A recycled-polyester dress from the H&M Conscious Collection

Out of all the fibers, polyester has the worst reputation—and unfairly so. I know eco-conscious people who would rather wear conventional cotton than let a polyester garment touch their skin. They scoff at me when I proclaim I love polyester, often questioning my intelligence, sanity, and taste. Yet I believe that consumers who refuse to wear synthetics are buying into one of the biggest misconceptions about fashion’s sustainability problem.

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Polyester pipette pant by Bodkin

ORGANIC OR SYNTHETIC?

The reality is that even if all the clothing in world were suddenly made out of organic, natural fibers, we would still be far from a sustainable fashion system. Many people don’t realize that when it comes to a fiber’s true ecological impact, its source material is only one part of a much larger picture in which the use and disposal phases also play a significant role. In fact they account for an estimated 50 to 80 percent of a garment’s total footprint.

A garment’s source fiber only accounts for one part of its environmental impact.

I’m not claiming that polyester is the perfect fiber, especially since it’s derived from nonrenewable petroleum resources and will not biodegrade. But these negative characteristics often overshadow the fact that polyester garments perform very well, ultimately needing fewer resources in their use phase. A polyester garment can be worn many times and then washed in cold water and air-dried. It doesn’t need ironing, doesn’t pill, and doesn’t abrade easily.

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Issey Miyake’s 132 5 collection

RECYCLED POLYESTER

While polyester does not biodegrade, at the end of its use phase it can actually be recycled to near-virgin or virgin-like quality (something which cannot be said of natural fibers). Issey Miyake’s recent collaboration with the Japanese chemical company Teijin, which developed specialized equipment to revert used polyester back to its original source material of dimethyl terephthalate, demonstrates just how beautiful recycled polyester can be.

Unlike natural fibers, polyester can be recycled to near-virgin or virgin-like quality.

Eviana Hartman, the designer of Bodkin, takes a pragmatic approach when choosing the fibers she uses. “The origin of a material is only one part of its environmental impact,” she says. “How many times it’s flown around the world before it gets to you, how much water is diverted to grow it…these things all mean that it’s never black and white.”

She adds: “Most scalable materials are not directly ‘saving the world,’ so the best we can do is to look at all the factors and make an informed decision to balance beauty, sustainability, and utility.” Balancing all of these effects means that Hartman often includes polyester looks in her line.

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WORK IN PROGRESS

I realize there are serious roadblocks to the notion of polyester as an ideal eco-fiber. It relies on a perfectly closed-loop system in which 1. no more virgin polyester is produced and 2. any existing polyester fiber is always recycled at the end of its life.

I realize there are serious roadblocks to the notion of polyester as an ideal eco-fiber.

Although the development of effective wide-scale recycling technologies and systems is daunting, it’s not impossible. Polyester’s bigger problem might just be its image problem. Most people don’t like the idea of polyester, citing the fiber’s cheap appearance and unnatural feel. Yet the manufacturing of polyester has developed considerably over past decades, resulting in gorgeous fabrics with perfect drape and hand.

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Nike made its French World Cup 2010 kit from recycled polyester

IMAGE PROBLEMS

People instinctually don’t like polyester because its test-tube origins don’t carry the emotional resonance that natural fibers do. Back in the 1960s, manufacturers recognized this criticism and created hybrid blends of natural and synthetic fibers in response. Blends are still around today, yet from an ecological standpoint they are considered anathema since they cannot be effectively recycled nor fully degraded.

Can one often-worn and well-loved polyester garment be good for the environment?

I’m hopeful that by making such a bold declaration as “I love polyester” that I am opening up a dialogue about what we should really be looking for in an ecological garment. Don’t we want clothing that performs well and requires fewer resources during its use phase? Shouldn’t we be encouraging consumers and designers to demand new manufacturing and recycling technologies that can bring the reality of a closed-loop polyester cycle that much closer? Can’t one often-worn, well-loved, and well-performing polyester garment also be good for the environment?