How Sustainable Are Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:17 Minutes


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Nylon was the very first entirely polymer fiber, invented as an alternative to silk. This elastic and strong material offers a long lifespan for items like stockings. Yet, producing virgin nylon from fossil fuels, which is most often the case, has environmental impacts. So we had to ask: How sustainable are nylon fabrics?

Nylon fabrics are generally unsustainable. Manufacturing virgin nylon from conventional fossil fuels uses a lot of energy, exacerbates the climate crisis, and causes environmental pollution. Also, the microplastics released from washing nylon fabrics pose health risks to wildlife and humans.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of nylon fabrics used for clothes and household items. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with nylon fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Nylon Fabrics

Nylon fabrics are generally considered unsustainable because of the energy-intensive and high-polluting manufacturing processes and the limited options at the end of the fabrics’ life. 

However, not all nylon fabrics are made equally (unsustainably). 

  • Nylon made with virgin fossil fuels is ranked class E – the least sustainable fiber class by Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres. Examples of other fibers in this class are conventional cotton, viscose, and spandex. 
  • Chemically recycled nylon ranks Class B, similar to organic cotton, chemically recycled polyester, or Tencel fibers. 
  • Mechanically recycled nylon belongs to class A – the most sustainable fiber class.

“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of nylon fabrics, we must assess its life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of nylon fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothes and bedding made with nylon fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of nylon fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of nylon fabricsThe sourcing stage of nylon fabrics is unsustainable because ethylene, the conventional raw material used to start making nylon fabrics often come from fossil fuels (mostly petroleum or crude oil).

However, ethylene for nylon can also come from renewable biowaste or crops, as well as recycled plastics, which are more sustainable options. 
Manufacturing of nylon fabricsManufacturing nylon fabrics is generally not sustainable. The process is energy-intensive and high-polluting. High energy demand could have serious knock-on ecological impacts when fossil fuels are the main energy sources at manufacturing locations. 
Transporting of nylon fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with nylon fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Nylon fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels are extracted for the raw material – to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of nylon fabricsThe usage of nylon fabrics is generally considered unsustainable because washing nylon clothes during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. However, quality nylon fabrics can last a lifetime, eliminating the need for frequent replacement. 
End-of-life of nylon fabricsThe end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based nylon fabrics is unsustainable because they are not biodegradable. 

We can say that the typical fossil-based nylon fabrics are not sustainable, but recycled nylon fabrics can be sustainable. The actual environmental impact of a particular product, like stockings or sportswear, depends on more specific factors, including the raw material, the manufacturing processes, and the distance and mode of transportation

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy nylon fabrics more sustainably.

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Nylon Fabrics

The sourcing stage of nylon fabrics is unsustainable because the conventional raw materials used to start making nylon fabrics come from fossil fuels (mostly petroleum or crude oil). However, some nylon varieties have also been made using renewable feedstock or recycled plastics, which are more sustainably sourced. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Nylon Fabrics

There are several types of nylon fabrics, including: 

  • Nylon 6,6 
  • Nylon 6
  • Nylon 46
  • Nylon 510 
  • Nylon 1,6

Different types of nylon use different starting molecules as raw materials. For example, for nylon 6,6 – the first-ever made nylon fiber, the raw materials are adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine, traditionally derived from petroleum (also known as crude oil). 

However, researchers have been developing methods to derive nylon’s starting molecules from renewable feedstocks, such as sugar and plant oils

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Nylon Fabrics Impact the Environment

Sourcing petroleum to make raw materials for nylon fabrics, which is yet the most common route, is unsustainable because of the depletion of nonrenewable resources, the acceleration of climate change, and the environmental pollution caused by ethylene production from fossil fuels. 

Making Raw Materials for Nylon Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Depletes Nonrenewable Resources 

Petroleum or crude oil is considered a nonrenewable resource. Here are the reasons: 

As petroleum is nonrenewable, depending on this fossil fuel for starting molecules in nylon production is not sustainable. 

Making Raw Materials for Nylon Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Requires Significant Amounts of Energy 

Fossil fuels are formed deep in the crust of the Earth, at depths of about 7,500 feet in the case of petroleum, requiring heavy fuel-guzzling machines for extraction. 

Also, refining and cracking petroleum to molecules are energy-intensive. The “cracking” process involves using extreme heating and high pressures.

Transporting fossil fuels from often far-flung extraction sites, by trucks, ships, tankers, and/or pipelines, to refining and manufacturing facilities is another source of energy usage.

Manufacturing Nylon Fabrics Exacerbates The Climate Crisis 

High energy consumption in refining and cracking fossil fuels for nylon’s raw materials leads to elevated global warming impact when manufacturing burns fossil fuels for energy. 

Additionally, the production of adipic acid – the secondary constituent part of most types of nylon fabric – releases nitrous oxide. As a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (Nâ‚‚O) is much worse than carbon dioxide (COâ‚‚)

  • The per kilogram global warming potential of nitrous oxide is 273 times that of carbon dioxide within 100 years. 
  • Nitrous oxide has an atmospheric lifetime of 114 years, much longer than the 12-year atmospheric life of methane.

In addition to being a powerful greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide also catalytically destroys ozone

Extracting and Refining Fossil Fuels Causes Pollution and Habitat Destruction 

Drilling for crude oil or natural gas causes lasting environmental damage, especially when the oil and gas deposits lie under diverse and ecologically important areas, on land and at sea. 

Major environmental impacts of oil and gas extraction are as following: 

  • Air and water pollution: Oil and gas operation releases harmful pollutants into the air and/or discharge dangerous chemicals into the sea. 
  • Habitat degradation and destruction: Building roads to reach drilling sites, pipelines for oil transportation and offshore oil rigs for exploration degrade and destroy wildlife habitats. 
  • Mass deaths of marine species: Oil spills and refinery chemical discharges kill marine mammals and fish in huge amounts
  • Other disruptions to wildlife: Noise and light pollution caused by drill activities cause stress and further disruption to wildlife animals. 

It is important to note that renewable plant biomass, such as sugar cane and industrial corn, can be used as feedstocks to make raw materials for nylon fabrics. Using biowaste or vegetable crops avoids digging into the nonrenewable reserves of fossil fuels and potentially reduces the overall environmental impacts of the sourcing phase. 

For example, the company Fulgar makes nylon yarn from renewable caster oil (instead of crude oil), which they trademarked as EVO®. According to their life-cycle assessment, the sourcing stage for a t-shirt made with this bio-based nylon has a global warming impact 26% lower than virgin fossil-based nylon 6,6 (made by the same company).

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Nylon Fabrics

Manufacturing nylon fabrics is generally not sustainable. The process is energy-intensive and high-polluting. High energy demand could have serious knock-on ecological impacts when fossil fuels are the main energy sources at manufacturing locations. 

How Sustainably Is Nylon Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical nylon fabric manufacturing process includes the following steps: 

  1. Polymerization: Polymerization is a reaction technique using heat and pressure to bind the raw ingredients together to create a polymer in a molten state
  2. Extrusion: The molten solution is then fed through a spinneret to form fibers. 
  3. Loading: The yarn is loaded into bobbins
  4. Stretching: The fibers are stretched to create uniformity, increasing strength and elasticity. 
  5. Drawing: The stretched fibers are wound into another spool 
  6. Weaving or knitting: The final step to creating nylon textile products, from stockings to yoga pants 
  7. Finishing: The textile products go through final treatments such as dyeing. 

Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage.

Manufacturing Nylon Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

Manufacturing nylon fabrics demands a lot of energy. Polymerization is an energy-intensive process. Additionally, machines such as spinning and weaving require fuel to operate. 

According to a life-cycle assessment, manufacturing one kilogram of nylon fibers consumes 250MJ, higher than all synthetic, semi-synthetic, and natural fibers studied. For example, 

  • The energy consumption of nylon fibers is double that of polyester
  • The energy consumption of nylon fibers is 2.5 times that of viscose.
  • The energy consumption of nylon fibers is almost 4 times that of wool.
Manufacturing Nylon Fabrics Is High Polluting 

Nylon production uses harmful chemicals, synthetic dyes, and bleaching agents. Production waste contains dangerous substances linked to increased risks of skin allergies, immune system issues, and cancer. Without proper treatment before being released into the water or the ground, such waste poses serious health risks to wildlife and humans. 

According to a life-cycle assessment of various synthetic and natural fibers, the production of nylon (polyamide 6) has relatively high impacts on freshwater ecotoxicity: 50 g 1.4-DB eq/kg of fabric. In comparison, the freshwater ecotoxicity impact of nylon is about 60% of that of acrylic, yet 200% of that of polyester

According to the same life-cycle assessment, nylon fabric production has a relatively high climate change impact of about 31 kg CO2 -eq (per kg of fabric). 

In comparison to other studied fibers, the climate change impact of nylon (polyamide 6) is the second-highest (only lower than acrylic). 

Where Are Nylon Fabrics Usually Manufactured

China is the world’s largest nylon fabric producer. Other major producers of nylon fabrics are India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. 

One of the main sustainability issues with these producers is the dependency on fossil fuels for energy generation. In these locations, the share of renewable energy in primary energy is relatively low, around the 10% mark

Renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass) would significantly reduce carbon emissions at this manufacturing stage. 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Nylon Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with nylon fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Nylon fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels are extracted for the raw material – to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. 

In the life-cycle of nylon clothes, transportation typical occurs as below: 

  • From petroleum or natural gas mines to nylon fiber manufacturing locations
  • From the nylon fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing manufacturing location 
  • From the clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing
Traveling Distances of Nylon Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for nylon fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that mining, refining, fiber and fabric processing, and finishing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. This supply chain is often very complex and almost impossible to trace.

Here are some scenarios for transporting nylon fabrics: 

  • Manufacturers source petroleum and/or gas mined in the Congo basin and produce monomers for nylon in Japan before selling it to nylon manufacturers to be turned into clothes in India. Nylon clothing and household items are shipped to the US to sell to consumers.
  • Fossil fuels are mined in Alberta, Canada. Nylon’s raw materials are made in Germany and sold to companies in China to be turned into nylon clothes. These clothes are sold worldwide. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing nylon fabrics that travel shorter distances.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Nylon Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of nylon clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering nylon clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Nylon Fabrics

The usage of nylon fabrics is generally considered unsustainable because washing nylon clothes during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. However, quality nylon fabrics can last a lifetime, eliminating the need for frequent replacement. 

A major sustainability issue with using nylon fabrics is the microplastics released into the environment due to washing the material. 

Plastic-based textiles, including nylon, polyester, acrylic, and others, are responsible for around half a million tons of plastic microfibers shed into the oceans annually as these fabrics are washed. At sea or in other water bodies, these microplastics cause harm to fishes that ingest them and numerous animals (including us humans) further up the food chain. 

However, nylon fabrics are generally durable. The strength, resilience, and tenacity of the fibers formed during spinning mean that nylon is resistant to wear and tear

Durability increases the sustainability of a material because you don’t need to replace clothes made with such material too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one). 

Also, nylon fabric has low absorbency. Thus, clothes made with this material dry fast and tend not to require ironing, saving energy during usage. Ironing, washing, and drying (the usage phase) accounts for a high share of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing

As a consumer, you can reduce the environmental impact of your usage by maximizing the number of wears between washes, avoid unnecessary hot washes or machining drying. Also, the longer you use a piece of clothing, the lesser the environmental impact of each wear. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Nylon Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based nylon fabrics is not sustainable because they are not biodegradable. 

Traditional fossil-based nylon is not biodegradable: this material could take hundreds of years to decompose in natural environments. 

In comparison, natural fibers such as wool or cotton are fully biodegradable. For example, cotton typically takes 11 weeks to decompose. 

However, some biodegradable nylons have been developed to increase the sustainability of this stage. For example, Amni Soul Eco fabric is a biodegradable synthetic nylon that can decompose in 5 years in a landfill environment. 

How Circular Are Products Made of Nylon Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input are new resource.

Recycling post-consumer nylon fabrics is a complicated and expensive process. Breaking down nylon fabrics into constituent fibers requires a lot of energy, leading to many companies using virgin nylon or plastic bottles instead of recycling discarded fabrics. 

Additionally, nylon melts at low temperatures, meaning some contaminants – non-recyclable materials and microbes or bacteria – can survive, hindering the recycling process. 

Regardless, there are commercial recycled nylon fibers, with Econyl being a well-known recycled yarn produced in a closed-loop system.

How Can You Buy Nylon Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying nylon products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • OEKO-TEX®: OEKO-TEX® labels aim to ensure that products pose no risk to human health (i.e. containing banned chemicals). 
  • STeP by OEKO-TEX®: STeP by OEKO-TEX® is an independent certification system for brands, retailers, and manufacturers from the textile and leather industry. It communicates organizational environmental measures, including reducing carbon footprint and water usage.
  • Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): The Textile Exchange RCS was originally developed as an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled input and chain of custody. (For recycled nylon fibers)
  • The Global Recycled Standard (GRS): The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. It can be used for any product with more than 20% recycled material. (For recycled nylon fibers)

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Nylon Fabrics 

We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that nylon fabrics are generally unsustainable. The most significant reasons are: 

  • Manufacturing this synthetic material generally depends on fossil fuels for raw material and for process energy. 
  • Nylon fiber and fabric production use toxic chemicals, which could have adverse health impacts on exposure (for both factory workers and end users) and pollute the environment. 
  • Washing nylon fabrics releases microplastic into marine environments, causing harm to wildlife. 
  • Conventional fossil-based nylon fabrics are not biodegradable and, thus, take up space in landfills for a long time (i.e., centuries). 

However, researchers and manufacturers have found ways to make nylon fabrics more sustainable, including: 

  • Recycling nylon fibers to reduce pressure on extracting more fossil fuels 
  • Making the starting monomers for nylon fabrics from renewable biomass (instead of petroleum or natural gas) 
  • Manufacturing nylon fibers and fabrics in locations with high shares of renewable energy
  • Making nylon fabrics biodegradable 

As a consumer, you can look out for these indicators when buying nylon clothing and household items. To assist you with the efforts, we put together a small list of brands using a more sustainable variety of nylon fabrics (aka recycled nylon). This list is in alphabetical order. 

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of nylon’s carbon footprint.

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces the Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are extracted new. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce to pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages the Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or leather. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, leather or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

There are two types of FSC Certification: Final Thoughts

Nylon fabric is generally not a very sustainable material. Nylon fabric production is energy-intensive and high-polluting. Washing clothes made with nylon fabrics contribute to microplastic problems in marine environments. Also, conventional fossil-based nylon clothes aren’t biodegradable. 

However, if you choose to buy clothes and household items made with nylon fabrics, the following can help it to be more sustainable: 

  1. Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled nylon clothing and household items.
  2. While using nylon products, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
  3. At the end of nylon products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of. 

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