February 20, 2023
The invention of synthetic fibres came about to make our lives more affordable, fashionable and easy. But in a time where we’re swimming in plastic waste and microfibres severely hurt marine life, polyester and his gang is no longer our friend. Here is a brief recap of its history and ways to cut the cord, once and for all.
In the aftermath of World War 2, polyester played an important role. Cotton was scarce and people were in dire need of something to wear. The Industrial Revolution brought mass production of garments that everyone could afford and made the clothing industry more democratic. Fashion was no longer reserved for women with sewing skills or the privileged that could afford fittings in Paris.
Polyester was introduced to America in 1951 as "the magic material which doesn’t demand ironing". Furthermore, it was both affordable and durable and entered the cultural landscape around the same time as its edible equivalent; fast food.
Like fast food – taking the strain off housewives while sacrificing the public health in the process – the demand for polyester exploded. Small textile factories started popping up everywhere, even in gas stations! The cheap invention had its glory days during the 70s disco era.
I wish we could say that the rest is history, but polyester and its synthetic entourage is still all around us, almost impossible to escape, and so skilfully hidden it takes a trained eye to reveal it. The glory days are long gone as today we know too much.
Many are shocked to learn that polyester is actually plastic. The fibres are created through chemical processes using crude oil and is used in all types of garments. In a time where there is an increasing focus on refusing plastics, in particular single use, many still have a blind spot when it comes to the plastic we wear.
In addition to Papa Polyester, the synthetic fibre family consists of Mama Acrylic, big brother Nylon, big sister Polyamide, little brother PVC (the black sheep) and little sister Elastane. The latter gives our garments their elasticity and rarely comes in big doses. But even a moderate percentage of elastane prevents an item, which otherwise contains natural materials, from being biodegradable.
Acrylic rarely does anything for a garment’s shape and life cycle, and it pills easily and a lot. Nylon is the key ingredient in women’s tights, making it hard to avoid. Luckily, Spiritgirl makes activewear using fabric made from recycled plastic bottles.
Make it a habit whenever you’re considering a new purchase, new or used, to always check the tag inside the garment to see what it’s made of. You know, the one with the washing instructions? A fabric might look and feel like cotton or wool but be 100 percent polyester or acrylic. The price tag could give you a hint, as natural fibres tend to be more expensive, but the exceptions are many.
Set your own limit to the amount of synthetic fibres a garment might entail for you to go through with the purchase. None? Great! If you are new to this mentality, you might settle for maximum 20 or 30 percent as a start.
If you love secondhand shopping, you might allow yourself a bit more slack when it comes to material use. At least you’re not supporting the fast fashion industry and the continued production of plastic.
Nonetheless, research shows that even synthetic items worn over many years still leak microplastics into our oceans. So again, check the tag and – if no longer visible– use your eyes and hands to try and investigate what your thrift crush is made of.
Secondhand or new, look for natural materials like organic cotton, wool, silk, linen or hemp. Only buy what you love and use your favourites again and again! After all, loveworn is the new new.
Overall, recycled polyester or polyamide make for a smaller carbon footprint. Unfortunately, it turns out recycled garments shed microplastic fibres too, so avoiding synthetics altogether is ideal. On the other hand, it’s hard to find items like underwear and swimwear made from 100 percent natural fibres, so if you can’t live without polyester, choose recycled before virgin polyester whenever possible.
The easiest way to avoid synthetic is to consciously seek out brands with ethics and sustainability as a crucial part of their DNA. They will be hard at work creating goods with a circular value chain and the smallest footprint possible. They tend to be produced in family-owned European factories, often run by solar power, where working conditions are more ethical and transportation less polluting. Sustainable brands mainly use natural and biodegradable fibres or manmade materials like Tencel, produced in a closed loop thus controlling emissions and avoiding toxic chemicals.
Luckily, greener alternatives are no longer hard to find. Several contemporary South African fashion brands, like Earthling & Moon, MAXHOSA, Research Unit, AKINA, Sindisa Khumalo, Elio Clothing, Graydawn, SELFI and Sitting Pretty fuse the love of design with the love of our planet. Not to forget, by supporting a smallscale and conscious brand, you vote for a cleaner world – with your wallet.
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