A brief history of polyester

Source:  Unsplash

Source: Unsplash

 

Polyester is everywhere. In clothing industry, and especially in mass-produced, fast-fashion brands, it builds up to a massive part of all the garments that get made. It is considered cheaper and more durable and We are being convinced that it is a hallmark of our increasingly fruitful years as humanity, a sign of development and progress of technology. It is a material of “the future” that already came, the symbol of progress. How did we come up with polyester and how did it evolve from non-existent to dominant? How did it become superior to other natural fibres? Dive into this brief, imperfect story of polyester by WOMB.

How was polyester even born?

It comes as little surprise that production of polyester and its mass marketing originated in the United States as a product of the hard labour of business industry. The same way the US gave us chlorinated fried chicken, industrial livestock farms and a garbage patch somewhere off the coast of Hawaii, they also brought us synthetics - and it all started shortly after World War II with the name du Pont. As Crawford and Quinn (2017) note in their amazingly clear cross-section of the history of polyester:

“it is important to note that while many of the popular plastics in use today had their beginnings in the early 1930s and 1940s, the Second World War played a significant part in providing the impetus for their advancement and development”. [4]

To understand why this new material had any reason to get developed, one needs to look at the utmost desire that ruled fashion customers and marketers alike back then - namely, the “stretch” quality of fabrics. As the story goes: “in May 1964, Gomer H. Ward, a marketing manager for E. I. du Pont, addressed a group of New York fashion professionals on a hot topic: stretch fabrics” (Blaszczyk, 2006). Just as the aesthetic among Americans was becoming more and more casual, the need for more flexible fabrics arose. The marketing of this specific material was not accidental and was based on extensive intelligence collected by Ward in his marketing approach, among others from trends dominant on Italian catwalks at that time. By skilfully decoding the needs of the contemporary public, he managed not only to raise an entirely new fabric into market dominance, but also place Manhattan on the global fashion map thanks to those new innovative solutions. On a more social level, the new mindset entered as norm - namely, that comfortable, inexpensive and low-maintenance clothing (that synthetic fabrics evidently made possible) were okay to be worn casually, on everyday basis. The clothing canon changed from over-the-top, slightly “oppressive” to easy-to-wear and affordable.

We must remember, before the Industrial Revolution, up to 80-90% of all garments were produced with natural fabrics, such as linen, hemp, jute, cotton, and animal-derived ones like leather, fur, natural silk. However, a lot of those fabrics do not really have a bendy quality to them, they were durable and long-lasting but they did not stretch all that easy and were considerably heavier, especially since usually they were non-blend [1]. That is why, stretchy fabrics were considered something desirable but elusive, they would be also considered potentially more comfortable. That was true especially to nylon, which eventually became to be utilised in hosiery increasingly more. As reads in Styling Synthetics: DuPont's Marketing of Fabrics and Fashions in Postwar America:

“The casual, comfortable look that took America by storm in the postwar era in part depended on fabrics made from the careful blending of novel synthetic fibres”. [1]

What comes as little surprise, since the glorious fabrics like nylon got invented for such high-demand goods as hosiery (after all, back then women in trousers were rarity and tights had to be worn unconditionally with skirts and dresses), other synthetic products shortly followed in other areas of apparel too. Plastic became to build up shoes, accessories, decorations, toys (look at the success of Lego!) - all of which were previously made with natural and biodegradable fabrics (what is very important to remember - their biodegradability was also possible thanks to more natural dyes than those of chemical and synthetic origin). Clothes were not mass produced and chemically obtained. It was the industry who created the need for quicker consumption and, what follows, mass production. And here is how.

a quick note on PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE

The topic of planned obsolescence is not strictly ingrained into plastic and synthetics, but it is important to mention it always when any consumable products are being discussed. Broadly researched before and beautifully described by Gaia Vince in Adventures in the Anthropocene [5], planned obsolescence was born in US in 1930s as a marketing and selling-boost technique, to push economy and employment in times of depression. The author treats this period also as the arbitrary date of when consumerism was born. Planned obsolescence is an activity which involves designing a product that will be dated, “programmed” to break or decompose after a given amount of time. To go back to the context of hosiery, which we analysed earlier as the start of synthetics in fashion, it meant purposefully creating such products that would be more fragile than they could be, simply because it is better when a woman buys five pairs of tights per month than one. Needless to say where this approach got us up to date - let’s just think for a second about how our iPhones magically start to go ballistic exactly 2 years and one day after we bought them.

Polyester today

But back to polyester! Its invention in fashion, after all, answered to a valid need, to a deficit for more stretchy, comfortable clothing. Sure, why not. Humans have an ability to make their lives easier and better, they surely cannot be blamed for discovering something that they needed to make their lives more convenient. In fact, it got accommodated so easily into the global production chain, that to date its growth as a major fabric is remarkable. As stated by Toyama & Tanaka (2016):

Due to the good balance between performance and cost, polyester fiber has addressed rapid growth in global scale among synthetic fibers and has the largest production quantity today among different types of fibers including natural fibers.
— Aoyama M., Tanaka Y. (2016)

Moreover, according to statistics by Quantis from 2018, synthetic fabrics constitute 57% of all materials going into global footwear production, with leather taking up only 25% of the share.

Polyester nowadays tends to be seen as this “saviour” among fabrics, which made it possible that we have fast-drying swimsuits, impervious raincoats, shoes, sportswear. It is considered superior to natural fabrics, even though they have many more qualities than synthetics: durability, compostability (but attention here - only when dyes used on them are also compostable and non-toxic), thermal comfort. The only remarkable advantage that plastic really has is that it does not really tear and it can become very stretchy. Other qualities can all be obtained by leather (yes, even though we promote vegan design, we drop it here!), cotton, linen, hemp, etc. Why then do we stay so charmed by the fabric that does not ever decompose, and sometimes does not even feel that nice against our skin? One of the answers is obviously the cost of production, also mentioned in the article quoted above. The system of producing polyester has been made efficient and cheap as it is a derivative of oil industry. It can be produced en masse and cheaply distributed due to its relatively low weight.

Effects of polyester

Let us follow and close with a small paragraph about why it is actually worth avoiding polyester whenever we can. We wish also to be real about it and admit - all of us need a pair of swimsuit and a gym set, with polyester leggings or a stretchy bra. But apart from those, polyester is really quite easy to avoid and really should be.

First of all, production of polyester might be cheaper, but it ain’t easier. The process of yarn preparation for polyester requires a much larger amount of water due to the wet spinning processes. Since threads of polyester are essentially plastic, the dyes do not enter them as easily as they would with natural yarns, therefore synthetics must be washed more times and with presence of harder chemicals in order to make the colour get in the thread, but also last. Admittedly, the only fabric that needs more water than polyester in production is cotton (nearly twice as much), but this is connected to other problems, for example incorrect land use, meaning harvesting cotton in areas with limited rainfall which results in the need for artificial irrigation. Of two evils, at least cotton clothes do not release micro plastics to water supplies - but that is just our result to this uneven equation.

We are already beyond knowledge of the fact that micro plastics get released into water streams when we wash our synthetic garments. Sometimes the problem seems to be that we do not need to feel bad about something that we cannot see anyway. Bad news - we can see it now. It’s been long microscopically documented - both how the plastic microfibres look like and how many are there in every single wash [3].

If we look at the issue of plastic in seas and oceans in general, the numbers are unbelievably grim. According to Crawford and Quinn (2017): “at the time of writing [2017], there is about 150 million tonnes of plastics already in the ocean and approximately 8 million tonnes of plastics enters the ocean each year. This is the equivalent of dumping around 15 tonnes of plastic into the ocean every minute.” Let the figure below (Figure 1.) speak even more loudly about the problem. Admittedly, polyester clothing is only one source of all this ocean plastic altogether, but we must not separate it and get blinded to its share of the influence on the problem. Synthetic clothing might be one of the most deadly and concealed issues in the equation, precisely for the reasons mentioned shortly above. If we do not see micro plastics - what is the problem? Should we just take some researcher’s word for it and stop buying in favourite shops? A safe rule of thumb would be a resounding yes.

Figure 1. Crawford and Quinn (2017)

Figure 1. Crawford and Quinn (2017)

To give our considerations a little bit more global aftertaste, we need to arrive at one important conclusion, a valuable thought that more and more of us need to be conscious about. The simple truth is that time has passed when our consumption actions had limited or little outcome on our near or far surroundings. Now, more than even, every single decision that we take has a huge impact, simply because it is easily and instantly multiplied by dozens, hundreds, thousands. We cannot think of our choices as singular, but collective ones. As in the example of development and spread of popularity of polyester, when the need was “discovered”, the demand followed and still persists. Polyester, with all its blessings, is really not the best of our choices anymore. If produced in moderation, used properly - without constant washing for instance, consumed consciously, it could be a truly lifesaving and essential fabric. The problem lays in its disposability. Because it gets over-sold to us in so many different forms, we take it - sometimes mindlessly. It was created to make our lives easier and it did - but we are paying huge price for it in environmental damage. Let us end with a quote, from mentioned above report by Quantis:

The apparel industry’s production impacts on climate change increased 35% between 2005 and 2016 and are projected to steadily rise in 2020 and 2030, if a business-as-usual scenario prevails. This increase reflects increasing consumption per capita while global population rises, along with a shift in material use towards more synthetics and less natural fibre, cotton and cellulosic.
— Quantis, 2018

Buying more, thinking less, so pretty much doing what we did best roughly since the ingenious marketers such as Gomer H. Ward entered our communication, media, brains and wallets, is an easy way to end our environment and living conditions as soon as 31 years, according to the newest scary report circling around. As comfortable and content we feel about inventions such as polyester, there is a high price that we pay for them every day.


Sources:

[1] Blaszczyk, Regina Lee. “Styling Synthetics: DuPont's Marketing of Fabrics and Fashions in Postwar America.” Business History Review, vol. 80, no. 3, 2006, pp. 485–528.

[2] Aoyama M., Tanaka Y. (2016) History of Polyester Resin Development for Synthetic Fibers and Its Forefront. In: The Society of Fiber Science and Techno J. (eds) High-Performance and Specialty Fibers. Springer, Tokyo

[3] Hernandez, Edgar, et al. “Polyester Textiles as a Source of Microplastics from Households: A Mechanistic Study to Understand Microfiber Release During Washing.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 51, no. 12, 2017, pp. 7036–7046.

[4] “The Contemporary History of Plastics.” Microplastic Pollutants, by Christopher Blair. Crawford and Brian Quinn, Elsevier, 2017, pp. 19–37.

[5] “Rocks.” Adventures in the Anthropocene, by Gaia Vince, Vintage Classics, 2018, pp. 330–344.

[6] “Measuring Fashion Environmental Impact Report.” Quantis, 2018, quantis-intl.com/measuring-fashion-report-2018/.

 
WOMBComment