Synthetic Fabrics Made From Fossil Fuels Are Worse Than You Think: Fiber Watch

synthetic woman

Synthetic fabrics, made from chemically manipulated petrochemicals, are some of the most toxic fabrications on Earth.

Last week we discussed the pros and cons of biobased synthetic textiles like Tencel, Modal and other cellulose-based fabrics. The production process of these materials is similar to the production oil-based or petrochemical textiles such as nylon, polyester, acrylic and spandex, which are made from natural gas or oil. Developed during the second half of the last century, these synthetic materials have revolutionized several industries, and been widely adopted in the fashion industry as a low-cost material that allows brands to churn out a variety of colorful apparel at low prices. Petrochemical textiles are a heavily invested area of research, allowing companies to produce highly engineered fabrics that perform better than their natural counterparts. But at what cost?

Petrochemical textile materials are immensely toxic and pollutive to the environment, as they require significant energy, water and chemicals to produce. If the numerous oil spills, waterway contaminations and fracking dangers aren’t making the risks and damage of using these raw materials obvious, I’m not sure what will. Not only does the production of these materials leach waste and toxic substances into our waterways, soil beds, groundwater and landfills, they also (surprised?) can possibly leach into our skin when we wear them. So why do we use them?

Our demand for synthetic textiles has grown by 30 percent in the last 13 years; retailers that feed the fast fashion phenomenon use these low-cost fabrics. As it stands, it is also far less costly to make a shirt from polyester than it is out of cotton, not to mention organic cotton. These fabrics are also easy to manipulate on a microscopic level, resulting in engineered textiles that we have become so accustomed to as consumers. The development of microfibers has allowed textile producers to spin very fine fibers into soft fabrics with engineered moisture-wicking properties. But how can an antibacterial workout top be a good thing if over 100 toxic chemicals were used during the production of that top?

We’ve outlined some of the applications for and problems with the oil-based textiles that we still (because of that bizarre concept of profit over planet) continue to use.


Nylon is water repellent, and so ideal for swimsuits, hosiery and lightweight, weatherproof jackets. Nylon is extremely resilient and multi-purpose, as it can be found in anything from underwear to rock climbing rope. However, the production of nylon creates nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 310 times more polluting than carbon dioxide.


Polyester has a bad reputation, although it has long term success in the fabric industry (think 70s leisure suits). The ethylene based material is very strong, resists stretching and shrinking, and dries within a matter of minutes. It’s also wrinkle and abrasion resistant, retains pleats and creases, and repels water. But polyester manufacturing uses plenty of water and energy, and a highly toxic substance called antimony (which most countries other than the US and China have outlawed) as a catalyst.


Acrylic has a similar texture as wool, and so boomed onto the market in the 1960s as it takes dyes beautifully, is colorfast, and unlike wool, resists shrinking. However, this ‘fake wool’ doesn’t provide the same warmth as the real thing, and is essentially a polycrylonitrile, which may be carcinogenic.


Spandex was invented in 1959 to give fabric a stretch quality unlike anything that had been seen before in textiles. The production of spandex is rather costly as it is a time consuming and energy intensive process that involves “cracking” petroleum molecules into propylene and ethylene gases before actually creating the fiber. Spandex is often blended with other fibers such as wool and cotton, but tends to break down over time.

The substances used to manipulate and characterize these textiles are highly toxic, which is also an issue with biobased synthetics. Anti-cling, wrinkle-free, waterproof and fire-retardant materials have all been treated with highly toxic chemicals, most often formaldehyde. Even several natural fibers like cotton and wool are treated with these substances, meaning that the textile industry is saturated with them. A major drawback to petrochemical textiles is their non-biodegradibility, meaning that their negative effects continue to affect the Earth even after they have been discarded.

Although finding clean clothing, home textiles and accessories might seem impossible, the labels on products can tell us a lot. Unfortunately the textile supply chain is currently so disjointed that it is often hard to know exactly how a fabric was produced. Look for labels on clothing and home textiles and check for different certification labels to find out how clean the fabric is. Better yet, look for locally produced fabrics when you can. The Fibershed Project in Marin County, CA is a wonderful example and resource for learning how a textile is made from plant or animal to wearable product.

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