What’s the deal with synthetic fibres?

16 July 2021

Walk into any high street shop or (should I say – open their website) and you’ll be greeted with  so many options that it can be hard to know where to begin.

There’s the 20 per cent storewide discount, the 10 different edits of latest trends, the sale and last chance to buy section. We are hit with so much information that it can be hard to make the decision to shop consciously.

The brand is doing everything it can to stop that from happening. This pattern continues on a loop, with fashion brands releasing new micro-seasons every week, feeding the cycle of over-production and over-consumption.

Sure, there is a lot at play here that enables this unsustainable system but none of it would be possible without synthetic fibres.

Cheap to produce and quick to manufacture, synthetic fibres are the backbone of the fast fashion industry.

What is the problem with synthetic fibres?

Synthetic fibres are made from fossil fuels like oil and gas. We’re talking about polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane, spandex and lycra. 

At the moment, synthetic fibres represent over 69% of materials used  in textiles. This is expected to rise to 75% by 2030.

At the end of June, the Changing Markets Foundation (in their own words: a foundation formed to accelerate and scale up solutions to sustainability challenges by leveraging the power of markets) released Synthetics Anonymous, a damning report on fashion brands’ addiction to fossil fuels.

It stressed that cheap synthetic fibres not only facilitate the production of low-quality clothing that ends up as waste, but also perpetuate the fashion industry’s dependence on continued fossil-fuel extraction in the midst of a climate emergency.

Polyester is the big culprit here, with the production of it having grown almost ninefold in the last 50 years.

Polyester is produced from fracked gas and currently there are investments underway to produce it from coal.

So while other sectors and companies are decarbonising and aiming for a circular economy, the fashion industry is heading in the opposite direction.

The report also highlighted that throughout the entire lifecycle of synthetic fibres, significant environmental issues are caused, including via landfills, incineration, generating greenhouse-gas emissions and pollutants, consuming non-renewable resources and shedding microplastics.

(That’s something we will come back to in a minute, the lifecycle of these fibres.)

So what is being done currently?

The short answer: not enough.

The longer answer: most brands realise they need to be seen to do something but delay and distraction are currently the modus operandi.

As the Synthetics Anonymous report highlights, greenwashing is rampant across brands voluntary commitments. Particularly when we look at brands ‘recycled’ or ‘sustainable’ lines.

Usually made from recycled PET bottles (your standard single use plastic water bottle), recycled polyester is a buzzword seen a lot at the moment and is the principle way brands plan on curbing the impact of fossil fuels. 85% of companies surveyed by Changing Markets indicated they aim to achieve their ‘recycled’ polyester targets by using polyester from downcycled PET bottles. This may sound positive. Plastic can be recycled into plastic again and again but when it is turned into polyester it can’t be.

The newly created product ends up destined for landfill or incineration instead of remaining in a closed loop system of being recycled into plastic bottles.

Fibre-to-fibre recycling is where the industry should be heading. We’re talking about take back schemes in store and recycling material like-for-like, but currently this accounts for less than 1% of all recycled garments.

None of the brands surveyed by Changing Markets reported a high level of fibre-to-fibre recycling targets, nor a clear goal to move towards this type of recycling. Dr Hakan Karaosman, chief scientist at UCD’s Fashion’s Responsible Supply Chain Hub (FReSCH) is keen to stress that even though brands should be doing more here, recycling alone is still only a plaster on the wound of a bigger problem.

“We need to talk about lowering consumption, about re-loving our clothing – reusing, repurposing, and then as a last resort, recycling,” Dr. Karaosman said.

Let’s return to the life cycle of the garment that we mentioned earlier. 

Life cycle assessments usually look at the environmental impact of a product from cradle-to-cradle or cradle-to-grave, i.e. end of life. However, the methodology that the fashion industry uses is cradle-to-gate, i.e. factory gate. So the impact of the product after it is made is not considered.

Not how long it takes to break down, not the associated micro-plastics, none of it.

This has created a situation where natural fibres like wool, silk and linen can be argued to have a greater environmental impact than synthetic fibres despite the fact the quality is better, the product lasts longer, it doesn’t shed dangerous microplastics, and when it is disposed of it is far easier to break down.

What is the solution?

So should we just ban synthetic fibres?

Dr Karaosman’s answer is pragmatic, they can’t be banned, the market is too big, but as consumers we should be conscious and vocal about their use.

In his view the industry should be using mono-materials at least and not mixing fibres.

“We need to go back to the root cause of the problem and we need to create a system based on less production and less consumption,”  according to Dr Karaosman.

He points out that one of the problems that needs to be addressed is improving demand forecasting in supply chains to limit waste.

However, in his view, while the problem was initially fuelled by over-production, in the last 20 years over-consumption has risen up to become as damaging an issue. Thus, consumers need to change their relationship with clothing and embrace the slow fashion movement. 

While these are changes that won’t happen overnight, science based legislation and bottom-up dialogues, where the voices of those impacted by the negative impacts of the fashion industry are heard, are needed according to Dr Karaosman.

These views are echoed in the Changing Markets report: “the solution is not replacing one type of fibre with another, but rather a radical slowdown of fashion, which is the principal cause of untenable volumes of waste, harmful microfibres and widespread pollution.”

What are our governments doing about these issues you say? 

On a national level, the Circular Economy Bill 2021 was announced in June. On the face of it, this is positive news but it’s not clear yet what this will mean for the textile and apparel industry. We’ll be taking a deeper look at this in two weeks’ time, so stick with us on that one.

At an EU level, the European Commission is currently working on two new legislative initiatives: ‘Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition’ and ‘Substantiating Green Claims’, these will clamp down on companies that make claims about their products than can be considered greenwashing.

An EU textile strategy is also in the works which is an opportunity to address many of the issues surrounding synthetic fibres.

However, the Synthetics Anonymous report makes clear that current EU ambitions do not go far enough in guaranteeing a circular economy for textiles. 

Among the report’s recommendations for EU policy makers is to introduce a tax on virgin plastic, which should also cover the use of virgin synthetic fibres in the textile industry.

It also notes that strategies and measures to reduce pollution from the shedding of microfibres from synthetic fibres should be set out in any legislation.

This should include setting measures and maximum thresholds for the number of microfibres released right through from production to end of life.

By Jane Matthews