Fabric Sustainability: Synthetic Fibers
Synthetic fibers have really gained popularity in the fashion industry lately, owing to the easy availability of cheap, raw materials such as wood chips and petroleum. According to a fashion industry report in 2019, synthetic fibers had accrued a 59.3% share in the market and are only expected to grow bigger. While cheap, synthetic fibers are not environmentally friendly and contribute to a staggering 72% of all fashion landfill waste. These fibers also release a significant amount of greenhouse gases during production.
While we do not recommend buying some synthetic fibers, certain fibers can be more eco-friendly than others, and we are here to help you make an informed decision!
Most of us have at least one polyester item in our wardrobe. Not only is it cheap to produce, it is also incredibly versatile in terms of application. Most polyesters are not biodegradable and require a lot of water during production, which makes this fabric very unsustainable. On top of that, polyester dyes can be extremely toxic and are hard to dispose of, which causes pollution in rivers and lakes.
As with other plastic-based clothing, polyester also releases microplastics and microfibres that can reach the oceans and is consumed by fishes and other aquatic life. These toxins move up the food chain through biomagnification and ultimately, harm our bodies.
Very few factories in the world recycle polyester at the moment, and the quality degrades with every cycle, so it will eventually be another plastic source in the landfill. We recommend the use of polyester as little as possible.
Nylon is a stretchy synthetic fabric that is generally used in underwear, tights, knits, swimwear, raincoats, and athleticwear. It was first created in a laboratory for use in wars and later, to replace silk. Like polyester, nylon is also plastic and is made from crude oil.
Nylon is very polluting. During the production of nylon, many greenhouse gases are released, the worst of them being nitrous oxide, which is highly noxious and is three hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide. It uses and pollutes a lot of water and consumes a lot of energy during production. Like other plastic fibers, it also releases microplastics during wash, making it further unsustainable.
The good side to nylon is that it is recyclable! However, a lot of nylon still goes into landfills as recycling is not very common, or cheap, so we recommend the use of nylon as little as possible.
Vegan Leather (PVC or PU)
Vegan leather, or man-made leather is either made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU). The term ‘vegan leather’ is actually a misnomer since both PVC and PU are polymers made out of fossil fuels. According to PETA, these two compounds are used because their crinkled texture mimics real leather.
Many see PVC and PU as an eco-friendly alternative to real leather, which is made from animal hides; however, it can be just as disastrous for the environment, if not more. Since both compounds are essentially plastic, they are not biodegradable, use toxic chemicals during creation, and release microplastics into water.
Researchers are coming up with friendlier substitutes, using pineapples, mushrooms, and even kombucha cultures! These substitutes are not very popular at the moment, but demand is steadily increasing and we hope to see more of them in the market very soon.
Spandex, also known as elastane, is made of a polymer called polyurethane (PU). It has the ability to stretch up to 500% its length and is very lightweight, durable, and comfortable to wear, which makes it ideal for use in sportswear, swimwear, and intimate wear.
However, spandex is created from fossil fuels and the process uses many toxic chemicals and known carcinogens, which makes the production unsustainable and unethical. During laundry, polyurethane fibers can also release microplastics and shed threads, which further pollute the environment as they are not biodegradable. Many clothes contain a blend of spandex with a naturally derived fiber, such as stretchable denim jeans, which makes it difficult to separate the fibers and recycle them.
Companies such as Lycra have started using eco-friendly spandex, which is made of pre-consumer recycled PU, as well as recycled plastic bottles. Research is underway to make production more eco-friendly through the use of plant-based oils and natural dyes. Spandex still remains a huge pollutant in the fashion industry, and therefore, should be avoided as much as possible.
Lyocell is a more sustainable version of rayon, which is made out of wood pulp that is dissolved and then spun into yarn. While the production of rayon requires many harmful chemicals that can be toxic to workers, lyocell uses no toxic chemicals and requires about half the water needed to produce cotton. It is also a breathable fabric that doesn’t need to be washed very often. It ranks very high on sustainability indexes and is a must for an eco-friendly wardrobe!
Tencel, the largest producer of lyocell, also makes denim out of lyocell and blended cotton fibers, which not only adds to the breathability of denim but also makes it more sustainable! Lyocell is an eco-friendly substitute to viscose and is gaining traction among fast fashion brands as well.
Did you know that HMS works great on Tencel fabrics? Give it a try, and share your results with the #washedwithHMS tag!