Synthetic clothing consists of a blend of different textiles. Synthetic materials have been around since the mid-twentieth century and have become the most used fibers over the past few decades. Polyester, acrylic, nylon, and spandex dominate the textile industry and will probably continue to do so as the popularity of activewear rises.
In 2020, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition announced that, based on its Higg Material Sustainability Index (Higg MSI), polyester—a synthetic fiber—was more sustainable than several natural fibers.
With the ability to control so many factors in production like water and energy usage, can human-produced textiles be sustainable?
How Synthetic Fabrics Are Made
There are many types of synthetic fabrics, and they all have a common beginning: Each fiber begins as a fossil-fuel-based polymer solution.
Polymers are long chains of smaller molecules. When creating synthetic fibers, a polymer solution is melted and then sent through a device with holes called a spinneret. This process produces filament fibers that are then mixed with varying chemicals prior to being spun into threads. The type of chemicals added determines the fiber that is created and then spun.
There are four types of spinning: wet, dry, melted, and gel. Each of these spinning methods will set the fibers so that they can be spun into spools of thread. The thread is then woven or knitted into a specific type of synthetic cloth.
Types of Synthetic Fabric
Though all synthetic fibers are made in a similar fashion, there are still many different types. Slight variations in chemical additions, spinning choices, and even finishes can alter the performance and end-use of the fiber.
Acrylic fibers are known for being lightweight and soft. They are often used for knitted cooler weather items such as scarfs, sweaters, and even socks. Acrylic clothing is produced in a manner that resembles the texture of wool, which means it can be used as a replacement for wool or blended with natural fiber to create more stability and flexibility.
Aramid is a fiber that is said to be five times stronger than steel. Its strength, stability, and heat resistance makes it useful in anti-ballistic apparel used by the military and police forces. The polymer solution is mixed with sulphuric acid to create this fiber and is a rather expensive process.
The greatest benefit to elastane is its ability to stretch and quickly recover. This synthetic fiber is often blended with other fibers to make it more wearable. Athleisure, swimsuits, and sportswear often contain elastane. Elastane is also known as spandex or its brand name of Lycra.
Nylon was the very first synthetic fiber to be produced. It was first marketed to women as an alternative to silk stockings. Demonstrations of its strength and durability had people sold on the man-made textile’s ability to replace silk. Nylon is a polyamide fiber and is now used for more than hosiery and tights. It is also considered a technical fiber used in outerwear and in industrial circumstances.
Currently, nylon is a popular textile to recycle. The recycled material has been used to make swimsuits since 2012.
Polyester is the most popular synthetic fiber produced around the world. The inexpensive production costs make it an ideal material for multiple applications. Clothing makes up the largest group for end-use of polyester.
Polyester is known for its ability to endure wash after wash. However, it is the lack of biodegradability and propensity to shed microplastics when washed that make it an environmental liability. However, more and more polyester is being created from recycled bottles adding to its sustainability.
The impact of synthetic fibers is far-reaching and comes in many forms. From the extraction of the raw materials to the wastewater from the dyes, the production of synthetic fabric is environmentally problematic in just about every part of the production cycle.
Fossil Fuel Extraction And Refineries
Much has been said about the burning of fossil fuels and their effects on the environment, but the extraction of these elements has also been a threat to biodiversity. Disturbing these ecosystems means the potential loss of food, medicines, and natural fibers.
Oil refineries pollute groundwater, the air, and soil. Plus, those living near oil refineries have shown higher incidences of major health risks due to pollution.
Synthetic fibers can be difficult to dye, so manufacturers use synthetic dyes to permeate the fibers. The good thing about synthetic dyes is that they are very stable in light and high temperatures and can resist even environmental degradation. This is, however, also what makes them bad for the environment.
Synthetic dyes have been found in water, underwater sediment, and even the fish themselves. Being widely used, it comes as no surprise that they have found their way not only to aquatic environments but also into the soil. Researchers believe the toxicity and pharmacological tendencies of these substances are cause for concern.
Microplastics are a topic that has gotten a lot of press lately because of their environmental impact and the fact that they are being found everywhere. Clothing and tires are the main contributors to this phenomenon. In fact, synthetic clothing contributes nearly 35% of all the microplastics that end up in the ocean. This mainly is due to the laundering process. The fibers are often mistakenly ingested by marine life, making their way all way up the food chain.
Three of the most popular synthetic fabrics polyester, polyamide, and acetate (which is actually considered a semi-synthetic fiber) all shed microfibers. It is estimated that over 700,000 fibers are released during an average wash load.
Studies have continued to show the hazardous effects of degrading plastics and synthetic textiles. Ground and groundwater contamination from old landfills around the world is unfortunately very common.
Alternatives to Synthetic Fabric
Synthetics were popularized because of their inexpensiveness, flexibility, and accessibility. Now, it would seem that the world is ready to go back to the basics of natural fibers.
However, at a time where people are divided in what sustainability looks like, completely eliminating synthetic fibers doesn’t seem like a graspable solution. There are, however, ways to combat the negative effects.
Buy Secondhand Clothing
Purchasing your synthetic clothing secondhand eliminates the production of new fibers. This means less oil being drilled, refined, and less toxic chemicals being used to create textiles such as polyester. This protects the environment and those living in areas that are effect by processes such as fracking.
Warning: Patagonia commissioned a study that showed older clothing made of synthetic fibers release more microplastics than new. So, it is a good idea to invest in a filter for your washing machine or a laundry bag that catches microfibers.
Purchase Recycled Fabrics
Although there is a chemical process involved in recycled textiles, there isn’t the continuous drain on fossil fuels which are non-renewable resources. This is also a way to keep synthetic materials in cycle versus being thrown in the landfill.
Try Semi-Synthetic Fabrics
Before full synthetic materials, there were semi-synthetic ones. Textiles that are man-made from naturally occurring polymers are considered semi-synthetic. These fabrics are produced from regenerated cellulose and are the fabrics known as viscose, lyocell, or modal. This includes fabrics made from cotton linter (cupro) or bamboo.
Natural fibers are more of an investment, but they are biodegradable and created from renewable resources. If you want to be completely natural be cautious of the finishes used on the fiber as some can be synthetic and create the same problems as a fully synthetic fiber.
The Future of Synthetic Fabrics
The demand for synthetic fibers is still on the rise. This is mainly because of physical properties that natural fibers are lacking, such as stain resistance and elasticity. The overwhelming majority are fossil-fuel-based but innovative textiles are being created from bio-based materials as well.
Biopolymers are a growing field of study and are showing promise as sustainable alternatives for textiles that rely on petroleum and other fossil fuels. These fibers regenerated from spider silk, seaweed, and even milk are believed to be a solution to the growing environmental concerns of the fashion industry.
Since the dyeing of synthetic textiles has its own environmental concerns, researchers are finding ways to reduce their impact as well. From using ozone, mordants, and plasma to make the fibers more permeable; to using ultrasonic dye baths combined with olive vegetable water for increased dye uptake, the search is on for more sustainable ways to dye fossil fuel-based fabrics. These methods would reduce the need for synthetic dyes and reduce the environmental impact caused by them.