A Conscious Consumer's Guide To Fibers: Part 1
The Problematic Fibers
Fiber content can say a lot about the sustainability of a garment, regardless of brand, making it a helpful place to start when evaluating a purchase. In this article, we will explore how fiber content contributes to the sustainability of a fabric so you can make informed decisions when shopping.
In the first part of this three-part series, we will look at fabrics that have an especially harmful environmental impact, what we like to call problematic fibers. In parts two and three we will evaluate fabrics you can feel best about purchasing new and/or purchasing second-hand.
Before jumping in, here is a refresher on the three categories of textile fibers that are the building blocks for fabric: natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic fibers.
Natural fibers come directly from plants or animals. These are the fibers you are probably most familiar with like cotton, wool, leather, and silk.
Synthetic fibers are synthesized from petrochemicals (i.e. crude oil). They are man-made and include polyester, nylon, elastane, and acrylic.
Semi-synthetic fibers, as the name would suggest, sit somewhere between natural and synthetic. Like some natural fibers, semi-synthetics are made from plant cellulose, but are processed in such a way that they are not fully classified as natural. These fibers usually come from bamboo or wood, examples include viscose, lyocell, rayon, and modal.
For more information about the fibers that Two Days Off uses and how to care for them, visit the recently updated Care Guide.
Fibers To Consider Avoiding
Synthetic materials are typically the most unsustainable. They require lots of energy, water, and petroleum to produce, don't biodegrade, shed microplastics when washed, and must be dyed with chemical rather than natural dyes. One argument in favor of synthetics is that they may be recyclable but when you consider the alternatives this single redeeming quality, it does not outweigh the bad. Semi-synthetic fibers, for instance, can be recycled and biodegrade.
While some people find that their skin is sensitive to synthetic materials, others find natural materials to be irritating to their bodies. First and foremost you have to do what is best for your body.
Throughout this article, you will also find short videos that show the making of these textiles. They give a fascinating perspective on the resources and labor involved in the production of these fibers.
The saddest fabric of all: the synthetic-natural blend. The only favorable quality, recyclability, about some synthetic textiles is lost as soon as they are blended with another fiber of a different kind. Though there are blends of multiple natural fibers, commonly hemp-cotton or linen-cotton, many blends use some elastane (aka Spandex), polyester, nylon, or acrylic with natural fibers to give stretch or to produce more affordably. It should be noted that a small amount of stretch in a fabric can also help a garment last longer because it can retain its shape more effectively, especially in elbow and knee areas. The deliberation between prioritizing the longevity of a product over sustainable production of the material is something conscious consumers must grapple with.
It is estimated that over 60% of the clothing on the market contains some amount of polyester. A little known fact is that polyester is made from plastic spun into fibers. Plastic, as we all know, is made from crude oil.
Close to 700 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce polyester. The fashion industry is already the second-largest polluter in the world just after the oil industry. It is estimated that polyester production accounted for 655 million tonnes of CO2 in 2014. Those emissions alone account for 40% of the entire fashion industry’s emissions.
Recycled polyester is better, as it reuses resources that could not otherwise be reclaimed, but still sheds microplastics when washed and does not break down naturally, taking hundreds of years to biodegrade. For garments like leggings and underwear that are almost impossible to find made from biodegradable materials, choosing recycled polyester is usually better, but it is still not ideal. Some research has shown that especially fleeces made from recycled polyester may contribute even more microplastic pollution than non-recycled polyester fleeces.
Nylon is very similar to polyester. It is made from chemicals found in coal and petroleum, requires lots of energy and water to produce, sheds microplastics, and cannot be dyed naturally.
Also like polyester, it can be recycled when it is not blended with natural fibers. Where polyester is generally low quality, nylon has properties that make it sturdy. Because nylon is 70% more energy intensive to produce than polyester and is generally of higher quality than polyester, recycled nylon can be a great option. As there is no other way to reclaim the resources used in its making and it is pretty durable, considering purchasing recycled nylon over other synthetics can be a good option.
Think of acrylic like polyester or nylon...but worse.
Though acrylic can mimic some properties of wool and be soft, cheap, and versatile, it has many tragic flaws. Like the other synthetics, acrylic is made from fossil fuels, produces microplastics when washed, releases toxic fumes when decomposing in landfills, and takes 20 to 200 years to completely biodegrade, but it also is highly flammable, cannot be recycled, and doesn’t hold its quality well. On the other hand, acrylic consumes only 30% more energy than polyester, to nylon’s 70%, making it a bit more of an energy conscious option.
If you have sensitivities or otherwise that make acrylic a personal preference, treating acrylic garments well and purchasing less of them overall can still reduce its environmental burden.
What If I Already Own Something Made Of A ‘Bad’ Textile?
Don’t throw it out yet!
The most sustainable garment will always be the one you already have. By learning how to fix minor wear, washing clothing less frequently, and being careful with it, you can extend its life even more. Microfibers are mostly released during the beginning of a garment’s use, so the longer you have it the less it sheds in the wash. You can also consider using a microplastic filtering wash bag or ball to help keep microplastics out of our water.
The customer use stage uses a lot of water and energy. To decrease your water and electric bills and environmental impact wash clothing less often (opt for spot cleaning and airing out) and hand garments to air dry when possible.
When parting with a piece, evaluate if it is no longer useful to you or if it is no longer functional at all, then repurpose, donate, recycle, or compost it accordingly.
All we can do is our best. Doing even one of these things is better than doing none of them.