25 September 2015

Sustainability in Style: Navigating the world of synthetic and natural fibres

My post on synthetic fibers was nothing more than me trying to nut out my thoughts. I try to live a plastic free life, and this blog is the records of my experiments. So after I hit publish on that post I received emails from some of you, letting me know that i can't save the world. This is true, I cannot save the world and believe the world will adapt in its own way with or without us humans.

Essentially I was confused about my clothing. I feel like I have sorted my life when it comes to avoiding plastic. But then something sneaks in or reminds me that it won't ever be completely plastic free leaving me with the feeling that the only option is to run into the hills and live in a cave. I can only do the best with what I have got and since I was feeling a little lost and confused about synthetic fibers as a contributor to plastic pollution I decided to contact Katie of Sustainability in Style to help me navigate new and second hand fashion. Since I did not have the well rounded knowledge Katie has, a former fashion industry employee, I asked her to pen a post for you and ME that would help us understand the world of synthetic and natural fibers.
 

Sustainability in Style

The world of fashion can be difficult to navigate.

From finding a car park outside the department store to finding the right sized bikini, there is a multitude of problems to solve every time we head out with intent to add something new to our closet. Some issues we can solve easily: like riding our bike to the store instead of driving or choosing to shop online, while others (like finding the right bikini) aren’t necessarily within our immediate control.


We live in a world where the supply of fashion items is becoming increasingly abundant. Our world that now consumes eighty billion pieces of clothing each year. This is up 400% from just two decades ago. To meet this increasing demand for fashion world fiber production is now 82 million tons, which requires 145 million tons of coal and somewhere between 1.5 trillion and 2 trillion gallons of water to produce. You would think that this abundant supply would make shopping for clothing and accessories (including the dreaded bikini) easier and more enjoyable. However, designs are dictated by seasonal trends and the current industry trend is ‘fast’ with some stores operating on the release of 52 new collections a year. If trends or the season aren’t suited for your purchase it can be difficult to find exactly what you want. Worse still, there is very little transparency in the garment manufacturing chain so it can be difficult to know the background behind your purchase, and many fast fashion brands are guilty of using cheap off-shore labour. The kind that encourages manufacturing in conditions like those of the Rana Plaza, where 1129 people were killed when a garment factory collapsed despite factory managers having been warned to evacuate the unsound structure in the day’s prior. Furthermore, 91% of companies surveyed for the Baptist World Aid 2015 report don’t know where all their cotton comes from, and 75% don’t know the source of all their fabrics and inputs. From this it is easy to see that for The Rogue Ginger conscious consumer who aims for a life of mindful and simple living; free from trash, plastic, and toxins, the world of fast fashion can be minefield of hidden nasties.

Sustainability in Style

The Thoughtful Fashion Purchase

As conscious consumers it is important to consider the entirety of the purchase. From product conception to end of life disposal there are implications of each and every item we buy. This concept of thinking is called ‘cradle to grave' lifecycle assessment. Taken a step further, some folk in sustainability design circles have developed a cradle to cradle’ approach. Cradle to cradle design looks beyond the grave into how a product that reaches the end of its life can be transformed into a fully usable product with minimal to no waste. While some fashion companies do use cradle to cradle manufacturing techniques, much of the discussion on this cradle to cradle ‘closed loop’ design is focused on synthetic fabrics because these are more readily recyclable than biodegradable natural fibres. Unfortunately these synthetic fibres don’t readily align with the goals of living a plastic free lifestyle. Which brings us to the bit where we talk fabrics.

Polyester is Plastic

Synthetic fibres are derivatives of the coal (and sometimes gas) industry. They are clothing made from polymers that do not occur naturally. These fibres are products of years of scientific research and are made in the laboratory and chemical plant. Commonly used synthetic fibres in fast fashion manufacturing include polyester (from polymer, polyethylene terephthalate), acrylic (from acrylonitrile), nylon (from polyamide) and lycra (Polyurethane). Polyester production now exceeds 50 billion pounds a year worldwide and is the dominant fiber. A quick Google on the sources of synthetic fibres and you will find they are the same sources used for the production of everything from soft drink bottles to takeaway food containers. This is how companies like Patagonia can turn old plastic bottles into board shorts. Synthetics are highly desirable within the fashion industry as they are easy to care for, long lasting, and readily available on the global textile market.

However, Luz Claudio paints a not-so-pretty picture of the manufacturing of polyester in the paper Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry, stating that:

“the manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease. Volatile monomers, solvents, and other by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants”

Also adding that:

‘The EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators”.

Synthetic Fibres and End of Life

While there is potential for synthetic fibres to be recycled and for synthetic fabrics to be made from recycled material (ECONYL is the new darling of the recycled fabric scene and gaining serious traction in swimwear circles) this practice isn’t common. The average American is throwing away 82 pounds of textile waste a year adding up to 11 million tonnes of textile waste from the USA alone. Assuming that around half of this textile waste is comprised of synthetics that make for at least 5.5 million tonnes of non-biodegradable textile waste from one nation. Nylon, as an example, takes up to four decades to decompose.

While donating clothing to charity can in fact divert items from ending up in landfill, statistics from The True Cost indicate that only 10% of items donated end up being sold in charity stores, with the remainder being shipped off for second-hand clothing markets (which have their own ethical issues), or being sent for rag recycling and eventually to landfill.

Wear and Wash Issues for Synthetics

Upon invention in the 1940’s synthetic fabrics were a dream for housewives and single men across the globe as they are naturally more resistant to creasing and often require very little ironing. But like most things that seem too good to be true, synthetics have their downside when it comes to wash and wear. Ever smelt your armpits while wearing a synthetic shirt? There is a good chance that they were a little stinky. You don’t believe this? Rachel McQueen, an associate professor from the University of Alberta has conducted studies into the stink factor of fabrics and has discovered that polyester is the number one offender when it comes to retaining body odour. Stink factor has more implications in life than having people move away from you on public transport, it also means you will be washing your garments more frequently.

Laundering of garments contributes to around 82% of the items total energy embodiment and 66% of its solid waste and half of it’s emissions to air come from washing and drying. The less frequently you have to wash, the more environmentally friendly your purchase becomes. According to McQueen’s research you are better off opting for fibres like wool, that have natural antimicrobial properties that help keep stink at bay (between you and I, my wool might only get washed every few months) as these usually only require an airing between wears. There have also been some murmurs around the web that synthetics when washed can release fibres into the waterways contributing to global oceanic pollution.

The saddest part about this polyester washing mission? Polyester tends to hold smells even after washing, so that sport shirt that never seems to smell quite right probably never will no matter how diligently you wash or how many different laundry powders you use!

What are the alternatives?

Every day new and innovative fabric ideas are being created and we are now seeing everything from spoilt milk to fruit are being made into material for the manufacturing of clothing and accessories. While some of these fabrics haven’t reached mainstream textiles, clothing, and footwear manufacturers just yet, the industry openly embraces innovation if it can be made at the right price. At present the most common fabric alternatives to synthetic you will find on the market are: Viscose/Rayon/Modal/Bamboo, Cotton, Wool, and Leather (click each one for more info). The first group are man-made fibres from a re-constructed natural source, primarily manufactured through a chemical process of reconstructing plant cellulose into usable fibre, while cotton, wool, and leather are all grown, harvested, and converted to product using traditional manufacturing processes (some of which can be quite chemical intensive). Of course this list only focuses on the most predominant fibres found in our stores. There are a variety of alternatives out there in fabric land and this site is a favourite resource of mine for learning about fibre types.

Sustainability in Style

So what fabrics should I choose?

Unfortunately there is no definitive answer to this multifaceted question. The final thoughts from research into the life cycle assessment of synthetics vs. natural fibres states that:

“In reality, no single fabric is the best for the environment. It is up to consumers to demand that manufactures take a closer look at the processes to produce clothing and find the best way to make it healthier for everyone involved”.

What it all really comes down it is asking yourself ‘what do I value', doing your research, and getting the right item the first time around. When it comes to values we all differ. Many people opt for synthetics as an alternative to animal based products like leather handbags and shoes, however if you values are orientated around plastic free living this may not appeal at all. Generally I like to consider the end purpose of my items when deciding on what fibres to opt for. Most of my bags and shoes are leather (around 80% purchased second-hand) as I appreciate the durability of leather products and the fact a leather crafts person can easily repair them. Many of my shoes have been to the cobbler at least once and I own one pair of leather boots that are now reaching their 15th birthday and are still functional. With my values firmly placed in ‘functionality’, living in a hot climate means 97% of my closet is made up of natural fibres and some viscose/rayon (which are a breathable man-made alternative) because sweaty stinky synthetics doesn’t cut it in the humidity. The remainder? Yoga pants, swimwear, and pantyhose. While my synthetic yoga pants may make some plastic free folks shudder I have yet to find a pair of cotton/bamboo leggings that can live up to the number of sun salutations that I put mine through without pilling or bagging out. Synthetic ones last me half a decade, while natural ones are lucky to get me through six months (I have tried). Fortunately there are some great recycled and ethically manufactured options out there now and when my reach their end of life they will be lovingly recycled as stuffing for yoga bolsters.

I hope that you enjoyed this little insight into fabrics! While it’s not all-inclusive hopefully it (and all the attached links) provide a start to get us all thinking about what our items are made from.


What did you learn from Katie's post? What other issues around sustainability and fashion do you find confusing? How do you think we can inspire change? Be sure to let us know if you have any additional insights on fabrics, or the way you choose to shop for fabrics, in the comments below.

  1. Thank you for this post! I'm getting more and more interested in the where and how of my clothes, but there's such a lack of readily available information from retailers. I have always bought second hand clothing but I need to up my game when it comes to brand new clothes....

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    1. I'm glad you like this post. Katie is a treasure trove of information. I am starting to read more about it too. I would love to know more about the second hand clothes industry.

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  2. Thanks Katie for this balanced article! It helps me rethink my closet.

    I recently came across a guide to assess the quality of garments (refer to the link below), which may be helpful when buying new/second-hand clothes.

    http://into-mind.com/2014/05/01/how-to-assess-the-quality-of-garments-a-beginners-guide-part-i/

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    1. Thanks for the sharing Into Mind - I will have to check it out.

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  3. Thank You for inviting me to be involved in The Rogue Ginger. It was great to be able to research fabric choices and share them with you. Annemieke... Into Mind is one of my all time favourite resources for closet thinking! It was such a great tool to utilise when I took a year off from shopping for fashion and rethought my closet contents and style choices. Thank you for sharing it with us. xx Katie

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    1. It was a pleasure having you :)

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