In Partial Defense of Polyester

In an earlier post (Miracle of Modern Clothing), I described some concerns I have about the cozy relationship our closets have with oil production.  My understanding of sustainable clothing, and of ways to improve our system of clothing production is amateur, ongoing, and limited at best.  However, in my continued quest to deepen my understanding, I have recently finished reading a book right about fast fashion and our cultural appetite for it (To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? by Lucy Siegle).

Siegle offers some facts which remind me, again, how nothing is simple.  Most specifically, I'm forced to admit that cotton and other natural fibers are not automatically better than synthetics like polyester (a fact which somehow makes me feel optimistic and pessimistic  at the same time).

Here are some fiber and material tidbits that may be surprising:
  • textile production has more than doubled in the last thirty years (a fact reiterated during a recent webinar I participated in)
  • the textile industry uses 3.2% of all water available to the human race each year (somewhere between six and nine trillion litres of water), and 1,074 billion kilowatt hours of electricity
  • approximately 1.6 lbs coal is used in order to prepare 1 lb of fabric (in this fact I could not ascertain exactly what it means to "prepare" the fabric; likely it is the spinning, weaving/knitting, dyeing, washing and prepping)
Siegle devotes a significant portion of the book writing about a variety of natural fibers and materials, and while addressing the conditions in which these fibers are produced, she enumerates significant reasons for me to reconsider my former position of natural-equals-good, synthetic-equals-bad.

Additionally, I am also forced to offer some anecdotal life praise for synthetic technology in clothing.  I like to run outdoors in winter weather, preferably when it is chilly and even snowing lightly.  A run like this is made exceedingly more comfortable by fleece-lined moisture-wicking cozy polyester-based goodness.  When my husband is on a rig, or at a well-site, he wears gear which protects him by retarding flame and repelling toxic materials.  Good old natural fibers do not generally offer that same level of protection.  My mom lives somewhere very cold, but finds the touch of wool on her skin intolerable; a fiber like acrylic, which offers warmth but it soft, provides a solution for her and many others like her.  Also for much of our swimwear, yoga wear, and anything with elastic and stretch, we currently require petroleum products.

Siegle's book is written in an unfortunately fashionista manner, with a tone that can sometimes feel silly or superficial, but on the other hand, she does significant legwork and cites a plethora of sources.  In the end, the research presented is compelling and the book is a much-needed call to reflection people that love clothes but hate the waste created by ceaseless faster-cheaper-ever-more-disposable trend chasing.

Siegle's work reinforces my own hunch regarding how to shop and dress responsibly, which amounts basically to "it's complicated."  Neither natural fibers or synthetics are perfect; and all must be used carefully instead of casually.  Textiles derived from synthetics can't be a permanent solution; as oil supplies continue to deplete, they will price themselves out of the cheap and easy range anyway.  Regardless of how available they are now, we will do well to begin forming other habits now so as to not suffer massive sticker and pollution shock with regard to our closet at the same time as we are solving our coming transportation challenges.