Dressed in Plastic: How to Stop the Synthetics Clothing Epidemic

More than 60% of what we wear today is synthetic clothing. Sam Fisher tells us why plastics are pervasive, why it matters, and what we can do.

You are about to head out to the grocery store. You grab your reusable bag in a way that’s become second nature. As you leave, you throw on a soft polyester fleece jumper over your blue jeans and sneakers. Unconsciously, you are wearing head-to-toe plastic and may not know it. The fashion industry is knee-deep in plastic. It’s embedded in the complex supply chains of the fashion industry, from synthetic-based color dyes to the plastic-based glue holding your shoes together to the polyester knit of your workout pants. 

The industry relies heavily on fossil-fuel-based resources to create synthetic, man-made fibers. These fibers are then spun or woven to create cheap and convenient fabrics. But instead of using a clear name like ‘petroleum-based fiber’ on the label, the industry brands these fibers as acrylic, polyamide, and nylon, disguising the ugly reality of what we are wearing– the cousin of a single-use plastic bag.

Why clothes have plastics

While synthetic fibers have been around for years, this wasn’t always the case. We’ve become well-adjusted to the soft touch of fleecy polyester (looking at you, $30 Target blankets) and the useful, water resistance of our nylon duffel coats. In the 1940s and 50s, the fashion industry transformed with the invention of nylon, polyester, and Spandex, changing the way clothing was designed, manufactured, and worn. With time, the industry shifted away from natural fabrics like wool, linen, and cotton as both people and brands preferred synthetics for their lower cost and performance qualities. 

Almost 100 years later, synthetics make up 63% of all clothing we wear today. While natural fibers like cotton have their own environmental considerations, the impacts of synthetic clothing are often concealed to protect the brand’s reputation. Energy-intensive use of non-renewable resources is needed to produce synthetic-based fibers. This complex issue is often difficult to assess given the concealed supply chains of brands and suppliers. 

Environmental impacts of synthetic clothing

As an industry and as citizens, we are failing to recognize the long-term impact of synthetic clothing. To even the playing field, we must meet the treatment of our plastic wardrobes with the same gravity as the single-use plastic bag epidemic. With plastic bags predicted to sit in a landfill for 450 years; consider the impact of a much larger, polyester fleece

When we see fabrics like polyester, nylon, acrylic, and PU (polyurethane, used in vegan leather) on our clothing labels, it means these clothes were made from petroleum. Plain and simple.

The production of these fabrics is energy-intensive, requires non-renewable resources, and produces higher GHG emissions compared to certain natural and semi-synthetic fibers such as hemp and Tencel. 

We are often bombarded with the dangers of single-use plastic bags, with major cities like New York banning them completely. However, a single load of laundry containing synthetic garments can release up to 7,000,000 microplastic fibers into waterways, which threatens animal and human health. And unlike plastic bags, these microfibers are incredibly difficult to remove from the water when released because the current filtration techniques are costly and labor-intensive. One way to reduce the shedding of microplastics when washing your clothing is to use a product like the Guppy Friend bag or PlanetCare filter.

Why plastics are pervasive

Another major concern with synthetic fibers is the disposal of garments at their end of life, with many destined for a landfill due to their complicated and difficult recycling compatibility. While packaging, including clothing, is the main contributor to global plastic waste (40%), clothing and textiles come in third place amounting to 11% of all global plastic waste. When we consider that a simple polyester T-shirt decomposing in landfills could span upwards to almost 200 years; the immense burden we are placing on our natural environment is immeasurable.

The fashion industry is abusing the cheap cost and easy performance characteristics of synthetic fibers and is not held accountable to the same level as other industries, including the food service industry. Without regulation shifting to penalize the use of synthetic fibers, brands can create and sell synthetic clothing with no real consequences. A way to sort through the confusing words on our care labels is to make note of credible fabric certifications such as GOTS or BCI, as these can help you distinguish real from bogus sustainability claims. 

Much of the problem stems from the need for more transparent information surrounding the intertwined relationship between fashion and plastic use. Failing to recognize the impact synthetic clothing is having on the environment for brands to increase their profit margins can’t continue in our current climate crisis. We must put pressure on brands to reduce their production and deal with garments at the end of life more responsibly while demanding more regulations to require a phase-out of petro-based synthetics (like what California did with car emission standards). 

Avoiding plastics in your wardrobe

For us, it’s nearly impossible to avoid wearing synthetics outright, especially if we exercise, do outdoor activities, or just want some give in our jeans. But for the well-intended, here are a few practical suggestions:

  • As a quick way to reduce the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill, try to buy clothing that is 100% of one fiber. This helps with recycling fibers at end of their life, as separating fibers to recycle is a difficult and costly process. 
  • Reach out to your favorite brands to ask them what certifications they possess as a company, this could be from GOTS, OEKO-TEX, Fair Trade USA, BCI, and more.
  • Reduce your online shopping where possible, the packaging we receive our garments in is most often plastic and non-recyclable (look for brands that use compostable packaging). 
  • Buy a small sewing kit so you can extend the lifespan of your garment by mending your clothes. There is nothing a YouTube tutorial can’t teach you!
  • And of course, look for natural fabrics at secondhand and vintage stores. You will mostly find a higher concentration of this in the ’20s-’40s and ’90s-’00s.

Do you have any other tips? Drop them in the comments.

Also, check out some plastic-free beauty brands

Photo: Everlane


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