Spotlight on sustainable vegan textiles: Recycled synthetics nylon and polyester
by Summer Edwards | Posted on December 16 2016
We can often find that vegan fashion companies rely heavily on synthetics to produce their cruelty-free fashion. However, synthetics are petroleum based and contribute heavily to climate change and the pollution of air and waterways with toxic chemicals. According to a 2013 study by Deloitte for the Danish Fashion Institute, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil. Synthetic textiles carry a great deal of the responsibility for this.
Toxic chemicals are needed to process oil into the variety of synthetic textiles, creating significant air and water pollutants in the process. For example, nylon production results in the emissions of nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas. In Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys author Kate Fletcher refers to a study which estimated that the global warming contribution of a single nylon plant in the UK during the 1990s was equivalent to 3% of the nations carbon dioxide emissions. Similarly, worldwide, over 70 billion barrels of oil are used each year to manufacture polyester, the most popular synthetic fabric
Synthetic textiles also require the most harmful chemical dyes, further contributing to the environmental impact of these textiles and the endangerment of wildlife and habitats. Water pollution is such a critical environmental issue, that Greenpeace International runs a global campaign Detox My Fashion to fight against the toxic impact that fashion has on waterways, particularly in textile manufacturing hubs such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Furthermore, a study from 2011 found that fibres that are shed when synthetic fabric is washed may be the biggest source of ocean microplastic pollution worldwide, which can be found in small fish and has the potential to move up the food chain to larger animals. This has obvious implications for the health of our ocean animals and the animals that rely on fish in their diet.
Due to these serious issues with synthetic fabrics, it is important to avoid all synthetic fabrics when, in most cases, a reasonable natural fibre alternative is available. However, occasionally synthetic fabrics are required for particular garments, such as swimwear, pantyhose, or waterproof jackets. In these cases, we have access to recycled nylon and recycled polyester so we can make the sustainable choice that takes care of the ocean ecosystem.
Recycled Nylon & Recycled Polyester
Currently the only way to use synthetic fabric in a sustainable way is to seek out recycled nylon and recycled polyester. Reycled nylon is often made from rescued ocean waste, and recycled polyester is often made from recycled plastic bottles. Sometimes, post-consumer waste (old clothing) is also used, which diverts clothing from landfill. Occasionally, you will also find eco-conscious designers who use remnant fabric (fabric waste that is left over from conventional fashion production- either as off-cuts, or as excess rolls in warehouses that would otherwise go to waste).
Bead & Reel stocks a limited range of products in these recycled synthetics. Because nylon is hard-wearing, you will commonly see recycled nylon used as liner in vegan bags, such as the Vintage Orwell Handbag (on sale) or the Vintage Lesson Messanger Bag (on sale) (pictured above).
Recycled polyester can be used to make microsuede, commonly used in vegan handbags. This Silver Flat Waist Bag uses microsuede as the lining.
Recycled polyester is well suited to swimwear and active wear, and is used by a lot of eco-conscious vegan designers for this purpose. The Choli Yoga Bra and matching tights are beautiful examples of these.
Garment Care & End-of-life
Sadly, nylon and polyester do create microplastic pollution when you wash them. For products like handbags, this won't be an issue. But unfortunately, synthetic fabrics retain sweat and smells and often need to be washed after every wear. If possible, try wash less frequently, but only if the garment doesn't smell already. Unlike natural fibres, which can benefit from airing out, synthetic fabrics do not breath, they encourage you to sweat more and they retain the odours. So frequent washing is unavoidable for anything that is worn directly on your skin.
Recycled nylon and polyester garments will last a long time, as the fabrics are hard-wearing. When your garments are worn out, invesitgate whether you have access to a recycling centre that will take them. Nylon and polyester and infinitely recyclable. As plastics, they will not breakdown and should be diverted from landfill if possible.
If you enjoyed getting an insight into the your sustainable vegan textile options, you will get a lot out of my Guide to Sustainable Textiles- a 60 page guide to all the sustainability considerations for textile choice in your wardrobe. At only $9, it gives you all the information you need to be able to make sustainable choices when shopping for your wardrobe.
(This post contains some affiliate links)