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.