Let’s talk fiber (and not the kind you get from your veggies.) Fibers are what make up the textiles of our clothes, and can give us much more information about our pieces beyond laundry cycle suggestions. The material that is used in our clothes can tell us where the clothing came from, the sustainability of the piece, and even the effects it may have on both our health, as well as the environment. Who knew? Let's dive into the top 3 fibers in the textile industry, and we can then go deeper to find the healthier, more sustainable alternatives.
What exactly is Polyester?
Polyester is a plastic artificial fiber made of petroleum with a wide range of applications extending beyond the fashion industry, and is the third most commonly used plastic. It entered the fashion industry in the 1940’s when artificial fibers were developed, and now, in the textile industry alone, it makes up 52% of the global textile production - that is approximately 52 million tons worldwide a year!
Is Polyester sustainable?
Short answer: no. Polyester, for starters, is not biodegradable, and those polyester sweats can take up to 200 yrs to decompose, and ends up in the form of microplastics that infiltrate the oceans, our water, and the soil Polyester also requires a special kind of dye that is incredibly polluting to the water used, and makes it difficult to treat and filter. Furthermore, beyond environmental issues, these dyes are toxic chemicals, and cause both harm to the artisans making the products, as well as the consumers!
Is there an alternative?
Sure - there always is! The best is to steer clear of plastic-based fibers like polyester, but seeing that it makes up over half of the industry, that can deem hard to do. A better choice would be to seek out recycled polyester, that is usually made from PET plastic bottles. Recycled polyester can also be made from other post-consumer plastics such as ocean waste, discarded polyester textiles, or from pre-consumer processing residues such as fabric scraps.
2. Conventional Cotton
So we all know what cotton is… but do we know it’s back story?
Cotton, the breathable, absorbent, washable, and blendable fiber we all know and love, has been used for hundreds of years. It is now the world's largest non-food cash crop, and makes up about 23% of the global textile production - about 26 million tons!
Is Conventional Cotton sustainable?
Although it is a natural fiber, it is not necessarily a great choice when it comes to textiles at all. In fact, it is quite detrimental to the well-being of our environment, our health, and the safety of farmers and artisans. Conventional cotton is highly dependent on toxic pesticides, and relies on harsh chemicals during processing. Exposure to these substances has been proven to cause cancer and other serious health problems. Furthermore, access to GMO seeds is limited and very expensive, causing debt for the farmers.
Is there an alternative?
Yes - there always is! Cue Organic Cotton! Certified organic cotton, specifically GOTS certified organic cotton, ensures that the cotton, from farm to factory to your home, is free of the incredibly harmful chemicals and pesticides, and protects the humans as well as the environment. Beyond exposure, organic cotton can use up to 91% less water in production than conventional cotton! Yep, you read that right! From “thirsty” crops that are grown with pesticides, to unsustainable processing methods, organic cotton eliminates most of the excessive water usage.
3. Polyamide AKA Nylon
What is Polyamide?
Polyamide is the reason we love yoga pants for its stretch and moisture wicking qualities. Also known as Nylon, Polyamide is a synthetic fiber made from crude oil, usually petroleum, and is almost always blended with other fibers to supplement stretch, form fit, and durability. It makes up approximately 7% of the world’s global textile production, producing about 5.6 million tons.
Is Polyamide sustainable?
Again with the short answer: no. It is a synthetic fiber made of crude oil, and requires drilling, fracking, and other methods of petroleum harvesting - all harmful to ecosystems around the world. It is also not biodegradable, and very rarely disposed of properly, causing environmental pollution, both in the Earth and ocean in the form of microplastics, and in the air. Just like polyester, it also uses excessive amounts of water in the cooling process during production. Finally, the production process gives off nitrous oxide, which some studies claim to be 300 times worse for the environment. Yikes.
Is there an alternative?
Sure - there always is! Since polyamide is a plastic, it can easily be recycled. In fact, many companies such as H&M and Brooks Running are beginning to commit to goals to use up to 100% recycled nylon in the next 5-10 years! Be on the lookout for companies who are making public commitments to stop the use of “virgin” polyamide and use only recycled.
There you have it! A quick breakdown of the top 3 conventional fibers used to make up your wardrobe! Stay tuned for PART II to come out about the Top 3 Sustainable Fibers you can look for and begin to incorporate in your closet!