How Sustainable Are Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
Polyurethane (PU) fabrics have gained popularity in recent years, especially as a substitute for leather. This material is spotlighted as a cruelty-free, vegan, and low-impact alternative for your bags, your shoes, or your car’s interiors. Are polyurethane fabrics truly better than conventional textiles or rather greenwashed? So we had to ask: How sustainable are polyurethane fabrics?
Polyurethane (PU) fabrics are generally unsustainable. Manufacturing PU coating from petroleum is energy-intensive, exacerbates the climate crisis, and causes environmental pollution. Disposal options for PU fabric are limited because it is a composite material containing plastic component(s).
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of polyurethane fabrics used for clothing items. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with polyurethane fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
Polyurethane (PU) 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.
“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 polyurethane fabrics, we must assess their 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 polyurethane 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 polyurethane fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of polyurethane fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of polyurethane fabrics||Sourcing conventional fossil-based raw materials for polyurethane fabrics is not sustainable. The conventional raw materials used to start making polyurethane fabrics are petroleum-based. Petroleum (or crude oil) is a non-renewable resource. Also, extracting and refining petroleum has energy demand, exacerbates the climate crisis, and pollutes the environment.|
|Manufacturing of polyurethane fabrics||Manufacturing polyurethane 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 polyurethane fabrics||The transportation of polyurethane fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with polyurethane fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Polyurethane-coated fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels were extracted to produce raw materials for polyurethane – to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.|
|Usage of polyurethane fabrics||The usage of polyurethane fabrics is generally considered unsustainable. Washing polyurethane clothes and accessories during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments.|
|End-of-life of polyurethane fabrics||The end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based polyurethane fabrics is not sustainable because they are not biodegradable.|
We can say that polyurethane fabrics are not sustainable. The actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a bag or a pair of shoes, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of raw materials, the manufacturing process, and the distance and mode of transportation.
Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy polyurethane fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
Sourcing conventional fossil-based raw materials for polyurethane fabrics is not sustainable. The conventional raw materials used to start making polyurethane fabrics are petroleum-based. Petroleum (or crude oil) is a non-renewable resource. Also, extracting and refining petroleum has energy demand, exacerbates the climate crisis, and pollutes the environment.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
Polyurethane (PU) fabric, or PU-coated fabric, is a textile composite material with a polyurethane coating and a textile backing:
- The polyurethane coating comprises one or more layers of polymers treated to look like animal hide.
- The textile backing could be made with synthetic fibers (e.g., polyester, nylon), semi-synthetic fabrics (e.g., rayon), natural fibers (e.g., cotton), or occasionally a fiber blend.
Various raw materials can be used in making the polyurethane coat and the textile backing in PU fabrics. The typical routes of making PU fabrics depend heavily on petroleum derivatives, though manufacturers increasingly source recycled and/or renewable raw materials for polyurethane fabrics.
In the following section, we will discuss the environmental impacts of sourcing petroleum as raw materials for conventional polyurethane.
How Do the Fossil-Based Raw Materials Sourced for Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing petroleum-based raw materials for polyurethane fabrics, which is yet the most common route, is unsustainable because of the depletion of non-renewable resources, the acceleration of climate change, and the environmental pollution caused by extracting and refining fossil fuels.
Making Raw Materials for Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Depletes Nonrenewable Resources
Petroleum, or crude oil, is considered a nonrenewable resource:
- It takes millions of years and certain geological conditions to turn dead plants into petroleum. This type of fossil fuel began forming about 90-150 million years ago during the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods.
- In theory, more fossil fuels could be formed. Yet, with the current depletion rate, replacement is not realistically feasible.
As petroleum is non-renewable, depending on this fossil fuel for making prepolymer in polyurethane fiber production is not sustainable.
Making Raw Materials for Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Requires Significant Amounts of Energy
Also, refining fossil fuels, such as petroleum liquid or natural gas, and transforming ethylene are energy-intensive. The “cracking” process involves heating the system to extreme temperatures and cooling the products after cracking.
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.
Making Raw Materials for Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Exacerbating 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.
Extracting and Refining Fossil Fuels (For Polyurethane coating Fiber’s Raw Materials) Causes Pollution and Habitat Destruction
Drilling for oil and 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.
There are two important notes regarding the two components of PU fabrics:
- Polyurethane coating can be made from renewable feedstock (such as from eucalyptus) or recycled material. Using plant-based and waste material feedstock avoids digging into the non-renewable reserves of fossil fuels and potentially reduces the global warming potential.
- Different backing materials vary in environmental impacts, affecting the overall sustainability of PU fabrics.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Polyurethane (PU) 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 polyurethane’s petroleum-derived raw materials.
There are two reasons:
- The supply chain of fossil derivatives is extremely complex
- Polyurethane coating fibers are made in factories using various ingredients depending on manufacturers and desired properties
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
Manufacturing polyurethane 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 Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The typical polyurethane fabric manufacturing process includes the following steps:
- Preparation of textile backing: Suitable backing materials are picked based on the property requirements of the fabrics, such as having high strength and elasticity to be used for protective and sports clothing for children and adults. For such purposes, artificial materials, such as polyester or nylon, are more suitable than cotton.
The property checklist of textile backing often includes the following:
- good mechanical properties such as elasticity, elongation at break, strength, and frictional resistance
- good absorption and binding properties to allow the coating to penetrate and bind
- thermally stable enough to stand the high temperatures during coating
- Production of the polyurethane coating: This is often done using two main methods (head and pressure are needed in these processes):
- One-shot process: PU synthesis occurs in one step where the raw materials (polyol, diisocyanate, chain extender, and catalyst) are mixed simultaneously.
- Prepolymer process: U synthesis starts with prepolymer formation via a reaction between polyps and diisocyanate. Afterward, the prepolymer is reacted with a chain extender (diamine or diol) to create polyurethane.
- Coating: There are various ways to put the polyurethane coating on the backing material: directly or indirectly, with or without using an adhesive layer.
- Curing: The coated fabric is cured or dried in an oven or under UV light. This process helps to crosslink the polyurethane molecules and create a strong bond with the fabric substrate.
- Finishing: Finishing processes vary depending on the end use of the fabrics but may include: embossing, laminating, or printing.
Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage.
Manufacturing Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive
Manufacturing polyurethane fabrics is highly energy-intensive. The production of pre(polymers) is an energy-intensive process. Additionally, producing artificial textile backing like nylon or polyester machines requires a significant amount of energy.
High energy consumption leads to elevated global warming impact when manufacturing burns fossil fuels for energy.
Manufacturing Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Is Chemical-Intensive
The production of polyurethane coating and synthetic backing (if used) involves a series of chemicals, from solvents to additives, depending on the manufacturing practices.
Wastewater needs proper treatment to avoid releasing toxic substances into the environment and harming wildlife and humans.
Where Are Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Usually Manufactured
Here is the list of the world’s largest polyurethane-coated fabric exporters (2021):
- South Korea
- The US
According to Our World in Data, the shares of renewable energy in primary energy in major PU-fabrics-producing nations vary significantly, with Germany having the highest percentage.
- China: 14.95% renewable energy
- South Korea: 3.72% renewable energy
- Japan: 11.46% renewable energy
- The US: 10.66% renewable energy
- Germany: 19.45% renewable energy
- Italy: 18.36% renewable energy
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
The transportation of polyurethane fabrics is generally unsustainable. It can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with polyurethane fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Polyurethane-coated fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels were extracted to produce raw materials for polyurethane – to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
In the life-cycle of polyurethane clothes, transportation typically occurs as below:
- From mines for fossil fuels where raw materials are extracted to manufacturing locations
- From the polyurethane fabrics manufacturing location to the clothing and furniture manufacturing location
- From the clothing and furniture 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 Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for polyurethane 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 polyurethane fabrics:
- Manufacturers source petroleum mined in the Congo basin and produce the prepolymer in South Korea before selling it to polyurethane manufacturers to be turned into clothes in Japan. Polyurethane-coated clothing and household items are shipped to the US to sell to consumers.
- Fossil fuels are mined in Alberta, Canada. Polyurethane is made in the US and sold to companies in China to be turned into polyurethane fabrics and clothes. These clothes are sold worldwide.
You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing polyurethane-coated fabrics that travel shorter distances.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of polyurethane clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including:
- Large container ships
- Freight trains
- Long-distance trucks
- Short-distance delivering vans
And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts:
- Large container ships are generally the most carbon-efficient option for international transportation of goods, while planes are the heaviest carbon emitter.
Large container ships emit, per unit of weight and distance, half as much carbon dioxide as a train and one-fifth and one-fiftieth as much as a truck and a plane (respectively).
- Deliveries made by planes – for example, to fulfill fast shipping options for clothing – are the mode of transportation with the highest carbon footprint.
For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering polyurethane-coated clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
The usage of polyurethane fabrics is generally considered unsustainable. Washing polyurethane clothes and accessories during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments.
Washing Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Releases Microplastics
A major sustainability issue with using polyurethane fabrics is the microplastics in the coating and the plastic-based backing material (if used) released into the environment due to washing the material.
Plastic-based textiles 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.
It is important to note that PU-coated fabrics are often used for accessorizing items like shoes and bags, which don’t usually require regular washing. In these cases, the accumulated impact of microplastic releases is not as serious as with regularly-washed items like biker jackets or skirts.
Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics Generally Last A Long Time
On the other hand, polyurethane fabrics are generally strong and durable. It is also waterproof, lightweight, and flexible.
Durability increases the sustainability of a material because you don’t need to replace clothing and household items made with such material too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one).
Sustainable Usage Habits Of Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
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 Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based polyurethane fabrics is not sustainable because they are not biodegradable.
Traditional fossil-based polyurethane is not biodegradable: this coating material could take up to 200 years to degrade completely. And when PU fabrics eventually break down, polyurethane releases phthalates into the air, which are harmful to breathe in.
How Circular Are Products Made of Polyurethane (PU) 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
One challenge with recycling polyurethane-coated fabric is that this material is a composite consisting of the PU coating and often another synthetic textile material.
Sorting, separating, and deconstructing a blend is complicated and expensive, removing the incentive to recycle instead of producing new.
How Can You Buy Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics More Sustainably
There are few environmental and original certifications for unsustainable synthetic materials like polyurethane. However, here are two certificates relevant to a small percentage of polyurethane fabrics:
- 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 polyurethane fabrics)
- 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 polyurethane 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 Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics
We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that polyurethane fabrics, though they might have a lower impact than animal leather, are generally unsustainable. The most significant reasons are:
- Manufacturing this synthetic textile composite depends on fossil fuels for raw materials and process energy.
- The production uses toxic chemicals, which could have adverse health impacts on exposure (for both factory workers and end users) and pollute the environment.
- Washing polyurethane fabrics releases microplastic into marine environments, causing harm to wildlife.
- Conventional fossil-based polyurethane 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 polyurethane fabrics more sustainable, including:
- Recycling waste material to manufacture polyurethane fabrics in order to reduce pressure on extracting more fossil fuels
- Using renewable plant-based materials (instead of petroleum) as raw materials for polyurethane coating
- Manufacturing polyurethane fabrics in locations with high shares of renewable energy
As a consumer, you can look out for these indicators when buying polyurethane clothing and household items.
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 polyurethane’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 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 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.
Polyurethane (PU) fabrics are generally not a very sustainable material. PU fabric production is energy-intensive and high-polluting while depleting the non-renewable fossil reserves. Washing clothes made with polyurethane fabrics contribute to microplastic problems in marine environments. Also, conventional fossil-based polyurethane clothes aren’t biodegradable.
However, if you choose to buy clothes made with polyurethane-coated fabrics, the following can help it to be more sustainable:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled polyurethane clothing and household items.
- While using products made with polyurethane-coated fabrics, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
- At the end of polyurethane products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
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