How Sustainable Are Spandex 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.
Spandex is this seemingly magical fiber that helps your form-fitting clothes stretch and contract without a fuss. It is a very useful material for certain types of clothing (think: yoga pants), but at what cost? Producing new spandex fibers from petroleum, which is often the case, has huge adverse environmental impacts. So we had to ask: How sustainable are spandex fabrics?
Spandex fabrics are generally unsustainable. Manufacturing spandex fibers from petroleum-based raw material is energy-intensive, exacerbates the climate crisis, and causes environmental pollution. Too, the microplastics released from washing spandex fabrics pose health risks to wildlife and humans.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of spandex 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 spandex fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Spandex Fabrics
Spandex 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 spandex 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 spandex 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 spandex fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of spandex fabrics
|Each stage’s sustainability
|Sourcing of spandex fabrics
|Sourcing conventional fossil-based raw materials for spandex fabrics is not sustainable. The conventional raw materials used to start making spandex 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 spandex fabrics
|Manufacturing spandex 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 spandex fabrics
|Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with spandex fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Spandex fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels were extracted to produce raw materials for spandex fibers – to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
|Usage of spandex fabrics
|The usage of spandex fabrics is generally considered unsustainable. Washing spandex clothes during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments.
|End-of-life of spandex fabrics
|The end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based spandex fabrics is not sustainable because they are not biodegradable.
We can say that spandex fabrics are not sustainable. The actual environmental impact of a particular product, like cycling pants or a pair of socks, 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 spandex fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Spandex Fabrics
Sourcing conventional fossil-based raw materials for spandex fabrics is not sustainable. The conventional raw materials used to start making spandex 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 Spandex Fabrics
Spandex is a highly stretchable and elastic fiber, first commercialized by DuPont. Thus, spandex is often referred to as Lycra – the brand name under which DuPoint sells its spandex fabrics. Another synonymous name for spandex, most commonly used in Europe, is elastane.
The raw materials used in making polyurethane vary depending on manufacturers and processes. These raw materials are typically derivatives of petroleum (also called crude oil), though manufacturers are increasingly moving toward sourcing plant-based raw materials for spandex fabrics.
In the following section, we will discuss the environmental impacts of sourcing petroleum as raw materials for conventional spandex.
How Do the Fossil-Based Raw Materials Sourced for Spandex Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing petroleum-based raw materials for spandex 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 Spandex Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Depletes Nonrenewable Resources
Petroleum, or crude oil, is considered a nonrenewable resource. Here are the reasons:
- 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 spandex fiber production is not sustainable.
Making Raw Materials for Spandex 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 Spandex 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 Spandex 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.
It is important to note that bio-derived polyurethane (such as from industrial corn or seed oils) can be used as raw material for spandex. Using plant-based feedstock avoids digging into the non-renewable reserves of fossil fuels.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Spandex 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 spandex’s petroleum-derived raw materials.
There are two reasons:
- The supply chain of fossil derivatives is extremely complex
- Spandex fibers are made in factories using various ingredients depending on manufacturers and desired properties
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Spandex Fabrics
Manufacturing spandex 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 Spandex Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The typical spandex fabric manufacturing process includes the following steps:
- Production of the prepolymer: The prepolymers are the backbone that makes spandex stretchy and elastic. Prepolymer production is a complicated process that, in the simplest sense, connects the three chosen raw materials using heat and pressure.
To produce prepolymers, three raw materials are present:
- macroglycol – molecules providing the shorter soft segments (various kinds of macroglycol can be used)
- Polymeric diisocyanates – molecules responsible for the longer hard segments formed in the prepolymer (a wide range of isocyanates, including plant-based ones, are applicable)
- Chain extenders
- Production of spandex threads from prepolymer: Spandex threads are produced in four different ways: melt extrusion, reaction spinning, solution dry spinning, and solution wet spinning.
The procedures described below are according to the most common method: dry spinning (nearly 90% of all spandex fibers are produced via dry spinning).
- Chain extension reaction: prepolymer is reacted with diamine acid to create a liquid solution
- Diluting: The solution is diluted with a solvent and placed inside a fiber production cell.
- Extrusion: The diluted solution is fed through a spinneret to form fibers.
- Heating: The newly formed fibers are heated within a nitrogen and solvent gas solution, which turns the liquid fibers into solid threads
- Twisting: The threads are twisted together to form yarn with the desired thickness.
- Finishing: The twisted yarn goes through treatments such as dyeing.
- Weaving: After the finishing treatments, spandex yarn is ready to be woven, often with other fibers, to create fabrics.
Let’s now deep dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage.
Manufacturing Spandex Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive
Manufacturing spandex fabrics is highly energy-intensive. The production of prepolymers is an energy-intensive process. Additionally, machines such as spinning and weaving require fuel to operate.
According to a life-cycle assessment benchmarking study on various textile materials, the CED (Cumulative Energy Demand) of spandex production is relatively high: 380 MJ/ kg of fibers (70 dtex thickness).
According to the same study, spandex production’s energy consumption is:
- lower than cotton (about 460 MJ/ kg of fibers) and nylon (about 410 MJ/ kg of fibers)
- higher than acrylic (about 360 MJ/ kg of fibers) and polyester (about 355 MJ/ kg of fibers)
High energy consumption leads to elevated global warming impact when manufacturing burns fossil fuels for energy.
According to a life-cycle assessment benchmarking study on various textile materials, spandex has a carbon footprint of around 17 kg CO2 -eq (per kilogram produced).
Manufacturing Spandex Fabrics Is High Polluting
Spandex production uses a lot of chemicals, some of which are linked to respiratory issues or cancer. Wastewater needs proper treatment to avoid releasing toxic substances into the environment and harming wildlife and humans.
Where Are Spandex Fabrics Usually Manufactured
China is the world’s largest spandex fabric producer, accounting for about 75% of global production of this fiber in 2019.
One of the main sustainability issues with producing spandex fabrics in China is the dependency on fossil fuels for energy generation. According to Our World in Data, China’s renewable energy share in primary energy is less than 15%. Though such a share is higher than the US (another producer of spandex), it is relatively low compared to, for example, some Southern European and South American countries.
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Spandex Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with spandex fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Spandex fabrics typically travel from mines where fossil fuels were extracted to produce raw materials for spandex fibers – to processing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills.
In the life-cycle of spandex clothes, transportation typically occurs as below:
- From petroleum mines where spandex’s raw materials are extracted to spandex fiber manufacturing locations
- From the spandex 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 Spandex Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for spandex 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 spandex fabrics:
- Manufacturers source petroleum mined in the Congo basin and produce the prepolymer in South Korea before selling it to spandex manufacturers to be turned into clothes in India. Spandex 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 spandex clothes. These clothes are sold worldwide.
You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing spandex fabrics that travel shorter distances.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Spandex Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of spandex 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 the 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 spandex clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Spandex Fabrics
The usage of spandex fabrics is generally considered unsustainable. Washing spandex clothes during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments.
A major sustainability issue with using spandex fabrics is the microplastics 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.
However, spandex fabrics are generally durable. It is resistant to damage from sewing and substances such as oils, lotions, and detergents. Also, its ability to stretch and contract means it stays in shape for longer before it needs to be replaced.
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).
However, spandex fabrics tend to require frequent washes because of the material’s low breathability and the tendency to trap moisture and odor.
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 Spandex Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based spandex fabrics is not sustainable because they are not biodegradable.
Traditional fossil-based spandex is not biodegradable: this material could take up to 200 years to degrade completely.
How Circular Are Products Made of Spandex 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 spandex fiber is that this material is often present in a small percentage of a textile blend (something like this: 96% linen and 4% spandex).
Sorting, separating, and deconstructing a blend is often complicated and expensive, removing the incentive to recycle instead of producing new.
Additionally, spandex melts at relatively low temperatures, meaning some contaminants – non-recyclable materials and microbes or bacteria – can survive, hindering the recycling process.
How Can You Buy Spandex Fabrics More Sustainably
There are few environmental and original certifications for unsustainable synthetic materials like spandex. However, here are two certificates relevant ro a small percentage of spandex 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 spandex 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 spandex fibers)
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the fields where crops are grown). (For garments made with organic fibers and less than 10% of spandex).
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 Spandex Fabrics
We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that spandex 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.
- Spandex 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 spandex fabrics releases microplastic into marine environments, causing harm to wildlife.
- Conventional fossil-based spandex 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 spandex fabrics more sustainable, including:
- Recycling spandex fibers to reduce pressure on extracting more fossil fuels
- Using polyurethane and isocyanates made from plants (instead of petroleum) as raw materials for spandex fibers
- Manufacturing spandex fibers and fabrics in locations with high shares of renewable energy
As a consumer, you can look out for these indicators when buying spandex clothing and household items. To assist you with the efforts, we put together a small list of brands using spandex in relatively sustainable manners (such as limiting the share of spandex to a small percentage or using recycled spandex). 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 spandex’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.
Spandex fabric is generally not a very sustainable material. Spandex fabric production is energy-intensive and high-polluting while depleting the non-renewable fossil reserves. Washing clothes made with spandex fabrics contribute to microplastic problems in marine environments. Also, conventional fossil-based spandex clothes aren’t biodegradable.
However, if you choose to buy clothes made with spandex fabrics, the following can help it to be more sustainable:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled spandex clothing and household items.
- While using spandex products, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
- At the end of spandex products, upcycle the material to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
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