Polyester is made of oil, coal, air and water–sounds like a battle between Dr. Evil and Captain Planet. This synthetic, non-renewable fiber is made through an intensive industrial process, and perhaps worst of all, does not biodegrade. So our responsibility lies in extending the uses of the polyester garments we own by finding ways to use and reuse this nonrenewable material, much like Levis has done in their Waste<Less Collection.
Polyester fabric exploded in the 70s, especially in the form of polyester suits, known as Leisure suits–remember those? The fabric was preferred over cotton because it does not absorb moisture, but does absorb oil–making it a perfect candidate for water-, soil-, and fire-resistant finishes.
Avant-Garde raincoat made from PLA fibers.
Interest from the industry to create a polyester that does biodegrade (sometimes called biopolymers) has led to the introduction of fibers made from polyactic acid (PLA). Using sugars from agriculture crops, mostly corn, the manufacturing process is similar to the conventional oil-based polyester. DuPont has also manufactured a biopoylmer, Apexa, which claims to biodegrade in 45 days. Although these fibers do, by definition, biodegrade, they only do so if the conditions are just right: if put in a landfill it will most likely hangout with your polyester shirt from 1992.
Dress made from PLA fibers
Polyester and biopolymer clothing raise a lot of issues in our sustainable world, particularly when thinking about, as McDonough and Braungart said, Cradle to Cradle usage. Perhaps the best way to tackle the issue is to avoid polyester clothing all together. Sticking with renewable, natural-based fibers will be best for your skin and environment.
Check back for more information on renewable natural-based fibers.