Fashion for the Earth
The Devil Wears Polyester
December 12, 2023
Take a look in your closet. Chances are, most of your clothing is composed partially or even entirely of polyester. This synthetic fiber is the world’s most widely used material in clothing.
Research on polyester began in the 1920s. Its main ingredient, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), was patented in 1941 and the legal rights to produce polyester were bought by the DuPont Chemicals company. The synthetic material was an attractive product because it was durable, lightweight, and water- and fire-resistant. It was also incredibly cheap. Blending polyester with natural fibers like cotton became the norm for garment production.
Now, polyester and other synthetic fibers make up almost 70% of our clothing. But while this strong and versatile material has fostered new developments in fashion and made clothes more affordable for many people, there are plentiful downsides to polyester.
The most obvious issue is polyester is directly derived from oil, a fossil fuel. But the fabric is also responsible for leaching toxic dyes and microfibers into the environment. Additionally, emissions from clothing factories contribute significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Polyester production has also resulted in human rights concerns for workers in developing nations, where most garment factories tend to be built. Let’s take a closer look at how polyester impacts the environment.
The Devil is in the Details
Polyester is a fabric composed of various chemicals derived from petroleum. Ethylene and p-xylene are extracted from petroleum and mixed with dimethyl terephthalate to create the polymer polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It is estimated 342 million barrels of oil are used for producing plastic-based fibers each year. At its core, polyester is a material derived from fossil fuels, making it incredibly unsustainable and harmful.
Not only does polyester require fossil fuels in its direct production, but the factories where it is made contaminate the local air with pollutants and emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. It is estimated the fashion industry accounts for over 700 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.
The Chinese textile industry, which exports the most textiles each year, released an estimated 18.5 billion tons of greenhouse gasses in 2020 primarily due to the fact their energy generation still relies primarily on fossil fuels like coal. The soot produced by coal lingers in the communities surrounding the plants and has been linked to cardiac and respiratory diseases in workers and residents alike.
The process of dyeing polyester is just as detrimental to human health and the environment. 90% of clothes today are dyed synthetically. During this phase of production, an immense amount of water and chemicals are used to dye the clothes, and most factories have no way to properly dispose of this toxic concoction — it is simply discharged from the plant back into local waterways. Citizens living near these polluted bodies of water have reported higher rates of cancer. The health of workers is also at risk, as they are exposed to these dyes, chemicals, and heavy metals every day.
At every stage in the process, from production to consumption to disposal, polyester clothing releases microfibers. When you wash polyester, thousands of tiny pieces of plastic are released, and without an adequate filter, these synthetic fibers enter laundry wastewater. From there they enter waterways, wreak havoc on aquatic organisms, and contaminate the environment with toxic chemicals. Polyester does not biodegrade, meaning it will stick around for hundreds of years and continue to shed microfibers. These microscope particles are also present in our bodies — studies have found PET in human blood, lungs, and hearts, as well as in umbilical cords, placentas, and breast milk.
Who is buying polyester?
The fashion industry is growing by 8.67% each year. China, the US, and the UK are the world’s biggest markets for fashion. Most of the garments are produced in China. In 2020, for example, over 43% of the world’s clothing exports came from China. By contrast, the US exported just over 3%. But the European Union, the UK, and the US imported almost 40% of clothing produced worldwide.
Polyester is the most cost-effective fabric for fashion brands to use. It costs half as much per kilo as cotton. The cheap material along with the low wages of garment industry workers means companies continue to produce polyester clothing because it is most profitable to do so.
One factor contributing to the growth of the fashion industry is the overall rise of the global middle class population with the disposable income to buy more clothing. Currently, lower and upper middle class individuals account for around 45% of the global population. This percentage is projected to jump to 57% by 2030. While the wealthy elite spend more per capita, the middle class spends the most overall, and spending on clothing in particular is projected to increase by 595.3 billion dollars by 2028 as more people have the funds to access the fashion market.
Additionally, more people than ever are shopping online. The advent of fast fashion websites and apps promising quality garments at scandalously low prices are pushing the trend of clothing overconsumption. E-commerce exploded in 2020 and has continued to pull in around 20% of clothing sales per year. The allure of variety -– Shein alone boasts 300,000 new items each year — along with cheap prices makes online shopping attractive for the burgeoning middle class.
Is polyester worse than other fabrics?
Polyester is often portrayed as a more sustainable alternative to fabrics like cotton because it takes less water to produce and does not require pesticides. Global cotton production requires over 250 billion tons of water per year. Cotton can grow in arid climates, but is often planted in dry countries with scarce amounts of water where irrigating and diverting water for agriculture leads to excessive water use and drought.
However, pointing just to water use ignores the pernicious implications of polyester — the leaching of chemicals and microfibers into water, the discharging of greenhouse gasses from factories, and the fact the material does not biodegrade which all combine to make polyester less sustainable overall than natural fibers like cotton.
Even recycled polyester, which transforms plastic bottles into fabric, is not without its downsides. The fabric is still made from oil-based plastics capable of releasing microfibers. And, the plastic bottles used to make polyester can also only be recycled one time; after that, the clothing still ends up in a landfill where it will sit for years.
Without a doubt, polyester production is on the rise. In the next ten years, an estimated 92 million tons of polyester are going to be produced. The sheer volume of garments created by companies like Shein is simply unsustainable. The success of fast fashion brands in the internet age will only prompt more companies to enter the sector and contribute to this wasteful industry.
We need to take a serious look at our consumption habits and question if we really need all of these clothes, especially those poor quality items which will be out of style before the current fashion season comes to an end. Our clothing conundrum is absurd — we are causing irreparable damage to our planet just to have a new garment to wear and throw away each week. We must pressure the fashion industry to make more sustainable choices. If you agree, take a look at our Fashion for the Earth campaign and sign the petition to force the industry to change their wasteful practices.