Ever since starting my sustainable fashion journey, I have been investigating the clothing on my wish list with an eagle eye. The second thing I look at when buying new clothes — after the price, of course — is the fabric a garment is made from. And if the composition says "polyester," my bank card says "absolutely not." Polyester is essentially plastic, but is recycled polyester — a popular material used in activewear, loungewear, and puffer jackets — a better alternative? We checked in with sustainability consultancy Eco-Age to get you informed before your next purchase.
Virgin polyester is one of the most widely used fabrics in the world because it's easy to clean, quick to dry, and doesn't need any land space to be cultivated. However, it's made from petroleum-derived chemicals (PET) that are encouraging fossil fuel extraction, oil spills, and the loss of biodiversity. When we wash and wear our polyester clothing, microplastics and nanoplastics are released into the water and through the air. These tiny plastics, which are less than 5mm in length, eventually end up in our food chain — and let's just say, we become what we wear.
The fashion industry's plastic problem inspired the development of recycled polyester, an eco-conscious alternative stocked by some of our favourite brands like & Other Stories, Ganni, and COS since the launch of the 2020 Recycled Polyester Commitment. Unlike virgin polyester, recycled polyester is made from rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles or ocean plastic. But similarly to other eco-synthetic fabrics like NewLife (recycled yarn) and Econyl (recycled nylon), recycled polyester is made by "melting other synthetic materials, which means it carries the same risks [as virgin polyester], however with the benefit of being made from materials that already exist," Eco-Age told POPSUGAR.
"By turning waste, such as used plastic bottles or damaged fishing nets into new fabrics, we can reduce our reliance on petroleum oil (a dwindling natural resource which is normally used to make synthetic fabrics). Through diverting waste from landfill or incineration, you can reduce pollution to water, air, and soil, as toxic chemicals are not being released into the environment." That being said, it's important to remember that recycled synthetics still release microplastics and nanoparticles into the water and air. Another issue we're having with recycled polyester is that although it takes 59 percent less energy to produce than virgin polyester, the fabric still contains chemicals from plastic water bottles that can be harmful to the skin.
Recycled polyester is definitely a better alternative to virgin polyester, and while we want to advocate against buying synthetic fabrics all together, it isn't that simple. Recycled polyester blends are crucial to the development of other eco-conscious fabrics like vegan leather; even some natural fibres, like cotton and silk, come with dodgy human rights issues. We recommend looking into ethical retailers that supply truly sustainable natural fibres like hemp, or fabrics like Lyocell or Tencel that are made from the wood pulp of sustainably harvested trees — and feel just like cotton or can be blended with organic cotton to feel like silk.