Plastic Clothing: The Social and Environmental Politics of Polyester

Following on from Fashion Revolution Week, cultural geographer Elyse Stanes speaks with SEI about fast fashion, polyester textiles and the plastics we wear every day.

Image by Marcus Loke, via Unsplash

Could you give us a brief overview of your background, and how it has lead to your current research?

I’m a cultural geographer and Honorary Associate Fellow in the Australian Centre of Culture, Environment, Society and Space at the University of Wollongong. I’ve had a long-standing interest in how consumption is both rooted in various environmental and social dilemmas and the cultural forces of everyday life. For me, clothing is a really good example of something that almost all people consume – and that is representative of the very complex coalescence of materials, manufacturing processes, distribution, labour and environmental transformations that intersect with everyday lives. My PhD research looked at a range diverse and unruly assemblages that clothes permeate. Polyester emerged as one of these messy avenues to follow late in my PhD, and has offered me some incredible (and sometimes frightening) research engagements since – including sitting in on some incredible experiments with material and forensic scientists and hydrologists on a recent visit to the UK on an Association of Commonwealth Universities Blue Charter Fellowship. My research has found that polyester is representative of one of the many invisible plastics that are often undetectable or unknown as plastic to consumers.

Over the past few decades, organic and natural textiles like cotton and wool have been eclipsed by synthetic fibres. How do you conceptualise the impacts of this shift, in both social and environmental contexts?

Over half of clothes made and discarded each year now feature polyester, a textile fibre which draws on chemical, toxic and finite resources including crude oil in its manufacture.1 If you include other synthetic (plastic) textiles – like acrylic, nylon, elastane – that figure sits closer to 65 percent.2 Polyester is the only fibre over the past twenty years to have increased its market share – and it is predicted to continue to grow four percent annually to 2020.3 Polyester isn’t losing its popularity – and it certainly isn’t going anywhere. Like other plastics, synthetic textiles generate a range of diverse environmental and social complexities – with lingering and persistent materialities that persevere in various environments and bodies. Synthetic textiles, such as polyester, are thought to be one of the major contributors to microplastics pollution in air, land and water.4 The inclusion of polyester in the daily clothes washing routines of a population the size of Berlin (3.5 million people) is said to be akin to releasing 540,000 plastic bags into the ocean per day.5 There is also growing evidence to suggest that microplastics can act as absorbers, moving other toxic chemicals through food-webs via animal ingestion.6

But it’s also important to contextualise polyester, as a fibre used to make clothing, against other textile fibre types – and specifically, not to demonise it as the ‘bad’ clothing material. Like all plastics, synthetic textiles have favourable qualities. Equally, all textile production has environmental resource and social impacts.

And conversely, how has the proliferation, affordability and longevity (but not always durability) of these synthetic textiles changed our relationship with clothing, fashion and consumption?

This is a really important point! What complicates the ‘problems’ associated with polyester even further are questions of lifestyle, culture and comfort provided by clothing. The development of synthetic textile materials in the 1950s and 60s really democratised fashion for the masses. It is appreciated by both producers and consumers for its flexibility, malleability, versatility and low cost, which notably, are factors that are representative of its plastic qualities. As a textile made primarily for the clothing industry, it has shaped and is shaped by the rise in what is now known as ‘fast fashion’ – much of it being cheap, poorly produced clothing.

It’s hard to know how much of an impact our actions really have; clearly, on the cumulative level, the repercussions are huge, but as individuals, where can we start? Are there any changes you’ve made in your own consumption that have been inspired from your research findings?

I often get asked questions about what we can do as individuals and as consumers – and I always find it to be a bit difficult one to answer in a way that provides some sense of the solution that people seem to be looking for. It don’t want to suggest that individuals or consumers are powerless. If you want to shift the impact of your own clothes consumption, simple places to start are to buy less, love your clothes more,7and take an interest in what it is you’re actually wearing. What do you know about cotton, polyester, wool or silk? Or about how these materials come to be in clothes, what happens to them as they are worn, and how they live on in different bodies and environments as clothes start to breakdown.  And if you don’t know these things – who are you going to ask?

One of my erks with the question of what ‘we’ can do is that it keeps the story firmly focused on the importance of being a ‘responsible consumer’.In doing so, we’re also ignoring the responsibility of textile and garment manufacturers, clothing designers and fashion brands in considering the repercussions of synthetic textiles (and indeed, any materials and labour that go into making our clothes). Thinking only about what ‘we’ can do is a little problematic, because it’s these creative and manufacturing industries that, arguably, have the most power to shift what goes into our clothes – including what they are made out of, or how they are designed. I don’t want to downplay the importance of being mindful of what ‘we’ are buying and using, but focusing exclusively on consumers/individuals somewhat idles the conversation about what can be done with synthetic materials once it already exists – i.e. once the plastic is already being sold in stores or worn on our bodies. This also includes ‘recycling’ initiatives promoted by fast fashion labels, such as H&M’s Conscious Campaign. This message is good for clothing brands because it suggests a mode of reuse, revaluing or downcycling without actually drawing attention to the issue of mass cheap clothing production.

This is just one reason why I’m so keen on the message and momentum behind Fashion Revolution, which ran globally last week between the 22ndand 28thof April, and coincides with the anniversary of the Bangladesh Rana Plaza collapse which killed over 1134 garment workers, and injured thousands more in 2013. Fashion Revolution encourages the ‘we’ to engage with and start talking about things like supply chain transparency and accountability. Equally, it empowers consumers to start asking questions of manufactures or clothing brands – such as #whomademyclothes, or #whomademyfibre.

1. Textile Exchange (2018). Preferred Fibre Market Report. https://textileexchange.org/downloads/2018-preferred-fiber-and-materials-market-report/
2. Textile Exchange (2018)
3. Pensupa, Nattha, Shao-Yuan Leu, Yunzi Hu, Chenyu Du,  Hao Liu,  Houde Jing, Huaimin Wang, Carol Sze Ki Lin. (2017) “Recent Trends in Sustainable Textile Waste Recycling Methods: Current Situation and Future Prospects.” Topics in Current Chemistry375(5): 76.
4. See research from Browne, Mark. Anthony, Phillip Crump, Stewart, J. Niven, Emma Teuten, Andrew Tonkin,  Tamara Galloway, Richard Thompson. 2011. “Accumulation of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks.” Environmental science & technology 45 (21): 9175-9179, and  Napper, Imogen, E. and Richard C. Thompson. 2016. “Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 112: 39-45, for instance.
5. Siegle, Lucy (2017) “Fashion must fight the scourge of dumped clothing clogging landfills.” The Guardian, 30 July 2017. www.theguardian.com/fashion/2017/jul/29/fashion-must-fight-scourge-dumped-clothing-landfill.
6. See research from Rochman, Chelsea, Mark Browne, A.J. Underwood, Jan van Franeker, Richard Thomspon, Linda Ameral-Zettler (2013) “The ecological impacts of marine debris: unraveling the demonstrated evidence from what is perceived.” Ecology 97(2): 302-312, for instance
7. See, for example, the ‘Loved Clothes Last’ campaign from Fashion Revolution: https://www.fashionrevolution.org/resources/fanzine2/
8. I acknowledge that the use of ‘we’ here marks the privilege of hyper-consumption and affluence to clothes, and also to modes of plastic pollution.

Elyse Stanes is an Honorary Associate Fellow at the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space, University of Wollongong. Elyse’s research interests are informed by tracing connections everyday cultures of consumption to wider politics of excess and waste. In February and March of 2019, Elyse held an Association of Commonwealth Universities Blue Charter Fellowship at Keele University looking at the travels and transformations of polyester clothes.