What You Should Know About Plastics in Fabric

Well over half of the global supply of fabric is made from petrochemicals, or plastic, including nylon, Spandex, and polyester, to name a few. Praised for their unique characteristics like stretchability and durability, they became widely adopted as low cost alternatives to natural materials. Unfortunately, these petroleum based fabrics come at a high cost to the environment through their production process, shedding of microplastics, and inability to decompose efficiently in a landfill.

It’s difficult to talk about the rise of synthetic fabrics without providing background on the very sudden proliferation and market success of nylon. The debut of nylon stockings in 1940 quickly replaced silk as a more contemporary, affordable product. American chemical company DuPont was responsible for the invention as well as the first operational nylon plant. Unsurprisingly, this same company, now merged with Dow Chemical with three sector spinoff operations, has been the subject of major environmental scrutiny and lawsuits over the years. DuPont was found to have been knowingly releasing cancer-causing toxic chemicals into water supplies and using them in household products (like nonstick pans) over the course of decades, which resulted in a $4 billion settlement as recently as 2021. The endless legal battles exposing DuPont’s blatant disregard for public health and safety are hard to ignore when considering the production of nylon, which, like most man-made fabrics, creates extremely potent greenhouse gasses as well as uses large amounts of water that could potentially be contaminated throughout the process.

Spandex was another DuPont fabric derived from oil in the late 1950’s, born from a need to produce more comfortable and stretchy girdles for women. The word spandex was actually an anagram of the word “expands.” It then became the logical fiber choice in the 70’s when athletic clothing became popular, and is still used today (as spandex, lycra, or elastane) in nearly every category of the market including athletic wear, denim, swimwear, and general ready-to-wear garments. Perhaps even more troubling than the production process and consequent greenhouse gas emissions, is the compounding environmental impact of shedding microplastics. It is estimated that a single cycle in the washing machine releases 700,000 microplastic fibers, poisoning our entire food chain. While more sustainable alternatives exist, they have not been able to compete with the marketing and production of Spandex. 

Yet another well-known synthetic fabric, Polyester, is used extensively in the apparel and home furnishing industries. Whether it’s blended with other fibers like cotton or woven on its own, it’s been lauded as wrinkle-resistant and durable, but is far less breathable or soft than natural alternatives. Like nylon and Spandex, polyester is derived from petroleum, sheds microplastic, and does not biodegrade in a landfill. In comparison to natural fibers (like the organic cotton used in our Mini Tennis Dress and Pullover) that take months or a few years to break down in a landfill, Polyester takes several decades at minimum-- or hundreds of years at best--to biodegrade, shedding toxic micro particles along the way.