Polyester fabric guide

If you’ve looked at clothing labels before — you will have seen polyester crop up frequently. But what actually is polyester and is it sustainable?

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8 Sep




 min read

Polyester fabric guide

What kind of material is polyester?

Polyester is a synthetic material — which means the material isn’t made from naturally occurring fibres like cotton, silk or wool.

Polyester is short for polyethylene terephthalate — often shortened to PET. It’s made from a chemical reaction between petroleum, air, and water.

First produced in 1951 and is now one of the world’s most popular textiles. It took off in the clothing industry because it was durable and cheap to produce.

Is polyester natural or synthetic?

Polyester is a synthetic material which means it is manufactured — not something that occurs naturally.

Is polyester a plastic?

The most common form of polyester — polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is a plastic derived from petroleum. The same type of plastic that water bottles are made from.

Is polyester a good fabric?

Polyester has many desirable qualities that make it a popular choice for clothing.

It’s strong and lightweight. And it can be further strengthened when blended with materials like cotton. It resists wrinkles and is easy to look after at home.

Though, despite the positive qualities polyester is not a sustainable material. It has irreversible, negative effects on the environment.

Why is polyester so bad for the planet?

Burning fossil fuels

Making polyester is bad for the planet because coal and petroleum are used in the manufacturing process. Coal and petrol are fossil fuels — non-renewable sources that are highly limited in supply. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

When fossil fuels are burned carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. AKA greenhouse gases — they trap heat in the atmosphere causing global warming.

It’s not biodegradable

Polyester isn’t biodegradable. So you’re left with a material that doesn’t decompose at the end of its life. At best, it’ll stick around for another 20 years. At worst, hundreds of years.

Microfibers and microplastics are released

Each time you wash synthetic materials like polyester — small fibres are released. And because polyester is a type of plastic — a lot of these fibres are too.

These fibres are called microplastics — which categorises any piece of plastic less than 5mm in size. Microplastics pollute waterways across the world and cause huge problems.

It’s estimated that over a third of all the plastic in our waters come from washing synthetic clothing.

A great way to minimise the microplastics released is to wash your synthetic clothes in a Guppyfriend wash bag. Designed specifically to stop microplastics from entering our rivers and oceans.

Is polyester better than cotton?

The main difference between cotton and polyester is that cotton is a natural fibre while polyester is synthetic. Natural fibres have their own set of strengths and qualities. Polyester is less breathable than cotton. Which can make you feel humid, sweaty or uncomfortable.

If you have sensitive skin you may get reactions to wearing synthetic materials. But generally, it’s not too common.

Polyester is faster drying than cotton — and for that reason, it’s often used for workout gear and sports clothing.

A quick summary — cotton is natural, breathable, absorbent, and can be sustainable. Polyester is synthetic, not breathable, repels water, and isn’t sustainable.

Is polyester fabric cheap?

Polyester is one of the cheapest materials on the market. That is why it dominates the fast fashion space. Polyester was first introduced to drive the cost of products down.

That being said — like all materials, there are different levels of quality. You will still see polyester used by higher-end brands. Some of the better quality polyesters can have a completely different feel to the polyester you’re familiar with. It feels more like silk than polyester.

The general quality of polyester has increased over the years. Brands have found better ways to work with polyester. And machinery improvements have made it easier to get the most out of polyester.

Alternatives to polyester clothing

There are many sustainable alternatives to polyester. Ditch virgin polyester and look for natural or recycled alternatives. Natural materials like cotton, hemp or linen are good options. And it’s always best to go organic which uses less water and energy and completely free from toxic chemicals.

Related material guides: Is hemp the ultimate sustainable material?, guide to organic cotton, and all about linen.

Everything on Good Garms is handpicked. This article may contain affiliate links — we donate 5% of what we get to Clean Clothes Campaign.
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8 Sep