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Most eco-conscious consumers are aware that gear manufacturing negatively affects the environment. But have you ever stopped to wonder what the environmental impacts are for producing gear from synthetic textiles?
Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, are made from fibers that do not grow naturally. Oftentimes these items are created by humans from petroleum and gas. In the outdoor industry, synthetic materials can be found in everything from running attire, shoes, backpacks, jackets, and tents. Natural fabrics come from living organisms, such as cotton, bamboo, or wool.
While both natural and synthetic textiles are used throughout the outdoor industry, synthetic materials can be more durable and versatile. But what is the true environmental cost of producing synthetically made gear?
The popularity of synthetic materials, such as polyester and nylon, has grown in popularity in past decades due to their versatility and low cost of production. While both synthetic and natural materials have an impact on the environment, it’s important to understand the ramifications that the growing need for synthetic materials has on the outdoor spaces they help people explore.
What are synthetic textiles?
Anything from a new hydration pack to a sleek pair of shorts may be manufactured with petroleum-based synthetics, which are reliant on fossil fuels. Fashion Revolution, an organization centered around fashion activism, policymaking, education, and research, notes that polyester can be found in over “50% of all clothing produced in the world”. From running shoes to sleeping bags, synthetic materials dominate the items within the outdoor industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that in 2019 that carbon dioxide accounted for “80 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions from human activities”. Since polyester is derived from petroleum, its production is linked to the environmental impacts of the fossil fuels industry. The World Wildlife Fund notes that since petroleum is a fossil fuel, the combustion of it releases polluting emissions, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming.
Though polyester is common amongst outdoor clothes, nylon, another synthetic material, has also made its way throughout the outdoor industry. Many running shirts, pants, undergarments, jackets, and socks are made from a polyester blend.
As the world’s first completely synthetic fiber, Nylon is known for being both flexible and durable, an ideal duo for outdoor gear. Because of its unique properties, the fabric is used in manufacturing items such as tents, ropes, backpacks, shoes, and clothing. And while these synthetic materials have revolutionized outdoor gear, the mere production of them has a detrimental effect on the landscape they help people explore.
Beth Jensen, Climate+ Strategy Director of Textile Exchange, notes that the environmental impact of both natural and synthetic gear relies on a multitude of practices. How the material is grown, produced, dyed, constructed, washed, worn, and disposed of, all plays a vital role in deciphering its environmental impact.
With previous experience as the Director of Sustainable Materials and Products at VF Corporation, and as the Senior Director of Sustainable Business Innovation at the Outdoor Industry Association, Jensen shares that “in the world of apparel, natural materials certainly bring some intrinsic and important benefits over petroleum-based synthetics; they do not rely on fossil fuels, and they provide unique opportunities to drive positive environmental impacts and regeneration of ecosystems”. When calculating the environmental impact of synthetic gear, consumers must account for the entire life cycle of that item. How an item is worn, washed, repaired, and disposed of, all factor into the item’s toll on the environment.
Water Usage & Pollution
The water footprint of polyester can be as high as “71,000 cubic metres per tonne of fiber” according to the Water Footprint Network. While polyester and nylon are not a crop like cotton, their water usage comes from industrial production including the water from oil exploration.
The dyeing process also requires an immense amount of water. According to Sustain Your Style, an organization aimed at educating consumers about the environmental and ethical issues surrounding the fashion and garment industry, it can take up to 200 tons of freshwater, for every ton of dyed fabric.
The dyes used for these materials are also likely to result in water contamination and water pollution. An investigation by Greenpeace International found that “untreated toxic wastewaters from textile factories are dumped directly into the rivers”. The disposal of wastewater is rarely regulated, allowing for hazardous chemicals and dyes to be dumped into nearby rivers. Left untreated, the water in these rivers can be toxic to drink, irritating to the skin and starve ecosystems of the freshwater needed to survive. Communities who rely on these waterways are disproportionately harmed, often forced to rely on the contaminated water, despite the repercussions that may come from ingesting it.
The environmental impacts of synthetic materials do not end when the gear is in the hands of the consumer. Jensen notes that fiber fragments can be shed throughout all stages of a product’s life cycle; from production to disposal.
Simply washing synthetic materials can release around 700.000 individual microfibers into the water, which eventually makes its way into the waterways and oceans. These tiny pieces of plastic can be ingested by small organisms which are then consumed by small fish. This negative chain reaction introduces plastic into the food chain while simultaneously disrupting the earth’s delicate ecosystems.
A study conducted by the Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Italy (IPCB-CNR) and the University of Plymouth, also showcased that microfibers can be released while merely wearing synthetic garments. It was estimated that consumers could release as much as 900 million polyester microfibers per year to the air by simply wearing the garments.
While studies like these focus on the shedding of fibers from synthetic garments, Jensen notes that “natural fabrics can also shed fiber fragments during washing and use, leading to negative impacts due to the dyes, coatings, and finishes typically applied”. Though natural fibers can shed, ones which haven’t been dyed can decompose naturally, unlike their synthetic counterparts.
Most people own clothing and gear that is made from synthetic fibers. Companies like Guppyfriend have designed washing bags that work to catch the microfibers shed from washing these synthetic materials. Guppyfriend is made from polyamide 6.6, a resilient material that won’t shed microfibers itself.
The Most Sustainable Option
As a consumer, working to make the outdoor industry more sustainable can feel like a daunting task. The most sustainable gear in the entire industry is going to be the gear one already owns and making it last as long as possible.
Jensen recommends learning more about repairing our gear to help it last longer, thus keeping it out of landfills. Sewing tears and patching holes, along with learning how to properly clean different items of gear will help gear last more than a couple of seasons.
Yet there are times when purchasing an item is necessary. Prior to buying a brand new item, renting gear or looking for it used can further minimize the impact of these items.
A shift in consumer mindset is also vital in order to help mitigate these negative impacts upon the outdoors. Gear innovations should be welcomed and encouraged within the outdoors, yet this can be achieved without pushing for overconsumption.
Conscious consumerism changes the approach to buying gear. It shapes how the longevity of gear is viewed, what companies consumers support, utilizing what one already owns, and how to properly dispose of gear that can no longer be used.
Continual consumption is recognized within the fashion industry, yet is still overlooked by many consumers within the outdoors. Yet outdoor clothing is fashion and it is often made from synthetic materials.
However, the responsibility spans beyond just consumers and also to the brands themselves. Marketing strategies have heavily influenced the drastic increase in textile waste in the United States in recent decades.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) research shows how textile waste nearly doubled from 6.26 million tons in 2000 to 11.3 million tons in 2018. But consumer awareness continues to rise, providing hope for a more sustainable future.
A 2019 CGS U.S. Consumer Sustainability Survey, showed that more than two thirds of respondents are willing to pay more for sustainable products and are trying to be more conscious of the environmental impacts of their purchases.
Moving towards a more circular model within the outdoor industry will allow these synthetic materials to be repurposed into new items, helping to minimize their environmental impact. Some brands have begun incorporating items such as plastic bottles and ocean plastics into their synthetic materials.
Jensen stated that “the longer-term goal for the outdoor and apparel industry is to move to textile-to-textile and polymer-to-polymer recycling – meaning, clothes that are truly at the end of their useful lives become new clothes or other textile products, and shoes that are truly at the end of their useful lives become new shoes or other materials”.
This shift within the industry isn’t going to happen overnight. Instead, investments must be made into the processes of collecting, sorting, and separating blended materials. Recycling old items into new ones must also be coupled with “widespread changes in consumer behavior”, says Jensen.
Taking care of the gear one already owns and thrifting outdoor items, won’t account for all purchases that one might make. If choosing to purchase a new item, consumers should be mindful about the environmental and ethical consequences of their actions.
Looking for clear and concise statements from major brands, along with reputable certifications, like those supported by Textile Exchange, can help consumers make more educated purchasing decisions. Patagonia, PrAna, Kathmandu, and Timbuktu are already leading the way in terms of aggressive sustainability initiatives and transparency about the production of their items. Consumer action shouldn’t stop at purchasing but rather extend into putting pressure on brands to ensure their means of production are working to reduce their inherent environmental impact.
Synthetic material has helped further innovate the way people use gear within the outdoors. But the production and continual consumption of these items should never come at the expense of the wild spaces they were designed to explore.
Marie Wilson is a Freelance Writer and Climate Activist. Her writing focuses on the intersectionality of sustainability, climate action and the outdoor industry. She works to make sustainability in the outdoors more accessible while also highlighting the environmental responsibility that comes with exploring the outdoors. When she isn’t writing she is often trail running, biking or skiing. She currently resides in Bellingham, WA.