Many of us don’t put much thought into the materials that our clothes are made from beyond those generic descriptions, like, ‘soft’, ‘stretchy’, or ‘delicate’. When looking at labels it doesn’t take a magnifying glass to notice that one fabric comes up more than most: polyester. Considering its prevalence it is important to know exactly what you’ve got rubbing against your skin.
When did polyester first arrive on the scene?
Polyester fabric hasn’t been around forever. Our grandparents were clothed in natural materials such as wool, linen and cotton and in fact, by the end of World World II, the latter accounted for over 80% of fibre consumed.
With chemical advances in the 1940s man-made fibres were introduced, and so began a gradual shift away from cotton. Nowadays, polyester dominates the clothing industry, with annual production exceeding 22.67 billion tonnes worldwide.
So what exactly is polyester?
The term ‘polyester’ describes a category of polymers produced by mixing ethylene glycol (derived from petroleum) and terephthalic acid.
Putting aside the chemical jargon, polyester is a common plastic with a wide application that includes and extends beyond the fashion industry.
It ranks behind polyethylene (i.e. packaging and water bottles) and polypropylene (i.e. ropes, stationary and Australian bank notes) as the most commonly used plastic.
The Effect on People and Planet
Polyester is not biodegradable
The majority of polyesters are not biodegradable meaning that the polyester fabric shirt you bought last season will not decompose for 20 years at best and 200 years at worst, depending on conditions.
What’s more, polyester is, in part, derived from petroleum and the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest pollutant.
Polyester dyes are not environmentally friendly
Ever noticed how polyester fabrics are stain resistant? That’s because it takes a special kind of dye to successfully colour polyester. These dyes, known as disperse dyes, are insoluble in water and, like polyester, are made up of a complex molecular structure that does not readily decompose.
Waste water from textile factories containing leftover dye is difficult to treat and, as such, enters the environment where its toxicity causes serious problems to plant and animal life.
In addition to causing environmental problems, polyester dyes are also toxic to humans. Dye workers in the United States and Japan report higher incidences of cancers and lung disease than the general population.
Polyester manufacturing is water-thirsty
Polyester is created through an energy-intensive heating process, requiring large quantities of water for cooling. If not managed properly this can result in groundwater levels dropping and reduced access to clean drinking water, particularly in vulnerable communities where polyester is often manufactured.
So, what can we do?
1. Look for garments that are made from natural fibres, like organic cotton, and coloured using natural dyes.
2. Choose well, buy less. Garments made with natural fibres have their own ethical considerations. Cotton is one of the thirstiest and dirtiest fabrics, though organic cotton fairs considerably better. The wool industry has been criticised for its use of unethical practices. By choosing well and buying less, you’re helping to avoid the unsustainable over-production of fibres at a cost to the environment and the world’s most vulnerable people.
3. Buy from op-shops. An even better option to buying fewer new things is to buy more pre-loved garments from secondhand stores. Since polyester garments are both common and durable, you will find plenty recycled items in thrift shops that show few signs of wear and tear and will stand the test of time.
4. Choose garments made from recycled polyester. Since polyester is durable, it is possible to produce in a closed loop at lower emissions to the environment. Recycled polyester fabric uses less than half of the energy needed to make virgin polyester. Look out for garments that carry the Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certification.
5. Get informed and choose brands with policies that protect and respect the planet and the people making their products. The Good On You app helps you uncover brands who perform better on the issues you care about.