Ever wonder what the names of different synthetic fabrics mean? Polyester, fleece, Spandex the list goes on. Over the years synthetic fabrics have come a long way in appearance, texture, and wearability. They can be very durable, although most fast fashion producers tend to make them cheaply with minimal thread count and stitching. Most synthetic fabrics are made from plastic fibers, which are made from oil, which comes from fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, the true problem is the fact that we are overproducing clothing in the Western world. There is so much clothing that all of the humans on the planet can’t even use it all.
Polyester is plastic fabric. It requires a lot of energy to make, uses fossil fuels, and uses carcinogenic substances to produce. “It is made by refining crude oil or natural gas, breaking it into chemicals, and creating a polymer that is extruded and spun into fibers.” The polymer, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is the same PET in a plastic bottle. Its petroleum base makes polyester flammable, so fabrics made from it must be treated with anti-flammable chemicals that are often toxic. China produces more than 75% of the world’s polyester fabric. These fabrics do not biodegrade and only a very small amount of them are recycled worldwide.1
“Polyester, the cheapest and most popular of fabrics, is petroleum based; nearly seventy million barrels of crude are required to make the virgin polyester used for textiles each year.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis2
Polyester also affects climate change. “MIT calculated that the global impact of producing polyester alone was somewhere between 706 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or about what 185 coal-fired power plants emit in a year.”3 We should stop production of this material for the most part, because the global impacts just aren’t worth it. There’s already enough on the planet to recycle and reuse. We don’t need any new polyester fabric.
“Producing polyester releases two to three times more carbon emissions than cotton, and polyester does not break down in the ocean.”4
Most fleece is a type of polyester, so its origin is also plastic (and oil).
Because it is breathable, fast-drying, and allows moisture to evaporate it is used in sportswear and winter wear. It’s also what those $4 cozy, fluffy, fleece blankets sold at large box stores are made from.
Although it is a vegan alternative to wool, fleece is a poor environmental choice because it sheds microfibers quickly while laundering. More on that toward the end of this article.
Spandex (also called Lycra and Elastane)
Spandex is also called Lycra (a DuPont brand name), or Elastane. It is prized for its elasticity and often combined with other fabrics to make apparel stretchy. Spandex is used mainly in athletic wear, swimsuits, yoga pants, skinny jeans, underwear, bras, and socks.
Companies make this fabric from a polyurethane base combined with other chemicals. While Spandex is not plastic, it still does not biodegrade in the environment. While not sourced from oil, the chemicals used in the production of spandex/elastane are potentially toxic to workers and perhaps even people who wear it.
Companies use Nylon, originally invented by DuPont, to make tights, stockings, sportswear, yoga pants, and other form-fitting clothing items. It is a polymer-based fabric (meaning plastic) made from a component of crude oil, hexamethylenediamine. It is energy-intensive and uses large quantities of water for cooling the nylon fabric fibers. That “water often carries pollutants into the hydrosphere surrounding manufacturing locations. In the production of adipic acid, which is the secondary constituent part of most types of nylon fabric, nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere, and this is considered to be 300 times worse for the environment than CO2.”5 But it often makes strong, water-resistant fabrics.
Some companies produce clothing made from straight plastic. One example is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a high-strength thermoplastic material. Companies use PVC to produce transparent shoe heels, vinyl raincoats, synthetic leather, and many fashion accessories like handbags, belts, and shoes.6These materials often cannot be reused and are discarded. PVC is a known carcinogen and it leaches toxins when it gets into the soil (landfill) or water (ocean).
Acrylic fabric mimics wool. It is lightweight, warm, and soft. Companies use it in place of wool or blend it with wool or cashmere in order to reduce production costs. Producers make acrylic from the polymer polyacrylonitrile, which is a fossil fuel-chemical combination. Acrylic fabric pills easily and, like many synthetics, is highly flammable. The EPA found that inhaling polyacrylonitrile gives workers many health problems and may even be carcinogenic.7
“Imagine a pair of yoga pants, or a fleece…try to imagine what they’re made of. It’s oil. They’re made of oil. Whether it’s polyester, fleece, spandex, elastane, nylon, or acrylic, our clothing is made, more and more, of crude oil that is turned into polymers…More than 60 percent of all of our textile fibers are now man-made synthetics, derived from oil.” -Tatiana Schlossberg8
Viscose rayon is usually made from bamboo and eucalyptus. While those are plants, producers use so many heavy chemical treatments that most consider viscose rayon a synthetic. Companies market this fabric as “natural” and “sustainable” because bamboo, especially, grows quickly. But that is just greenwashing.
Companies sell viscose rayon under several names, such as bamboo, eucalyptus, modal, Lyocell, and Tencel. Producers make the fabric by “chemically dissolving wood from eucalyptus, beech, or bamboo trees,” and then reforming the chemical pulp into a fiber. Bamboo is a tough fiber and the chemical treatment is how they make it soft. These fabrics are a cheaper alternative to silk and cotton. But they have a huge environmental impact because they require a lot of energy and “has a higher global-warming impact than the manufacture of polyester and cotton.”9
Viscose rayon production uses large volumes of hazardous chemicals, including large amounts of bleach, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and carbon disulfide. The latter is “a neurologically toxic chemical that has a long history of causing insanity in exposed workers.”10 It can also cause reproductive problems. Further, the pulp mills sometimes release those chemicals into the environment. Many of the processing mills for rayon are in China, India, and southeastern Asian countries. 11
“The chemical usage to produce [viscose rayon] is so intense that it shouldn’t be considered natural at all.” -Tatiana Schlossberg12
This category of fabrics is a leading cause of deforestation, which is contributing to climate change and endangering wildlife. Manufacturers cut down between 120 million and 150 million trees annually to make clothing. Some of those trees are in endangered rainforests or ancient forests. Besides that, manufacturers also waste more than half of each tree during production.13
Better Types of Viscose Rayon
Look for the lyocell brand name of Lenzing Tencel, which is more sustainable than other fabrics in this category. “Tencel lyocell fabrics are cellulose fibers made from sustainably sourced wood pulp that is produced in a closed-loop system where the materials used are recycled with minimal waste and low emissions.” Tencel is biodegradable and requires less energy and water than cotton production.14
You can also seek out brands that partner with Canopy, the Forest Stewardship Council, or have Oeko-Tex safe-chemistry certifications (see Additional Resources below).15
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned and/or fined many companies to stop falsely labeling rayon products as bamboo. Those companies include Amazon, Macy’s, Target, Walmart, and Leon Max, but there are more that participate in this practice. Marketing rayon as environmentally friendly is greenwashing at its worst; advertising it as bamboo is an outright lie and illegal.
Synthetic Fabrics Shed Microplastics
Synthetic textiles are becoming more and more commonplace, especially as fast fashion continues to grow. Unfortunately, these synthetic fabrics often shed small plastic fibers known as microfibers or microplastics. Just by laundering our clothing, microplastics are entering and polluting our waterways. This is because water treatment facilities cannot remove them, so the fibers persist, and enter the ocean, the food chain, and eventually human bodies. “According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are 1.5 million tons of small pieces of what are known as microplastics entering the ocean each year, and as much as 34.8 percent of that pollution is coming from synthetic textiles.”16 It’s time to turn off the tap.
“What I actually want to say about synthetic fibers is that they are everywhere – not just in all of our clothes, but literally everywhere: rivers, lakes, oceans, agricultural fields, mountaintops, glaciers. Everywhere. Synthetic fibers, actually, may be one of the most abundant, widespread, and stubborn forms of pollution that we have inadvertently created.” -Tatiana Schlossberg17
“It requires extensive amounts of energy to create textiles from plastic, which also releases petroleum and volatile particulate matter into the atmosphere.” -Leah Thomas, The Intersectional Environmentalist18
Most of the time, the clothing you buy is going to be a blend of either natural and synthetic fibers or a blend of synthetics. Chenille, for example, is usually a blend of fibers, including cotton, silk, rayon, and wool. Microfiber fabric is often a combination of polyester and nylon. Synthetics are so common today that we mostly overlook the fabric type listed on the tag. “Most consumers buy synthetics without even noticing. Polyester and nylon together make up almost 60 percent of all textiles manufactured globally, while cotton has shrunk to a quarter of the fiber market.”19
Today synthetics are better looking and more comfortable than in previous decades. And they are cheap! The cheapest fabrics to produce are polyester, nylon, acrylic, and conventional viscose rayon. The production of cotton and high-performing viscose rayon (modal and lyocell) costs a little more. Leather, silk, linen, high-quality cotton, cashmere, and wool are much more expensive than synthetics, so fashion designers use them less and less.20 But many synthetics used in clothing production are manufactured or treated with toxic and carcinogenic substances.21
Choose biodegradable plant-based fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, and wool over synthetics. Or animal-based fibers such as wool and silk. “It’s very hard to completely eradicate plastics from our lives, but we can reduce them significantly by choosing biodegradable fibers when available….biodegradable new materials, recycled fabrics, or secondhand textiles. Remember, there is no perfect sustainable lifestyle.”22
Corporations need to do better and stop producing cheap, fast fashion. As consumers, we can buy second-hand clothing. When we do need to buy new, we can choose to buy higher quality items. Since those types of articles are more expensive, we will automatically reduce the amount of clothing we buy. Corporations will pay attention if we buy less of something. If we all try to be more intentional with our clothing purchases, we can make a difference.
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Website, Forest Stewardship Council, the leader in sustainable forestry. Their purpose is “nurturing responsible forestry so forests and people can thrive. ”
Website, Canopy. People cut down 3.4 billion trees annually to make paper packaging and fabrics such as rayon and viscose. “Many of these trees come from the world’s most Ancient and Endangered Forests, integral for life on Earth.” This organization partners with brands to change that. Just ten suppliers produce seventy-five percent of all rayon. After fashion designer Stella McCartney partnered with Canopy, nine of those suppliers pledged that they would stop logging in rainforests.23
Website, Oeko-Tex, rigorously tests and certifies every component of the product, from the fabric to the thread and accessories, against a list of up to 350 toxic chemicals.
Article, “Microfibers & Textiles,” 5Gyres, accessed September 24, 2023.