Synthetic Fibers Still Rule the Fashion Industry by Silvia Milanova, July 09 2022, 5 Comments

You wake up and feel good having slept in your favorite soft T-shirt. It’s chilly in the morning, so on your way out, you grab your warm, fuzzy coat that barely makes it into the closet. You throw on your trendy sneakers (perhaps from Nike, Puma or another hip brand), and you’re out the door. But what are you really wearing?

In short, plastic.

Despite a larger commitment from businesses to slow down fast fashion and opt for more natural fibers, synthetic fibers—such as Polyester, Acrylic and Nylon—still make up around 70% of all fibers produced and used in clothing today. This has steadily been increasing since 1940—from 5,000 metric tons to 76.5 million metric tons in 2019.

And although recycled synthetics have become all the hype, their production is only a fraction of the total synthetic fiber production annually—most fabrics still use virgin fibers (especially polyester).

So, what exactly is the issue here? Is the current effort to rein in this industry enough?

Big apparel makers are trying to take steps forward by lessening their impact on climate change and converting to more sustainable practices that recycle textiles.

This all seems like progress—it does. But synthetic fiber production continues to rise and the average American still throws away around 80 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually. Even though companies have set science-based targets, not all of these targets have been achieved when it matters the most, now. And this doesn’t address the current state of the fashion industry which encourages consumers to buy more (the more the better), and doesn’t address the exponential growth in surplus clothing that people already own and will eventually throw out. All of this waste, a lot of it plastic, will end up in landfills or our oceans, where the situation is already dire.

Plastic, whether virgin or recycled, is made of fossil fuels. The oil and gas industries, which are threatened by alternative energy sources, have found another outlet to keep growing and to keep their product in demand. So, as Plan B, they have pushed plastics as a great, cheap alternative to natural fibers for clothing manufacturing. This only increases pollution—something that has not slowed down. If nothing changes, by 2050, the fashion industry will comprise 25% of the world's carbon budget.

A recent short film by Patagonia, called “The Monster in Our Closet”, highlights the gap in consumer understanding when they purchase apparel, with little knowledge of what they’re actually buying, where it’s coming from and how it’s affecting workers who make the clothing. According to the film, the apparel industry is one of the least regulated and most polluting industries on the planet. In the past, this industry has prioritized profit over concern for our planet and for the wellbeing of industry workers.

The film follows Maxime Bédat, lawyer and author, who is trying to create new legislation—The New York Fashion Act—to regulate the fast fashion industry, which uses a business model of “disposability.” If passed, the bill:

“Requires fashion retail sellers and manufacturers to disclose environmental and social due diligence policies; establishes a community benefit fund for the purpose of implementing one or more environmental benefit projects that directly and verifiably benefit environmental justice communities.”

As new styles get churned out more and more quickly by fashion companies—i.e. fast fashionit has led to consumers buying cheaper, less durable products in greater quantities.

“We have been trained to see ourselves as consumers,” says Bédat. “That has been the message that we have been sold on, that our greatest role is to consume.”

But she says that instead of being passive buying machines, we can take a more active role in changing the laws to improve them for both people and planet.

“We don’t have time to spare to get this industry under control," Bédat adds. 

However, Pasha Whitmire, Patagonia’s Material Development Lead, says that, “There is no way that the consumer can figure out this problem on their own. We need governments and legislation to step in and really help solve this problem.”

There needs to be broader international and more holistic regulation. Simply demanding alternatives to plastic isn’t enough. Although even finding alternative materials is a challenge on its own. It's hard to argue the appeal of synthetic materials. They have strength, durability, water resistance and they last longer, which overall equals better performance. But what sounds like good attributes are also problems. These materials are so durable that they’ll stay around for a long time and will not biodegrade, or break down, easily when disposed. Recycling, or using recycled plastics, is important but not the silver bullet either. It’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

All of the clothing we already own and the clothing we continue to buy, will eventually need to end up somewhere. And if more is produced and we continue to consume more and more, the impact will be much greater.

Is donation the epitome of doing your part for the greater good? The reality is that only about 6% of donations are ever resold. Some clothing gets immediately thrown out (due to its poor quality), and some of the lower quality items get sorted and shipped to sub-Saharan Africa, where eventually they’ll end up in a landfill or be burnt.

“If we don’t find value in it”, says Bédat, “it’s actually going to be very hard for other people to find value in it.”

So, what is the solution? How can we solve this?

One of the most impactful things you can do is to stop consuming so much.

“If you don’t need to buy, don’t buy,” says Pasha Whitmire. “You don’t need so many clothes.”

  • Buy clothing that is well made and lasts longer
  • Choose natural fibers over synthetic fibers, when possible
  • Find out what your clothes are made of and where they come from
  • Take care of your clothing; try washing and drying less
  • Wear it for as long as possible
  • When damaged, instead of disposing it, fix it and wear it again

“There’s hope for the future that we could figure this out,” says Whitmire. “That we could fix this problem.”

For more information, watch “The Monster in Our Closet”.

To get involved in changing the rules that govern the apparel industry, consider supporting The Fashion Act.

If you’re interested to know how your favorite brands stack up in terms of sustainability and ethical fashion, check out the Good on You app, which has done the hard work for us. They have thousands of rated brands in relation to their environmental and social performance and their impact on animals.

These are the current scores of the brands mentioned in this article: