For this week’s discussion, social entrepreneur and sustainability advocate (and my good friend!) Yana Santiago shares a thing or two—four actually—about the plastic we wear but rarely talk about: polyester.
If you’re the type to check tags and care labels on your favorite wardrobe staples, you would know that most of them are probably made from synthetic fiber or fiber-mixes. Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other man-made yarns are now about 60 percent of the material that makes up our clothes.
With fashion companies operating on a relentless drive for innovation, with it comes overconsumption and an unbelievable amount of waste. Here are four ways your polyester clothes are just like plastic straws:
1. They’re cheap and durable.
According to University of the Philippines clothing technology professor Alice Sarmiento, “It’s no secret that polyester fiber is essentially plastic, which is the main component of all disposable, single-use items (including straws) polluting the earth.”
Polyester is a type of synthetic fiber developed in the 1940s and advertised as “a miracle fibre that can be worn for 68 days straight without ironing, and still look presentable.” Because it’s mass-produced, it has become inexpensive. Over the years, it has developed into a material that is stain-resistant and tear-resistant. While we spend less on clothes than ever before, we also buy more 400% garments than we did 20 years ago.
2. They take years to decompose.
Single-use plastic straws take about 200 years to break down—that’s two centuries! Meanwhile, your polyester clothes will not decompose for the next 20-100 years. According to the ethical fashion platform Good On You, making non-biodegradable material is also water- and energy-intensive.
3. They end up in the oceans.
When you wash your clothes, they release tiny plastic bits called microfibers that flow through the drains and released into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Multiple studies have shown that these microplastics make up the lion’s share of pollutants in different bodies of water. They’re able to make their way to marine species’ systems (and eventually to humans) through ingestion, which causes several health issues. (A recent study by WWF and the University of Newcastle, Australia finds that, on average, people could be ingesting approximately five grams of microplastic every week, which is the equivalent weight of a credit card!)
4. They have more eco-friendly, socially-conscious alternatives
Just like how paper or metal straws are preferred over plastic ones — we have hemp, linen, bamboo, pineapple, and organic cotton fabric, among others to choose from. With advancements in technology and sustainability efforts on the rise, more options are becoming available to the market that are not just good for the environment but also for communities involved in the textile industry.
“Our traditional piña fabric is environmentally-friendly: it is made from the by-product of pineapple fruit farming; it is made by hand all through its processes; and it doesn’t need chemicals to produce (it only requires a broken plate which in itself is already an upcycled tool). It’s not new to the market, but may be used in newer ways like a tank top or a casual shirt instead of the traditional barong.” says Carmaela Alcantara, an award-winning fashion social entrepreneur.
What can we do as consumers? A lot. We can opt to choose from a number of pieces made from natural fibers. Knowledge is power. We can choose to purchase from brands that adheres to policies in favor of our planet and its people. We can buy less and invest in key pieces.
Alternatively, we can buy from pre-loved or vintage clothing in thrift shops. Get creative! As Professor Sarmiento points out, “In the case of polyester fabric, it’s not the material that’s the enemy — it’s disposability. Clothing is not disposable, but fashion makes it so.”
As we seek solutions to the issue of plastics, we need to recognize that the clothes we consume is part of the problem and will need to be part of the solution as well. Finally, improving the way clothing is produced, manufactured, bought, cared for, and disposed of is our responsibility.
(Yana Santiago is the creative and the founder of En Route Handcrafted Accessories, a social business in pursuit of bringing inclusive business models at the forefront of an ethical fashion industry. Through collaboration, En Route empowers Filipino women in becoming artisan-entrepreneurs using upcycled products to promote local craftsmanship.)
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