Do you know which common fabric is made from coal, air, water and petroleum? Well, quite possibly the sweater you’re wearing, if it’s made from polyester. How does that make you feel? My earliest memory of giving fabric more than a passing thought was the rash and irritating itch which accompanied my accidental wear of a wool scarf. I discovered that some acrylic and polyester fabrics have a similar irritating effect too. *Scratches*
And though, as a populous, we’re generally quite conscious these days of what we eat; I dare say we, (myself included up until recently) aren’t as savvy and selective when it comes to choosing the fabrics we wear. But there are many good reasons why we should be. After all, your skin is your largest organ and is constantly absorbing and releasing toxins. The popular saying ‘you are what you eat’ could, in fact, inspire a whole new motto for outerwear – ‘you are what you wear’…
In an age of fast fashion which fulfils shoppers’ need for instant gratification with the convenience of next day and even same day delivery, we live in a society where throwaway is so today; that new top may be outed just a few times before never again seeing the light of day. A Barnardo’s survey of 2,000 British women in 2015 showed that the average piece of clothing was worn (wait for it) just seven times before being disposed of. And as for the destiny of unwanted garments, in the UK around 300,000 tonnes goes to landfill or is burnt, and less than 1% of fibres used to make garments are recycled into new clothing.
But in the age of fast fashion, do some fabrics have a higher impact on our environment than others? Globally, an average of almost 10,000 litres of water is necessary to produce 1 kilogram of cotton fabric. Yet data from waterfootprint.org indicates that on average, its synthetic counterpart, polyester, has the highest water footprint. And it’s only surpassed by some conventional cotton farms in India, where highly toxic pesticides are used. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular synthetic fabrics on the market…
As of 2013, polyester accounted for 55%* of all global apparel fabric consumption (compared to cotton at 27%), of which Asia delivers approximately 92% of global production. And it seems that polyester is everywhere these days – even creeping its way into cotton garments in small quantities. Polyester fibres were originally developed and patented during the 1940s and marketed from the 1950s onwards. Polyester is a kind of plastic made using polyester yarns or fibres; a synthetic, man-made polymer, commonly referred to as a type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It is manufactured by mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Sounds like a lab experiment? It has been known to trigger allergies, sneezing and rashes.
If you take one of polyester’s components, ethylene glycol, this chemical is commonly used many commercial and industrial applications including antifreeze and coolant. You can see that this may not be the kind of chemical that’s good to have close to your skin. And only approximately 3-10% of polyester fabric production is recycled, meaning that polyester clothing is further contributing to our global plastic pollution problem.
Accounting for 5%* of global apparel fabric consumption, Nylon is another synthetic man-made material; a plastic with super-long, heavy molecules comprising of a family of synthetic polymers, based on aliphatic or semi-aromatic polyamides. Very strong and light in weight, nylon’s qualities include its toughness, thermal stability, resistance to chemicals and its consistently good appearance. Invented in 1938, the fabric provided a cheaper alternative to more luxurious and costly silk. But there’s nothing beautiful about Nylon – it can cause some people to experience an allergic reaction when skin contacts it, triggering a skin irritation known as contact dermatitis.
Viscose (Also known as Rayon)
With a silk-like texture and softness which drapes beautifully over the body, the name of this fabric comes from the honey-like texture that occurs during the manufacturing process. The main ingredient in viscose is cellulose (wood pulp), meaning it is neither synthetic or natural. Cellulosic fabrics account for approximately 7%* of global apparel fabric production and this is growing. Yet the manufacturing process is a very polluting one and produces large volumes of wastewater. The recycled wood pulp is also treated with acetone, ammonia, caustic soda and sulphuric acid.
Acrylic accounts for approximately 2%* of total global apparel fabric consumption. It retains colour well and is resistant to wrinkling. It is made of polyacrylonitriles, which have been linked to eye, skin, respiratory and digestive tract irritation. A team at Plymouth University studied what happened when a number of synthetic materials were washed at different temperatures in domestic washing machines, to discover how many microfibres were shed. They discovered that acrylic was responsible for releasing nearly 730,000 tiny synthetic particles (microplastics) per wash, five times more than polyester-cotton blend fabric, and nearly 1.5 times as many as pure polyester.
When we look at the wider environmental impact of synthetic fabrics, Ecologist Mark Browne made some disturbing discoveries by examining sediment along shorelines around the world. He found waste in abundance; tiny, synthetic fibres scattered over the coastline, with the greatest concentrations observed near sewage outflows. Of the man-made material found on the shoreline, a huge 85% were microfibres and matched the types of material mentioned in this article, including nylon and acrylic. It is evidently clear that the impact of fast fashion and the use of synthetic man-made fibres is having a devastating impact on our planet.
On the high street these days, it can be quite difficult to find fabrics which are 100% natural. Synthetic fabrics including polyester and nylon are often woven into natural fabrics to provide elastic stretch, helpful to accommodate an expanding waistline. But the good news is that there’s been some good progress in ethical clothing alternatives; ASOS has a ‘green room’ housing ethical fashion clothing, fair trade clothing and organic cotton clothing and is committed to 100% sustainable cotton by 2025. In 2017 Primark announced the launch of its first sustainable cotton products. And H&M has a Conscious Exclusive Collection.
But what about ethical brands – those offering you eco-friendly fabric alternatives as standard? There are an increasing number of options to choose from. A few of my favourites include Rapanui and People Tree. If you’re interested in switching out your synthetics to more ethical and eco-friendly fabrics, some good natural alternatives include Hemp, Cotton and Linen. Where possible, chose certified organic options (such as GOTS – the Global Organic Textile Standard) as it’s difficult to know if the dyeing processes used are also organic.
Source * Water Footprint Network Report, 2017