Labelled fashion’s “dirtiest” fabric, polyester, one of the most common materials in our closets, has received a ton of negative press from sustainability experts for its environmental. But how did this synthetic fibre earn fashion industry fame and a coveted spot in our wardrobes?
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?
The one major thing to know about polyester is that it’s made from petrochemicals, i.e. plastic. We’re basically wearing plastic!
That fact might be shocking, but the first step towards sustainable fashion consumption is knowing what’s in our clothes. If you’ve switched out single-use plastic, then you should care about polyester’s impact too. Making up 55% of the global fibre market, we wear this man-made material often yet know so little about its effects.
What exactly is polyester?
Polyester is a synthetic, petroleum-based fibre which is made using carbon-intensive processes from non-renewable resources.
So how did a plastic-based fibre become so popular within fashion? Here are a few reasons that may be familiar to you:
- It has a great structure.
Lightweight and thermoplastic, polyester melts and reforms easily. This means it can hold creases and pleats without losing its shape; something many low to high-end designers — like Mango to Issey Miyake — have benefitted from.
- It’s quick-drying and wrinkle-free.
Ever wondered why your polyester clothes dry faster or seem to need less ironing? Now you know!
- It doesn’t absorb perspiration and repels water: Fewer visible sweat patches, yay.
- Its strong fibres hold its shape: 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.
How and where is polyester produced?
Polyester was first created in 1941 by two British scientists, John Whinfield and James Dickson. It was first used in World War II to create parachutes and other materials but started to appear in consumer clothing soon after.
Seeing a big business opportunity after the war ended, US-based company Dupont bought the rights to make polyester. Seeing its potential for clothing, they cleverly marketed it to consumers during the postwar economic boom. That’s when our love affair with polyester really 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 is produced through a chemical reaction which mixes coal, petroleum (crude oil), air and water in a high pressure, temperature-controlled vacuum. 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 impact our planet 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. It also traps sweat and other bodily toxins onto the skin and can cause irritation (not great for 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:
Why does the fashion industry continue to use polyester?
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 weatherproof 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 do you dispose of polyester?
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 recycling of textiles is becoming more mainstream.
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 any better?
More and more companies today — mainly sports, swim and activewear brands — are choosing to use recycled polyester in their collections. It’s made from PET found in synthetic fabrics and plastic bottles. This process requires much less energy than it takes to make virgin polyester. It can also be recycled multiple times, minimising waste and toxins being released.
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. If the recent launches from Stella McCartney, Prada, Patagonia or Everlane are anything to go by, circular synthetics are slowly but surely becoming the preferred choice to virgin polyester in the fashion 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 verdict?
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!
This guide is part of our What The Fabric! series, a bunch of useful guides that deep dive into the materials we wear every day. For more from the series, go here.