Alrighty folks, buckle up and let’s talk about the fashion industry and the environment, and my biggest gripe: synthetic fabrics! This is a quick overview of many topics with detailed posts on each to come.
Rather than linking resources inline, which, let’s face it, just means you have 20 tabs open you might not ever read, I’ve included a “Read More!” list at the bottom. Enjoy!
What’s the problem with synthetic fabrics?
The synthetic fabrics of polyester, nylon, and acrylic are all made from petroleum plastic. Every time you wash that polyester sweater, little bits of it slough off and go down the drain and into the ocean. (This is true of all clothing, but is most problematic with non-biodegradable fabrics. That’s what’s in your dryer lint screen–lots of little bits of your clothing.) These microfibers of polyester plastic get eaten by ocean life (which is detrimental to them, because, ew, plastic is not food) and incorporated into their tissues, and those microfibers can work their way up the food chain to even get inside of you and me.
All this pollution is terrible, on top of all the other problems in the fashion industry including: pollution from synthetic dyes (looking at you, blue jeans), fresh water waste in the cotton industry, oil use and pollution from the shipment of textiles (cotton grown in one place, spun in another, dyed in a third, printed with your catchy sayings in another, and sold at last wherever you are), dangerous working conditions of exploited textile factory workers, etc etc etc.
But what can you do to avoid being complicit to these fashion industry woes?
- Check the clothing tags on garments you purchase and avoid polyester, nylon, polyamide, and acrylic.
- Wash your garments less, and when you do wash, use cold water and gentler cycles for less agitation. You’d be surprised what a good “airing out in the sun” can do to freshen up a garment, energy-free, even for sticky scents like cigarettes!
BONUS: your clothes will last longer, and you will save on your water and energy bills.
- Air-dry your clothes, ESPECIALLY synthetics. Nylon loses all its elasticity with repetitious heat. Your undergarment waistbands will thank you.
- Learn basic mending to repair the clothes you do have. There are so many garments in circulation right now and most wind up in landfills after not too long.
- Aim to buy used clothing over new. Learn some basic tailoring to upcycle items.
- Buy quality garments that aren’t going to fall apart after one wash. That also means you’ll need to learn how to notice quality.
- If you’re going to buy synthetic, my personal opinion is that nylon is the superior option. (See more details about this below.)
But what about rayon?
Rayon is interesting because while it is indeed produced through a synthetic process, the source material is wood pulp rather than petroleum plastic like the other synthetics. The wood pulp gets treated with a series of chemicals to transform it from wood into spinnable fiber.
There are two patented processes by which rayon is produced: the viscose/Modal® method and the Lyocell/Tencel™️/ method. The viscose method is by far the more popular of the two so much that we can consider it the default, and unfortunately the chemicals used in the process are toxic and not recyclable. As a result, this process is generally considered eco-taxing, not eco-friendly. Lyocell, on the other hand, is able to recycle the chemicals used in its production process.
A small rant about the bamboo fabric scam
Y’all, I wish so badly that bamboo were a legitimate future for textiles. Bamboo plants grow crazy fast and take up far less acreage per yield compared to cotton, and the resulting fabric is breathable and cooling.
However. Rarely is bamboo fiber harvested and spun straight from the plant. Instead, bamboo fabric is made into, you guessed it, BAMBOO RAYON. Bamboo rayon (by the viscose method) is the default, and so it is almost always true that your bamboo sheets aren’t that eco-friendly after all, and you have been a victim of greenwashing.
My favorite misconceptions about wool, and instead why wool is magic
Wool is so hot!
Stop wearing a thick, tight-fitting wool sweater in the summer heat, yo. Wool is incredibly breathable when compared to synthetic fibers. You’ll sweat less, but also your sweat gets wicked and absorbed by wool without the wool feeling wet.
Wool is itchy!
There are estimated to be over 1000 sheep breeds throughout the world, and while not all of them have fleece used for wool clothing, there’s certainly many different types of wool.
Merino, targhee, and dorset sheep all produce fluffy, soft wool. Other animals including goats (cashmere), rabbits (mohair), yaks, muskox, and alpacas also produce soft, luxurious wool-like fiber.
Wool is hard to wash!
Firstly, you shouldn’t need to wash your wool that often anyway! Wool is water-repellent and largely self-cleaning. Dirt has a way of… working itself out. Wool is also antimicrobial (ever noticed how your wool hiking socks don’t… smell as much?)
Secondly, it’s really not that hard to hand-wash things. Grab a tub, throw in your wool thing, add some room-temperature water and a teeny squirt of dish soap (biodegradable is better), let it sit for 15-30 min, squeeze (don’t wring!), roll in a towel and squeeze more, and lay flat to dry. 5 minutes of active effort.
Wait, you said wool is absorbant, but also water-repellent. What gives?
Wool fibers have an outside cuticle and an inside cortex. The cuticle repels water but the cortex absorbs it, which means once water gets it, the moisture is hidden from the surface of the fiber. Magic!
Honorable mention for linen
Linen is also kind of magic, because it is:
- strong as hell, especially compared to cotton. Staple length tends to be longer = more durable.
- breathable and “cooling” because the fibers tend to be spun up a little thicker for lower thread count, and because the fiber wicks moisture better.
- holds more moisture than cotton without feeling wet.
- dries faster.
- is also antimicrobial, so less mildew smell.
Maybe nylon isn’t as bad as the other synthetics?
I personally suspect that nylon contributes far less to the fashion industry’s microplastic pollution problem. Nylon is extremely strong and durable (abrasion-resistant), and so my hunch is it’s less susceptible to microfiber abrasion, but I need to look into this more. Regardless, nylon clothes last a long time, don’t harbor bad body smells (so need less frequent washing), and are a fine choice for things like pants that I don’t wash as often and I keep for years. (BONUS: they look basically new even after years of use, and they don’t stretch out like jeans).
- How rayon is made
- Nylon vs polyester
- Explanation of microplastics out of the UK
- Microfibers in the ocean, reporting by Wired
- Microplastics in your oysters
- Textile waste statistics (it’s bad, y’all)
- Wool fiber properties
- Types of sheep
- Patagonia® has long worked against the “fast fashion” movement. Their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign made a big statement as a commitment to garment quality and repairability, and debuted a systematized way to keep used Patagonia® gear in circulation.