If you are looking for sustainable synthetic fabrics, you've made the right choice. Ethical and sustainable fashion is much more than a trend. It's now necessary to consider sustainability seriously when buying new clothing.
The most sustainable synthetic fabrics are recycled polyester, nylon, spandex, lyocell, and biobased plastics. They are made-fibers used for clothing production that also protect the environment much better than other conventional fabrics.
The fashion industry is the second-largest polluter globally. It's responsible for huge textile waste, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water, and energy consumption.
Read up my article on the fashion industry catastrophic contribution to climate change to understand the negative impact of your wardrobe on the environment.
Luckily, more consumers are becoming aware of the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions. Consumers' demand for greener clothes is growing.
That's why fashion brands and designers create more environmentally friendly and socially responsible collections made from sustainable synthetic materials.
One of the best ways to commit to a more sustainable lifestyle is to look for eco-friendly fabrics when shopping for new clothes. But where do you begin? How do you tell if synthetic fabrics are sustainable?
When it comes to sustainable materials for fashion, you have the choice between natural organic fabrics and eco-friendly synthetic fabrics.
To learn more about organic fibers, check out my list of the top 10 most eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics.
Sustainable synthetic fibers used for garment manufacturing should not only be environmentally friendly but also socially and fairly produced without animal materials.
Unfortunately, they remain a niche market with significant economic drawbacks. They are more expensive to produce and their retail price is higher. They have limited availability and aren't accessible to most consumers.
It costs a lot more money to use resource-efficient manufacturing processes, energy, water, and carbon emissions saving supply chains.
Only a small portion of the resources used by the apparel industry are renewable. Most materials aren't eco-friendly and should be avoided at all costs. Environmentally damaging fabrics to avoid are:
- conventional cotton
- animal-derived fibers such as wool, fur, leather, silk and goose down.
If you are wondering what's wrong with cotton, read up my article on the case for organic cotton.
One of the best ways to be more sustainable with clothes is to buy less and higher quality. Choose clothing made from high-quality and sustainable materials that last a long time.
Sustainable synthetic fabrics are especially important for your athletic wear and workout clothes. The best activewear brands demonstrate strong concerns for ecological manufacturing processes and complete transparency for the end customer.
Check out my list of the top 10 sustainable fabrics for sportswear if you are new to ethical fashion in the technical apparel segment.
To help you learn more about eco-friendly man-made fibers and make better purchasing decisions with the environment in mind, here is my list of the most sustainable synthetic fabrics.
Polyester is the most widely used fiber worldwide. 55 million tons of polyester fibers were produced in 2018. It represents 52 % of the global fiber production.
Recycled polyester is a high-quality sustainable material. It's usually made from PET plastic bottles. It can also be made from other post-consumer plastics such as discarded textiles or ocean waste.
Recycled polyester is also known as rPET. It's manufactured from PET bottles, industrial polyester waste, or used garments. Notable producers of recycled polyester fibers include Unifi with Repreve fabric and Carvico with Vita or Renew fabric.
Conventional synthetic fibers have a huge negative impact on the environment. They create microfibers and plastic pollution, threatening marine, land wildlife, and human health.
They aren't biodegradable and will take thousands of years to decompose in the oceans. It's better to use sustainable synthetic materials such as recycled polyester made from circular sources.
However, the global rPET market is declining due to China's waste import ban at the end of 2017. China is the largest producer of polyester worldwide. The ban on importing different types of solid waste, including plastic bottles and polyester textile waste has stalled global recycling.
Nylon or polyamide is a synthetic fiber often used in the fabrication of sportswear, swimwear, and athleisure garments. 5.4 million tons of polyamide were produced in 2018. It represents 5% of the global fiber production worldwide.
Recycled nylon is manufactured from post-consumer and post-industrial wastes, such as fabric scraps, carpet flooring, fishing nets, and industrial plastics from landfills and oceans.
Polyamide is much more difficult to recycle than polyester. But the production of recycled nylon has a far lower environmental footprint compared to virgin nylon.
Overall, polyamide recycling decreases waste, pollution, and dependency on fossil-based raw materials.
For every one ton of raw material, recycled nylon saves around 7 barrels of crude oil and 5.7 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.
Not all recycling is environmentally friendly. Recycled polyamide production requires lots of chemicals and water. A large majority of used resources during manufacturing must be reused and not unloaded into the nearby surrounding to make the process sustainable.
It's also important to look for certifications when buying eco-friendly clothing. The main recycled nylon standards include:
- The Global Recycled Standard (GRS)
- The Recycled Claim Standard (RCS)
- The SCS Recycled Content Certification (SCS RC)
Learn more about certifications in my article on the best eco-certification standards for textiles.
Lyocell is a man-made cellulosic fiber. The annual production of man-made cellulosic fibers is 6.7 million tons. It represents 6.2% of the total fiber production volume.
Man-made cellulosic fibers include lyocell, viscose-rayon, acetate, modal, and cupro. They are textile fibers made from cellulose-based resources such as wood, bamboo, soy, or coconut. Man-made cellulosic fibers are primarily produced from wood at the moment.
Viscose-rayon is the most widely spread man-made cellulosic fiber with about 79% market share and a production volume of 5.3 million tons in 2018.
Lyocell is the third most used man-made cellulosic fiber after viscose and acetate. It had a 4% market share in 2018 but is expected to grow faster than any other fibers with a 15% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).
Turning plants into fibers for clothing requires heavy processing. It's a very energy and chemical-intensive process. The plant pulp is dissolved into a viscous solution before being regenerated into a fiber.
Highly toxic substances such as carbon disulfide or sulfur fumes are used in the manufacturing of these semi-synthetic fibers. They must be contained and kept from the air and waterways. Otherwise, they could poison the environment and put workers' health at risk.
Sustainable production facilities employ environmentally friendly processes. They can almost fully recover and reuse water and chemicals with closed-loop processes.
Forests and sustainable forest management are a priority for man-made cellulosic fiber production. Textile production is responsible for massive deforestation, destruction of ecosystems, and carbon emissions.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) founded in 1993 is an international member-led organization that sets the FSC standards for responsible forest management and chain of custody.
The FSC is currently working with key players in the industry to achieve complete certified textile supply chains to allow FSC labels on apparel.
Biobased plastics, also known as biopolymers, bioplastics, or bio-synthetics, are biobased manufactured fibers made from biological sources such as sugarcane, seaweed, starch, plant oils, or agricultural wastes.
They are renewable alternatives to fossil-based synthetic fibers. They are made from renewable biomass and help combat climate change. They will become more viable as the future availability and stability of oil deteriorates.
A lot of technology innovation, infrastructure development, and investments are still required before the plastic industry can become more biobased, circular, and regenerative.
There is a growing interest in bio-synthetics among key players in the fashion industry. But most conscious consumers aren't aware of its advantages and only a few commit to buying biobased polyester or nylon.
The Textile Exchange’s Bio-synthetics Round Table kicked off in 2016. It's is a multi-stakeholder initiative working toward the development of bio-synthetics for the textile and apparel industry.
Other sustainable synthetic fibers include recycled elastane. It's a lightweight synthetic fiber made from spandex or elastane waste.
Elastane is mostly known for its excellent elasticity and is usually blended with other synthetic fibers to produce garments.
It is very complicated to recycle from post-consumer textiles. It's usually manufactured by collecting spandex from post-industrial waste, a by-product of the fabric manufacturing process.
Collected spandex is shredded, dried, dissolved, and filtered before being spun into recycled elastane yarn. The biggest hurdle is the lack of infrastructure to collect and distribute spandex waste.
The Japanese Asahi Kasei makes Roica fibers and is the world-first textile producer of recycled elastane certified with GRS.
The Taiwanese Sheico Group received the GRS certification for its recycled spandex fiber named Spanflex in October 2017.
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 four languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.