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July 2008
Social Responsibility
Polyester vs. Cotton — Which Is Better
for the Environment?

Gail Baugh
Gail Baugh
Apparel Design & Merchandising,
San Francisco
State University

Gail Baugh is a fashion industry veteran, particularly focused on global product sourcing for large retail chain stores and for NI-Teijin Shoji (USA), Inc. Experienced in retail buying, production management, and product development, she is currently teaching textiles and fashion merchandising at San Francisco State University and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. She is engaged in a new project to create a San Francisco/Bay Area fashion industry trade association. She is also developing support for emerging businesses that will produce new garments from existing fabric products. “It is my mission,” she says, “to empower the fashion industry to change the way fashion apparel is designed and produced through creative and sustainable practices.” She is a contributing author on fiber innovation for the new book Sustainable Fashion: Why Now? by Connie Ulasewizc and Janet Hethorn (Fairchild, 2008).

Cotton is the “green” fiber! Polyester is bad for the environment! Simple, right? Our choices are not so simple anymore. With broadened awareness of fiber and textile innovations and of human impact on our environment, we must consider our choices with new enlightenment. Is it possible that polyester fiber is more eco-friendly than cotton fiber?

I did a consulting project last fall comparing the environmental impact of cotton and polyester fiber production with surprising results. I concluded recycled polyester fiber, produced from existing polyester products, is more sustainable than cotton fiber.

Since the mid-1980s, cotton and polyester fiber production have grown dramatically, so that today, these two fibers account for more than 80% of all fiber production worldwide. The quantity of production of these two fibers is nearly equal. Future production of these fibers will confront new problems. Petroleum production will continue to decline, and arable land for fiber production may also be reduced, as the demand for biofuel and food production take priority over fiber.

There are ongoing innovations in fiber and textiles. For the past 15+ years, plastic bottles have been recycled into low-grade polyester fiber. The big news is that it is now possible to recycle polyester fiber, yarn, fabric, and garments into new, high-quality polyester fiber. Cotton fiber can also be recycled into new yarn and fabric, but the quality of the fiber is reduced, so the resulting product is not as high quality as the original fiber. For both fibers, it is a new concept that it is now possible to recycle and create new fiber and products from existing fiber.

Let’s clarify some of the terms the press and the fashion industry are using to tell customers how they can help prevent pollution. There are no standard industry definitions to describe the ecology of the fashion business. The result is confusion regarding the complex nature of fiber, fabric, and garment production and the impact each has on the environment and resources.

As I compared cotton with polyester fiber, I developed a set of questions to determine which fiber used more sustainable practices:

  1. Is the fiber easily renewable?
    • For natural fiber, is the use of water and land appropriate for the quantity and cost of the fiber produced?
    • For manufactured fiber, is the raw material for production easily available and renewable?
  2. Is the fiber produced using nonpolluting methods?
    • For natural fiber, is it grown/raised using nontoxic substances in the air, land, and water?
    • For manufactured fiber, is it produced using nontoxic methods or materials that may end up in the air, land, and water?
  3. Can the products be recycled into new fiber production? Is the recycled fiber the same quality as the original fiber?

In my consulting project last fall, I compared the production of cotton fiber (both conventionally and organically grown) to virgin polyester and recycled polyester fiber production. Using these questions above to compare the environmental impact of each fiber, I concluded recycled polyester fiber involved more sustainable practices than any cotton fiber. Here’s why:

Is the fiber easily renewable?

Cotton Summary — Water and energy use are high, and the useable fiber is one-third of the total harvest volume.

Water use: Both conventionally and organically grown cotton fiber require large quantities of water for a consistent crop yield. Estimates range from 1,400–3,400 gallons per pound of fiber. (1 lb of fiber = about two t-shirts.)

Fiber yield per acre: About two-thirds of an acre’s harvest volume is discarded, leaving one-third of the harvest volume available for textile production.

Energy use: About 8.6–9.4 Kwh per pound of fiber for both types of cotton. However, energy used to move water for irrigation (organic and conventional cotton) and to produce synthetic fertilizers (mostly petroleum-based products — conventional cotton only) is not considered in this figure. By adding in this additional energy use, conventional cotton fiber energy consumption is estimated to be nearly the same as virgin polyester energy consumption.

Recycled Polyester Fiber Summary — Low water use. Energy use is high, though one-third less than virgin fiber. Very little waste in fiber production.

Water use: Water used in recycled fiber production is almost nil. Even in virgin fiber production, water is used as a coolant, in very small amounts.

Fiber yield: Compared to raw materials used, which must be measured by weight. There was some weight loss, but nothing close to the two-thirds lost in the cotton harvest.

Energy use: About 13.8 Kwh per pound of fiber. Energy used to produce the original virgin fiber was about 18.3 Kwh per pound of fiber.

Is the fiber produced using nonpolluting methods?

Cotton Summary — Synthetic chemicals used continue to pose significant water, soil, and air pollution threats.

Use of chemicals: Conventionally grown cotton uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (mostly petroleum-based). Pesticides have been greatly reduced due to genetically modified seed. However, these same GM seeds seem to require specific synthetic fertilizers and irrigation to have better yields than other seed. The use of these synthetic fertilizers has polluted the soil, ground water, nearby streams/lakes, and potential human water supplies. Emissions from spraying also contaminate surfaces and endanger nearby human habitation. Mono-crop cultivation reduces the future soil enrichment. Cotton does not return nutrients to the soil as other fiber crops do naturally. Organically grown fiber does not use GM seeds, synthetic fertilizers, or pesticides.

Recycled Polyester Fiber Summary — Chemicals used for recycled polyester fiber production are recycled back to produce more fiber.

Use of chemicals: Most or all of the chemicals used to recreate polyester fiber from the recycled material are then recycled back into more recycled fiber production — it’s a closed-loop production system. It’s unlikely that toxic chemicals enter the water supply. There are some emissions but less exposure to the population than in cotton aerial spraying. In virgin polyester production, there are more emissions than in recycled fiber production. However, if this closed-loop system becomes marketable, there may not be as much need to produce virgin polyester.

Is the fiber recyclable?

Cotton Summary — Recycled cotton fiber is lower quality than the original fiber.

The physics of breaking down a cotton fabric into fiber, called “opening,” breaks the cotton fiber into shorter fibers. When spinning the fiber into yarn, these short fibers create weak, low-quality yarns. There are on-going experiments to improve the yarn quality by introducing other fibers. So far, the perfect blend hasn’t been developed. But the fact remains that recycling cotton products back into fiber and new products is possible and is ongoing now. Of course, the idea of using existing cotton fabrics as a resource to create recycled yarn and fabric is a new concept. The issue remains that cotton fiber quality is reduced when recycled. Therefore, the recycled fiber may need other nontextile uses to stay out of the landfill.

I suggest that there be new research efforts to recycle cotton fiber into new fabrics. There has been extensive research for growing new fiber more efficiently. I suggest that this same energy also focus on how to use the existing cotton fiber supply. Also, perhaps there can be new ways to evaluate cotton fiber. For example, organically grown, the least available fiber, should be used for the highest quality items; transitional cotton (chemical-free production) for most production; and finally, recycled cotton fiber in low-quality items.

Recycled Polyester Fiber Summary — Recycled polyester fiber is the same quality as the original fiber.

This fiber, produced from existing polyester textile products, meets or exceeds the quality of virgin polyester. Continuously recycling the enormous quantity of existing polyester productions into new polyester fiber does not reduce the quality of the new fiber. Is it possible to nearly eliminate the production of virgin polyester?

I suggest that we review Patagonia’s example of collection and recycling of their products, particularly their partnerships with Teijin and Toray and other suppliers. In my conversations with my industry colleagues, it is clear that recycling polyester into new fiber is very costly. However, with the petroleum supply continuing to decline, it seems this innovation will be become more necessary and cost effective.

My study led me to conclude that recycled polyester fiber, produced from existing polyester fabrics, either post-industrial or post-consumer products, is more sustainable than conventional or organic cotton fiber. Cotton fiber research has concentrated on genetic modification to control pests and reduce water use for new fiber production. The polyester fiber mills, recognizing the shrinking petroleum supply and the environmental problems of virgin polyester fiber production, have eclipsed the cotton fiber innovation effort.

We find ourselves in a world where climate change and oil supplies will force the textile industry to make different choices. It must reevaluate its raw material sources and the environmental impact of its production methods. With over 80% of all fiber production in polyester and cotton fibers, fiber and fabric producers must diversify raw materials (incorporating existing fiber stock as a raw material source), lower water and energy consumption, improve soil restoration, and reduce pollutants in production while maintaining the fiber and fabric supply we had come to assume was unlimited.


Sustainability: A Designer’s Perspective

Lynda Grose
Lynda Grose
Senior Adjunct Professor,
Fashion Design,
California College
of the Arts

On March 19, 2008, Lynda Grose delivered a lecture entitled “Sustainability: A Designer’s Perspective” as part of the University of Delaware’s Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies' lecture series Fashioning Social Responsibility. Grose has been actively engaged in designing and researching socially and environmentally advanced clothing and textiles for the past 18 years. She received a fashion design honors degree from Kingston University in London in 1981. In 1988, she joined Esprit as a sweater designer and became head designer for Esprit Collection in 1989. Soon after, she began to merge her artistic and commercial skills with her concern for the environment. In 1990, she cofounded Esprit's Ecollection division, a five-year research and development project that helped establish pioneering environmental standards for the clothing industry.

Now an independent designer with a focus on sustainability, Grose works with companies and organizations around the world including Aid to Artisans, the Sustainable Cotton Project, IKEA, Patagonia, Aveda, Odwalla, Greenpeace, Thirteen Mile Farm, Marketplace India, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She teaches sustainable fashion design at California College of the Arts and is a guest lecturer at a number of other insitutions.

To view highlights from Grose's lecture at the University of Delaware, click on the QuickTime link below. Alternatively, we present the following summary:

Grose explained that her research helps her to lead, rather than to follow, the current sustainability trends in the industry. As a designer, she uses environmental and social touchstones, or measures of success, rather than simply the number of items sold or how strong the market is. Together, research and these touchstones make it possibiles to influence an emerging culture of sustainability.

She said that the traditional role of the designer is to balance price, quality, aesthetics, producibility, and marketability, all of which are important to the commercial success of a product. Designers are in a pivotal position because they specify to the industry what materials they want and communicate to the end user about the product. While working at Esprit, Grose’s role as a designer shifted after she began researching various fabrics and processes and asking questions about the supply chain. Although a designer still needs to be aware of the fundamental factors that impact profitability, she realized that ecology and social justice are also factors that must be balanced. Rather than just supplying the market, designers are creating a market and engaging the end user.

After Esprit, Grose worked as a consultant for a variety of organizations, including Patagonia, Aid to Artisans, and Marketplace India. While pleased with the impacts these efforts made, she believes she has had an even broader influence in furthering environmental advancement with the Sustainable Cotton Project. The Sustainable Cotton Project is a nonprofit project working with farmers in California to reduce their chemical use on cotton. She compared herself to a translator between farmers and companies, making frequent presentations to apparel companies and conducting farm tours to show manufacturers in real terms the environmental impact of conventional cotton-growing practices. Grown as a monocrop, cotton is responsible for 10% of global agricultural chemical use, which includes 16–22% of the world’s insecticides. Approximately 6 million pounds of chemicals are used on California cotton annually, which translates to approximately one-third of a pound per T-shirt that could be produced with that cotton.

While organic cotton may be the best option environmentally, it currently constitutes only 2% of the global cotton market, and the average quantity of chemicals used on cotton has declined only slightly. Many cotton farmers are unwilling to assume the financial risks associated with going organic. Grose explained that the Biological Agricultural Systems in Cotton (BASIC) program provides an alternative by targeting the most toxic chemicals used on cotton and reducing or eliminating their use through integrated pest management (IPM), that is, by using organic fertilizers and supporting populations of beneficial insects to control pests before resorting to pesticides. The Sustainable Cotton Project helps farmers find buyers for their product, and farmers who participate in the BASIC program have been able to dramatically reduce chemical use on cotton. The program is thus having a greater impact than organic cotton because more farmers are willing to try it.

Finally, Grose addressed other aspects of social responsibility and sustainability that will impact the future of fashion design, including optimized manufacturing, efficient distribution (using local materials and labor), low-impact washing of garments, optimized lifetime (how long a garment is worn), and optimized end-of-use (where a garment goes after use). Grose stated that changing the system and behavior of companies and consumers are equally important.