It’s time to ‘ditch and switch’ fashion’s deadliest fabric

If fashion were a country, it would be the sixth most polluting on the planet. We send 92 million tonnes of clothing to landfill around the world every year and only 12 per cent of the clothing and textiles we donate are recycled or reused – the rest are incinerated. Then there’s the water usage, the social implications of slave labour and unethical wages, and the impact of polyester.

It‘s woven into more than two-thirds of the fashion we buy and we’re using 70 million barrels of oil annually to fuel our polyester habit. And because it’s made from oil, it’s a form of plastic, and it’s just as detrimental to the environment as the plastic straws and single-use coffee cups we’re all campaigning to ban. A single polyester garment can take more than 200 years to break down in landfill, but it never decomposes. It just breaks down into smaller plastic particles that exist forever, making their way into our waterways, marine life, and eventually into our bodies through the fish we eat.

But ingesting polyester microplastics isn’t the only risk to our health. The process of transforming a liquid oil into a solid and wearable fabric involves toxic chemicals, and for the workers involved, it’s a deadly process. When polyester is in close contact with the skin, the body’s largest organ, the skin absorbs the toxins it’s made with. Polyester is made with chemicals like perfluorochemicals (PFCs), phthalates, formaldehyde, and antimony trioxide, which are all known carcinogens that also cause liver damage, kidney damage and reproductive issues.

So, what’s the solution? We can’t just accept the status quo and continue to consume polyester fashion because it’s cheap and affordable. Fashion brands and consumers alike need to take responsibility for what we make and what we buy, but is it as simple as just ‘ditching and switching’?

Yes, yes it is.

In my fifteen years working in the fashion industry and ten as the CEO of The Fashion Advocate, one of Australia’s largest online stores for ethical and sustainable fashion, I‘ve come to learn an interesting lesson: people are afraid of change, even if we desperately need it.

But, nothing changes, if nothing changes. We can’t keep writing articles about fast fashion if we don’t intend to take action as an industry. We can’t keep researching and publishing papers on the environmental impact of our wardrobes if we don’t intend to change our habits. We can’t keep campaigning for change and rooting for a fashion revolution if we’re still going to buy and sell the world’s dirtiest and deadliest fabric and think someone else will fix the problem.

Nothing changes if nothing changes, and it’s time for dramatic, serious and ruthless change in the fashion industry. We’re set to increase our fashion consumption habits by 65% by 2030, with emissions to follow suit, and as a planet and a society, it’s something we just can’t sustain.

For small businesses and emerging fashion brands with little budgets and limited resources, the task is simple: stop trading with fossil fuels, ditch polyester and switch to natural, circular, healthier and more environmentally friendly fabrics.

For big businesses and fashion giants, the task is simple: stop trading with fossil fuels, ditch polyester and switch to natural, circular, healthier and more environmentally friendly fabrics.

The question isn’t ‘how’ but ‘when’, because every obstacle in fashion can be overcome when the right minds drive the industry with ethics and morals. It’s not a question of business size or available resources, it’s a question of value and what matters more; short-term profits or long-term gains for the planet.

And as for ‘when’, it’s rhetorical. The time for change is now.