How Sustainable Are Polyamide Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Polyamide Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

Read Time:19 Minutes

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Polyamide was the very first entirely polymer fiber, invented as an alternative to silk. This strong, elastic material offers a long lifespan for items like stockings. Yet, virgin polyamide is typically produced from crude oils, bearing many adverse environmental impacts. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are polyamide fabrics?

Polyamide fabrics are generally unsustainable. Manufacturing virgin polyamide from fossil fuels uses a lot of energy, exacerbates the climate crisis, and causes environmental pollution. The microplastics released from washing fossil-based polyamide fabrics pose health risks to wildlife and humans.

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Polyamide Fabrics

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

However, not all polyamide fabrics are made equally unsustainably. For example, according to Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres, nylon fibers—the base of the most popular type of polyamide fabrics—in virgin form is ranked class E, which is the least sustainable fiber class. However, chemically and mechanically recycled nylon fibers respectively belong to class B and class A—the two most sustainable fiber classes. 

“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 polyamide 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 polyamide 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 polyamide fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of polyamide fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of polyamide fabricsThe sourcing stage of polyamide fabrics is unsustainable. The conventional raw materials used to make polyamide fabrics come from fossil fuels (mostly petroleum or crude oil). Extracting and refining these non-renewable resources is energy-intensive and highly polluting. 
However, some polyamide varieties have also been made using renewable feedstock or discarded plastics, which are more sustainably sourced. 
Manufacturing of polyamide fabricsManufacturing polyamide 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 polyamide fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with polyamide fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Polyamide fabrics typically travel from mines—where fossil fuels are extracted for the raw material—to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumers’ homes before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of polyamide fabricsThe usage of polyamide fabrics is generally considered unsustainable because washing polyamide clothes during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. However, quality polyamide fabrics can last a lifetime, eliminating the need for frequent replacement. 
End-of-life of polyamide fabricsThe end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based polyamide fabrics is unsustainable because they are not biodegradable. 

We can say that the typical fossil-based polyamide fabrics are not sustainable, but there are exceptions for recycled and biodegradable polyamide fabrics. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, whether a pair of stockings or a yoga top, depends on more specific factors, including: 

  • the sourcing of the raw materials
  • the type of energy used in manufacturing and usage
  • the distance and mode of transportation 

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

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Polyamide Fabrics

The sourcing stage of polyamide fabrics is unsustainable. The conventional raw materials used to make polyamide fabrics come from fossil fuels (mostly petroleum or crude oil). Extracting and refining these nonrenewable resources is energy-intensive and highly polluting. 

However, some polyamide varieties have also been made using renewable feedstock or discarded plastics, which are more sustainably sourced. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Polyamide Fabrics

Polyamide is the term used for a group of polymers that contain amide linkages of —NH—CO— in the polymer main chain. These polymers have a wide variety of applications, from medical instruments to fishing nets, and electrical appliances to ski boots. Polyamide fibers are also widely used in the textile industry for making garments, household items, and protective gear. Specifically, there are three types of polyamide used to make fabrics: 

  • Nylon 6 is a widespread commodity fiber used in garments such as pants, stockings, and sportswear. (The number 6 refers to the six carbon atoms in each molecule making up the polyamide.) 
  • Nylon 66 is found in textile applications like carpets and conveyor belts thanks to its extreme heat resistance and strength. (The two numbers, 66, mean that this polyamide contains two basic molecules, with six carbon atoms in each molecule.) 
  • Aramid is a flame-retardant fabric and, thus, is often used to make heat-protective clothing such as work gear for firefighters. Common trade names for aramid fibers include Nomex and Kevlar (DuPont). 

Generally, nylon 6 and nylon 66 are much more recognizable polyamide fabrics than aramid as they are widely used in everyday garments and household items. In fact, the terms nylon and polyamide are often used interchangeably when discussing textile applications. Yet, aramid is an important polyamide fiber in the niche market of heat-proofing materials. 

Different types of polyamide use different starting molecules as raw materials. However, the conventional starting point of polyamide is crude oil or petroleum. 

In the following section, we will discuss sourcing fossil-based materials to make polyamide fabrics and the environmental impacts of doing so. 

How Do the Fossil Fuels Sourced for Polyamide Fabrics Impact the Environment

Sourcing petroleum to make raw materials for polyamide fabrics, which is 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 Polyamide Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Depletes Nonrenewable Resources 

Petroleum or crude oil is considered a nonrenewable resource. The reasons for this are as follows: 

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

Making Raw Materials for Polyamide 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 factors. 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 Polyamide Fabrics Exacerbates the Climate Crisis 

High energy consumption in refining and cracking fossil fuels for polyamide’s raw materials leads to an 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 polyamide fabric—releases nitrous oxide. As a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N2O) is much worse than carbon dioxide (CO2)

  • 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, which is 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, whether on land or at sea. 

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

  • Air and water pollution: Oil and gas operations release 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. 

Sourcing Raw Materials for Polyamide Fabrics More Sustainably 

The good news is that it is possible to avoid digging into the nonrenewable reserves of fossil fuels to make polyamide fabrics. The two more sustainable approaches to polyamide sourcing are: 

  • Using renewable plant biomass, such as sugar cane, industrial corn, or castor beans as feedstocks. 
    • For example, the company Fulgar makes nylon yarn from renewable caster oil (extracted from caster beans), which they trademarked as EVO®. According to their life-cycle assessment, the sourcing stage for a T-shirt made with this bio-based polyamide has a global warming impact 26% lower than virgin fossil-based polyamide 66 (made by the same company). 
    • Another example is the plant-based nylon 6 made in collaboration between Genomatica and Aquafil
  • Using discarded plastics to make recycled polyamide fabrics.
    • An example of this more sustainable sourcing for polyamide is ECONYL®, made of nylon waste from landfills and oceans in a closed-loop process and is infinitely recyclable. According to Aquafil—the manufacturer of ECONYL®— this recycled nylon fiber avoids approximately 50% of carbon dioxide emissions and uses around 50% less energy than virgin nylon yarns. 

Where Are the Raw Materials for Polyamide Fabrics Usually Sourced From

Though it is always good to know the starting point of your clothes, this is no simple task when it comes to tracking down the origin of polyamide fabric’s fossil-derived raw materials. 

There are two reasons for this: 

  1. The supply chain of fossil derivatives is extremely complex. 
  2. A certain type of plastic can be made in many factories using various ingredients depending on manufacturers and desired properties.

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Polyamide Fabrics

Manufacturing polyamide 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 Polyamide Fabrics Generally Manufactured

The typical polyamide 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: This is the final step to creating polyamide textile products, from stockings to yoga pants. 
  7. Finishing: The textile products go through final treatments such as dyeing. 

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

Manufacturing Polyamide Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive 

Manufacturing polyamide fabrics demands a lot of energy. Polymerization is an energy-intensive process. Additionally, machines such as those that spin and weave require fuel to operate. 

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

  • the energy consumption of polyamide fibers is double that of polyester
  • the energy consumption of polyamide fibers is 2.5 times that of viscose.
  • the energy consumption of polyamide fibers is almost 4 times that of wool.
Manufacturing Polyamide Fabrics Is Highly Pollutive 

Polyamide production uses harmful chemicals, synthetic dyes, and bleaching agents. For example, nylon 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 polyamide (nylon 6) has relatively high negative impacts on several categories:

Where Are Polyamide Fabrics Usually Manufactured

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

One of the main sustainability issues with these producers, with the exception of Brazil, is the dependency on fossil fuels for energy generation. In China, India, Pakistan, and the US, the share of renewable energy in primary energy is relatively low, at around the 10% mark. However, the percentage of renewable energy in the Brazilian energy grid is an encouraging 46.22%. 

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

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Polyamide Fabrics

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

In the life-cycle of polyamide clothes, transportation typically occurs: 

  • from petroleum mines where raw materials are extracted to the manufacturing locations where polyamide fabrics are made and put together,
  • from the polyamide clothing manufacturing location to sorting centers and/or physical shops, 
  • from sorting centers and/or physical shops to the consumer’s home, and
  • from the consumer’s home to the centers for recycling and/or disposal.
Traveling Distances of Polyamide Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for polyamide 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 polyamide fabrics: 

  • Manufacturers source crude oil mined in the Congo Basin and produce monomers for polyamide in Japan before selling it to polyamide manufacturers to be turned into clothes in India. Polyamide clothing and household items are shipped to the US to sell to consumers.
  • Fossil fuels are mined in Alberta, Canada. Polyamide’s raw materials are made in Germany and sold to companies in China to be turned into polyamide clothes. These clothes are then sold worldwide. 

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

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

During its life-cycle, a piece of polyamide 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, including the following: 

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

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Polyamide Fabrics

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

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

Plastic-based textiles, including polyamide, 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 bodies of water, these microplastics cause harm to fishes that ingest them and numerous animals (including us humans) further up the food chain. 

However, polyamide fibers are generally strong and resilient. Using strong and durable materials is sustainable because you don’t need to replace them too frequently (thus, there is no need for more resources to make a new one). 

It is important to note that usage is an energy-intensive stage in the life-cycle of textile products. Washing, drying, and ironing often account for a high share of energy consumption in the life-cycle of clothing. Nylon fabric, in particular, has low absorbency. Thus, clothes made with this material dry fast and tend not to require ironing, saving energy during usage.

As a consumer, you can modify some laundering habits and reduce the environmental impacts of using nylon clothes and household items. Possible changes include:

  • wash nylon fabrics less often, 
  • switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers, 
  • do cold washes with appropriate detergents, and
  • use energy-efficient washing machines.

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

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

Traditional fossil-based polyamide is not biodegradable. In short, 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 polyamides 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 Polyamide 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 is new resource.

Recycling post-consumer nylon—the most common type of polyamide fabric— 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 polyamide fibers, with Econyl being a well-known recycled yarn produced in a closed-loop system.

How Can You Buy Polyamide Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying polyamide 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 polyamide 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 polyamide 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 Polyamide Fabrics 

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

  • Manufacturing these synthetic materials generally depends on fossil fuels for raw material and for process energy. 
  • Polyamide 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 polyamide fabrics releases microplastic into marine environments, causing harm to wildlife. 
  • Conventional fossil-based polyamide 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 polyamide fabrics more sustainable, including: 

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

As a consumer, you can look out for these indicators when buying polyamide clothing and household items. To assist you with the efforts, we put together a small list of brands using a more sustainable variety of polyamide fabrics (aka recycled polyamide). 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 polyamide’s carbon footprint.

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces 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 newly extracted. 

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 the 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 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.

Final Thoughts

Polyamide fabrics are generally unsustainable. Polyamide fabric production is energy-intensive and highly pollutive. Washing clothes made with polyamide fabrics contribute to microplastic problems in marine environments. Also, conventional fossil-based polyamide clothes aren’t biodegradable. 

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

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

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