Fashion industry remains heavily dependent on plastic to make products. In fact, 62% of all fibers that were produced in 2020 are synthetic. Fashion products account for a fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced globally each year. The global market for polyester yarn is expected to grow from $106 billion in 2022 to $174.7 billion by 2032. Yearly polyester fiber production is projected to exceed 92 million tons in the next 10 years–an increase of 47%.
These materials allow Fashion players to propose to consumers billions of items at low price (polyester costs half as much per kilo as cotton) with an incredible frequency, arriving to an annual average of 50-100 “micro-seasons” per year. The average consumer buys 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago, yet due to the lower quality of items, wears each item of clothing for half as long.
Brands are still lacking the commitment to shift away from synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon, undermining their stated concerns about sustainability. Synthetic fibers depend on fossil fuel production, and they shed microplastic fibers into the environment, with major effects on aquatic life and human health.
Concerns around the use of synthetic fibers also extend to their recycled versions, which have become more common for brands positioning them as sustainable. Experts say that these fibers have about the same impacts on the environment as virgin synthetics.
Synthetics materials are necessary for apparel performance: synthetics have a role to play in apparel, and outdoor apparel in particular, because of the performance benefits they offer. So there is the need to find a balance
Product transparency could lead to progress, like mandatory labelling system that would notify customers when garments are made with synthetic fibers. Recent researches show that around 80% of consumers want a mandate for clothes to be labelled if they contain plastic.
The use of synthetic fibers in textiles has more than doubled since 2000 and is already present in over two thirds (69%) of textiles we use today.
What’s worse, the use of synthetics is projected to skyrocket by 2030, meaning that if nothing changes, in 10 years nearly three quarters of our textiles will be made from synthetic fibers, with 85% of this coming from polyester. If the situation looks dire now, by 2030 it will be disastrous.
Let’s have a look of what are the main synthetic fibers and which are their characteristics
Artificial fibers grew out of 19th century chemical experiments between alcohol and acid. Polyester and polyamides emerged in the 1930s following research at the DuPont Fiber Company. This group category include polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastomerics (also known as elastane or spandex).
Synthetic fibers are formed entirely by chemical synthesis – usually derived from petroleum or natural gas.
Polyester is obtained from petroleum products by a complex manufacturing process and the use of various chemicals. In general, the raw material is melted, spun into a yarn, processed again and then made into a textile. The material also creates environmental malignancy by producing microplastics and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during production. Polyester synthetic fibre is durable and resistant to shrinkage and stretch. The fabric is washed easily, and dries quickly. Additionally it is wrinkle and mildew resistant – properties that most common natural fibers do not have.
Acrylics form another big group of synthetic fibers. Their raw material does not occur in nature. They are made from mineral oil or other hydrocarbons and the manufacturing process involves a lot of hazardous chemicals, such as dimethyl-formamide, vinyl acetate, ammonium persulphate, iron and others. They are made of acrylonitrile, a carcinogen, and a mutagen. This substance can cause health problems, chiefly headache, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and many more based on exposure. Acrylic fiber is very soft, bulky and you will often find your new winter sweater is made from 100% acrylic instead of wool.
Nylon is another synthetic fiber and the generic term for a family of synthetic polymers (also known as polyamides). They are synthesized, like polyester, from petrochemicals. In some countries nylon is called polyamide. Nylon production is known as energy and water intensive, with generally a big environmental impact. To produce nylon, you release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with a significant global warming potential 300 times that of carbon dioxide. In addition to this, the material creates microplastic pollution when washed. Nylon fiber is durable, but a loosely woven knit fabric is more likely to distort and wrinkle more easily than compactly / heavier woven or knit one. Apparel production from nylon fabrics includes blouses, dresses, tights, lingerie, underwear, raincoats, ski apparel, windbreakers, cycle wear and swimwear. DuPont chose the name “nylon” with the aim of provoking Japanese industry, which would be able to export less silk as a result of the new artificial fiber – this story says that “nylon” stands for “Now You’ve Lost, Old Nippon”.
Elastomeric is the generic name of elastane (in Australia and other countries) or spandex (in the United States) or Lycra. The manufacturing of this synthetic fibre is the most complex compared other synthetic fibers manufacturing.
Elastomer is a combined term from elastic polymer, also known as rubber. Composed of polyurethane, elastomeric fibre stretches up to three times its original length and when released, recovers rapidly and fully to its original length. It is included to make knit fabrics for swimwear, lingerie, dresses, shirts, T-shirts, underwear, trousers, jeans and so on. Like polyester, spandex, when produced, releases GHGs and, when burned in landfills, releases carbon into the air and contributes to rising air pollution levels.
We can also briefly talk about Rayon and Modal.
Rayon is made from cellulose, usually derived from wood pulp (viscose)—but don’t let this fool you. The wood pulp is often harvested using non-sustainable practices and is heavily refined and mixed with many chemicals before becoming rayon. Requires chemical treatments to resist shrinkage and fade. Used in almost all types of clothing, from lingerie to blouses to sportswear.
Modal is another type of rayon made specifically from beech tree pulp. Usually more expensive, durable and flexible than viscose or rayon. Modal is a semi-synthetic fabric as it is blended with organic material and is considered biodegradable. The processing the pulp into fabric requires a lot of toxic chemicals, water and energy.
None of these materials are biodegradable, thus will not decay naturally and persist in the environment indefinitely, especially as microplastics on land, air or ocean. The U.S. Geological Survey found that 71% of microplastics found in samples of river water came from fibers. globally, 35% of the microplastics found in oceans can be traced to textiles. Furthermore. in 2015, polyester production for clothing emitted 282 billion tons of carbon dioxide, triple that of cotton.