A Conversation with Elyse Stanes
‘Polyester’; a synthetic fabric; a word we have probably encountered one too many times on the little white labels of our garments; a word we should probably think twice about.
I recently caught up with Elyse Stanes, a human geographer and PhD candidate from the University of Wollongong. Recently, she conducted a study on polyester fabric and why we should consider is environmental impacts before purchasing clothes made of it. In her words- “polyester lasts so much longer than the fashion it was made for.”
Based on your opinion, what do you think the biggest environmental impact the fashion industry has?
Recent figures suggest that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after the oil, but it’s really difficult to pinpoint just one general environmental impact which exceeds everything else. The fashion industry is such a complicated web of processes and impacts, and it’s not very transparent, if you take fabrics and textiles as an example. Clothes are made of so many different types of fabrics, which are produced in so many ways- each with its complex production.
Can you provide us an example of how different types of fabrics can result in different outcomes?
Cotton, for example, has detrimental effects on the environment as they require chemicals to help cotton plants grow faster and its production methods are very water-intensive. On top of that- where in the world cotton is grown determines the level of resources needed to grow it. Cotton what was grown in West Africa, for example, uses much more water than cotton that was grown in the United States or India.
Polyester has an entirely different set of production processes and impacts. Polyester is a plastic derivative- which means it’s made from oil. To make polyester feel unlike typical plastics, a whole lot of extra chemicals are added, all of which are difficult to break down. Because polyester is made from plastic polymers, it’s really really durable- hence, when clothes made of polyester are thrown away, they sit in landfills for a really long time when it is disposed.
You also conducted a whole research on polyester fabric recently. What made you want to make this the focus of your study?
Through my study of the materials of clothes people use, polyester kept coming up as a type of material that people said they didn’t really like, but they had of. Despite society’s growing concerns about plastics in general, polyester is often overlooked as a plastic. Polyester is very good at mimicking other fabrics- like cotton or suede. So often the discovery of polyester came through conversations about it, when people actually stopped and looked at their labels. On top of that- because polyester doesn’t wear out, people often didn’t know what to do with it- and they had a lot of clothes that were no longer fashionable, but still looked as if its new.
On one hand, people might think it’s a benefit that polyester is durable because clothes don’t wear out as quickly, you avoid having to buy new ones. Thus, polyester clothes can help limit the environmental impacts of producing new clothes. On the other hand, a lot of polyester is used in fashionable clothing that is poorly made and part of ‘quick fashion’ trends. It’s this stuff that is contributing to landfills.
What interesting facts did you come across during your research?
One really shocking finding for me was to do with micro-plastics and polyester. Over the last five years, marine-biologists have uncovered lots of nasty discoveries through the daily washing of polyester. When washing polyester clothes, microplastics actually leak out of the clothes and go into our water ways. The microplastics are too small to be caught in any filters- and once in oceans and waterways, it is ingested by marine life. Scientists are finding that this has all kinds of flow on effects for the ways that microplastic are transported around and through the bodies of fish- but also human bodies too! Because it is something that’s not visible, it is overlooked.
Currently, there’s a lot of research being done on how we can improve the fabrics and developing technologies that will allow us to create these fabrics. But what can we do as consumers?
Clothes is something we need for warmth, for modesty, for comfort- but is also significant for the way we feel about ourselves, for our identities, and for self-expression. In some ways, because of this, it’s hard to say ‘don’t buy anything,’ but there are a range of things consumers can do.
First, we can be more aware of what we buy- read the labels, and educate yourself to know what fabrics our clothes are made from. This will help in some part to understand what is behind the labels.
Secondly, be aware of the brands you are buying from. Apps are being developed to help consumers to make better decisions about brands. ‘Good on You’ is one example that focuses on environmental impacts, social impacts, and the transparency of brands. NGO’s like Baptist World Aid now release annual reports that give clothing manufacturers a grade of A to F based on efforts to improve social conditions. Elsewhere- activist groups like Fashion Revolution are also putting pressure on brands to become more transparent. There’s a lot of information out there to help you do your own research and understand who you are buying from- and what their social, ethical and environmental standards are.
Thirdly, DIY, repair or upcycle what you already have instead of buying things that are new. There’s a lot of resources online to help inspire you to get crafty- and its lots of fun too!
So to sum up, if you want to buy clothes, buy smarter. Alternatively, buy less; don’t buy new things and get in touch with what you already have.