The Truth about Synthetic Fabric part Two

Author: Clara Tuckey

The best thing that you can wear is clothing made of natural fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp and wool, but have you noticed how difficult it is to find clothes made purely out of this stuff? Synthetic fibres make up the bulk of our wardrobes but we have so little understanding about their material qualities and how they are affecting both our environment and the way we purchase our clothing. Let’s take a closer look at synthetic textiles in part two of this two-part post.

Blurred scene of sewing studio

The Truth about Synthetic Fabric, Part Two

Be sure to read part one, link here

When textiles made of synthetic fibres were invented (around the 1930s), they were thought to be miracle products that would eliminate the natural textile industry. Since they mimicked fabrics made of natural fibres but were often cheaper, non-wrinkle, form fitting, lightweight, fast-drying etc., they seemed superior to natural textiles, which could be expensive, inflexible and difficult to care for. For example, acrylic was developed as a replacement for wool that was softer and washable while polyester introduced a wrinkle-free, non-shrinking substitute for cotton. Over time, these seemingly amazing qualities were outweighed by the fact that synthetic materials often do not wear as well as natural ones. They are prone to pilling and stretching and can be incredibly hot and uncomfortable when worn for long periods of time. These issues have not affected the synthetic market as much as you might assume, in fact, the synthetic textile market is bigger than ever and this can largely be attributed to the rise of fast fashion.

Fast fashion does not focus on quality or longevity of its garments. Trendiness and low cost are of main importance. The fact that many synthetic textiles are very cheap and readily available makes them a favourite to disposable fashion giants. Even mid-level brands choose to add synthetic materials to their garments because they realize it will cut costs in an incredibly price-competitive industry, and can be sneakily added to more valuable, natural fibres with little notice by the consumer. These large companies don’t have to worry about customer complaints over their low-quality garments because they are only meant to be worn 1-10 times before the customer will move onto another item from their ever-changing collection. This mindless cycle is incredibly destructive to our environment and slowly, our health and everyday lives.

Garbage dump on ground

If you’re unfamiliar with microplastics and their invasion of our food chain, here’s a quick little crash course: Microplastics are small fragments of plastic that are released from our landfills, drains, roads etc. into waterways, eventually making their way to the ocean where they do the most harm. These small plastics measure 5mm or smaller and can be manufactured, for example the beads you find in hand sanitizer or body wash, or can be fragments of larger plastic items such as nylon toothbrush bristles. Synthetic textiles make up 34.8% of all microplastic pollution, the largest single producer behind residue from car tires3. The majority of this pollution comes from washing and laundering our synthetic clothing. One study found that over 700,000 fibres could be shed in an average load of laundry, and that when polyester was blended with cotton, it shed significantly less fibres than an entirely polyester garment4. This does not mean that blending natural and synthetic fabrics is a good thing but it helps to demonstrate that natural textiles are far better for the environment. Polyester, being one of the most popular synthetic textiles for its low cost and flexibility accounts for almost three quarters of the microplastics present in the Arctic5, one of the most important environments for marine species.

The Arctic is not the only environment littered with microplastics, almost every waterway and landmass is infested with them. This causes huge problems both for the species living in these biomes and us, humans. Microscopic species such as zooplankton will eat microplastics, mistaking them for algae or other food sources. The zooplankton is then eaten by small fish, who are eaten by larger fish, and so on. The plastic continues in this chain of prey and predator until humans ingest the plastic unknowingly while enjoying fish or other seafoods6. In the end, toxic chemicals are consumed at every level of the food chain, affecting everyone’s health and quality of life.

pebbles underwater

These facts are beyond difficult to visualize. Most of us have never entered a landfill, let alone a synthetic textile factory, and we can’t see microplastics in our waterways and food with our naked eye. The pictures we are shown of overflowing landfills, crumbling garment factories, and rivers in Bangladesh coloured red and indigo by fabric dye do not create the same feeling of urgency that we might feel if we were to witness these places and events in person. What we do have are the fast fashion shops in our local malls and outlets. This is where we must focus—the dollars we spend on these companies’ cheap clothing only allows the destructive cycle to continue, and the environmental and social situation will only become worse. 

About a year ago, I began to realize the negative impacts of consuming fast fashion—up until then, I was a cheap fashion fiend. My closet is still full of clothing from these companies, and I continue to wear many of these garments, adding better quality, ethical and sustainable clothing as they wear out. While incredibly unsettling, one of the exercises I used to become more aware of my environmental impact, and that of fast fashion companies was to enter my local mall, walk straight for my favourite fast fashion retailers, and take it all in. When I say “take it all in” I mean think about the number of garments on display, where they may have been made and who might have made them. When you enter a store full of trendy, cheap clothing and think “in a year, 64% of this will be in the landfill”7, you immediately want to RUN out the door. While this may seem a bit silly or over-the-top, we must come to terms with what our over-consumption and impulsive spending is doing to the planet. 

Woman holding a sign written There is no Planet B

The key to ending this cycle is to buy less and be conscious of what your clothes are made of. Synthetic textiles should be used sparingly and carefully, and only in applications where they benefit the already high-quality, intentionally designed garment. Fast fashion companies will not stop using them anytime soon as they are the key to generating massive profits. This has a positive spin however; these money-hungry companies are relying on YOU purchasing their goods to make their profits, meaning that your money has a voice! When you spend, think about it as casting a vote in an election—is this company looking out for me, my community and the planet, or are they self-centred and greedy, looking to gain money and power at my expense? As well, remember to think about the long term rather than the short term; while that cute, matching synthetic sweater and shorts from an online fast fashion retailer might give you confidence and happiness in the first few wears, it’s likely to degrade or go out of style quickly and contribute to environmental pollution—ultimately not benefitting you or the planet.

Thanks for reading! If you missed part one, be sure to take a look. More blog posts to come soon!

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