Since their invention in the 1930s, the use of synthetic fibres in clothing has taken the fashion world by storm. In 2015, it was estimated that 60% of all clothes were being made of the stuff, and that figure was only expected to increase, pushing naturally derived fibres out of favour.
Synthetic fibres like nylon, acrylic, Lycra and Spandex were a boon to both women’s and men’s fashion, as they allowed for the creation of clothing that was more comfortable and easier to care for than the clothes of previous generations. In addition, synthetic fibres (which could be generated in a lab) proved to be cheaper to manufacture than traditional fibres derived from animals (such as silk, wool and leather) and plants (like linen and cotton), but behaved in similar ways to natural fibres when it came to weaving and sowing. These properties of synthetic fibres allowed for the creation of new styles (like athleisure) and also helped drive the cost of clothes down.
Unfortunately, there is a darker side to the world of synthetic fibres, and our reliance cheap and fast fashion is having a detrimental effect on the environment.
1. Clothing in landfills
Synthetic fibres are effectively plastics, which can take hundreds, if not thousands of years, to breakdown. Given that the average American is estimated to throw away 37kg of clothes each year, that is a significant amount of plastic that ends up in landfills or is incinerated. While more and more of us are making conscious efforts to recycle our old clothes instead of throwing them in the trash, Americans lag behind other countries in this regard (recycling a mere 13.6% of all clothing and shoes discarded each year).
In addition, recycling of clothes is surprisingly difficult. Most of our clothing is a blend of natural and synthetic materials, which makes separating the different fibres extremely laborious and therefore expensive. While a small number of companies are working on technologies to be able to more efficiently separate different kinds of fibres, large scale adoption of such processes is still a way off. Therefore, a large number of clothes which people think they are sending for recycling often just ends up in the landfill anyway.
2. Water pollution
Each time we wash our clothes, tiny microfibres are released into the water. Even though both natural and synthetic fibres produce these microfibres, it is the synthetic microfibres that are causing problems in our water supply. According to a 2017 study by Orb Media, more than 1 million tons of synthetic fibres are discharged into water systems each year globally, and due to their small size, only about half are able to be extracted, meaning that these tiny bits of plastic are ending up in our drinking water and in our food.
Unfortunately, we do not know the long-term health implications of being exposed to so much plastic on a daily basis, but it is clear that it is having a harmful impact on plant and animal life, which in turn, is affecting the security of our food supply.
3. Air pollution
It may come as a surprise that synthetic fibres are responsible for air pollution as well. A 2015 study in Paris found that between 3 and 10 tons of airborne microfibres are deposited around the city each year, and other cites are probably experiencing similar quantities. Researchers are only just starting to look into this phenomenon, but one theory is that the simple act of wearing clothes results in microfibres breaking off as we take clothes on and off, and move around during the day.
So, what can be done?
- When you’re looking to buy new clothes, check the label to see if it is made from natural or synthetic materials, and try to opt for more natural options.
- Try to avoid impulse buying clothes, especially without trying them on first. But, if you do end up going home with a purchase that you later regret, make an effort to return it directly to the shop during the return window, so it can be sold to someone else.
- Do not be afraid to browse second-hand clothes shops or goodwill donation centres. You may be surprised at what you find!
- Instead of throwing old or unwanted clothes into the garbage, check what clothes recycling options are available where you live. Clothes that still have life in them can be sold online, given to friends or donated to goodwill. Clothes that have seen better days can usually be recycled at municipal recycling centres, and some areas even offer curb-side collection of old clothes.