WHY IS POLYESTER CLOTHING EVEN A THING?
Polyester is frequently used for its wrinkle-free properties: clothing made from this textile usually does not need to be ironed or pressed to maintain its shape and surface. Due to the fact that it often does not need to be ironed and can be washed easily in the washing machine, it is very convenient for the wearer to maintain. It also tends to be quick in drying, which is useful in climates that have long periods of cold or wet weather. High quality polyester can last a long time and maintains the quality of its surface, but the majority of polyester available on the market is of very poor quality, and is often used by manufacturers simply because it is a cheap alternative to natural fibres. Most polyester clothing is cheap and badly made, and will not have an overly-long lifespan, especially when compared with clothes made of natural fibres. In addition, the material is not breathable for the skin, and can often be uncomfortable to wear.
IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
However, notwithstanding its occasionally garish or gaudy appearance and its lack of breathability, polyester’s bad reputation principally comes from the negative impact it has on the environment. Polyester is a synthetic petroleum-based fibre, and is therefore made from a carbon-intensive non-renewable resource; the raw material used to make the fibre is, in fact, petroleum which is also needed to generate the energy needed to manufacture the material. Over 70 billion barrels of oil are used every year in polyester manufacturing, and since the material is not biodegradable it is a major environmental hazard. It is one of the main culprits behind the massive amounts of microplastics in the world’s oceans, since up to 1900 fibres can be washed off of one garment every time a polyester product is cleaned.
Although its production process is less energy intensive than that of nylon, polyester still requires more than double the energy of conventional cotton to produce, but it obviously does not share cotton’s more favourable relationship with the environment. The production of polyester uses harmful chemicals (including some which are carcinogenic), but it is hard to regulate such processes, since the majority of polyester-based products are produced in countries such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh, which mostly lack the regulations in force elsewhere in the world. In addition, these countries do not have a particularly impressive track record in treating the air and water pollution they themselves are responsible for, which results in significant pollution and harm to communities in the vicinity of (as well as downstream and downwind of) manufacturing plants.
Although polyester products often look cheap and unattractive to the fashion-conscious eye, it is more due to the environmental and ethical concerns that haunt polyester’s production process that products made of this material – despite their often cheap price – cannot be recommended.