Textile Primer: Manufactured Non-biodegradable Fibres
Textile choice is at the heart of ethical fashion. Organic, recycled, handwoven, biodegradable, manmade. These are all options that have different environmental and social costs to consider when shopping. I've asked my knowledgeable friend Summer of tortoise & lady grey to help us sort them out. In the following primer, she has laid out the benefits and drawbacks of the most common manufactured non-biodegradable fibres and made recommendations for buying new textiles.
Nylon is a hard-wearing and versatile manmade fibre derived from petrochemicals that is used for a range of products, including swimwear, pantyhose, and even carpets.
Nylon is hard-wearing, and high-quality nylon lasts well. The textile is infinitely recyclable. Water-intensity of production is much lower than for natural fibres. Recycled nylon is available, which enables designers to access the function of nylon (particularly for swimwear and pantyhose) whilst reusing waste nylon. Econyl is a certified recycled nylon made from fishing nets and clothing.
Nylon is a petroleum-based fibre, thus made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. Nylon is not biodegradable and will persist in the ecosystem even as it eventually breaks apart. Production is energy- intensive, taking three times the energy of conventional cotton. Nylon can only be dyed with the most harmful dying practices and is not suitable for low impact colouring techniques. It is chemical-intensive too, and results in the release of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas that has contributed significantly to global warming. During the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.
Avoid purchasing new nylon products, unless they are made with recycled nylon. If you have old nylon clothing to dispose of, investigate where you can have it recycled to ensure that existing nylon stock is reused and does not end up in the landfill.
Polyester is another manmade petroleum-based fibre that is also quite versatile and frequently used for its wrinkle-free properties. Polyester clothing tends not to need to be ironed to maintain its shape and surface.
Polyester does not need special care or ironing to be properly looked after, so it is a convenient textile. It tends to be quick drying. High-quality polyester lasts well and maintains the quality of it’s surface. Water-intensity of production is much lower than for natural fibres. There are an increasing number of new polyester-type fabrics that are made from recycled plastics, including the certified recycled fabric Repreve, which is made from recycled plastic bottles and commonly used in sportswear and men’s swimwear. There are also some producers that recycle old polyester clothing to create new textile stock.
Polyester is another petroleum-based fibre, thus made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource. It is not biodegradable and will persist in the ecosystem even as it eventually breaks apart. Although it is less energy- intensive than nylon to produce, it still requires more than double the energy of conventional cotton to produce. The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, which, if emitted to water and air untreated can cause significant environmental damage. Most polyester clothing on the market is cheap, poor quality fast fashion, which will last few wears.
Avoid purchasing new polyester garments unless they are manufactured with fabric made from recycled polyester or recycled plastics. If you have old polyester garments to dispose of, investigate where you can have them recycled so that existing polyester stocks do not end up in the landfill.