Synthetic textiles have many good qualities, they are cost-efficient, they can be shaped in many different ways, they can be used to create a certain texture and lasting garments that don’t stretch or change shape or colour, and they are also easy to wash and maintain. As a result of its characteristics, the development of synthetic fibers revolutionized the fashion industry in the 1960s.
Since then, synthetic fiber textiles have paved the way for what we today like to call the “fast-fashion industry”. Cheap materials in combination with low production costs equal low retail prices and today we can consume clothes like never before – almost like disposable items.
Great. Or it would have been if it wasn’t for the tiny fact that everything that we produce, consume, own or discard, in one way or another comes from the earth. A fact that may be easier to grasp when you think of “natural fibers” – such as wool, linen, or cotton. Having this mind, it might come as no surprise that one of the most important (and easiest) things you can do for the environment, is to invest in “good” textiles according to the climate change campaign group, Extinction Rebellion. Adversely, this also means that we should avoid investing in artificial – synthetic – fibers, and here are three reasons why:
Nylon was introduced already in the late 1930s’ and has since been used for the benefits of its elasticity, abrasion, mildew and water resistance as it dries quickly. You might think about nylon stockings, but nylon is often blended with other natural or synthetic materials due to its many advantages. Nylon is made from petrochemicals, which is chemically obtained directly from cracking or chemical processing of petroleum oil or natural gas and is thus non-biodegradable. The nylon production creates and emits a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide which is 300(!) times more potent than CO2 and it can also cause a skin irritation called dermatitis. However, today better – greener – options exist such as Econyl which is nylon made entierly from recycled nylon collected from our oceans and landfill.
Acrylic was introduced in the 1950s’ and has many of the same benefits as wool; it is soft, warm, light-weight, it preserves colour well and it doesn’t wrinkle – yet it is produced at a (much) cheaper cost compared to wool.
Sounds great, but the disadvantages of using acrylics are many, and they are scary too! Firstly, it takes a lot of resources to produce acrylic as its production is one of the most energy-intensive ones compared to other textiles. And as if that’s wasn’t enough – acrylic is also suggested to cause cancer to the people working in the production or manufacturing of the acrylic textile. And as if that isn’t enough, research has found that acrylic textiles releases over 700,000 microplastics every single time it’s washed. This is more than any other synthetic material.
The most commonly used synthetic textile used in a whole 55% of clothes produced today thanks to its cheap production, versatility, strength, resistance to heat, shrinking or wrinkling – polyester always stays the same. But as you might have guessed, this synthetic textile is also a bad guy. Polyester is less energy- and water-intensive compared to other synthetic textiles, but its production has a very negative impact on the water supply as polyester textile cannot be dyed using natural or low impact dyes and instead requires very strong chemical dyes whose residues often are emitted in water streams causing problems, not only for the life in the oceans but also for wildlife and humans who are depending on those water resources.
So what is the better choice?
Learning more about these three synthetic textiles, you might be wondering which one is worse? Or reversely, which one is better than the other? The answer to these questions is that they are all bad and should all be avoided. All synthetic – “man-made” – textiles are non-biodegradable and non-renewable (but the could be recyclable) as they essentially are made from oil – yep, good old petroleum. In addition to this, synthetic textiles are often produced in countries such as Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh that all have weak, ambiguous or a lack of environmental regulations for emission, pollution, exploitation of air, water, land, and nature. This means that pollution of air and water easily can be surpassed and is often discharged creating dangerous living conditions and causes problems not only for factory workers – but also for the residents living in these areas. Finally, synthetic textiles are one of the biggest sources of pollution of microplastics (acrylic is just one of them) and every time you wash a garment, it gives away thousands of microplastics that are washed out in lakes and oceans.
Next time that you are tempted to buy that cheap low-quality jumper, think twice and look for natural textiles, recycled materials or secondhand garments instead, there are tons of good quality and price worthy options out there.