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When looking for clothes, we don’t often check what companies or suppliers make them from. Some are obvious – that big chunky jumper of yours is probably wool, and your leather jacket is likely… well, leather. But clothes can be deceiving. I have what looks exactly like a big chunky knit sweater, but it’s actually polyester – plastic.
Polyester is a hidden plastic that can seriously harm the environment. Polyester derives from crude oil and goes through a complex chemical process, before spinning into a strong fibre that we use to make polyester clothing. Most clothes you’ll find while shopping are polyester, and there’s one reason why – it’s cheap.
A study by Plymouth University analysed what happened when synthetic fabrics, including polyester, were washed at different temperatures and found that polyester released up to 496,030 fibres into the water, adding to the microplastics that already pollute our oceans and ecosystems. However, there has been a surge of recycled polyester clothing coming onto the market, which vastly reduces the amount of oil needed in production, as well as keeping plastics from going into landfills. Brands like Asos have lines of clothes, including swimwear, made out of recycled polyester from old bottles.
So which fabrics are better for the environment?
Cotton is a natural fibre and therefore won’t pollute water sources with microplastics. It is by far the most widely used natural fibre, making up around a quarter of global textile production. However, a lot of cotton uses pesticides, which are harmful to the ecosystem around it. The best option for cotton is to go for organic cotton – many people say that it’s softer, and may use less water than another type of cotton.
Viscose is another natural fibre, although it sounds entirely synthetic. It’s made by dissolving wood pulp and creating fibres out of it and is usually used to replicate silk. However, it does release the highly toxic carbon disulfide in production. Granted, companies generally recover it; however, there have been incidents of poisoning. Equally, although natural, the use of chemicals to speed up the process thanks to the demands of fast fashion means it might not be as sustainable as it sounds.
Bamboo is an unexpected one. We can even turn this into fabric! We can use bamboo viscose to create a soft, breathable fabric that multiplies rapidly, with little water or space used in production. It also absorbs a lot of CO2, and is antibacterial and hypoallergenic (as well as sweat-absorbent) – perfect for workout gear! A downside is that it takes a very chemically intensive process to turn it into a useable yarn, and it’s more expensive than other natural fabrics.
Linen is a great sustainable fabric. It has a long history, dating back to prehistoric times, and remains popular today. It doesn’t use much water and can grow without many pesticides and in poor soil. But there’s a reason you only see middle-class people wearing their linen pants to the golf course –it’s much more labour intensive to produce than other fabrics, making it more expensive.
There is no perfect, natural, sustainable fabric that can replace all polyester clothes in the world. What’s important is that we must remain mindful of what we wear, think about what our clothes are made from, and take care of what we have. We all have polyester clothes knocking about in our wardrobes. Still, if we take care of them and get as much wear out of them as possible, and are more mindful about the clothes we buy in the future, we can reduce the impact that the fashion industry has on the environment.