Today's fashion brands and designers use many different synthetic fabrics for their new collections. They are readily available, cheap to manufacture, and can be dyed easily. Rayon and polyester are some of the most common fibers used for clothing.
Although rayon and polyester are man-made fabrics, they are very different. Polyester is a synthetic fabric made from petrochemicals. Rayon is a semi-synthetic cellulosic fiber derived from wood pulp.
Both polyester and rayon are used for apparel and footwear such as shirts, dresses, pants, jackets, undergarments, hats, shoes, and sportswear.
Polyester is the most used fabric for apparel and textile worldwide. The total production of polyester fibers increased to 55 million tons in 2018 globally. It accounts for 52% of all fiber production.
The largest producer of polyester worldwide is China. Half of its polyester is manufactured in the Zhejiang region and a third in Jiangsu.
The popularity of rayon for clothing has been rising recently. With the growth of fast fashion over the last 20 years, consumers are looking for cheaper, trendier, and disposable. clothes.
Fashion brands and designers often pick rayon as a fabric choice to meet consumers' demands. It's a relatively affordable fiber used to produce low-cost and low-quality clothing in overseas countries.
Buying new clothing has become a distraction and not a necessity. Daily shoppers are influenced by the latest trends from runway shows, models, celebrities, and social media personalities.
We have been conditioned to consider clothing as a commodity. Unfortunately, it encourages instant gratification and throwaway culture. Style, price, and accessibility remain the most important factors that influence purchasing decisions.
Luckily, there is a regained interest in sustainability in the fashion industry. Conscious consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products. They express concerns for materials used, garment construction, quality, durability, and environmental impact.
A recent report from the University of Cambridge reveals that consumers consider sustainability to be the fourth most important criterion when shopping for clothing.
“Sustainability is gaining traction in the fashion world. Consumers, particularly Millennials and Generation Zs, are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges of sustainability, leading to changes in shopping habits and expectations for better, more sustainable products and new ways of consuming fashion.”
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic are well-known to be detrimental to the planet. Is rayon any better?
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Polyester fabrics used in fashion
Polyester is a type of fabric made from synthetic fibers derived from petroleum-based chemicals or petrochemical products. It's also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Polyester is a thermoplastic polymer resin. It's the most common fiber used in fashion, for clothing and accessories. It's often blended with other types of fibers such as elastane or spandex to add some elasticity.
Polyester fabrics are cheap, durable, resistant, flexible, lightweight, water repellant, and easy to care for. They offer many advantages over natural fibers such as cotton, linen, hemp, or jute.
Polyester fabrication involves the polymerization of synthesized polymers compounds made from oil-derived materials. Synthetic materials have a huge negative impact on the environment.
They increase plastic waste and global microfiber pollution, endangering ecosystems, marine life, land wildlife, and human health. Polyester isn't biodegradable and takes thousands of years to decompose in the oceans.
More environmentally friendly alternatives to polyester exist, one of them being recycled polyester, made from circular sources such as waste materials.
Recycled polyester is also known as rPET. It's manufactured from PET bottles, post-industrial polyester waste, or used clothing.
Using recycled polyester instead of virgin polyester can reduce energy consumption by 30-50%, water consumption by nearly 90%, and greenhouse gas emissions by about 60%, as well as decrease impacts on the air, land, and water.
Recycling is also a great way to prevent waste piling up in landfills and emitting toxic gases as when degrading or being burnt.
The average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing every year. 16.9 million tons of used textile wastes are generated each year in the United States alone.
Read up my list of sustainable synthetic fabrics to learn more about the eco-friendly alternatives to polyester.
Rayon vs polyester
Rayon is a man-made cellulosic fiber. It's considered semi-synthetic and made from regenerated cellulose derived from wood pulp.
Rayon is also known as viscose or viscose rayon. Other cellulosic fibers include lyocell, acetate, modal, and cupro. These textile fibers are made from cellulose-based resources such as wood, bamboo, soy, or coconut.
The global production of man-made cellulosic fibers is 6.7 million tons globally. It accounts for 6.2% of all fiber production worldwide.
Rayon is the most broadly used man-made cellulosic fiber. It has around 79% market share with 5.3 million tons produced in 2018.
Rayon fabric was developed back in about 1855 but the term rayon was officially adopted in 1924.
Rayon is very soft, comfortable, lightweight, breathable, moisture absorbent, and anti-bacterial. It's used in many types of clothing on the market, mostly in cheaply produced garments as the primary fiber content or a substantial part of the fiber composition.
Unfortunately, manufacturing clothing from plants or wood requires heavy processing. A lot of energy, water, and chemicals are used in rayon fabrication. The plant pulp is disintegrated into a viscous liquid before being reconstructed into fibers.
Rayon production is usually very toxic. It uses chemicals such as carbon disulfide, sulfuric acid, ammonia, acetone, or caustic soda. These highly hazardous substances poison the environment and put workers' health at risk.
Learn more about the environmental impact of rayon in my article on why rayon is bad for the environment.
Luckily, there are many different manufacturers of cellulosic fibers, some of them doing their best to protect the planet, people, and animals. Sustainable production facilities can almost fully retrieve and reemploy water and chemicals with closed-loop processes.
Sustainable forest management should also be a priority for man-made cellulosic fiber production. The global textile and apparel industry is responsible for huge deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Rayon and polyester are very different fabrics, oftentimes very polluting, but widely used in the fashion world.
Many conscious consumers stop buying synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon because they are byproducts of the oil industry. Can they choose viscose rayon fabrics instead?
Not necessarily as rayon might be even worse. Many fabrics undergo harsh chemical treatments during their fabrication. Manufacturing processes such as bleaching and dyeing are chemical intensive and very toxic.
As consumers, we have the power to drive change in the fashion industry by making more conscious purchasing decisions. Let's shop for the better alternatives that are more sustainable, socially responsible, and eco-friendly.
Check out my article on the top 10 most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics to get a picture of the better options.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.