The 1950s marked the beginning of our lasting love affair with petrochemical textiles. With the onslaught of chemical manipulation and large investment into crude oil harvesting and management, acrylic, polyester, nylon, aramid, and spandex became part of our everyday lives.
These materials are incorporated into nearly every type of garment from underwear to socks, coats, mock-wool clothing and evening wear. However, opting for plant-based synthetics such as Tencel, Modal, and sustainable corn and soy fabrics—or natural fibers or biodegradable or recycled fabrics—are far better options and here’s why.
Polyester is the most commonly produced, oil-based textile. Polyester manufacturing uses plenty of water and energy, and a highly toxic substance called antimony (which most countries other than the U.S. and China have outlawed) as a catalyst.
Acrylic is manufactured with a combination of petrochemical fiber filaments and other toxic substances. Although a strong fiber that holds dyes well, acrylic is chemically loaded and not easily recyclable.
Nylon process uses a combination of coal, water, petroleum and natural gas as the main resources for performing a series of chemical reactions that produce a substance called caprolactam. The production of nylon creates nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 310 times more polluting than carbon dioxide.
Spandex is an oil-based fiber used to create a “stretch” effect when blended in small amounts with polyester, nylon and cotton fabrics. The production of spandex is rather costly as it is a time consuming and energy intensive process that involves “cracking” petroleum molecules into propylene and ethylene gases before actually creating the fiber.
Photos courtesy of Pendleton Woolen Mills
When shopping for sustainably made clothing, certification can help guide you toward what you want. The outfit above and the coat, at right, are made with Pendleton wool, which is Cradle-to-Cradle certified. Cradle-to-Cradle indicates that a product is either completely biodegradable or recyclable, and that the manufacturing process is not harmful to people or planet. The shirt by Patagonia, right, meets the Global Recycle Standard, signifying that it contains some recycled content.