Indulgent yet responsible fabrics

To polyester or not to polyester

O Ecotextiles (and Two Sisters Ecotextiles)

Give our retail website, Two Sisters Ecotextiles, a look and let us know what you think.

We are pondering about whether to sell polyester fabrics – largely because people are insisting on it. And there is a lot of polyester being produced:

polyester production

But, when (or if) we sell polyester fabric or blends, we have determined that the fabric must be GRS Gold level certified polyester, because:

  1. GRS is to synthetics as GOTS is to natural fibers.  It is our assurance:
    1. that there is water treatment in place,
    2. that no toxic additives are used as process chemicals, and no finishes (such as fire retardants or stain repellants) are added to the fabric,
    3. and that workers have basic rights.
  2. GRS provides verified support for the amount of recycled content in a yarn. It provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claim a fabric is made from recycled polyester can be officially backed up. Today, the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets  – we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from.  So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled.   Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the  process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester.  Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green.   So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true. In addition,

The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal (It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?  The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden)
  • There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

Polyester is much (much, much, much!) cheaper than natural fibers and it wears like iron – so you can keep your sofa looking good for 30 years. The real question is, will you actually keep that sofa for 30 years?

There is still a problem with the production of synthetics. Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount. A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [1] But synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater. If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.

Also please keep in mind, that, if you choose a synthetic, then you bypass the benefits you’d get from supporting organic agriculture, which may be one of our most potent weapons in fighting climate change, because:

    1. Organic agriculture acts as a carbon sink: new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil. And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.
    2. It eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
    3. It conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
    4. It ensures sustained biodiversity

We’re not great fans of synthetics: Polyester is made from crude oil, and is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors.   The manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals produced during the manufacturing process. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.

But there is a great quantity of existing polyester on this Earth, and there is only so much farmland that is available for cotton and other fiber crops, even though we have enough land to grow all the food and fiber we like, at least in theory.[2]

The biggest drawback to polyester production is that it requires a lot of energy, which means burning fuel for power and contributing to climate change. But to put that in perspective, Linda Greer, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says you actually release more carbon dioxide burning a gallon of gas than producing a polyester shirt.

However factories where polyester is produced which do not have end-of-pipe wastewater treatment systems release antimony along with a host of other potentially dangerous substances like cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide, and titanium dioxide into the environment.

In theory, cotton is biodegradable and polyester is not. But the thing is, the way we dispose of clothing makes that irrelevant. For cotton clothes to break down, they have to be composted, which doesn’t happen in a landfill.

The bottom line is that while the rise of polyester is not good news for the planet, a big increase in cotton production wouldn’t be any better, according to many sources: Both fabrics are created in huge factory plants, both go trough multiple chemical processes to make the final product, and both will be shipped around the globe.         (https://www.sewingpartsonline.com/blog/411-cotton-vs-polyester-pros-cons/)

But we keep returning to one point: there are already polyester bottles in existence. World demand for polyester in 2014 was a bit more than 46 million tons.[3] Only a small percentage of that is used for bottles, but that’s still a lot of bottles – in the United States, more than 42 billion bottles of water (only water!) were produced in 2010.[4] Doesn’t it make sense to re-use some of these bottles?

Mulling over the possibilities. Let us know how you feel.

[1] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[2] Atkisson, Alan, “Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy”, December 2008, worldchanging.com

[3] Carmichael, Alasdair “Man made Fibers Continue to Grow”, Textile World, http://www.textileworld.com/Issues/2015/_2014/Fiber_World/Man-Made_Fibers_Continue_To_Grow

[4] http://www.container-recycling.org/images/stories/BUfigures/figure-pngs-new/figure4.png

23 thoughts on “To polyester or not to polyester

  1. apteryx1@gmail.com says:

    No don’t give in! How can we support you, so you can thrive without caving to the poly pressure? Tell us how. Sincerely Ariana

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. My thoughts (and experiences) are that polyester should not be against the skin, (clothing or furnishings) and that eventually, a better end use can be developed to use the recycled material for.
    You don’t have to bow to pressures when it’s not what you want to do.
    You are better off doing what you really love to do.

  3. Paul Sharp says:

    Interesting article, one issue you didn’t touch on is the problem of microfiber plastic pollution when polyester clothing is laundered. Thousands of fibres are released into wastewater and then waterways where they are ingested by filter feeders. Basically polyester is not ocean friendly, even if it is made from recycled bottles.

  4. Paul Sharp says:

    Have you considered the issue of microfiber plastic pollution from laundering polyester clothing? This is a recently recognized issue and conscious consumers are beginning to be concerned about this problem. Basically thousands of fibres released from polyester clothing end up in wastewater and then our waterways where they are ingested by filter feeders. It seems polyester is not ocean friendly even if it’s made from recycled bottles..

    1. Hi Paul: I think we even brought up the subject in one of our blogs – but in any event you’re certainly correct! I believe the figure is 1,900 (give or take) microfibers which get rinsed out of a single piece of synthetic clothing each time it’s washed, and these microplastic fibers might be the biggest contributors to ocean pollution. I am also alarmed by sand beaches which have a high percentage of micro plastics.

  5. Your blog posts are always so informed and insightful. I hope more certified operations take the time to investigate the full ramifications of taking on a new fiber in their collection and the whole story behind it. Designers hold so much power in the supply chain with their choice of material to use. I understand the draw to durable synthetics and personally buy certified recycled polyester to offset the impact plastics have on our environment. Sticking with certified fabrics seems like the best option if you choose to carry synthetics. Hold strong to your ethics and mission of EcoTextiles. You are leaders in organic textiles, and your decision with have a wider effect.

  6. pippistokx says:

    Ban plastic bottles! The majority end up in the ocean. Make clothes from hemp, linen that lasts and lasts and lasts. It is to change the mind of the masses that we do not need so many items in this world. I enjoy your blog it is important and credible information.

  7. Mady says:

    Hi sisters, I read your blog for 4 years now and I do not think that you really consider the option to become a ring in a very tight chain around humanity’s neck. This chain is oil exploitation and even being a very very small ring there, doesn’t feel like being you. Keep going in ecology and organic fiber musings and leave the chain to broke one day under its own weight of filth. Polyester is a very unsafe fiber because of static electricity it produces around living organism, besides toxic waste of textile industry and so on. Big hug, Mady

  8. As an upholsterer I’m seriously looking for alternatives to using polyester products and foam as stuffing materials. As well as bottles there must be millions of old polyester filled sofas landfilled each year and it would be good to be able to buy recycled stuffing material – perhaps a role for a really switched on social enterprise??

  9. No, not to polyester! Heavy weight organic cotton can be hard wearing. Growing up wearing everything in pure cotton including shoes and made at home (everyone was a tailor in old days), i have never be3en able to wear polyester or anything synthetic. My whole family have been wearing and using organic cotton, organic silk, and hemp products.

  10. nyc1now says:

    I am wondering about your post about the danger of free monomers in a polymer textile such as polyester. Are all oil-based synthetics capable of releasing free monomers? And will recycling the plastic out there result in the production of more plastic by the industry? This is a much bigger and complex conversation, but one worth having. I am glad you got it going.

    1. Hi: Workers and the environment both suffer from the production of polyester, and we know that a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. And there are some people who maintain that the chemical industry knows just what it’s doing by promoting the recyclability of PET; it’s easy to find confirmation online. The title of one article I found, “Global plastic production rises, Recycling lags”, says it all.

  11. Thanks for this – I’m using poly velvet as a base to sublimate my prints onto for a line of pillows for the reasons that this type of printing is water-less and about as friendly a printing process as you can use (according to many sources including the cradle 2 cradle products innovation institute + referencing the world of Becky Early). My products are vibrant, well made, feel great and the pillows will last for a long time through repeated washings. I think that this is a great reason to use poly, but the truth is I prefer natural fabrics and to do the printing myself. The tricky part is that the city I live in is very expensive, studio rentals cost a fortune (I can’t print at home with such large screens) and I am reticent to carry major overheads before I have a market for my goods. I really appreciate that you lay out a systems perspective around these issues because the reality is that the chain of production for all fabrics is incredibly convoluted and there are pros and cons around each phase of manufacturing both natural and synthetic fibres. The truth is that consumers are generally poorly informed around the reality of textile production and as a small maker who cares about these things i find that sourcing base cloth is the most difficult part of what I do. Finding out all the information that you have at hand about the entire product process for your fabrics is a very difficult, if not impossible for someone purchasing only say a bolt or two at a time from sellers not necessarily that close to the source. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on this or any contacts that you could pass on regarding sourcing of clean fabrics for small commercial buyers – linen in particular?

    1. Hi Stephanie: If I may suggest – we do sell cut yardage on our site, http://www.twosistersecotextiles.com. Perhaps some of them might be useable?

  12. Amy Christel says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful, and as always, well-researched blog on recycled polyester for use in fabrics. While it would be nice to have the assurance of GRS certified polyester in a fabric, all the downsides of the original plastic production remain. Clearly, the earth would be better without plastic drinking bottles that are given a second life in whatever form. The “end-of-life” impacts of plastics can’t be mitigated.

    Personally, the feel of polyester is simply not to my liking. But advantages of polyester or synthetic fabrics for “high use” applications create demand, and if buyers are looking for that type of fabric, better they find a reliable source like yours, than to buy from less conscientious sources. (I would trust no source more than Two Sisters, O EcoTextiles.) That said, it will probably be additional work for you to vet suppliers of these fabrics–maybe ask yourselves if this is the direction in which you want to take the company? Are there other types of fabrics you’d rather expand to? I would love to see more multicolored textiles, woven or printed. In then end, do what your hearts and heads tell you, and make no apologies!

  13. Sandra says:

    Thank you for your article and meticulous research. I have heard that the chemicals in polyester (endocrine disrupters like phalates and such) actually transfer through human skin at body temperature. Having heard that years ago, I personally stopped wearing all synthetic fabrics made from oil. Have the new manufacturing processes changed this threat to hormonal disruption? Was I miss informed about this problem? Now even baby clothes and chew clothes are made of polyester. And if this health problem associated with polyester still exist, why would recycling it make it any better? It seems using other materials and phasing out polyester would be the better solution.
    I would love to hear what you know on this subject and if nylon and acrylic are safe alternatives to use when natural fibers are too costly or inappropriate for the product being made.

  14. Camille says:

    What an interesting and informative post, as always. I was unaware of the positive effect of soil microbes on carbon sequestration. I think organic cotton is the way to go, but it doesn’t fulfill all needs. People are going to want polyester, and the production needs to move to high recycled content with care of the environment and workers as a priority. If two sisters is a pioneer of that change, I see that as positive. However, we need to close the loop of all our materials by composting or recycling where appropriate. Plastic and oil are pretty incredible products, but not when they’re burned or escape into the biological domain. Plus, as we move toward cleaner transportation, an alternative demand for oil could help ease the transition. But closing the loop requires informed consumers and a process for spent clothing to be returned and properly returned to the ‘cradle.’

    1. Paul Sharp says:

      Check out “microfiber plastic pollution”. Polyester sheds fibres which are a threat to the marine food web. As such polyester in it’s current form can never be eco or closed loop. Best it be relegated to non-wash applications with incentivised recovery and sound end of life applications.

  15. Claire says:

    I only became aware of how terrible polyester production is for the planet when I became allergic to it a few years ago.
    It’s a tough question – with so much demand for polyester, providing a better choice that uses recycled materials and eco-friendly and ethical manufacturing practices is seems like a step in the right direction.
    But wouldn’t it be better to promote the use of other safer, more sustainable fabrics? I guess it’s a choice between accepting a realistic and tangible good, and living an idealised, almost unattainable life that is uncompromising in doing and serving only the highest good.

  16. Sharyle Patton says:

    Your emails are brilliant and invaluable. I have a question. What do you know about the fabrics listed in the following press release?

    Warm best, Sharyle Patton

    U.S. House Advances Two Bills Supporting Environmentally Friendly Fire Retardants for Military Use

    PERTH, AUSTRALIA and GREER, SC–(Marketwired – May 19, 2016) – Alexium International Group Limited (ASX: AJX) (OTCQX: AXXIY )


    Defense Authorization Act, Appropriations Bill direct service branches to explore next generation FR uniforms. Legislation consistent with growing trend to ban or restrict outdated FR compounds that have been deemed unsafe.

    Alexium International Group Limited (“Alexium,” “the Company”) (ASX: AJX) (OTCQX: AXXIY ) Late yesterday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 with a report directing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to explore environmentally friendly flame retardant (FR) uniforms for all military personnel and “provide a joint briefing to the House Committee on Armed Services by August, 2016.” (The full language can be found on page 134 of the report .)

    The legislation follows similar legislation approved Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee. Language in the report accompanying the Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, 2017, directs the Secretary of Defense to explore the use of environmentally friendly flame retardants in military uniforms. (The language can be found on page 59 of the report .)

    “We are encouraged by the votes to advance these two critical pieces of legislation,” said Nicholas Clark, CEO, Alexium, “We continue to have success educating the public, manufacturers and policy makers about the existence of environmentally friendly flame retardants for various applications, and are glad to see that our efforts are bringing results within the defense sector, which is typically at the leading edge of technological innovation.”

    “The legislation being considered is consistent with U.S. and international trends to ban or restrict certain flame retardants that are outdated and unsafe,” said Dirk Van Hyning, President, Alexium, “Fortunately, there are new environmentally friendly solutions for protecting the military and civilians.”

    About Alexium Alexium International Group Limited (ASX: AJX) (OTCQX: AXXIY ) holds proprietary patent applications for a process developed initially by the U.S. Department of Defense, which allows for the surface modification and attachment of nano-particles or multiple chemical functional groups to surfaces or substrates to provide functions such as fire retardancy, water proofing, oil proofing, and anti-microbial treatments. Applications under development include but are not limited to textiles, paints, and packaging, glass and building materials. Alexium’s fire retardant chemical treatments are currently marketed for different fabric markets under the Alexiflam™, Ascalon™, Nycolon™, Nuvalon™, and Polytron™, Omnitron™ and Bactron™ trademarks. For additional information about Alexium, please visit http://www.alexiuminternational.com .

    U.S. Corporate Offices: 148 Milestone Way Greenville, SC 29615 U.S.: +1 864.603.1165 1100 New York Avenue Suite 710W Washington DC 20001

    U.S. R&D Center: 8 Distribution Court Greer, SC 29650 U.S.: 864.416.1060


  17. Hi Sharyle: It’s not a fabric but rather a treatment using nanotechnology to provide fire retardancy, water and oil proofing and anti-microbial treatments. Other than using nanotechnology, there is no information given on the website about the chemicals used – so I can’t comment.

  18. Anna Crozier says:

    The only way for human ecology and landscape ecology is to commit to organic and biologic animal fibres and plant fibres. When biologic systems are applied then the fibres are holding higher gradations of minerals and nutrients, the fibre has higher tensile strength. The percentage and diversity of micro organisms in the soil, bacteria and funghi means that there is less water required. It is surprising how small the acreages need to be to provide good volumes of natural fibre that holds energetic properties for the human body. You then add the vast scope of naturally grown colours in cotton or in animal fibre species. This means that you are eliminating the chemical dyes and all the additional processing that is totally harmful to the ecology and to the body. It is essential for design and production companies to enter into organic / biologic natural fibres and textiles. It equates to Textile Energy for the Human Body. There is no place to sabotage the already impacted human organism with more deleterious chemicals and synthetic impacts. Every individual involved in the entire chain needs to step up and engage in production systems that provide health for the human organism and for the ecology. Earth and the body are past their use by date on unnecessary impacts.

  19. Great, thoughtful, well-researched piece, thank you. As you say, there are pros and cons with all textile production systems. If we could wind back the clock and never invent plastics, the world would certainly be a cleaner place. But now that we’re here, I think we need to be pushing the plastics industry to stop creating virgin plastics and convert all production to recycle existing plastics into new products. Paul Sharp suggests recycling into fixed applications, but there is no denying the technical appeal of some polyester clothing (I’m wearing a Kathmandu fleece jacket made from ‘repreve’ brand 87% recycled PET (http://www.repreve.com/)). If we can mandate simple technologies such as filters in washing machines to keep microplastics out of the environment, mandate transparent and accountable textile manufacturing standards such as the GRS and GOTS standards you discussed, and implement better resource recovery so that all plastics get recycled, we’ll be at least attempting to clean up our mess and prevent further impacts. Reducing global consumption of short-lived products is also a must – there is just no need for the billions of plastic bottles and flimsy ‘fast’ fashion being created and tossed daily. It’s a conversation we need to be spreading because most people don’t give it a moment’s thought. Thanks for your blog.

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