Synthetic Fabrics: An Environmental Fashion Faux-Pas?
Take a look at the label on your clothing.
You won’t see “synthetic fabrics” per se listed, but it’s very likely you’re wearing them. In fact, most of our closets would be fairly empty without synthetics.
Currently, synthetics make up about 60% of our clothes. Unfortunately for our most important fashion icon (Earth), demand for synthetics is growing faster than the demand for natural fibers like cotton, hemp, and wool.
By 2030, it’s expected synthetics will make up 75% of global apparel fiber production.
But how does that look from an environmental standpoint? Considering synthetics are most often made from petroleum-based plastic, it doesn’t look good.
Now, it’s time to don our white lab coat (made with synthetic fibers, no doubt) to take a look at some less-than-sustainable man-made ones. We want to get to the bottom of the advantages and disadvantages of synthetic fabric to determine if they deserve a hanger in our closet or not.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH SYNTHETIC FABRICS?
Before we get started, let’s address the plastic white elephant on the screen: is synthetic fabric bad?
Keeping up with fast fashion and being able to continuously evolve our wardrobes certainly wouldn’t have been possible without synthetic fabrics. For people living on a tight budget, buying a waterproof winter coat or a new pair of jeans would have been much more difficult without synthetic fabrics, too.
The same could be said for all types of industrialization (fashion, food, healthcare, transportation). It’s provided us with a more convenient lifestyle we’ve grown accustomed to and, to some extent, supported the health and well-being of an ever-growing population.
However, as they say, too much of a good thing can be bad—especially if that thing is made out of plastic.
Is synthetic fabric sustainable?
There’s a question with an easier answer: NO.
Synthetics and sustainability don’t go hand-in-hand, the exception being recycled synthetics (although they still pose a threat when they break down or when they’re washed) and a few semi-synthetics produced in a zero waste closed-loop system that recycles water and chemicals.
In our opinion, there’s little defense for traditional, virgin-made synthetics. Here are a few ways in which synthetic fabrics are causing man-made mayhem—especially for our planet:
- Synthetic is usually synonymous with plastic. When we wear and wash clothes that are formulated with plastics, they release microplastics into our waterways. This is a complex issue which we discuss more on below.
- Plastic isn’t biodegradable and even when blended with natural fibers, synthetic fibers take hundreds of years to break down—contributing to the 15.1 million tons of textile waste generated every year.
- The manufacturing of synthetic fabrics requires a slew of toxic chemicals that have a negative impact on our planet, the workers involved, and even us when we wear the clothes.
So, is synthetic fabric environmentally friendly? There’s really only one case in which synthetic fabrics are semi-good for the planet—when they’re made with other recycled synthetic fabrics that would have otherwise made their way into landfills, oceans, or the mouths of hungry fish.
TYPES OF SYNTHETIC FABRICS
What is synthetic fabric?
According to Merriam-Webster, synthetic fibers are “any of various man-made textile fibers including usually those made from natural materials (such as rayon and acetate from cellulose or regenerated protein fibers from zein or casein) as well as fully synthetic fibers (such as nylon or acrylic fibers).”
Let’s break down what they mean by exploring the different types of synthetic fabric.
Synthetic Fabrics made from Synthetic Polymers:
We’ll start with the category of synthetics in its purest form, those made entirely from petroleum and other fossil fuels.
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Semi-Synthetic Fabrics Made from Cellulose:
These are fabrics made from natural materials (namely the pulp cellulose of various plants and trees) but turned into a semi-synthetic fiber through processing to soften (i.e. plasticizing) through the use of chemicals.
Depending on the chemicals and process used, some of these fabrics are less sustainable than others.
Common Types of Synthetic Fabric
As you can see, there are many different types of synthetic fabric. Here are a few that are most prevalent in our clothing today:
Polyester (also known as polyethylene terephthalate, PET, or microfiber) is made from petroleum and coal. It’s durable, stretchable, and breathable, which makes it a popular choice for shirts, hoodies, underwear, socks, and more.
Also known as elastane and lycra, this is a highly-breathable super-stretch fabric which is why it’s one of the most popular contenders for any athletic wear (leggings and other stretch pants), and is also found in skinny jeans, swimwear, bras, and underwear.
It can stretch five to eight times its normal size, all thanks to polyurethane.
While spandex isn’t the worst synthetic fabric out there, it does contribute to its own fair share of environmental degradation. Unlike polyester and acrylic, it is made from chemicals that are synthesized in the lab (that aren’t derived from coal and petroleum oil).
The biggest issue with spandex is the fact that it makes up a lot of our garment waste. While it is possible for spandex to be recycled, it rarely happens (especially at the post-consumer level).
Also known as polyacrylonitrile and acrylonitrile, acrylic fabric is stretchable and moisture-wicking, properties that make it perfect for those sweat pants of yours—although it’s also found in boots, hats, gloves, blankets, and, interestingly, wigs.
Acrylic fibers are polymers derived from coal or fossil fuel-based chemicals.
When we think of nylon, we almost instantly picture stockings (anyone else grow up calling them “nylons”?) because that’s what they were first used for.
The main ingredient in nylon fabric is none other than petroleum oil, which requires an energy-intensive process in order to manufacture the fabric.
Not only that, but nylon releases a lot of waste materials during production, and is known to release a significant amount of nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2).
ADVANTAGES OF SYNTHETIC FABRICS
The history of synthetic materials goes back to the 1800s and starts with an alternative to silk made from mulberry tree bark.
Fast forward to the 1930s, the world of synthetic fibers really took off with the invention of nylon (patented by chemical giant DuPont in 1935). It was touted to be a “miracle fiber” and quickly became more popular than many natural fibers.
Synthetic fabrics are advantageous most notably because of their affordability. Many synthetic fabrics have been designed to be an alternative to natural fabrics, which typically means a huge reduction in cost.
Synthetic fabrics have also been designed to be stain-resistant, water-resistant, and even waterproof. They excel particularly well in weather-resistant outerwear and activewear for their breathability and moisture-wicking qualities (whereas natural fabrics like cotton absorb and hold moisture, like sweat).
NATURAL FIBERS VS SYNTHETIC FIBERS
Let’s break down the natural vs synthetic fibers argument and why brands / consumers would likely choose one over the other.
- Quick to dry
- Added absorbency
- Waterproof properties
- Moisture-wicking abilities
- Durability (in some cases)
- Cost, cost, cost
- Better for skin
- Better for planet (conventionally-grown cotton may be the exception here, due to its heavy chemical and water requirements)
- Quality improves over time for some fabrics (i.e. linen)
- Natural antibacterial / antimicrobial properties
- Generally better for workers
While natural fibers may lack some performance benefits, they are clearly the winner if you care about the earth more than cost.
Are the benefits of synthetic ever worth it though?
DISADVANTAGES OF SYNTHETIC FABRICS
Many garments made with synthetic fibers are chemically unstable. If you’ve owned a $5 tee shirt or $10 pair of leggings, you have likely seen the degradation or discoloration after wearing the garment for just a few months (sometimes even less).
Oftentimes people find they’re allergic to synthetic fabrics. An allergy to polyester, also called textile dermatitis, is a result of the chemical additives used to process the fabric. It can cause a range of symptoms, from mild itching to severe hives and rashes.
Even if an allergy isn’t present, synthetic fabrics can still be harmful to human health and are known to produce poisonous gases when burnt. Nylon and PU-based fabrics, for instance, contain nitrogen in their structure and thus produce hydrogen cyanide (HCN) when burned. You read that right: cyanide.
Since synthetics also have a high combustion rate (they are petroleum and coal, after all) wearing them around heat (i.e. while cooking, etc.) can pose a risk.
These disadvantages though are minor when you consider what they’re doing to our planet.
Take polyester for instance.
First, fossil fuels need to be obtained. That’s a whole other rabbit warren we won’t go down.
Then the fossil fuels undergo an initial refinement process to become petroleum before being refined again to produce ethylene. Only then do we get to the actual polyester fabric.
These processes are extremely wasteful and produce toxins and greenhouse gases which are released into the environment. Then there’s the human rights abuses along that same supply chain. Another rabbit warren.
According to Sewport, “Polyester harms the environment at every stage and its production, and it inevitably accumulates in the world’s ecosystems with no viable methods for removing it.”
But polyester isn’t even as damaging as acrylic based fibers!
The process used to make acrylic fabric is highly volatile, workers are continuously exposed to the risk of explosions. And even if they make it through a 16-hour day safely, they’re constantly exposed to harmful gases.
The US Centre for Disease Control, states that merely coming into contact with acrylic fibers increases our risk of developing cancer.
Acrylic’s biggest, most devastating difference from other synthetic fabrics is that it’s nearly impossible to recycle. Unlike polyester, there’s no good way to dispose of it—it will just accumulate in the environment for hundreds of years.
And this poses the biggest problem of all: microfibers. Acrylic is the worst offender for the microfiber crisis (polyester coming in second). Let’s dive into the world’s oceans to learn a little more about these microplastics we keep mentioning.
SYNTHETIC FABRICS & MICROPLASTIC POLLUTION
We’re drowning in a literal sea of plastic.
There are 50 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean, as evidenced by horrors like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a growing island of plastic trash twice the size of Texas). Experts predict that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
It’s easy to blame all that on single-use plastics (which no doubt play their part), the most insidious culprit is far less obvious.
Microplastics: the tiny pieces of plastic that end up choking our sea.
While not solely responsible, synthetic fabrics are an enormous contributor to microplastic pollution. A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that 35% of ocean microplastics come from synthetic textiles, or about 1.5 million tons per year.
While some of these are captured by local wastewater treatment plants, 40% on average slip through and make their way into rivers, lakes, and oceans.
HOW TO MINIMIZE SYNTHETIC FABRIC POLLUTION
The winner of synthetics vs natural fibers is clearly the latter.
Unfortunately, most clothes already in existence are made of synthetic fibers, so it would be remiss to think we can avoid them completely.
Make synthetic already in existence last longer.
One of the best things you can do to minimize synthetic fabric pollution is to keep synthetic fabrics in use.
Even if all synthetic production ceased today, there are so many synthetic textiles already in existence (from clothes and comforters to couches and carpet) that it would do more harm than good if we just threw them all way and immediately switched to natural alternatives.
The key to making existing synthetics somewhat sustainable is making them last as long as possible, washing them minimally and responsibly (more on this below), and doing our best to recycle them in the end. Don’t continue to purchase synthetics but make the best of the ones you own.
Buying second-hand is a great way to give synthetic-based clothes and home textiles a second life. Whether you spend a weekend thrifting or visit an online thrift store, you have the opportunity to wear synthetic fabrics in an almost guilt-free way (helloooo, ‘70s disco polyester suit).
Avoid buying virgin synthetics.
If you’re in the market for new clothes, however, be willing to pay a premium for clothes made with hemp, wool, cotton, or other natural or semi-synthetic materials. Clothing is an investment in our planet and our health.
Fortunately, this is becoming much easier too, as sustainable fashion brands incorporate more and more natural fibers or recycled synthetic fabrics.
Realize that, in most cases (especially with garments like activewear), finding clothes 100% sans synthetics is difficult. Look for clothes that have it at a minimum (i.e. contain around 10% or less elastane, polyester, etc.).
While this negates their potential to biodegrade or compost, small percentages (<10%) of synthetic means largely natural fiber garments (like jeans that are mostly cotton with a little polyester for stretch) can still be recycled.
Wash synthetics responsibly.
For those of you who did indeed check your clothing label at the beginning of this article, you likely have one big question: what to do if you wash synthetic fabric? We get it, you’re probably concerned about microfibers—and for good reason.
Fortunately, there are some easy solutions:
- Wash your clothes less. When you do wash your clothes, make sure you’re washing a full load (less friction equals fewer fibers are released).
- Choose a green detergent. No, we don’t just mean zero waste laundry detergent (though while we have you here…). Liquid laundry soap doesn’t loosen as much as abrasive powder detergent particles, so using it can reduce microplastics.
- Use a front-loading washing machine if you can. According to a study by the University of California, microfiber masses from top-loaders were 7x greater than those of front-load machines.
- Most importantly, use a Guppyfriend wash bag when you wash. These fine mesh bags trap the microplastics so you can collect them and throw them in the garbage (rather than the ocean).
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SYNTHETIC FABRICS
Synthetic fabrics are pretty synful. But they’re here to stay, and they’re likely to be a big part of our lives for many years to come.
On the plus side, it is possible to use and wear synthetic fabrics in a more responsible manner, but it’s also our job as conscious consumers to demand brands use more responsible fabrics.
They can do so by reducing textile waste, recycling synthetic fabrics, cutting out virgin synthetics altogether in favor of natural materials, transforming plastic pollution into new garments, and all-around stretching out the lives of stretchy stuff.
And this is all already happening! We just need to keep the momentum going.
Now, stretch out and shoot us a comment with your thoughts on synthetic fabrics. Is there any scenario in which you see them as sustainable? How should we make the best of a bad situation?