Polyester Rant II – The Costs of Cheap Fast Fashion

Fashion Revolution Charitable Foundation

Why am I addressing this topic again? Let’s just say I’m obsessed about the extensive use of synthetics in clothing manufacturing, mainly polyester. Synthetics account for over 65% of global production, and polyester alone is found in 60% of the garments on retail shelves – disturbing statistics. I’m frustrated and disappointed that clothing manufacturers have moved in this direction. Their reasoning is simple – “fast fashion”. Around the year 2000, fast fashion or the speedy delivery of current fashion trends became a viable business strategy. In the past, designers only came out with two or three collections per year, but now many of them in addition to their expensive collections have cheaper lines with high turnover rates. Fast fashion is very profitable, and three major retailers H&M, Zara, and TopShop have built successful businesses just manufacturing trends quickly and cheaply. The predilection of polyester over natural fibers, keeps prices low, but the costs to the environment, garment workers, and brand perception is becoming increasingly obvious. (Check out fashionrevolution.org for information on the plight of garment workers)

There’s always a price to pay in the quest for cheap. A fast fashion business model is not the problem per se, it’s the production and use of polyester and other synthetics. The industrialized world prefers synthetics because they are cheap and easier to manage on a large scale than natural fibers. Consumers have been trained to think that synthetics perform better than natural fibers. For some products this is true, but the benefits have been highly overrated.

With the increased use of polyester, the sustainability of production, use, and disposal are concerns. A serious problem is the ingredients and the by-products of processing polyester and other synthetics. Synthetics are produced in a lab from chemicals and oils. Polyester is a common plastic derived from the petroleum and oil manufacturing industry. The process of making polyester fibers produces an excess of carbon dioxide (CO2). The production of polyester fiber to make one T-shirt contributes twice the amount of CO2 as does an equivalent volume of cotton fiber. Special disperse dyes are necessary to impart color to polyester. These dyes do not easily decompose, and enter the environment via the waste water from textile plants. At the end of its lifecycle, polyester decomposes at a much slower rate than natural fibers, creating disposal challenges.

A fact I find alarming is “microfiber” pollutants that affect aquatic systems and organisms. Microfibers and microplastics are found in marine species. How does this happen? Each time a polyester fleece jacket is laundered, an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers are released into the washing machine. 40% of these microfibers end up in our waterways.

Polyester textiles are not easy to clean due to their low absorption of water, and retention of odors and oily stains. These negative properties require that polyester be cleaned more frequently, generating more microfibers, increasing their accumulation in the water.

The hand knitting industry is not as greatly affected by the use of synthetics as in the textile manufacturing industry. Amongst needle crafters, there is more preference for natural fibers over synthetics.

I think over time with continued production of fast fashion and the predilection for polyester, brand perception will tarnish, particularly for the high end designers who are engaging in this practice. Nothing can damage a line more than “cheaping out” on fabric. In the past year alone, I have become more disheartened in the search for natural fiber and sustainable fashion. Stores I patronized at one time for wool suits or silk items, I no longer shop because their shelves are filled with synthetics. I have cut back my purchases, and thankfully I shop quality over quantity. My yarn choices have always been natural fibers. My knitting fiber of choice is wool for its outstanding properties.

What should we do?

Choose Natural Fibers. Why?

The Responsible Choice

  • natural fibers make quality textiles
  • the raw materials have other applications
  • potential for energy efficient production
  • lower use of water
  • lower carbon emissions
  • recyclable and biodegradable
  • supports the livelihood for small scale farmers in developing countries and around the world
  • supports cottage industries and local designers

Industrial Value

  • certain properties and green characteristics are attractive to industry
  • have many industrial applications for construction and home products
  • production costs are generally lower for natural fibers

The Healthy Choice

  • natural ventilation through wicking. Natural fibers are better at absorbing moisture and releasing it into the air. They are far superior to synthetic fibers designed to wick. These synthetics don’t breathe, rather the moisture moves along the surface leaving the wearer clammy and hot.
  • wool is one of the best “natural breathing” fibers. Wool is ideal for outerwear, home accessories and carpets, as well as having the best properties for hand knitting yarns.
  • construction and home products made with natural fibers pose less health complications for humans

Chic Fashion Choice

  • there are designers producing collections that strive for sustainability at all levels of manufacturing. We need to support them.
  • the “Slow Food” movement has made us aware of the dangers of our industrial food systems. Now what we need is a “Slow Fiber” movement to create more sustainable “Slow Fashion” collections.
  • one of my favorite sustainable knitting and crochet fashion companies is UK’s Wool and The Gang

Will the love of fast and cheap fashion win out over concerns for the environment? I hope not and I leave this question for you to ponder.

(This post happens to coincide with Fashion Revolution Week, celebrated all over the globe, with events hosted by UK’s Fashion Revolution Movement, a charitable foundation)

(Sources for today’s post: The Robin Report, and The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius)