In our growing closets of cheap fashion, there is a secret language written on the labels. There, the names of strange, high-tech sounding fibers appear, from the once-maligned polyester to the vaguely alien acrylic, viscose, nylon, acetate, spandex, and rayon. The list goes on. It’s not uncommon for an intricate mix of three or four to appear on a single label.
Cashmere, silk, linen, wool, and cotton — the natural fibers — are popularly thought of as high-quality materials. However, it’s the shinier, strange-sounding stuff that most of us are now wearing. What are these fabrics anyway, and what really are we putting next to our skin? We assume that a $20 dress does not have the fiber pedigree to become an heirloom. With advances in textile innovation, does that assumption still hold water? Or is our disposable attitude towards clothing the real problem?
It turns out that the dizzying varieties of man-made fabrics can easily be broken down into two broad categories: plastic and cellulose. Cellulosic fibers were the first artificial fibers — rather misleadingly known in the early days as “art silk” — and the category now includes viscose (synonymous with “rayon”), acetate, cupro, and bamboo. “The way these fibers are made is by dissolving cellulose into chemicals and creating what’s called a ‘viscose solution,’” explains Jeffrey Silberman, chair of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Textile Development and Marketing Department. So while these fibers are sourced from a renewable product like wood pulp, scrap cotton, newspaper, or even sawdust, the chemicals used to transform them into wearable stuff is quite caustic. Avtex Fibers, once the world’s largest rayon factory based in Front Royal, Virginia, was shut down in 1989 for poisoning the surrounding water and soil and is still listed as an E.P.A. Superfund site.
Polyester is part of the second family of man-made fibers, the plastics, which is sourced from oil. The plastic fabrics include nylon, acrylic, and spandex. Plastic fibers have their perks, especially when blended with natural fibers. Nylon makes wool stronger. Acrylic dries fast and helps garments keep their shape. And polyester, having come a long way from the scratchy, clammy stuff used in ’70s leisure suits, is perhaps the most low-maintenance of materials — it doesn’t wrinkle, it holds dyes well, it dries fast. My polyester blouse from JC Penney almost seems indestructible — it always looks the same. But it also doesn’t breathe. “The basic plastic building blocks of the fabric haven’t changed,” Silberman concurs. “It’s not going to have the comfort because it’s plastic.”
Breathability aside, the touch and feel of synthetics have improved dramatically in recent decades (I’ve confused viscose for cotton and polyester for a silk-blend in my own closet), so the quality advantage of natural fibers is not what it used to be. And whether we’re consciously pro-synthetics or not, the production of natural fibers has been more or less constant over the last 15 years, while man-made fibers have nearly doubled. According to the Fiber Economics Bureau, cotton and polyester now account for 85% of the world textile fiber market, with polyester accounting for more than 40% of all fiber produced in the world.
What happens to these fabrics once we toss them out? All those blends of natural and man-made fibers in my closet — even though they make wonderfully low-maintenance Frankenfabrics — don’t biodegrade. “We don’t currently have the technology innovation to be able to deal with something like that,” says Summer Rayne Oaks, the co-founder of Source4Style, a business-to-business website for sustainable and eco-friendly textiles.
Fortunately, progress has been made in sustainable synthetics, some of which now rival organic cotton. Recycled polyester or PET fabrics, now being used by Nike and in a few collections in H&M, actually have a lower environmental profile than organic cotton and, unlike cotton, can be recycled to near-virgin or virgin-like quality. There are also new cellulosic fibers that are quite green. Lyocell and Tencel, two trademarked rayon fibers, are made from beech and eucalyptus trees grown on certified sustainable tree farms, and all of the chemical agents used are recycled in what’s known as a close-loop system. Best of all, they are durable fabrics that feel amazing. I got to test-drive some Tencel-made clothing from sustainable designer Eliza Starbuck’s Brite Young Things for Urban Outfitters and it felt like a very cozy version of silk.
Just like their natural cousins, man-made fibers come in a variety of qualities and grades. Yet I and most consumers value synthetics less, and when I see polyester on a label, I’m less inclined to keep that item of clothing in my closet past a few years. It’s our disposable relationship to clothing that makes the issue of quality and the impact of textiles of all varieties problematic. Oil, a nonrenewable resource, is used in pesticides and fertilizers that go into cotton production. Plastic, the stuff that polyester, nylon, and spandex are made of, takes hundreds of years to biodegrade. A shirt can be made of a wonderful high-thread-count organic cotton or a high-performance polyester, but if it’s living in a landfill instead of a closet, does it even matter?
Elizabeth Cline is a Brooklyn-based writer working on a book about responsible shopping in the age of cheap fashion, when low prices and rapid turnover of styles have ignited out-of-control clothing consumption. The book, called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, will be published by Penguin Portfolio in June 2012. You can follow the project at The Good Closet.