I bought two merino base layers six years ago (From icebreaker). I cannot fault the material but the design had a major fault for backpacking in that it had fat shoulder seams that clashed horribly with the shoulder straps on my rucksack. However, I still go to these tops as my first choice as in over four months on my LEJOG, often with six or seven days stretches between civilisation, I never had a smelly shirt. And, the wool kept me cool when it was hot and warm when it was cold – something that no synthetic top has ever achieved.

    Having now read about Choccy Fish’s fibre selections and the way they manufacture their tops, they will be the first port of call when replacing my still worn but now very threadbare old merino tops.

    From reading the above comments, it seems clear to me that Eddie has missed the point of the article completely and Wurz has taking his usual confrontational approach to life, albeit finally accepting that Amanda might be right. So that’s a result!.

    • I’ve had the same experience with Icebreaker, one of the reasons I prefer Smartwool. No complaints about Choccie design at all.

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