How Sustainable Is PVC?

PVC Feature

PVC. It’s that hard plastic piping you can see under your kitchen sink right? What’s it got to do with sustainable fashion? Well, the first thing to know about PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is that it’s used in many places.  It can be manufactured as a hard material or a flexible fabric sometimes known as Vinyon. But given that it’s is another form of plastic, how sustainable is PVC for your wardrobe?  

What is PVC/Vinyon and how is it made?

Now I understand you might not want to endure a serious chemistry lesson (*shivers from the painful memories of my Year 11 chemistry class) but here’s the science bit.  PVC is made by reacting chlorine, carbon, and ethylene (a petrol product) together to create a compound called Vinyl Chloride Monomer, or VCM. The VCM then undergoes a process called polymerisation, which results in a base PVC. The base PVC looks like a white powder or pellet which is then ready for one of a suite of additives that transform the material into its desired shape and texture i.e. underground pipe, window frames, pencil cases, or clothing. Transforming base PVC into clothing requires plasticisers, usually in the form of phthalates, which are clear, oily liquids that help the plastic go soft and flexible enough to simulate a textile.

Quite simply, PVC is a petrochemical product that is heavily processed from start to finish and can take an enormous variety of forms. Vinyon, as the textile derivative of PVC, is popular for its weather-resistant qualities in coats, jackets, and even skiing equipment, artificial leathers, or fetish fashion!

So what are the environmental and ethical costs?

Being a reader here at Good on You and a savvy and sustainable fashionista, you may have an inkling that any fibre made with petrochemicals is generally an unsustainable choice. And I would agree! The Made-By Benchmark for Fibres doesn’t even list PVC or Vinyon in their matrix of assessable fibres. PVC/Vinyon requires oil to extract the base components and lots of energy to react the chemicals together. That means it’s hugely reliant on fossil fuels -which we as a society are desperately trying to turn our backs on. Couple that with the potential health risks of Phthalates, and the overwhelming pressure of plastic waste on our Oceans  – the bottom line is, for a sustainable wardrobe, avoid PVC!

So what are the alternatives to PVC?

Natural Rubber or Latex

Believe it or not, natural rubber/latex (as opposed to synthetic rubber) used to be the go-to material before PVC came along. Natural rubber comes from trees found mainly in parts of South America, Africa, and South-east Asia. To extract the milky-white latex fluid, the trees are “tapped” and left to repair over a period of months or years. Natural rubber is free from the chemical load of PVC and performs just as well, especially for water-resistant applications. Just be aware that natural rubber can be linked to deforestation, so look for products that promote sustainable production processes.

Anything else?

In truth, there may not be many alternatives that mimic the specific look of a PVC/Vinyon garment, so consider checking out the other Good on You Material Guides which can help shed light on some textiles you may find applicable.

If you know of any alternatives to PVC, or have any insights that were not covered by this short article, comment below and tell us what you think!


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Feature photo by Elijah O’Donell, all images from Unsplash.

Reece Pater

Author Reece Pater

Reece Pater is 28 years old and lives in south east Victoria. A passion for the ills of consumerism drove Reece to complete a Bachelor of Sustainability at James Cook University in Cairns. Reece volunteers for Tangaroa Blue Foundation - which specialises in the sources and impacts of marine debris across the Australian coastal footprint - and has enjoyed writing his own blog called The Simple Life. He is currently looking for his first professional career in Sustainability.

More posts by Reece Pater

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Jessie Wells says:

    For more sustainable waterproof fabrics (replacing PVC for raincoats etc), you can try
    – Renewable resources: Waxed canvas/cotton, or Pineapple leather https://goodonyou.eco/eco-friendly-leather-alternatives/
    – Non-renewable but possibly recycled: Uncoated nylons or polyesters or Silicone-laminated fabrics, or PU-laminated fabrics are still petroluem-based, but can be made from recycled fibres, and with far lower manufacturing pollution and end-of-life impacts than PVC. For example, Eco-PUL is a solvent-free polyester fabric that has been laminated with polyurethane using heat-bonding (not bonding chemicals).
    – Avoid PFCs: Make sure you don’t buy new waterproofed outdoor gear with PFCs (poly or per-fluoro carbons), most of which are highly toxic, persistent chemicals, including PFOA, PFOS and long-chain PFCs http://detox-outdoor.org/en/about-pfc/
    There are several alternatives to PFC waterproofing under development or already available (see FAQ number 9, http://detox-outdoor.org/en/faq/
    – Buying secondhand is often cheaper and more sustainable, as for almost any items (e.g. the majority of PFC releases are during manufacture rather than use/disposal).

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