How Sustainable Are Synthetic 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.
Amid growing concerns about the textile industry’s environmental impact, concerns have also been repeatedly raised about synthetic fabrics. Many manufacturers and brands focus on phasing out synthetic materials with recycled versions, claiming high environmental benefits and superior performance. Is recycling plastic waste to make more synthetic fabrics the answer for a more sustainable textile industry, or just a greenwashing effort? So, we had to ask: How sustainable are synthetic fabrics?
Synthetic fabrics are typically unsustainable. Manufacturing synthetic fabrics from fossil-based polymers uses a lot of energy, exacerbates the climate crisis, and causes environmental pollution. The microplastics released during their life-cycle pose health risks to wildlife and humans.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of synthetic 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 synthetic fabrics.
Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Synthetic Fabrics
Synthetic fabrics are generally considered unsustainable because of the energy-intensive and high-polluting extracting and manufacturing processes and the limited options at the end of the fabrics’ life.
However, not all synthetic fabrics are made equally unsustainably.
- Utilizing (plastic) waste to make synthetic fabrics, such as recycled polyester and recycled nylon, significantly lowers the environmental impacts of these materials. According to Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres, mechanically recycled polyester fiber is among the most sustainable fibers, similar to the most environmentally friendly natural fabrics like organic linen and organic hemp.
- Using renewable plant biomass synthetic fabrics avoids the further depletion of nonrenewable fossil fuels and increases the biodegradability of the materials. Studies show significant reductions in several environmental impact categories of bio-based synthetic fibers.
The Common Objective’s Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres ranks synthetic fibers in a wide range, from class E, the least sustainable fiber class, 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 synthetic 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 synthetic 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 synthetic fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments.
|The life-cycle stages of synthetic fabrics||Each stage’s sustainability|
|Sourcing of synthetic fabrics||The sourcing stage of synthetic fabrics is typically unsustainable. The conventional raw materials used to make synthetic fabrics come from fossil fuels (natural gas, crude oil). Extracting and refining these nonrenewable resources is energy-intensive and highly polluting. |
However, some synthetic fabrics have also been made using renewable feedstock or discarded plastics. Recycled and bio-based synthetic materials are more sustainably sourced.
|Manufacturing of synthetic fabrics||Manufacturing synthetic 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 synthetic fabrics||Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with synthetic fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Synthetic 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 synthetic fabrics||The usage of synthetic fabrics is generally considered unsustainable mainly because washing synthetic materials during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. Additionally, synthetic fabrics are generally not breathable. They require frequent washing, thus using much water and energy. However, clothing made with quality synthetic fabrics can last a lifetime, eliminating the need for frequent replacement.|
|End-of-life of synthetic fabrics||The end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based synthetic fabrics is not sustainable because they are not biodegradable.|
We can say that the typical fossil-based synthetic fabrics are not sustainable, but there are exceptions for synthetic fabrics recycled from plastic waste or made with bio-based materials. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, whether a pair of cycling pants or a winter coat, 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 synthetic fabrics more sustainably.
How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Synthetic Fabrics
The sourcing stage of synthetic fabrics is typically unsustainable. The conventional raw materials used to make synthetic fabrics come from fossil fuels (natural gas, crude oil). Extracting and refining these nonrenewable resources is energy-intensive and highly polluting.
However, some synthetic fabrics have also been made using renewable feedstock or discarded plastics. Recycled and bio-based synthetic fabrics are more sustainably sourced.
What Raw Materials Are Used for Synthetic Fabrics
Raw materials for synthetic fabrics are starting molecules, also called monomers, typically derived from fossil fuels (crude oil or natural gas). Different monomers are used to create different polymers, which form various types of synthetic fabrics.
Humans have created a long list of polymers, which are now woven into almost every aspect of our daily lives: the clothes we wear, the furniture we use, and the interior of the cars we drive. However, here are the most commonly used synthetic fabrics:
These synthetic fabrics use different starting molecules as raw materials. However, the conventional point of origin is usually fossil fuels, either in the form of crude oil (petroleum) or natural gas.
In the following section, we will focus first on sourcing fossil fuels to make synthetic fabrics and the environmental impacts of doing so. We will also discuss other more sustainable raw materials sourced for synthetic fabrics.
How Do the Fossil Fuels Sourced for Synthetic Fabrics Impact the Environment
Sourcing petroleum or natural gas to make raw materials for synthetic fabrics 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 Synthetic Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Depletes Nonrenewable Resources
Fossil fuels are considered a nonrenewable resource. The reasons for this are as follows:
- 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 fossil fuels are nonrenewable, depending on such feedstock for starting molecules to synthesize polymers for synthetic fabric production is not sustainable.
Making Raw Materials for Synthetic Fabrics From Fossil Fuels Requires Significant Amounts of Energy
Also, refining and cracking petroleum into molecules are energy-intensive factors. The “cracking” process, in particular, 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 Synthetic Fabrics Exacerbates the Climate Crisis
High energy consumption in refining and cracking fossil fuels for the raw materials used in synthetic fabrics leads to an elevated global warming impact when manufacturing burns fossil fuels for energy. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, exacerbating the global warming impact.
Additionally, the production of some synthetic fabrics, such as polyamide (commonly known as nylon), 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 lead to stress and further disruption to wildlife animals.
Where Are the Raw Materials for Synthetic Fabrics Usually Sourced From
Though it is always good to know the starting point of the synthetic fabrics used in your clothes, this is no simple task when it comes to tracking down the origin of the fossil-derived raw materials.
There are two reasons for this:
- The supply chain of fossil derivatives is extremely complex.
- A certain type of plastic can be made in many factories using various ingredients depending on manufacturers and desired properties.
Sourcing Raw Materials for Synthetic Fabrics More Sustainably
The good news is that it is possible to avoid digging into nonrenewable fossil reserves to make synthetic fabrics. The two more sustainable approaches to sourcing raw materials for synthetic fabrics are using renewable plant biomass and recycling (plastic) waste.
- Some examples of using renewable plant biomass to make synthetic fibers for synthetic fabrics are as follows:
- The company Kintra produces polyester fibers made with bio-based materials (originating from corn). A preliminary cradle-to-gate LCA of Kintra fibers showed a 95% reduction in emissions during raw material and resin production compared to traditional polyester fibers.
- Another 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.
- NatureWorks produces Ingeo, a synthetic fiber derived from annually renewable resources (corn in this case). Ingeo fiber is based on the polymer PLA (polylactic acid). PLA can also be made with other plant materials, including tapioca starch, sugarcane, grass, or rice straw.
- The Lycra company makes spandex fabrics from industrial corn. The polymer at the base of spandex fiber can also be made with seed oils.
- Acrylonitrile used in the production of acrylic fibers can also be made with renewable biomass.
- Some examples of using discarded plastics to make recycled synthetic fabrics are as follows:
- ECONYL® fiber is made with 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.
- Lycra® EcoMade fibers used to make spandex fabrics contain raw materials derived from renewable resources as well as recycled waste.
- REPREVE is a recycled polyester made with post-consumer plastic water bottles.
More Information on Sourcing for Synthetic Fabrics
- How Sustainable Are Polyester Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Recycled Polyester Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Polyamide Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Recycled Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are ECONYL® Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Acrylic Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Spandex Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Elastane Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- How Sustainable Are PLA Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Synthetic Fabrics
Manufacturing synthetic 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 Synthetic Fabrics Generally Manufactured
The typical process to manufacture synthetic fabrics includes the following steps:
- Polymerization: Polymerization is a reaction technique using heat and pressure to bind the raw ingredients together to create a polymer in a molten state.
- Extrusion: The molten solution is fed through a spinneret to form fibers.
- Loading: The yarn is loaded into bobbins.
- Stretching: The fibers are stretched to create uniformity, increasing strength and elasticity.
- Drawing: The stretched fibers are wound into another spool.
- Finishing: The textile fabrics go through final treatments such as dyeing.
- Weaving or knitting: This is the final step to creating synthetic fabrics to be cut and sewn into textile products like stockings or yoga pants.
Let’s now dive into a few key sustainable issues of this life-cycle stage.
Manufacturing Synthetic Fabrics Is Energy-Intensive
Manufacturing synthetic fabrics demands a lot of energy. Polymerization is an energy-intensive process. Operating machines such as those that spin and weave also require fuel.
According to a life-cycle assessment, synthetic fibers, including nylon, acrylic, polyester, and polypropylene, consume more energy in manufacturing than natural fibers, including cotton and wool. Manufacturing one kilogram of synthetic fibers has the following energy consumption:
- The energy consumption of manufacturing nylon is 250 MJ/kg fiber, 4.5 times that of cotton.
- The energy consumption of manufacturing acrylic is 175 MJ/kg fiber, almost three times more than wool—the natural fabric acrylic was developed to imitate.
- The energy consumption of manufacturing polyester is 125 MJ/kg fiber, more than twice as much as cotton.
- The energy consumption of manufacturing polypropylene is 115 MJ/kg fiber, twice as much as cotton.
Manufacturing Synthetic Fabrics Is Highly Pollutive
Synthetic fabric production often 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 synthetic fibers has relatively high negative impacts on several categories, higher than the natural fibers in the study.
- The global warming impact of the production of synthetic fibers (polyester, polyamide 6, and acrylic) is higher than natural fibers (cotton, wool, and silk).
- The impact on resource availability due to the production of synthetic fibers (polyester, polyamide 6, and acrylic) is higher than natural fibers (cotton, wool, and silk).
- The impact on human health due to the production of synthetic fibers (polyester, polyamide 6, and acrylic) is higher than natural fibers (cotton, wool, and silk).
- The impact on human toxicity due to the production of acrylic is higher than all natural fibers in the study, in particular, doubling that of silk.
It is important to note that the same assessment also showed that cotton has the highest impact per kilogram for land use, water use, eutrophication, and mineral resource scarcity, more elevated than all studied synthetic fibers.
Where Are Synthetic Fabrics Usually Manufactured
Fossil-based synthetic fibers account for more than half of all fibers produced annually. In 2021, the top exporters of synthetic fabrics were China, the US, Germany, France, and Italy, with China exporting significantly more than the second largest exporter (the US).
According to Our World in Data, the share of renewable energy in primary energy varies slightly among the largest synthetic fabric exporters with Germany having the highest percentage (21.26%).
The following is a breakdown of the renewable energy share in primary energy in countries exporting synthetic fabrics:
- China: 16.02% renewable energy
- The US: 11.32% renewable energy
- Germany: 21.26% renewable energy
- France: 14.62% renewable energy
- Italy: 16.6% renewable energy
How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Synthetic Fabrics
Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of items made with synthetic fabrics because of the emissions associated with transporting and delivering vehicles. Synthetic 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 clothes made with synthetic fabrics, transportation typically occurs:
- from mines where raw materials are extracted to the manufacturing locations where synthetic fabrics are made and put together,
- from the 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 Synthetic Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain
It is not uncommon for synthetic 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 synthetic fabrics:
- Manufacturers source crude oil mined in the Congo Basin and produce polymers in Japan before selling it to manufacturers to be turned into fibers, fabrics, and clothes in India. Clothing and household items made with synthetic fabrics are shipped to the US to sell to consumers.
- Fossil fuels are mined in Alberta, Canada. Raw materials are made in Germany and sold to companies in China to be turned into synthetic fabrics. Clothes made with synthetic fabrics are then sold worldwide.
You can reduce the transportation carbon footprint by choosing synthetic fabrics that travel shorter distances.
The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Synthetic Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation
During its life-cycle, a piece of synthetic fabric 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, including the following:
- 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 clothing items and accessories made with synthetic fabrics to reduce the carbon footprint of your order.
How Sustainable Is the Usage of Synthetic Fabrics
The usage of synthetic fabrics is generally considered unsustainable mainly because washing synthetic materials during the usage phase contributes to the increasingly serious problem of microplastic presence in marine environments. Additionally, synthetic fabrics are generally not breathable. They require frequent washing, thus using much water and energy. However, clothing made with quality synthetic fabrics can last a lifetime, eliminating the need for frequent replacement.
A major sustainability issue with using synthetic fabrics is the microplastics released into the environment due to washing the material.
Fossil-based synthetic fabrics, including polyester, polyamide (or nylon), acrylic, etc., 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 fish that ingest them and numerous animals (including us humans) further up the food chain.
However, studies show that some laundering factors influence microplastic release. As a consumer, you can modify your behaviors to reduce the microplastics coming from washing synthetic fabrics, including:
- washing a full load,
- using a front-loading washing machine,
- retrofitting a microfiber filter to your washing machine, or
- putting synthetic materials into a microplastic-trapping bag (like a Guppyfriend Washing Bag).
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.
Synthetic fabrics generally have relatively low moisture absorbency rates, especially when compared with natural fabrics. They are not breathable and, thus, often require washing more frequently, increasing water and energy usage.
As a consumer, you can modify some laundering habits and reduce the environmental impacts of using synthetic fabrics. Possible changes include:
- wash synthetic fabrics less often,
- switch to line drying instead of using tumble driers,
- do cold washes with appropriate detergents, and
- use energy-efficient washing machines.
Synthetic 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).
How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Synthetic Fabrics
The end-of-life stage for the typical fossil-based synthetic fabrics is not sustainable because they are not biodegradable.
Traditional fossil-based synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable. They could take hundreds of years to decompose in natural environments.
However, some biodegradable synthetic fabrics 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. Another example is Kintra fibers, which are biodegradable in aerobic environments.
How Circular Are Products Made of Synthetic 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
It is common for synthetic fibers to be blended with natural fibers, for example, in poly-cotton blends, to increase the overall performance of the fabrics. However, sorting, separating, and deconstructing a fiber mix is complicated, energy-demanding, and expensive, removing the incentive to recycle instead of producing new.
Due to such difficulties, most recycled synthetic fabrics are made with other sources of plastic waste, like post-consumer water bottles or discarded fishing nets, which breaks the circularity of textiles.
Some synthetic fibers, such as nylon and spandex, melt at low temperatures, meaning some contaminants—non-recyclable materials and microbes or bacteria—can survive, hindering the recycling process.
Regardless, there are commercial recycled synthetic fibers, with Econyl being a well-known recycled yarn produced in a closed-loop system.
How Can You Buy Synthetic Fabrics More Sustainably
The key to sustainably buying synthetic fabrics 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 synthetic 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 synthetic 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 Synthetic Fabrics
We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that synthetic fabrics are generally unsustainable. The most significant reasons are:
- Manufacturing these synthetic materials generally depends on fossil fuels for raw materials and for processing energy.
- Synthetic 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 synthetic fabrics releases microplastics into marine environments, causing harm to wildlife.
- Conventional fossil-based synthetic 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 synthetic fabrics more sustainable, including:
- recycling synthetic fibers to reduce pressure on extracting more fossil fuels
- making the starting monomers for synthetic fabrics from renewable biomass (instead of petroleum or natural gas)
- manufacturing synthetic fibers and fabrics in locations with high shares of renewable energy
- making synthetic fabrics biodegradable
As a consumer, you can look out for these indicators when buying clothing and household items made with synthetic fabrics.
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.
Synthetic fabrics are generally unsustainable. Synthetic fabric production is energy-intensive and highly pollutive. Washing clothes made with synthetic fabrics contributes to microplastic problems in marine environments. Also, conventional fossil-based synthetic clothes aren’t biodegradable.
However, more sustainably made synthetic fabrics, including bio-based and recycled materials, are available.
If you choose to buy clothes and household items made with synthetic fabrics, the following can help your purchase be more sustainable:
- Buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled synthetic clothing and household items.
- While using clothes made with synthetic fabrics, maximize the number of wear between washes, and keep the items as long as possible.
- At the end of clothing and household items made with synthetic fabrics, upcycle the fabric to extend its usage and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Recycled Polyester Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Recycled Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Common Objective: REPORTS & TOOLS | Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Natural Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Organic Linen Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Organic Hemp Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Science Direct: Life-cycle assessment (LCA)
- MIT SMR: Strategic Sustainability Uses of Life-Cycle Analysis
- European Environment Agency: Cradle-to-Grave
- Science Direct: Cradle-to-Gate Assessment
- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: RESOURCE | Fossil Fuels
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Polyester Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Polyamide Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Acrylic Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Spandex Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Elastane Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- ENERGY: Fossil | Department of Energy
- Stanford: When Fossil Fuels Run Out, What Then?
- National Library of Medicine – National Center for Biotechnology Information: Energy and public health: the challenge of peak petroleum
- THE CONVERSATION: Meet N2O, the greenhouse gas 300 times worse than CO2
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: Greenhouse Gas Emissions | Understanding Global Warming Potentials
- UNEP: Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and Stratospheric Ozone Layer Depletion
- WORLD WILDLIFE FUND: OIL AND GAS DEVELOPMENT: OVERVIEW
- The Wilderness Society: 7 ways oil and gas drilling is bad for the environment
- KINTRA FIBERS: Home
- Forbes: Next-Gen ‘Bio-Based’ Synthetics Are Here, But When Will They Replace Polluting Polyester?
- Fulgar: EVO BY FULGAR
- Fulgar: “LCA – LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT”
- Genomatica: Geno and Aquafil begin pre-commercial production for plant-based nylon-6
- Genomatica: Home
- Aquafil: Home
- NatureWorks: Ingeo Technology
- The Royal Chemistry Society: Synthetic Fabrics | Green couture
- Science Direct: Polylactic Acid
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are PLA Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- SOURCING JOURNAL: New JV Helping Lycra Scale Corn-Based Fiber
- Science Direct: Industrial Crops and Products | Polyurethanes from seed oil-based polyols: A review of synthesis, mechanical and thermal properties
- NREL: News Release: NREL Develops Novel Method to Produce Renewable Acrylonitrile
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are ECONYL® Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Recycled Nylon Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- LYCRA: Why choose LYCRA® EcoMade fiber?
- REPREVE: Sustainability
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Polyurethane (PU) Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Science Direct: Polymerization
- AgriLINK NZ: LCA: NEW ZEALAND MERINO WOOL TOTAL ENERGY USE
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Cotton Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Wool Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Sustainably Chic: Nylon: How Sustainable Is It? (& A List Of Alternatives To Choose Instead)
- Fulgar: Amni Soul Eco®
- Research Gate: Environmental Improvement Potential of textiles (IMPRO Textiles)
- European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment: The 16 impact categories of the Environmental Footprint
- Impactful Ninja: How Sustainable Are Silk Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis
- Common Objective: CO DATA | Synthetics & Sustainable Synthetics: Global Production
- OEC: Synthetic Fabrics
- The World in Data: Renewable Energy
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Renewable Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Solar Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Wind Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Hydropower Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Geothermal Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Impactful Ninja: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Biomass Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment
- Time for Change: CO2 emissions for shipping of goods
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- Nature: Scientific Reports | Washing load influences the microplastic release from polyester fabrics by affecting wettability and mechanical stress
- Brenmicroplastics: MICROFIBER POLLUTION & THE APPAREL INDUSTRY
- Microplastic Solutions: White Paper | Filtration as an effective and near-term solution to reduce the release of microplastics in the environment
- Guppyfriend Washing Bag: Home
- Springer Link: The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment | Statistical analysis of use-phase energy consumption of textile products
- Intechopen: Natural Fibers: The Sustainable Alternatives for Textile and Non-Textile Applications
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY IN DETAIL
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- Design Life-Cycle: Polyester
- Textile Today: Elastane (Spandex) filament care from spinning to end-use washing
- The Guardian: Recycling polyamide is good for the planet – so why don’t more companies do it?
- Econyl: Home
- OEKO-TEX®: Home
- OEKO-TEX: Certification according to STeP by OEKO-TEX®
- Textile Exchange: The RCS and GRS are designed to boost the use of recycled materials.
- B Corp Certification: Home
- C2CCertified: Home
- European Parliament: The impact of textile production and waste on the environment (infographic)
- Science Direct: The challenge of “Depeche Mode” in the fashion industry—Does the industry have the capacity to become sustainable through circular economic principles, a scoping review
- Science Direct: Carbon Footprint of Textile and Clothing Products
- European Parliament: Environmental impact of the textile and clothing industry
- European Parliament: What if fashion were good for the planet?
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future
- McKinsey: Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula
- Forest Stewardship Council: Home
- Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss
- Our World in Data: Renewable Energy
- Peta: Animals Used For Clothing
- The Guardian: Child labour in the fashion supply chain