Polyester Problems: Cheap Fabric, High Environmental Cost

Giada Nizzoli

Polyester Problems: Cheap Fabric, High Environmental Cost

Check the labels of a few fast fashion garments, and we bet you’ll bump into this material the most. But do polyester and sustainability go hand in hand, too?

Not exactly. Actually, not at all.

Here’s why those £4 polyester clothes hide a much higher cost.

What exactly is polyester?

Polyester is a synthetic fibre (meaning that it’s created through chemical synthesis) derived from polyethylene terephthalate, a compound that you might know as PET.

But, wait, where did I see those three letters?

Probably on plastic bottles.

Yep. An oil-derived material, polyester is manufactured similarly to other plastics.

Polyester and fast fashion: a dangerous love story

The first commercial polyester fibre, Terylene, appeared in 1941. This resilient material started to grow in popularity all the way to the 70s, until its coarseness finally got in the way.

However, with the introduction of microfibres in 1991, polyester fabric became as smooth as we know it today.

Because it’s cheaper, quicker and easier to obtain than most natural fabrics, it’s not surprising that fast fashion fell in love with it.

In fact, its production has doubled since the early 2000s, with synthetic fabrics making up 63% of all our clothing but polyester being the most popular.

At what cost, though?

Fast fashion relies heavily on polyester

Polyester’s bad environmental impact

Unfortunately, polyester and sustainability rarely belong to the same sentence:

  • Since it’s made from fossil fuels, this synthetic material relies on extracting even more coal and oil and putting them through an extremely carbon-heavy process. Around 40% of fashion’s emissions come from polyester manufacturing alone
  • Antimony, an extremely toxic chemical, is also involved. While it becomes trapped into the polyester fibres (so the material in itself isn’t dangerous to your skin), it pollutes water during its production and the air if it’s incinerated
  • When washed, synthetic clothing like polyester releases microfibres, which make up 37% of all the microplastics in our oceans. These infiltrate every level of their food chain, including… yep, our bellies when we eat fish. Ugh!
  • Even though some companies have recently been piloting new technology, it’s still pretty much impossible to recycle polyester, especially when it’s mixed with other fabrics
  • It isn’t biodegradable either: it requires between 20 and 200 years to break down in landfills. So, most of the polyester clothes that you’ve discarded as a child still exist. Crazy, huh?

More eco-friendly alternatives to polyester

In some cases, polyester might actually be a more ethical choice for you. For example, if you wish to avoid cowhide, you’ll find that most vegan leather involves it (although, have you heard of pineapple leather?).

Still, let’s learn to identify more eco-friendly polyester alternatives.

Most sustainable fabrics

Just because polyester and sustainability don’t seem to get along, it doesn’t automatically mean that any natural fabric is always more eco-friendly.

For example, traditionally grown cotton can be considered even worse in some aspects.

Still, some more sustainable options are linen, hemp, organic cotton, modal fabrics, bamboo, and organic wool.

Organic cotton clothes as an alternative to polyester

Second-hand or upcycled polyester

Yes, there will still be the problem of microplastic-shedding and its end of life cycle.

However, choosing second-hand polyester clothing is much more sustainable than creating it from scratch: not only will you bypass an additional manufacturing process, but you’ll help reduce waste, too!

Recycled polyester dress

Recycled polyester

Some resourceful brands have even found ways of using post-consumer plastic (especially bottles found in the ocean) to create recycled polyester clothes. How cool is that?!

Try considering the problems with polyester and sustainability before grabbing the next synthetic fast fashion garment.

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