WTF: What The Fabric! Polyester, Explained

If you’ve bought clothes within the last decade, the odds are at least half of them are made from polyester. Labelled fashion’s “dirtiest” fabric, this material has received a ton of negative press from both environmental experts and the growing sustainable fashion community for its planetary impact. But how did this synthetic fibre earn fashion industry fame and a coveted spot in our wardrobes in the first place? 

all you need to know about polyester fabric sustainability on ZERRIN

Take a moment to flick through your closet and pick out a couple of labels. You’ll likely find that one word seems to pop up more than others. It begins with 'p' right?

Now, whether it’s 10% or 100%, the one key thing to know about polyester is that it’s made from petrochemicals, i.e. plastic. We're basically wearing plastic!

And yes, we meant for the above quote to be a shocker. But the first step towards becoming more responsible style mavens is knowing what’s going into our clothes. If you've switched out plastic bottles, containers and straws for reusables, then you should care just as much about polyester's impact. Making up a massive 55% of the global fibre market, we wear so much of this man-made material yet know so little about its effects. 

What exactly is polyester, fast-fashion's most common fabric

Polyester is a synthetic, petroleum-based fibre, typically made using carbon-intensive processes from non-renewable resources. It’s mainly made up of compounds within the ester functional group.

So how did a plastic-based fibre become so popular within fashion? Here's a few reasons that may be familiar to you:

  1. It has great structure: A lightweight, thermoplastic fabric, polyester can easily be melted and reformed. This allows it to hold creases and pleats without losing its shape; something many low to high-end designers — like Mango to Issey Miyake — have benefitted from. 

  2. It’s quick-drying and wrinkle-free: Ever wondered why your polyester clothes dry faster or seem to need less ironing? Now you know! 

  3. It doesn’t absorb perspiration and repels water: Fewer visible sweat patches, yay.

  4. Its strong fibres hold its shape: Great for the structure of dresses, polyester’s fibres stretch instead of tearing upon high force. This makes it more durable for regular washing, too.

Yes, we've thrown in some chemical lingo here — but as we'll discover, it's actually the characteristics that make polyester so great and convenient that make it awful for the environment. 

Now, let's break down how it’s made... 

How and where is polyester, fast-fashion's most popular fabric, produced?

Polyester was first created in 1941 by two British scientists, John Whinfield and James Dickson. However, it didn't weasel its way into consumer clothing until after World War II, where it was used to create parachutes and other materials.

After the war was over and done in 1945, it was difficult to get hold of cotton. Realising a big business opportunity, a US-based company called Dupont bought the rights to make polyester and cleverly marketed it to consumers during the postwar economic boom. That's when our love affair with polyester clothing started. Fast forward 75 years, most of the world’s polyester production happens in China, Indonesia and Bangladesh, all countries which have more lax environmental regulations. 

The fabric itself is typically produced in a vacuum under high pressure and temperature control, using a chemical reaction involving coal, petroleum (aka, crude oil), air and water. All of this is mixed together to create a compound known as monomer or “ester”. More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year.

The result of this process — a long-fibre polymer material — is then stretched until it is about five times its original length, making it exceptionally strong and durable. To create fibres for our clothes, threads of it are then spun together, on their own or blended with another fabric.* 

*It's important to note that like any fabric, polyester has different grades of quality too. The polyester produced for a cheap fast-fashion store can vary greatly from that used by a mid-to-high-end brand.

How does polyester fabric impact our environment and our health?

As you might have already guessed given its chemical-based origins, making and disposing of polyester has a massive environmental cost. The fabric takes a lot of energy to produce and releases toxic chemicals into our environment.

What's more, synthetic textiles are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in our oceans. Mainly because up to 4,500 fibres can be released per gram of clothing per wash, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation. About 35% of the microplastics present in the ocean come from synthetic textiles.

In addition to external issues, the dyes used in polyester is also harmful to humans, as dye workers worldwide report higher incidences of cancers and lung disease than the general population. As it is not breathable, polyester fabrics trap sweat and other bodily toxins on the skin and also cause skin irritation (not great for wearing in humid climates).

And while it's true that polyester production doesn’t require as much water, the residues from chemical dyes used to create the pretty colours and prints we see in stores pollute large water streams, killing fish, wildlife, and potentially poisoning individuals who depend on rural water sources in developing countries (we recommend watching the film RiverBlue for even more insights).

 

 So here's the key facts to takeaway and tell your friends: 

  1. Polyester IS NOT biodegradable. Instead, it sticks around in our environment, even while it eventually breaks apart, leaving behind invisible microplastics that pollute our atmosphere, water and endanger wildlife. 

  2. It uses double the energy of conventional cotton production. From processing water to dyeing, it takes a huge amount of energy to produce polyester. 

  3. It uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, in its production process. If emitted into water and air untreated, this alone can cause significant environmental damage. It’s hard to mitigate this too, as polyester cannot be dyed using low impact, natural dyes. 


If it's so polluting, why does the fashion industry continue to use polyester fabric?

So if it's so bad for us and the environment, why does the fashion industry continue to use polyester?

Well, some of it comes down to numbers. Polyester is cheaper to produce than natural fibres, so for brands producing thousands of garments quickly at a cheap price (looking at you, fast-fashion) then it’s an obvious choice. 

We're also addicted to its convenience, so we keep buying it. For everyday shoppers it’s durable and easy to wash and care for. We love it in activewear, swimwear, fleece in winter coats and jackets and all sorts of weather proof garments. 

An important fact: Although the production of polyester isn't necessarily more environmentally friendly than cotton, linen or wool, the use of it is more sustainable. Polyester can be washed at low temperatures, ironing is often not necessary and the garments have a longer life cycle because of the strength of the threads (again, only if it’s high-quality).

How can you dispose of clothes made from polyester fabric safely?

Because it doesn't biodegrade, polyester will remain intact in a landfill for centuries and slowly release toxins into the groundwater and soil. If you have polyester to dispose of, do your best to find where you can have it recycled. Thankfully the advent of recyclable textiles is pushing our economy to become more circular - where fibres can be reused and recycled to their fullest. 

For the many of us with existing clothes made from polyester in our wardrobes, there are innovations to minimise the release of microplastics in the wash. One of them is Guppyfriend, a cool filter which helps to reduce fibre shedding while protecting your clothes from wear and tear in the washing machine. Simply wash your polyester clothing in it and the bag filters out the microfibres material, which you can then take out and dispose of properly rather than making its way from your washing machine to our rivers and oceans. 

Is recycled polyester in fashion a good alternative?

More and more companies today — mainly sports, swim and activewear brands — are choosing to use recycled polyester in their collections. Unlike virgin polyester, the recycled version is made primarily from PET, found in fabrics and plastic bottles, preventing them from ending up in landfills. Converting PET into recycled polyester requires much less energy, and it can be repeatedly recycled throughout its lifespan, minimising waste and toxin release. 

Given the fact that there are 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, it makes the recycled version more essential than ever. Whether it’s sustainable luxury or ready-to-wear brands, from Stella McCartney to Prada, Patagonia or Everlane, recycled synthetics are slowly but surely becoming preferable to virgin polyester within the industry.

In fact, polyester is also one of the few materials that is fully recyclable, so there’s hardly a need anymore to produce virgin (new) fabric anymore. Basically, there's no reason why our favourite brands shouldn't be moving towards using the recycled version.

Our final thoughts on polyester, fast-fashion's most common fabric

While it’s easy to want to blame polyester for textile pollution and brand it ‘the bad guy’ of materials, we need to be aware that there’s an environmental cost to every fabric and piece of clothing. It’s all about weighing the pros and cons (like we do in these features!) and keeping in mind the steps we can take, as wearers of clothes, to consume more responsibly. 

The polyester required to make our shoes, stretchy running leggings and the fibres of our winter wear is proof of the current limitations of natural fibres for certain garments. And while the rise of recycled polyester is definitely a big improvement, it's not the be-all solution to fast-fashion's environmental impact. 

Despite this piece, we're not suggesting you throw out all your existing polyester clothing. If the synthetic designs you buy are thoughtful purchases you're going to wear for years (rather than impulse buys) and you're caring for them properly (we recommend getting a microfibre filter!) you're taking steps towards being a more responsible fashionista. Progress over perfection!

ZERRIN’s regular series, WTF: What The Fabric!, explores and shares facts about the most common fabrics in our closets. Discover the rest of our guides here! 

Like this article? Then you’ll like these too:

Here's why you should choose organic cotton clothing

What it takes to set up a sustainable fashion label

10 eco-friendly textiles and fibres to know now


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