Every year, approximately 20 articles of clothing per person are created within the apparel industry. Polyester has overtaken fashion with its prevalent use in activewear, athleisure, outdoor gear, and trendy “fast fashion” garments. In fact, polyester accounted for 52% of the global fiber market in 2020. But what makes it such a popular fabric?
What is Fast Fashion?
Polyester is a versatile material that dries quickly, doesn’t require ironing, and is easily washable. It’s used in faux-silk dresses to soft sweaters. While high-quality polyester clothing has been maintained for years, most of the polyester on the market is low-quality and not meant to last more than a few wears.
Fashion brands have increased their production of polyester clothing because it’s far cheaper and easier than natural fibers to manufacture. In 2002, it surpassed cotton demand. A company can send their designs to a synthetic fiber mill, which ships the fabric to the cut-and-sew factory. Designs can now reach consumers faster than ever before, within weeks.
The speed of these production and distribution models has created the concept of “fast fashion,” shorter fashion cycles. Instead of two fashion seasons per year of spring/summer and fall/winter, fast fashion promotes 50-100 trendy micro seasons. Consumers are incentivized to buy more of the latest trends when the influx of polyester garments are so affordable.
How Does Wearing Polyester Affect the Planet?
Every year, over 70 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture polyester. The material is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic, which is formed into threads and woven to create fabric. This process is created through the chemical reaction of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, which are derived from fossil fuels, air, and water.
These chemicals, when exposed to water and air, cause significant environmental damage. Polyester is produced in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and China, which have lax environmental regulations, resulting in the pollution that affects factory workers and local communities downstream and downwind of these plants.
Polyester production consumes less water than natural fibers such as cotton. However, it emits significantly more greenhouse gasses. For example, a polyester shirt produces 12.1 pounds of carbon, while a cotton shirt produces 9.5 pounds. Furthermore, polyester cannot be dyed naturally, thus requiring chemical dyes that continue polluting the water supply.
Polyester Sheds Microplastics
Because polyester is a petroleum-based product, it is non-biodegradable. Instead, it deteriorates into microplastics that slough off clothes in the washing machine. According to a 2020 study at UC Santa Barbara, approximately 176,500 metric tons of synthetic microfibers, such as polyester and nylon, are released each year.
Unfortunately, humans and animals are consuming microplastics that lodge in our digestive systems and leach toxins, the effects of which are still being researched. However, it’s worth noting that certain polyester textiles shed more than others. A polyester fleece sweater may shed more than fibers during a wash versus a tightly woven pair of leggings.
The Future of Fashion Business Models
If fashion consumption progresses at the current rate, we’ll require 3x more natural resources by 2050 compared to what was used in 2000. Because we have finite resources on earth, this is a highly unsustainable business model that will also affect global economies and societies. Companies must embrace models that will benefit the planet, and that means significantly slowing production.
Companies can measure their environmental impact to tackle areas that need improvement. For example, fast fashion companies H&M and Zara have recycling programs for used clothing at many stores. Companies like Repreve and Eco Intelligent Polyester use recycled plastic bottles and old polyester clothing to create new material.
Textile Exchange found that recycled polyester increased to comprise 16% of the globe’s polyester production in 2017, double of that in 2008. However, the process of recycling polyester is still more expensive than brands, and consumers are willing to pay. PET degrades with each recycle, so there will come a point when it’s no longer usable. Most polyester and polyester-blend clothing will end its journey in an incinerator, landfill, or the ocean.
How to Be A Green Consumer
As a sustainable consumer, avoid purchasing polyester garments unless they’re made from recycled materials. If you opt for polyester, stick to tightly woven athletic or rain gear to decrease the amount of microplastics shed.
When cleaning out your closet, find a recycling program that will save your clothes from the landfill. Whenever possible, choose natural fibers like cotton or linen. To avoid being pulled into microtrends, develop your own timeless personal style that will lower your personal consumption habits.
It’s essential we place pressure on companies to improve their sustainability practices and our governments to pass stricter environmental regulations that will protect the planet. The issue of overconsumption that will affect future generations must be addressed, starting today.
Polyester is a popular choice for consumers in fast fashion due to its affordability and versatility.
Polyester is a synthetic non-biodegradable fabric that leaves a large carbon footprint from production using petroleum products to end-of-life shedding microplastics in a landfill.
Fashion companies are working to change their business models that, include clothing recycling programs to prevent polyester pollution.