What are synthetic fibers, why are they used in fashion, and what are their environmental implications?
Synthetic fibers are chemically derived manmade fibers that do not occur naturally in nature. Many of them are cheaper than natural fibers, although this isn’t always the case. They also often provide more aesthetic and technical performance options where natural fibers leave some people wanting more. An example of this would be athletic and performance wear. Today, there is a strong demand in the market to create new technologies with natural fibers that are comparable to synthetic fibers.
Over the next two weeks of blog posts we will learn more about the most popular and widely used synthetic fibers in the fashion industry. We hope this knowledge will empower you to check the labels and make earth saving purchasing decisions- because if no one is buying these things companies will think twice making them.
CELLULOSIC VS. PETROLEUM DERIVED
Let’s start with the basics. There are 2 different types of synthetic fibers - they are cellulosic- plant derived and, petroleum derived.
Generally speaking, it is always a good idea to pick a cellulosic fiber content over a petroleum derived content. But, it is important to remember that not all cellulosic fibers are created equally. In this week’s post, you will get you a better understanding of cellulosic fibers, and be sure to check back next week to learn more about petroleum based fibers and their alternative more eco-friendly options.
NOT ALL CELLULOSIC FIBERS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Always remember as the customer, you have the power to create change by carefully selecting what products you want to support and spend money on. Clothing companies are in the business of making as much money as possible. If they make something that doesn't sell, they aren’t going to make it again. Don’t let companies dictate what you should be wearing. By educating yourself on different fibers environmental impacts and choosing to purchase the most eco-friendly fibers you are helping to effect change and show retailers what you want more of. Be sure to spread the word to your friends and have them join the movement!
Cellulosic fibers can be broken down into two groups, the original old school fibers that date back to the late 1930’s and the next generation eco-friendly wave.
Research and developments into synthetic fibers started in the 1930’s with a goal to create cheaper alternatives to natural fibers. The first synthetic fiber, Nylon, was petroleum based. Soon after wood pulp derived variations like viscose and rayon were invented.
VISCOSE AND RAYON
The first cellulosic fiber to the market was viscose, followed by rayon and then, surprisingly, bamboo! They were originally invented as a solution to the high cost of silk fabrics. Although not identical to silk viscose and rayon fibers offer a drape-able and slinky fabric that behaves much like silk but, has technical characteristics closer to cotton. The downside of these fibers is the pollution they emit during the manufacturing process. Carbon disulfide is a byproduct of traditional viscose and rayon production. It is a known neurotoxin to humans. As a result, viscose and rayon fabric production have decreased since it’s conception, however, because these fibers are much cheaper than their new counterparts we are beginning to see a renaissance moment for them in fast fashion.
Recently bamboo has been marketed as an eco-friendly fabric option. Surprisingly to most, bamboo is literally regular rayon that is made with bamboo instead of a mix of tree wood pulps like traditional viscose and rayon. It is made using the same process as the original fibers and also emits the same carbon disulfide. On the plus side, bamboo is one of the fastest growing trees in the world, so the risk of deforestation is decreased. But, it is argued that the chemicals needed to break down the bamboo into usable pulp and then fabric are actually harsher and more detrimental to environments than the more traditional viscose and rayon. Bamboo is also often promoted as an antimicrobial fabric. While it is true that bamboo found in nature has antimicrobial properties, once it is turned into fiber the natural germ fighters have been processed away. Bamboo fabric that is antimicrobial has had additional treatments applied. As a general rule, clothing brands that market bamboo products as “eco-friendly alternatives”, are either not well informed or are trying to get one past you!
To solve the problem of carbon disulfide pollution fiber manufacturers set out to create a new generation of synthetic fibers. These new cellulosic synthetic fibers use sustainable plants, create fibers in a closed loop minimal waste system, and all materials produced are completely biodegradable. New to the market they tend to be more expensive than the original family of synthetics and even natural fibers, but as they gain in popularity their price will hopefully start to decrease.
The first of these fibers was modal. At virtue + vice, we love to use this fiber for the silk-like fabric it creates with the added benefit of being machine washable. Modal is the eco-friendly alternative to rayon. The wood pulp used in making Modal is derived from birch trees. Birch trees are unique in that they propagate. This means new trees can be grown from the roots or sprouts of other trees. This allows for new trees to grow easily and prevents deforestation. Modal is made in a closed-loop system with a waste output of only 5% non-hazardous waste material.
The next synthetic cellulosic fiber invented was Tencel. The creators of Tencel set out to make a super fabric that combined the positive attributes of other fibers in an eco-friendly system. Tencel is marketed as being more absorbent than cotton, softer than silk, and cooler than linen.
Tencel is made from eucalyptus trees which don’t require the use of pesticides or irrigation. A benefit of eucalyptus is that it does not compete with agricultural land the same way cotton does. Tencel manufacturing also boasts a 10-20% decrease in water consumption compared to traditional cotton farming. Like its predecessor Modal, Tencel is also manufactured in a closed loop system but claims that 99% of the materials and chemicals are recovered or recycled during the production process.
Lyocell is the exact same fiber as Tencel, except it is the generic version. Tencel is made and marketed by the Austrian brand Lenzing, Lyocell is open for any company to manufacture and sell. We would like to be clear that by no means is Lyocell an inferior product to Tencel, but because it is unbranded it does tend to be a little cheaper. We hope that companies who choose to use Lyocell over Tencel pass on their cost savings fiber substitution to their customers.