Wearing polyester is even worse for the environment than washing it

A new study outlines the environmental damage of wearing synthetic clothing

In recent years, fashion brands have attempted to tackle issues surrounding ethical fashion by going fur-free, resulting in a surge of synthetic materials hitting the runway. With the AW20 season seeing the likes of Raf Simons and Rick Owens presenting a slew of synthetic furs in lieu of the real thing, a new study has now revealed this may not as environmentally friendly as we once thought. 

Building on a previous report which highlighted how damaging it was to wash synthetic materials, including acrylic, nylon, and polyester, this latest study shows it is actually worse for the environment to wear these clothes every day as we go about our normal activities. 

“More evidence has been accumulating on the presence of synthetic microfibre not only in aquatic environments but also in atmospheric ones,” says Francesca De Falco, the study’s lead author, in a statement. “That is why we decided to design this set of experiments to study microfibre release by garments to both media.”

Conducted by scientists from the National Research Council of Italy and the University of Plymouth, the report found that although between 700 and 4,000 fibres per gram of fabric could be emitted during a single 40°C wash, up to 400 fibres per gram of fabric could be shed from clothing when worn for just 20 minutes. Yes, 20.

The report went on to state that over a year one person could release more than 900 million polyester microfibres into the environment. Washing clothes accounted for nearly 300 million of those.

With small bits of polyester, acrylic, and nylon ending up in waterways and oceans, these fibres can release toxins, posing a danger to marine life. Microfibres released into the air, meanwhile can be toxic once inhaled. Recent studies have also shown that airborne microfibres can also end up in oceans, meaning, all in all, the diagnosis is not good. 

You can read our investigation into the environmental impact of faux fur here.