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Could Polyester be the Next Eco-Friendly Fabric?

H&M, Conscious Collection, recycled polyester, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

A recycled-polyester dress from the H&M Conscious Collection

Out of all the fibers, polyester has the worst reputation—and unfairly so. I know eco-conscious people who would rather wear conventional cotton than let a polyester garment touch their skin. They scoff at me when I proclaim I love polyester, often questioning my intelligence, sanity, and taste. Yet I believe that consumers who refuse to wear synthetics are buying into one of the biggest misconceptions about fashion’s sustainability problem.

Bodkin, polyester, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

Polyester pipette pant by Bodkin

ORGANIC OR SYNTHETIC?

The reality is that even if all the clothing in world were suddenly made out of organic, natural fibers, we would still be far from a sustainable fashion system. Many people don’t realize that when it comes to a fiber’s true ecological impact, its source material is only one part of a much larger picture in which the use and disposal phases also play a significant role. In fact they account for an estimated 50 to 80 percent of a garment’s total footprint.

A garment’s source fiber only accounts for one part of its environmental impact.

I’m not claiming that polyester is the perfect fiber, especially since it’s derived from nonrenewable petroleum resources and will not biodegrade. But these negative characteristics often overshadow the fact that polyester garments perform very well, ultimately needing fewer resources in their use phase. A polyester garment can be worn many times and then washed in cold water and air-dried. It doesn’t need ironing, doesn’t pill, and doesn’t abrade easily.

Issey Miyake, 132 5, polyester, recycled polyester, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

Issey Miyake’s 132 5 collection

RECYCLED POLYESTER

While polyester does not biodegrade, at the end of its use phase it can actually be recycled to near-virgin or virgin-like quality (something which cannot be said of natural fibers). Issey Miyake’s recent collaboration with the Japanese chemical company Teijin, which developed specialized equipment to revert used polyester back to its original source material of dimethyl terephthalate, demonstrates just how beautiful recycled polyester can be.

Unlike natural fibers, polyester can be recycled to near-virgin or virgin-like quality.

Eviana Hartman, the designer of Bodkin, takes a pragmatic approach when choosing the fibers she uses. “The origin of a material is only one part of its environmental impact,” she says. “How many times it’s flown around the world before it gets to you, how much water is diverted to grow it…these things all mean that it’s never black and white.”

She adds: “Most scalable materials are not directly ‘saving the world,’ so the best we can do is to look at all the factors and make an informed decision to balance beauty, sustainability, and utility.” Balancing all of these effects means that Hartman often includes polyester looks in her line.

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7 Responses to “Could Polyester be the Next Eco-Friendly Fabric?”

  1. fileunderk (@magic_wookie) says:

    Gah! I think one of my biggest complaints about polyester is it requires an industrial process. The average person can’t recover it and create a fiber from it from scratch. Leather, cotton, wool, even fur, anybody with a few simple tools can work with. (I am trying to plan ahead for The Armageddon of course.) But, good article nonetheless. ;)

  2. janet says:

    I thought nothing could have me reconsider polyester but this post may do it. I’m looking forward to seeing and feeling these current polyester pieces, especially the ones by bodkin. When thrifting/second-hand shopping I always pass by polyester because the garments always feel so stuffy and unbreathable. This tends to be disheartening, especially since the most exciting prints I find are always on polyester.

  3. superjuli says:

    Yes polyester is the key to a more sustainable world. We need to use up all of the world’s plastic pollution and make into clothing that we can recycled over and over again.

    RethinkFabrics.com – offers wholesale apparel made out of 100% recycled polyester.

    Thanks for the great article!

  4. CounterCouture says:

    Thanks for this article! It was a much needed boost as my own design label heads into our fashion week presentation. We work strictly with polyesters and poly blends and have definitely ran into those reactions. We’re upcycling it all and making a much more elegant and long-lasting product than other sustainable brands may be able to with natural fibers.

  5. Design Futurist (@NATALIAALLEN) says:

    Great article Sarah – I agree that the world can not depend exclusively on organic Natural fibers but must point out that Polyester textiles contain chemicals that are harmful to human health (toxic catalysts, stabilizers and additives). In order to make Polyester sustainable we must clean up the chemistry. Much of my current work is focused on this.

  6. ecomamacita says:

    This is a nice article for the Polyester industry. Too bad it skipped over the most important part – the environmental and societal damage from the current methods of manufacturing polyester and polyester goods.

    Perhaps this story will have some REAL environmental standing when we have reached the point that consumers and designers have demanded new manufacturing and recycling technologies that bring the reality of recycled polyester to the racks. Until then, this story should fall under the green-dream of those who don’t have the courage or discipline to walk the talk.

  7. bibby says:

    Polyester is the perfect ecofriendly trend to you realize polyester strands fly off your clothing in to the air. The air you breathe. Then flys right in to lakes and streams, in to the ocean.

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