It might surprise many readers to know that synthetic fibres have been around since the 1800s, although they’ve changed a great deal over the decades. Today, clothes manufacturers use around 8000 manmade chemicals in textile production, and those chemicals can end up in watercourses and landfills causing a whole heap of environmental damage. But could those chemicals also be having a profound effect on our bodies? And are there genuine alternatives to the most useful of synthetic materials?
Synthetic Clothing: A Brief History
“Synthetic fibres are fibres that have been produced by humans via chemical synthesis2. (How Toxic Are My Clothes, 2019)
One of the first synthetic fibres was an attempt to deal with an epidemic amongst silkworms which began in 1862. This synthetic silk, called Chardonnet silk after creator Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, addressed the issue by providing a man-made alternative to the rapidly depleting silk supplies. This fake silk was highly flammable, but so useful that commercial production of rayon, the new name for this exciting semi-synthetic fabric, started by 1891.
Rayon used woven nitrocellulose from mulberry leaves, interestingly, a food source for the silkworms which were the inspiration for this new fabric. As time went on, chemists developed rayon to be less flammable, using wood pulp treated with sodium hydroxide.
PVC, a water-resistant material popular for outdoor fabrics, was also invented in the 1800s, although not patented until 1913. DuPont Chemicals became famous for their invention of Nylon in the 1930s. This was an inexpensive alternative to silk, ideal for stockings. Then the Second World War struck, and Nylon stockings suddenly went from being an inexpensive essential to a rare treat, as all nylon went towards the war effort. A few years post-war, polyester and acrylic joined the growing ranks of synthetic fabrics.
1959 saw the development of spandex as a synthetic version of latex. Spandex had the advantage of being more breathable than latex, but not as durable. Spandex had many medical uses including compression clothing and bandages. Practical synthetic fabrics expanded further with the arrival of Nylon’s tough cousin, Kevlar. Although made famous by any number of movies and TV shows, Kevlar is not just for bullet-proof vests. It’s also used for reinforcing car tyres, as a component in some car brakes, and as bodywork for vehicles.
Producing Synthetic Fibres
Textile manufacturers make synthetic fibres in a variety of different ways. Most of the common ones we see nowadays are plastics, which means they derive in some way from crude oil – a non-renewable resource. Chemists manipulate oil and its derivatives into different polymers, which are then extruded to make very thin fibres. These fibres are then woven together to make fabrics in much the same way as cotton fibres are.
Synthetic Fibres and the Fashion Industry
We’ve already seen how Nylon soared to popularity because it was a cheaper alternative to silk stockings, hence the colloquial term “nylons” to refer to a pair of the inexpensive leg coverings. However, this was far from the last impact that synthetic fibres would have on the fashion industry.
Many synthetic fabrics are easy to dye, making for bright and colourful fashion choices that brought the 60s and 70s to life in a new way. As development continued, and synthetic fabrics became more flame-retardant, more flexible, and more mass produced, fashion houses touted more and more outlandish and beautiful creations. Brands encouraged consumers to buy more and more clothes that were somehow both more durable and more disposable, as the quick changing fashions demanded a wardrobe update every season.
Synthetic Fabrics and the Environment
Sadly, choosing synthetic fabrics and particularly following fashion trends in this way has a woeful impact on the environment.
In 2017 it’s possible that 235 million items of clothing ended up in landfill. Of course, reducing landfill and waste in general is a good idea. But why are synthetic clothes a particular problem?
Firstly, synthetic fabrics don’t biodegrade in the same way that natural fibres do. They take years, perhaps hundreds of years, to break down, just like plastic bags. Secondly, as they do eventually decompose, they release toxic chemicals back into the soil. Bad news for the local ecosystems.
Toxic chemicals from landfill can make their way into local waterways via the soil, impacting on wildlife and plant life in unforeseen ways.
Another problem is the fibres from synthetic clothes that can literally weave themselves into the digestive tracts of fish. These fibres often make their way into rivers and lakes via humans simply washing their clothes. A single fleece jacket can release 1.7 grams of microfibres every time you wash it. Multiply that by the number of people washing fleece jackets every day and that’s a massive impact on our waterways.
Into the Oceans
Those plastic fibres then, inevitably, make their way into our oceans. Plastic in our oceans is a huge problem, brought to the public’s attention most notable and recently in David Attenborough’s astonishing series, Blue Planet 2. Anything we can do to reduce the amount of plastic flowing into our already beleaguered oceans has to be a positive step in reducing the impact on our planet.
Waste and Overproduction
In 2018 Burberry had £30m worth of stock it had no idea what to do with. So, it burned it. Why? To protect the exclusivity of the brand. Fashion fans showed outrage at the waste, wondering why the brand couldn’t sell the clothes off, perhaps to raise money for good causes. But the fact is that Burberry is not the only wasteful company when it comes to fashion waste and overproduction. During the BBC’s investigation of this wasteful destruction, 29 high-end clothing producers failed to produce any meaningful figures on how they deal with waste clothing.
Consumers can help, by buying fewer clothes, following their own sense of style rather than fashion trends, and by donating or recycling clothes rather than simply throwing them away.
Synthetic Fabrics and Your Body
It’s not just our planet that may be at risk from synthetic fabrics. Consider the range of toxic chemicals used in the production of synthetic clothes including:
· Perfluorocarbon (PFC)
· Nanoparticle silver
These are just a handful of chemicals used to make fabrics wrinkle-resistant, flame-retardant, anti-bacterial, or odour-free. However, every single one of these chemicals has links to serious health issues such as cancers, endocrine disruption, or liver damage.
Your skin is the largest organ you have. It’s porous all over, and absorbs so much from its local environment. When it gets hot, that absorption rate goes up. Cladding your body in warm, synthetic fabric means you run the risk of absorbing small amounts of the very chemicals used to make your clothes innovative and exciting. Small amounts day after day, wear after wear, all add up to big problems – and not just inside your body, but outside as well.
Most synthetic fabrics melt at very low temperatures. They then become viscous and sticky – just like throwing a plastic bag in a fire. This hot, melting mess sticks to your skin and can cause very serious burns. Not only that, but any toxins in the fabric now have a direct access into your body through wounds caused by the burns. Synthetic fabric burns were such a severe problem in war zones that the US military banned the use of synthetic uniforms in 2006.
Contact dermatitis is a type of eczema that occurs due to prolonged contact with an irritant or allergen. Synthetic fabrics can cause this, but because the commonly used patch testing isn’t “prolonged contact”, the problem appears to be severely undiagnosed. In the How Toxic Are My Clothes documentary, the startling case of a doctor developing contact dermatitis from their scrubs is a prime example of this.
From a comfort point of view, many synthetic fabrics don’t allow your skin to breath in the same way as fabrics like cotton do. This leads to additional sweating and discomfort in warm weather, or after physical activity. Some fabrics wick away moisture from the body, particularly fitness wear. However, these tend to be expensive items from specialist shops.
Another problem with our current clothing industry is that the labels inside our clothes don’t tell us very much about how factories make our clothes. Something may claim to be 100% cotton, but was that cotton organically grown or treated with harmful insecticides? Cotton may account for 25% of all insecticide use worldwide, which is a massive environmental impact but also almost ensures that some of those insecticides make their way onto your skin.
Do We Need Synthetic Fabrics?
If synthetic fibres are so potentially damaging, why do we still wear them? The simple fact is that some synthetic fabrics make life a lot simpler, which is often desirable in our fast-paced, stressful world.
The Benefits of Synthetic Fabrics
· Some synthetics are easier to dye
· Many are easier to iron or wrinkle-resistant
· Easier to manipulate into exactly the type of material required (e.g. Kevlar)
· Synthetics dry quicker, useful for individuals or families on the go
· Synthetic fabrics are easier to make waterproof, flame-retardant, odour-resistant etc
· Synthetic fabrics can be very flexible and stretch, ideal for swimwear
Reducing the Use of Synthetic Clothing
So, if synthetics are so useful, how exactly do we go about reducing our use of them? That’s the key word: reducing. It might not be possible (yet) to completely eliminate the use of synthetic fabrics. But you can make an impact by looking at the clothes you buy and only buying natural fabrics where possible. Always check the labels. It may surprise you just how many shirts or trousers you have that contain synthetic fabrics, when you presumed they were just cotton.
Alternatives to Synthetics
Cotton is one of the most common natural fibres used for clothing. As mentioned above, it contributes to a great deal of pesticide use, and the use of other chemicals such as herbicides to deal with weeds. However, it is possible to buy organically grown cotton which uses fewer chemicals (if any) and looks for biological answers to pest control, such as ladybirds to deal with aphids.
Hemp can have a lower environmental impact than cotton because it requires fewer insecticides or weed regulation. Hemp fabrics can be light, breathable, and incredibly durable.
Humans have cultivated flax for thousands of years for both food and textile purposes. Flax is the raw material for linen, a strong, absorbent material known for its lightweight and fast-drying properties.
Wool isn’t always an option if you’re a vegan, but for many, it’s a safe and natural fabric choice. Wool comes from the fleece of sheep, which farmers usually need to shear regularly for their well-being. Research where your wool comes from to ensure the animals are well looked after. Wool is easy to dye, very warm and versatile. Wool is sometimes mixed with small amounts of synthetic fibres to make it more flexible.
Silk is another animal-based product, made from strands produced by silkworms. The worms, actually moth larvae, use this silk to make their cocoons. Humans figured out how to make luxurious, strong, soft materials out of it over 8,500 years ago.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) provides a certification that proves a clothing manufacturer is living up to a safer standard relating to everything from the harvest of raw materials to labelling the clothes. Look out for their stamp on clothing labels for peace of mind.
Many textile manufacturers and fashion brands are members of the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals programme (ZDHC) which works towards clothing supply chains that produce no hazardous chemicals at all. Prominent members and contributors to the programme include Adidas, Gap, Nike, and Target.
Of course, there’s a long way to go before the textile industry eliminates the use of all dangerous chemicals, and there’s an even greater battle when it comes to dealing with the microplastics that come from repeated washing of our synthetic clothes. Plus, there’s the inherent danger that comes from surrounding our delicate skin with a range of plastics and artificial dyes and the unknown long-term effects associated with this. The best way to deal with this is to keep our money directed in the right way: towards organic, natural fibres and fabrics which have a minimal impact on both the environment and our own health, and brands that are truly passionate about making a change.