The Weekly Journal | Fashion
By Yenia Hernandez Fonseca- June 16, 2022
What is Polyester?
Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
knowing what your clothes are made of is the main component to building a conscious closet. Understanding what's in your clothes, how they're made, and where they come from can help you make more informed, sustainable choices. Let’s explore one of fashion's most common materials, breaking down its origin and environmental impact: Polyester.
What is Polyester?
Chemically, polyester is a type of plastic derived from a chemical reaction involving petroleum, air, and water. Polyester fabric is a synthetic woven material known for its long durability and low-cost production. .
Polyester is made from the polymerization of petroleum-derived ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid, which produces polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Once melted, PET is pushed through a spinneret to form semi-crystalline fibres which are often chemically treated before being weaved together to create polyester fabric.
Invented in 1941 by British chemists, polyester rose to prominence in the 1970s as an inexpensive material used for suiting and other clothing. Today, polyester and polyester blends are the most popular man-made textiles in the world and used in thousands of different consumer and industrial applications.
What are the characteristics of Polyester?
Man-made textiles are still some of the industry's most widely-used fibres. Have you ever wondered why synthetic fibres are still used in making clothes, despite their irreversible effect on the environment and climate throughout their lifecycle?
All fabrics, from faux leather to velvet to off-white organza to broadcloth, have certain characteristics that determine their best use.
Polyester fabrics are incredibly strong. They don’t tear, stretch, or pill easily like cotton or other natural fibres. It is especially popular for outdoor clothing as it wicks away moisture rather than soaking it up. It’s also great at holding its shape, drape, and rigidity, making it a wrinkle-free, easy to care for fabric.
What is Polyester used in?
.As we’ve touched upon in several entries before, looking for organic natural fibers, repurposed or recyclable fabrics, and ethical textiles is key for anyone who’s looking to buy clothes, whether that someone is into fashion or not.
Not all garments are made equal. Many, if not most, of the clothes in the market have a significant percentage of synthetic fibres blended into their fabrics. This could make shopping for ethical clothes a frustrating, not to mention tiring, endeavour.
Polyester fabric has a variety of uses in fashion:
1. Outdoor and Performance Apparel: Due to polyester’s durability and moisture resistance, it is a common choice for outdoor and performance clothing such as parkas, windbreakers, athletic wear.
Polyester's long, stable polymers make it strong and resilient. Its non-absorbent nature means that sweat won’t be absorbed but rather left to dry on the exterior of the material on its own.
2. Everyday Fashion: Even though natural fibres are known to be more eco-friendly options than synthetics, the latter tend to be more accessible, have stronger properties, and are overall readily available to the public.
Once thought of as an unattainable luxury, modern fast fashion companies have democratized fashion’s market reach. Driven by trends (such as their loyal consumers) these often rely on manufacturing their goods using inexpensive materials that will last just enough for their customers’ next purchase.
3. Blended Fabrics: In the case of natural fibres vs. synthetic fibres, both types have pros and cons. Natural fibres come from plants and animals, while synthetic fibres are made from chemical compounds, and yet each is valued in the textile industry for different reasons.
There are a lot of benefits of blended fabrics for both the consumer and the manufacturer. Blending polyester and natural fibres allows for a myriad of good qualities, like good shape retention and better moisture absorbency. Cost savings in manufacturing are filtered down to the customer allowing for a less expensive offering.
For instance, compared to the use of 100% wool, adding polyester will make the wool blend fabric lighter, better in wrinkle recovery and wear resistance, easier to wash and dry, more durable and stable in size.
Is using Polyester or Poly-blend clothing ethical?
Well, whether someone chooses to wear leather, it will usually depend on their stance towards meat. In other words, what’s ethical to one person, may not be the same for the next.
Polyester is vegan on its own therefore animal-lovers can wear polyester almost guilt-free. Sadly, no fabric in the world is perfect, and something will be lost in the process of producing it.
As opposed to the use of animal products such as fur, feathers, wool, skins, and silk, vegan clothing is made of synthetic or plant fibers. But, while no animals are directly harmed or killed, polyester production is definitely more complex than that.
Neither the planet nor the animals are favoured by the production of polyester. The process requires large amounts of energy and water. As a plastic, polyester is unlikely to fully biodegrade.
Because polyester is a synthetic fiber, it sheds a large amount of microfibers into the environment throughout its lifetime. According to a study conducted by the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, polyester fibers account for nearly three-quarters of microplastic pollution in the Arctic.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Recycling polyester makes it more eligible for certification than new, original forms of the material. OEKO-TEX, for example, certifies certain polyester textiles with its Standard 100 certification, and the Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certifies recycled polyester as authentic. Companies such as Intertek also certify recycled PET fabrics.
Producing recycled polyester requires no coal, no petroleum, and less heat. It can be considered a more sustainable option. Nonetheless, we should be aware that recycled polyester isn't biodegradable and takes years to decompose once thrown away, all while releasing microfibers into the environment, non-stop.
Wise fashion decisions, such as education and discerning choices, will contribute to the industry’s disruption and fashion’s long-awaited improvement.