Your Clothes Are Made From Petroleum

by Vivian Morellon


The ocean now has more plastic than fish and 90% of the air is contaminated. While some of the contaminants are obvious (hello water bottles and GHG) it’s not just the single use plastics that are causing harm – it's also our clothes. The biggest culprit? The fast fashion industry.

While it’s easy for me to pinpoint the obvious bad with the industry – the unfair labor practices, harmful manufacturing methods and wastefulness – this article focuses on one specific area: synthetic fabrics.

What’s so bad about them?

Let’s take polyester as an example; after all it makes up the bulk of fast fashion fabrics and has an annual production exceeding 22.67 billion tonnes worldwide.

Polyester describes the chemical relationship between ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Huh? Basically polyester is a a common plastic, derived from petroleum, and ranks 3rd place as the most used plastic- right after polyethylene, the culprit behind water bottles.

Synthetic fibers are created through a carbon-intensive manufacturing process in which petroleum, a fossil fuel, is mechanically extracted from the earth. The extraction of this fuel releases carbon dioxide, one of the key players in climate change. When it comes time to process the fabric, insoluble disperse dyes are used in order to stick to the plastic-made fiber. The dye’s complex molecular structure does not readily decompose either – so we’re left with cheap clothing that hangs out in landfills for 400 years… give or take.

Even before it hits the landfills, we use it and therefore, we wash it. This is equally detrimental to the environment as the manufacturing process because a single wash of synthetic clothing can release 700,000 micro plastic into water sources. The teeny tiny (1/1000 of a millimeter in diameter) plastic fibers cannot be caught in your washing machine so they pass through to sewage treatment plants, which often don’t have filters fine enough to catch them either. Because of this, millions of microfibers are dumped into our rivers and oceans via the the treated wastewater. Plankton and small fish eat it, and up it goes through the food chain until it reaches us. In fact, a study conducted the Marine Institute found that around 73% of fish caught at mid-ocean depths in the Northwest Atlantic had micro-plastic in their stomachs- 35% of it comes from synthetic textiles.

sushi with a side of plastic, yum.

So, synthetic fibers are a no-go when it comes to the environment… but it still makes up the bulk our purchases (?). It’s hard to avoid, after all the industry’s system relies on how conventionally cheap and easy it is for us to purchase – it’s coined “fast” fashion for a reason.

But convenience is costing us. A lot.

Globally, 80 billion new items of clothing are bought each year and around 60% of them are made up of synthetic materials. This is not sustainable – the resources will not last if we keep purchasing clothing in this way.

So how do we curve around it and buy CONSCIOUSLY?

The most sustainable approach? Opt for organic cotton instead of normal cotton in order to reduce the use of GMOs, pesticides and fertilizers and preserve soil health. Because organic cotton can still be environmentally taxing due to the hight water use, choose natural fabrics such as Linen and Hemp, which are highly sustainable materials that don’t need pesticides or fertilizers to grow and require little water. If choosing animal-based materials, stop buying fur and choose materials that treat the animals ethically while upholding environmentally sustainable practices. For cashmere wool, Alpaca has the lightest environmental footprint. If buying silk, look for Eri and Tussar silk, since their process doesn’t harm the silkworm; allowing it to evacuate the cocoon naturally.

If choosing man-made, switch to TENCEL Lyocell in order to replace Polyester! This semi-synthetic fiber is made through a closed-loop system and uses sustainably grown eucalyptus trees, which require little water and grow on land that isn’t suitable for agriculture. Reformation calls it the “holy grail” of fiber.

Finally, the most conscious way to shop is to shop less, re-purpose and thrift! Remember, the most sustainable shirt will be the one that doesn’t get made – so shop used, trade clothes with friends/family and recycle the pieces you truly don’t want. By giving second life to a garment you keep it from hitting a landfill sooner, reduce waste and keep pressure off our natural resources.

Finally, when washing any synthetic-made clothes, wash responsibly. This means washing when necessary, using natural detergents and even incorporating baggies like GUPPYFRIEND to catch those pesky micro-plastics.

Vivian Morellon