The price of convenience: synthetic fibers exposed

Synthetic fibers

The price of convenience: synthetic fibers exposed

Synthetic fibers have seamlessly become woven into the fabric of our daily lives. In 1940, only 5,000 metric tons of synthetic fiber were produced globally. By 2019, this figure had increased to 76.5 million metric tons. From athletic wear to haute couture, synthetic fiber has grown to become a mainstay.

However, beneath the glossy allure, there's cause for concern. From the manufacturing process to the disposal of these synthetic fibers, there are a number of ways in which they can have a negative impact on the environment.

What are synthetic fibers?

Synthetic fibers are man-made textile materials created through chemical processes. Unlike natural fibers derived from plants or animals, synthetic fibers are produced entirely in laboratories. They are engineered to possess specific characteristics such as strength, durability, elasticity, and wrinkle resistance, making them suitable for various applications in the fashion and textile industry.

The production of synthetic fibers involves transforming raw materials, typically derived from fossil fuels like petroleum, coal, or natural gas, into polymers. These polymers are then spun or extruded into fine filaments or threads, which are further processed and treated to enhance their properties.

Types of synthetic fibers

Synthetic fibers come in different types; each engineered to possess specific characteristics and fulfill various applications in the fashion and textile industry. Polyester, acrylic, and nylon are some of the most popular types of synthetic fibers.

  • Polyester: A versatile and widely used synthetic fiber known for its durability, wrinkle resistance, and quick-drying properties, commonly used in clothing, upholstery, and textiles.
  • Nylon: A strong and lightweight synthetic fiber with excellent abrasion resistance, commonly used in activewear, hosiery, swimwear, and outdoor gear.
  • Acrylic: A soft and lightweight synthetic fiber that resembles wool, often used as a substitute for wool in knitwear, blankets, and upholstery.
  • Polypropylene: A thermoplastic synthetic fiber with excellent moisture-wicking and quick-drying properties, commonly used in sportswear, thermal underwear, and outdoor clothing.
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  • Spandex or Lycra: A highly elastic synthetic fiber that provides stretch and recovery, commonly used in athletic wear, swimwear and form-fitting garments.

Synthetic fibers - the fabric of our lives?Synthetic fibers - the fabric of our lives?

Benefits of synthetic fibers

Synthetic fibers come with their benefits. Their adaptability allows them to be engineered to meet specific performance requirements, making them suitable for various applications.

Moreover, synthetic fibers are known for their cost-effectiveness. Compared to natural fibers, such as cotton or silk, synthetic fibers can be produced at a lower cost due to their manufacturing process and the abundant availability of raw materials. This affordability makes synthetic fibers a popular choice for mass production in the fashion industry.

Drawbacks of synthetic fibers

Despite the benefits of synthetic fibers, they also come with a set of significant drawbacks, particularly concerning their environmental impact, health risks, and energy consumption.

Environmental impact

One of the most pressing concerns is the non-biodegradability of synthetic fibers. Unlike natural fibers that break down over time, synthetic fibers are typically derived from petroleum-based sources and are resistant to decomposition.

Additionally, the shedding of microfibers during washing contributes to the growing issue of microplastic pollution in oceans and waterways. A report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that almost 35% of all microplastics in the ocean come from the laundering of synthetic textiles.

The manufacturing processes of synthetic fibers also raise environmental concerns. These processes involve using various chemicals, such as solvents and dyes, which can adversely affect ecosystems if not properly managed. It can take up to 200 tonnes of fresh water to produce a tonne of dyed fabric.

Health risks

There are potential health risks associated with synthetic fibers. Some synthetic fibers, especially those treated with flame retardants or other chemical additives, can release harmful substances when in contact with the skin or when exposed to high temperatures.

These substances, such as formaldehyde or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can adversely affect human health, potentially causing skin irritation, respiratory issues, or allergic reactions. Phytoestrogens, emitted by polyester, for example, act as endocrine disrupters and also cause certain types of cancers.

Energy consumption

The production of synthetic fibers is energy-intensive, requiring significant amounts of electricity. The extraction and processing of raw materials, the conversion of polymers, and the various stages of fiber production all contribute to high energy consumption. This increased energy demand contributes to carbon emissions and the depletion of finite energy resources, further exacerbating the environmental impact of synthetic fiber production.

Time to transition towards non-toxic and low-carbon fibers? Time to transition towards non-toxic and low-carbon fibers?

Alternatives to synthetic fibers

Are we stuck with synthetic fibers? No, there are indeed alternatives.

Biodegradable synthetic fiber

Biodegradable synthetic fibers are a category of synthetic fibers designed to address the environmental concerns associated with traditional non-biodegradable synthetic fibers.

Unlike conventional synthetic fibers, which are derived from petroleum-based sources and are resistant to decomposition, biodegradable synthetic fibers are engineered to break down naturally over time through biological processes.

These fibers are typically made from renewable sources such as plant-based materials or biopolymers derived from sustainable feedstocks. They undergo manufacturing processes that ensure their biodegradability while still maintaining desirable characteristics such as strength, durability, and versatility.

Here are some examples of bio-degradable synthetic fibers:

  • Bio-based nylon: Bio-based nylon is made from plant-based materials, such as corn or sugarcane. It is just as strong and durable as conventional nylon, but it is also biodegradable. Genomatica makes bio-based nylons for the textile industry from plant sugars.
  • Polylactic acid (PLA): PLA is another emergent material that can be categorized as a biodegradable synthetic fiber. Total Energies Corbion makes PLA.
  • Rayon: Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber that exhibits biodegradable properties under certain conditions. Derived from regenerated cellulose and sourced from wood pulp, rayon shares characteristics of both natural and synthetic fibers. Its biodegradability sets it apart from fully synthetic fibers. Everlane is one of the popular brands that make rayon clothes.

Natural fibers

Natural fibers, like cotton and wool, are one such alternative. They come from renewable sources and do not have the drawbacks associated with synthetic fibers.

  • Cotton: Cotton, one of the most widely used natural fibers, is prized for its breathability, softness, and comfort. Cotton garments are generally easy to care for and can withstand regular washing. Cotton cultivation often requires intensive water usage and the extensive use of pesticides.
  • Wool: Wool is derived from sheep and other animals. It possesses excellent insulation properties, providing warmth even when wet. It is also naturally flame-resistant and has good durability. Wool garments are known for their longevity and the ability to retain their shape over time. Furthermore, wool is biodegradable and renewable. However, wool production requires land for grazing animals, and it can involve practices that may raise animal welfare concerns.
  • Silk: Silk is produced by silkworms, and it is highly regarded for its lustrous appearance and luxurious feel. It is known for its natural temperature regulation, keeping the body cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather. Silk is hypoallergenic and gentle on the skin. It is also biodegradable and renewable. Silk is more delicate and may require special care during washing and handling.
  • Hemp: Derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, hemp is gaining popularity as a sustainable natural fiber. It requires fewer pesticides and water compared to conventional cotton cultivation. Hemp fibers are known for their strength, durability, and breathability. Hemp fabrics do not retain the odor of the plant. They also have natural antimicrobial properties and are resistant to mold and mildew.

Final thoughts

The future of fashion lies in embracing ethical principles and adopting sustainable practices throughout the supply chain. From responsible sourcing of materials to eco-friendly production processes and mindful consumption, every step counts. Brands must recognize their power and responsibility in shaping a more sustainable and ethical future.

💡 Check out a selection of top suppliers of natural fibers who will shape the future of the textile industry here


Boucher, J., & Friot, D. (2017). Primary microplastics in the oceans: A global evaluation of sources. IUCN Report.

Nishat. (2020). How is fast fashion polluting our water? Open Access Government.

Statista. (2023, May 23). Global synthetic fiber production 1940-2019.

Z, S. (n.d.). Toxicity of Synthetic Fibres & Health.

Written by Anh N. on 13/07/2023

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